The EU foreign ministers Monday decided to broaden the sanctions criteria in response to the Belarus migrant crisis, providing a legal base for restrictive measures against airlines and travel agencies involved in transporting migrants to the bloc’s borders.
The Council of the EU amended its sanctions regime “to be able to respond to the instrumentalization of human beings carried out by the Belarus regime for political purposes,” the EU institution representing member states said in a press statement.
“The EU will now be able to target individuals and entities organizing or contributing to activities by the Lukashenko regime that facilitates the illegal crossing of the EU's external borders,” the announcement added.
On the way to the ministerial meeting, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told journalists that the bloc would adopt a new package of sanctions against the Belarusian regime, as well as a larger framework to impose sanctions on “other people, airlines, travel agencies and everybody involved in this illegal transportation of migrants to our borders.”
The EU officials reached out last week to a range of airlines and aviation authorities to ask for cooperation in stopping the migration crisis at the bloc’s borders with Belarus.
Borrell also stated that he had held a phone conversation on Sunday with Polish, Lithuanian, Belarusian top diplomats, and the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
“People’s lives must be protected and humanitarian agencies allowed access,” Borrell said on Twitter following his talk with Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei for the first time since the migrant crisis escalated.
After visiting Lebanon on Friday, European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas traveled to Iraq on Monday to raise awareness about the issue.
Heading to the meeting, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius said: “We need to make Minsk airport a no-fly zone, or at least for the time being, we need to make sure that no planes bring in people with the intention to cross the border illegally.”
He also pointed out that the bloc had to work together with international organizations to bring the migrants back to their countries of origin.
“Thirdly, we need to discuss not only about the sanctions but about the future of the Belarusian regime,” Landsbergis added, mentioning the legal consequences of bringing migrants to the bloc’s borders.
According to the bloc, the Belarusian regime reaches out to potential travelers by seemingly official channels, through diplomatic representations or travel agencies, and invites them to Belarus by offering visas and guiding them to the EU border.
NATO and the EU consider Belarus’ approach towards migrants as a hybrid attack meant to destabilize and undermine security in the European countries through non-military means.
The EU countries bordering Belarus – Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland – have been reporting a dramatically growing number of irregular crossings since August.
Over 8,000 people tried to enter the bloc via the Belarus-EU border so far this year, up sharply from just 150 last year.
At least 2,000 people, including women and children, have been stuck at the Belarusian-Polish border area in dire conditions over the last week.