Turkey Stops Air Travel for Europe Bound Refugees

Migrants walk along the barbed wire as they gather at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, on Friday. — AP

WARSAW: Turkey on Friday halted airline ticket sales to Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni citizens wanting to travel to Belarus, which in recent months has become a key launching point for migrants and refugees trying to enter the European Union illegally.

The move, announced by Turkeys Civil Aviation Authority, follows EU pressure on airlines to stop bringing people from the Middle East to Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

Starting from there, thousands of asylum-seekers have managed to slip into EU member nations Poland, Lithuania and Latvia since the summer, though many others have also been kept from entering or pushed back.

The crisis involving a large number of migrants stuck at the EUs border threatens to become a humanitarian crisis as winter approaches. It is also creating another point of tension between the West and Belarus authoritarian regime.

On Friday, Russia sent paratroopers to the Grodno region in Belarus, which borders Poland, in a show of support for its ally. That follows Russia’s sending nuclear-capable strategic bombers to patrol over Belarus for two straight days this week.

Among the migrants are Iraqi Kurds and Syrians fleeing conflict, persecution or poverty. Many aim to reach Germany or other western European countries, sometimes to reunite with relatives already settled there.

In a brief statement posted on Twitter, Turkeys aviation authority said its decision to halt ticket sales was valid until further notice.

Citing the Turkish decision, Belarusian airline Belavia said it would not transport citizens of Iraq, Syria and Yemen on its Istanbul-Minsk flights starting Friday. Belavia said in a statement that it planned to reimburse the cost of already purchased tickets.

The EU said it also received confirmation that Iraqi Airways, which halted flights to Minsk in the summer, will not resume them.

EU and Polish officials have accused the longtime leader of Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko, of facilitating illegal border crossings in retaliation for sanctions the EU imposed on his government for its brutal crackdown on dissent following Lukashenko's disputed reelection last year.

German federal police reported this week that 1,246 unauthorized entries to Germany with a connection to Belarus had been recorded in the first nine days of November. In all, there have been 9,087 such entries so far this year, German police said.

Polish authorities said a large number of people remain just across the border in neighboring Belarus, and that Polish border guards, police and soldiers continue to rebuff attempts to enter each day.

Hundreds of people, including families with children, are in makeshift camps on the Belarusian side of the border. Attempts to cross have become increasingly dangerous as Poland fortifies its side of the border and pushes people back and as temperatures drop to below freezing at night.

The World Health Organisation said it sent an expert team to Lithuania to assess migrants held in reception facilities there and found that 60% were in need of some form of medical treatment.

The organisation’s Europe regional director, Dr. Hans Kluge, said he was very concerned about the thousands of vulnerable people who are stranded in no-mans land on Belarus borders with Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, at the mercy of the weather as winter fast approaches.

Women and children are sleeping outdoors in the bitter cold. Several people have already died. And Covid-19 cases are rising sharply across the region, he said, stressing that people’s rights to health and shelter are protected by international law.

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