U.S. Hits Belarus With Sanctions Over Repression, Human Rights Violations of Migrants

The United States, United Kingdom, Canada and the European Union imposed sanctions on dozens of individuals and organizations in Belarus Thursday, according to the Associated Press.

This comes in response to at least 8,000 migrants, most from the Middle East, entering the EU from Belarus. The 27-country bloc accused Belarus of helping to move migrants to the country's borders with EU nations in a "hybrid attack."

In an Associated Press report, the U.S. State Department said "today's actions demonstrate our unwavering determination to act in the face of a brutal regime that increasingly represses Belarusians, undermines the peace and security of Europe, and continues to abuse people seeking only to live in freedom."

The sanctions include travel bans and asset freezes on individuals suspected of human rights violations as well as travel groups, airlines and hotels accused of helping to bring migrants to EU borders.

In the U.S. specifically, the State Department said the Treasury has "identified three aircraft as blocked property and designated 32 individuals and entities, including Belarusian state-owned enterprises, government officials, and other persons, who support the regime and facilitate its repression."

Belarus' Foreign Ministry continues to deny that the country was responsible for facilitating the migrant crisis. It said the sanctions will "economically stifle Belarus, make the life of Belarusians as hard as possible" and destroy Belarus "as a sovereign, economically successful state."

For more reporting from The Associated Press, see below.

migrants, Belarus, border
Three western countries and the European Union have put sanctions on Belarus, accusing Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of luring thousands of migrants to Belarus with the promise of help to get to Western Europe to use them as pawns to destabilize the 27-nation EU. Above, migrants line up to get hot food in the logistics center of the checkpoint "Bruzgi" at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, December 1. Oksana Manchuk/BelTA via AP

The three countries and the 27-nation EU have targeted Belarus since President Alexander Lukashenko won a sixth term last year in an election that the West and other observers say was fraudulent and over the security crackdown on peaceful protestors that followed.

The EU, meanwhile, imposed travel bans and asset freezes on 17 more people, including senior border guard and military officials, government representatives and judges.

The measures also hit air carriers—including state carrier Belavia— and travel groups accused by the EU of helping to bring migrants to Belarus with the aim of helping them cross into the 27-country bloc, chiefly through Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

Britain said it had imposed sanctions "on eight Belarusian individuals responsible for repression and human rights violations." It also froze the assets of OJSC Belaruskali, one of the world's largest producers of potash fertilizer, which is a major source of revenue for the Belarus government.

The EU targeted Belavia. "Migrants wishing to cross the Union's external border have been flying to Minsk on board flights operated by Belavia from a number of Middle Eastern countries, in particular Lebanon, UAE (United Arab Emirates) and Turkey," the sanctions text said.

Cham Wing Airlines, which operates flights from Syria to Belarus, is also in the EU's sights. It stands accused of ramping up flights from Damascus to Minsk over the summer and setting up new offices in the Belarus capital to better organize the shuttles.

Also on the list is state tourism company Tsentrkurort, which the EU claims helped at least 51 Iraqis obtain visas to Belarus and organized bus transport for them to the borders.

The Hotel Minsk company and Hotel Planeta, which are linked to the Belarus President Property Management Directorate, are accused of lodging migrants aiming to reach the border.

The EU also took aim at VIP Grub, a passport and visa service based in Istanbul, Turkey. The sanctions list says the company "organizes trips to Belarus with the explicit intention of facilitating migration to the EU. VIP Grub actively advertises migration to the EU."

In a statement, Belarus' Foreign Ministry called the EU "the initiator of the sanctions spiral and aggression" and promised "harsh, asymmetrical" measures in response.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc would not tolerate "the orchestrated and politically motivated instrumentalisation of human beings by the Lukashenko regime."

"This cynical strategy of exploiting vulnerable people is an abhorrent attempt to deflect attention from the regime's continued disregard for international law, fundamental freedoms and human rights in Belarus," Borrell said in a statement.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarus' opposition leader in exile, echoed his sentiment.

"The regime artificially created a crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border, cynically using migrants, living people, as a ram," Tsikhanouskaya said. "But instead of getting back his legitimacy and attention, Lukashenko achieved the opposite—the EU didn't give in to the pressure and imposed new sanctions."

Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and his administration continue to deny that they had anything to do with the migrant crisis at Belarus' borders with European Union nations. Above, Lukashenko attends a meeting with top-level military officials in Minsk, Belarus, on November 22. Andrei Stasevich/BelTA Pool Photo via AP, File