Iraq stops flights to Belarus as refugee crisis deepens
Iraqi refugees are using Belarus as an entry point for Lithuania, a European Union member state. Brussels says that about 2,700 migrants - most from Iraq - have crossed illegally into Lithuania from Belarus in recent months.
Officials suspect the influx is being orchestrated by the government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in retaliation against EU sanctions, with flights ferrying migrants from Baghdad to Minsk.
On the same day as the flight suspensions were announced, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein spoke on the phone with his Belarussian and Lithuanian counterparts, as well as the EU's security policy chief, Josep Borrell.
Borrell said he “welcomed” the flight suspensions.
Spoke to Iraqi Foreign Minister Hussein today about situation at EU border of Lithuania with Belarus.— Josep Borrell Fontelles (@JosepBorrellF) August 6, 2021
Welcomed stop of flights from IQ to BY. It’s is in our common interest to prevent the instrumentalisation of migrants and to protect them from being abused by criminal networks.
Hussein told his counterparts and Borrell that “Iraqi laws guarantee freedom of travel for the Iraqi citizen, but that human trafficking, and the dangers of expanding smuggling networks, and its reflection on the security of Iraqi travelers, are classified as criminal acts,” according to a statement by the Iraqi.
The foreign minister of Lithuania's neighbour, Latvia, said he had also spoken with Hussein on Friday. Edgars Rinkēvičs “outlined Latvia's vision of the illegal migration pressure exerted by Belarus on its EU neighbours and called on the Iraqi government to do its utmost to prevent the illegal entry of Iraqi citizens into Europe via Belarus,” a Latvian foreign ministry statement read.
To speed up returns, Iraq’s embassy in Minsk will issue travel documents to Iraqis stuck in Belarus, the Iraqi foreign ministry’s spokesperson said on Saturday.
The EU said late last month that it was helping Iraq “better control” its flights to Belarus.
A 29-year-old Iraqi man died earlier this week on the Belarus-Lithuania border after being found with “multiple bodily injuries'', the state-run Belarusian Telegraphic Agency reported. The Belarusian authorities are investigating his death, the report said.
The EU recently has threatened to ratchet up sanctions that it has slapped on Belarus since last year over a crackdown on protests against a presidential election won by Lukashenko which was widely dismissed as fraudulent.
The EU last month hit key sectors of the Belarusian economy after Minsk forced a European airliner to land in order to arrest a dissident journalist.