EU threatens to blacklist airlines linked to border influx – The Guardian

The EU has published a draft law that would blacklist airlines and travel operators that fly people to countries on its borders as part of attempts to destabilise the bloc, in its latest response to the crisis at the Poland-Belarus border.

The proposal does not specifically mention Belarus, whose authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, is accused of engineering the arrival of thousands of people at the Polish border, where a desperate humanitarian situation has played out in recent weeks.

Companies could be banned from flying through the EU and landing and refuelling at EU airports, regardless of whether their involvement in attempts at destabilisation was intentional or not. The proposal closes a gap in EU sanctions laws, which are country-specific.

The EU recently agreed to extend sanctions against Belarus, but it can only target Belarusian companies rather than foreign airlines involved in bringing people to Minsk from the Middle East.

Ylva Johansson, the EU home affairs commissioner, said the law was needed in response to an unprecedented situation. She said Lukashenko was “trying to sell tickets to the EU”, charging people €10,000-€20,000 for a one-way trip to Minsk and onward travel to the EU border.

“We see the need to reach out directly to those travel companies which – unintentionally, most of the time – are being part of a state-sponsored smuggling scheme orchestrated by a desperate and non-democratic regime,” Johansson said.

European Commission officials believe much of the value of the law lies in the power to deter companies from getting involved in such schemes. “Hopefully we don’t need to use it,” Johansson said, adding that it had taken airline companies “some time to understand how they are being used”.

Turkish Airlines and Iraqi Airways restricted flights to Minsk after EU officials began talks with Middle Eastern governments on the issue.

Speaking to the European parliament, the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said the situation on the EU’s eastern border was “not a migration crisis, but an attempt by an authoritarian regime to try and destabilise its democratic neighbours”.

“These migrants are being cheated by terrible false promises. We have to fight against this and that’s why we wish to establish a blacklist for all modes and means of transport on the basis of international legislation.”

She urged MEPs to support the proposals to make sure they were approved quickly.

The proposal also has to be approved by EU ministers.

Belarus’s interior ministry announced that more people would leave the country on Tuesday, after 122 left on Monday.

Lukashenko admitted in a recent interview with the BBC that it was “absolutely possible” that Belarusian state troops had helped people cross the border into Poland, although he denied being responsible for the crisis.

Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis who have managed to cross the border and reach the Polish city of Białystok have told the Guardian they bought visa travel packages from agencies that appeared to be closely connected to the Belarusian authorities.

Since the crisis began, about 7,500 people from the Middle East have reached Lithuania, Latvia and Poland via Belarus, and 8,000 have arrived in Germany from Belarus via Poland, according to EU officials.

Last month Poland’s parliament passed a law allowing border guards to return asylum seekers across the border without hearing their asylum claims.

Johannson, a Swedish Social Democrat responsible for the EU’s migration policy, said the commission had “issues” with the Polish law. “We think there are elements of this law that are not compliant with the EU acquis,” she said.

Under the Geneva conventions, refugees cannot be penalised for illegal border crossings.

People stuck in the no man’s land between the EU and Belarus have spoken of being pushed between both countries, denied entry to Poland and return to Belarus. Asked about widespread reports of pushbacks, Johansson said this was not EU policy. “We are not allowing pushbacks. We will not allow pushbacks.”

She added: “We should not legalise pushbacks, but it’s also important to say member states are obliged to prevent unauthorised entries. Sometimes the debate is a bit black or white. We have to do both. We do not have free entry to the European Union … We have to protect our external border but we have to do it in a way that is compliant with European values.”

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