Belarus Officials Could Pay More for EU Visas in Retaliation for Pushing Migrants to Bloc

The executive branch of the European Union on Wednesday proposed that Belarusian officials see higher visa prices and tightened restrictions for the credentials, the Associated Press reported.

The move is likely in retaliation for Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's alleged attempts to destabilize the EU by pushing large influxes of migrants to Belarus' shared borders with nations in the bloc.

EU members Poland and Lithuania have been seeing extremely high numbers of migrants, many from Iraq and Afghanistan, seeking to cross their borders in recent months through Belarus. Poland declared a state of emergency, deployed troops to its border with Belarus and started erecting razor-wire fences to combat the flow. Despite efforts from both countries, dozens of migrants attempted to enter Lithuania overnight, AP reported.

The European Commission's new proposal would apply to Belarusian officials, such as members of government, lawmakers, diplomats and court representatives. The changes would increase restrictions and regulations for travel, as well as mandate the officials to provide extra documents and pay more for their EU visas, AP reported.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Migrants at Poland's Border
The European Union's executive branch proposed new visa restrictions for Belarus officials, likely in retaliation for Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s alleged attempts to destabilize the EU by pushing large influxes of migrants to shared borders with the bloc. Above, migrants are seated after crossing the border from Belarus into Poland in the village of Usnarz Gorny, Poland, on August 19, 2021. Mateusz Wodzinski/AP Photo

The migrant influx began a year ago after the EU slapped sanctions on Lukashenko's government over the August 2020 presidential election, which the West views as rigged, and the security crackdown on the opposition and peaceful protesters that followed.

Now, the European Commission wants EU member countries to consider suspending parts of a "visa facilitation agreement" with Belarus that took effect in July of 2020. The deal was meant to improve ties and draw the former Soviet country closer to Europe.

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson described Lukashenko as "really desperate," and claimed that he is even trying to make money off migrants who can afford to pay 10,000 euros (about $11,650) to go to Belarus.

"He is trying to destabilize the European Union by bringing in migrants, and facilitating them, and pushing them into the European Union," Johansson told reporters as she announced the visa proposal. "This is a way for Lukashenko to also earn money."

"He is actually deceiving people to pay a lot of money just to be trapped and tricked," she said, citing reports from the EU's police and border agencies. Migrants are put up at a "very nice hotel in Minsk," she said, and helped to the border, but then get trapped when they can't enter the EU.

But the commission is also concerned about developments along the Polish border. The government wants to extend its state of emergency there for another 60 days. Johansson will travel to Warsaw on Thursday for talks with Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski.

Around 1,400 people who entered Poland without authorization are being held in guarded centers for foreigners. The nationalist government alleges that some migrants have ties to terrorist and criminal groups and pose a security threat.

Polish authorities are also sending text messages to mobile phones in the border area. "The Polish border is sealed. BLR (Belarus) authorities told you lies. Go back to Minsk! Don't take any pills from Belarusian soldiers. https://tiny.pl/9rq4b," the messages read.

A link to the Interior Ministry's website explains in English, Arabic, French, Russian and Polish that the border with Belarus is heavily guarded and that crossing it "illegally and destroying border security measures may result in imprisonment."

Asked whether she supports extending the state of emergency at the border, where at least six migrants have died and about 600 border guards backed by about 2,500 troops are stationed, Johansson underlined the importance of "transparency" and respecting EU legislation and values.

"It is important that we are firm towards Lukashenko, but it is also important that we show that this is a European border. It's not only a Polish border," she said.

In Lithuania, meanwhile, 63 people were refused entry from Belarus overnight in the biggest number of migrant arrivals on a single day this month, the interior ministry said. The Baltic country has been a favored target of Lukashenko since key Belarus opposition figures fled there last year.

More than 4,000 people have tried to cross the border since August. Lithuania has started building a fence along its 678-kilometer (424-mile) border with Belarus and hopes to finish it by April of 2022.

European Commission Proposes Visa Restrictions
The European Commission, the European Union's executive branch, proposed new visa restrictions Wednesday for Belarusian officials. Above, European Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides (left) speaks with European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson during a weekly meeting of the European Commission at EU headquarters in Brussels on September 29, 2021. Stephanie Lecocq/Pool Photo via AP