Air route to Belarus closed to migrants in bid to halt crisis
By Isabella Kwai and Monika Pronczuk
Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Sunday began banning travelers from Iraq from passing through the emirate on their way to Belarus, cutting off the last major air route from the Middle East to Minsk in an effort to halt a humanitarian crisis that has left thousands of people stranded at Belarus’ border with Poland.
Along with the Iraqis, Syrians also appeared to be blocked from boarding airlines in Dubai, despite holding Belarusian visas, according to travel agents and passengers. Some had leveraged their life savings to make the journey.
The flight ban followed an intense diplomatic campaign by European Union members alarmed by a tide of thousands of mostly Iraqi migrants lured to Belarus when it loosened its visa rules in August. Hoping for a path into the EU, they instead found themselves in freezing forest camps on the border of Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.
The EU has called the moves by Belarus an attempt to “weaponize” migrants and force a crisis in order to punish the EU for sanctions it has imposed on the country and for criticizing its strongman leader, Alexander Lukashenko.
Over the course of the weekend, several airlines in the region put in effect bans similar to that imposed in Dubai. But the impact was more immediate in Dubai, where airline employees prevented some travelers from boarding planes, effectively stranding them.
Some Kurds in Dubai, fleeing Iraq primarily for economic reasons, said they had been prevented from boarding flights operated by Belavia, Belarus’ state-owned airline.
“Now we are waiting inside the airport cafeteria for the mercy of God,” said Zanyar Kawan, 21, who, like many of the migrants, is an Iraqi Kurd. “But it seems the mercy of God won’t come through.”
Another passenger, who asked to be identified only as Yousuf for fear of reprisals, said Belavia employees had prevented at least 50 travelers from Sulaimaniyah, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan, from boarding a flight to Minsk from Dubai.
“Everything we have is legal regarding visas and tickets,” he said. “Why is it only us Kurds cannot fly?”
Some passengers said the ban had led them to abandon their plans to travel to Belarus and return to Iraq, but Yousuf, 20, said he would visit the Belarusian Consulate in Dubai on Monday in the hopes of making it work. “I don’t want to return,” he said.
On Friday, Turkish carriers said they would not fly Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni passengers to Minsk, and Saturday, Cham Wings, a Syrian airline, said in a statement that it had suspended flights from Damascus, Syria, to Minsk in response to the situation at the Belarusian-Polish border.
The bans appeared to be achieving their goals.
In Iraq, travel agents said they had begun telling clients not to go to Minsk. “I’m advising people not to go in these conditions, because nothing is guaranteed,” said one agent, Arkan Othman.
It was not just the bans, Othman said. Even if his customers somehow made it to Belarus, many Iraqi migrants there have found themselves stranded in freezing temperatures at the border.
And if they are able to successfully cross the border, migrants still need to find their way out of the so-called restricted zone, through one of Europe’s oldest and densest forests, and to send a message to local aid groups.
On Friday, the body of a Syrian man who had been trying to cross the border was found, local police said. Authorities said he was the ninth migrant to die trying to make his way into the EU.
But activists say that the real death toll is much higher.
On the Polish side of the border with Belarus, the situation remained tense Sunday, with a heavy presence of police officers and soldiers. The government in Warsaw has barred all nonlocal residents, including journalists and doctors, from approaching the border.
Polish police Sunday said they detained 22 Iraqi citizens out of 50 people who crossed the border near the town of Starzyna, about 80 miles from where the migrants are gathered in Belarus.
Belarusian soldiers were recorded destroying the fences that demarcate the border with Poland and blinding Polish units with strobe lights and laser beams, Poland’s border guard said on Twitter.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in an interview Sunday with the Polish Press Agency that the situation at the border “has gone too far” and suggested that along with Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, Poland could invoke Article 4 of the NATO Treaty, which calls for military consultation when a member state’s territorial integrity has been threatened.
A Polish soldier also died at the border late Saturday of a gunshot, which authorities called an accident.