Flights to Belarus Halted for Citizens in 3 Countries by Turkish Airlines Amid EU Pressure

Turkey's Civil Aviation Authority stopped airline tickets sales on Friday for citizens of Iraq, Syria and Yemen looking to travel to Belarus, a key launching point to illegally entering the European Union.

This decision is a result of pressure from the EU to stop bringing people from the Middle East to Minsk, a convenient starting point to entering EU member nations like Lithuania, Latvia and Poland.

The Associated Press reported that many of the migrants attempting to enter the EU are fleeing conflicts in their home countries and looking to resettle in Western European nations like Germany, where some have relatives already settled.

The Turkish Civil Aviation Authority said in a Twitter statement that this rule is valid until further notice. In accordance with the decision, Belarusian airline Belavia said it would halt citizens from the three countries from boarding their Istanbul-Minsk flights.

The AP report noted that a buildup of migrants at the EU's border could turn into a humanitarian crisis come winter. The World Health Organization's Europe regional director, Dr. Hans Kluge, told the AP he was "very concerned" about the people in the no-man's land on Belarus' western borders, mentioning that rights to health and shelter are protected by international law.

"Women and children are sleeping outdoors in the bitter cold," Kluge said. "Several people have already died. And COVID-19 cases are rising sharply across the region."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Middle Eastern migrants, Belarus border
Thousands of migrants have flocked to Belarus' border with Poland, hoping to get to Western Europe, and many of them are now stranded at the frontier, setting up makeshift camps. Above, in this handout photo released on November 10, migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere sit near near the barbed wire gathering at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus. State Border Committee of the Republic of Belarus via AP

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 WHO said it sent an expert team to Lithuania to assess migrants held in reception facilities there and found that 60 percent were in need of some form of medical treatment.

A Polish official said the country's ongoing conflict with Belarus' government is not expected to ease in coming days. Paweł Soloch, head of the National Security Bureau, said Poland faces a "a psychological, hybrid war, waged consciously by centers that want to weaken or even ultimately destroy our country."

Nevertheless, Poland's Border Guards said that on Thursday they recorded 223 attempts to illegally cross from Belarus, fewer than earlier in the week.

To date Poland has not asked Frontex, the EU border agency, to help, but has requested assistance returning migrants to their home countries.

Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri told EU lawmakers Thursday that there are 1,700 Iraqis to be returned from Poland to Iraq, with an initial group of 200 ready to travel. He said he has asked the EU Commission to help persuade Iraq to accept chartered flights, because it's easier to return 200 people on two flights than 6 or 7 Iraqis every day on commercial flights.

Leggeri also said that reports of gunshots fired from the Belarusian side of the border mean it would "not be a safe place to deploy an operation."

Poland's Defense Ministry said one group of migrants ran along a Polish border fence but was were stopped by officials. It posted what it said was a video of the incident.

The Border Guards agency posted another video on Twitter which it said shows Belarusian personnel using a green laser at the border.

"We assume that these were attempts to blind our officers and soldiers patrolling the border," the post said.

The information was impossible to verify. Independent journalists face limits to their reporting in Belarus, and a state of emergency in Poland's border zone prevents media from entering the area.

Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus
EU officials have accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of facilitating illegal border crossings from his country. Above, Lukashenko, center, speaks during a meeting with the State Secretary of the Security Council Alexander Volfovich, left, and Chairman of the Investigative Committee Dmitry Gora in Minsk, Belarus, November 12. Nikolay Petrov/BelTA Pool Photo via AP