BRUSSELS: The European Union will slap sanctions on Belarus over the migrant crisis in the “coming days”, after the bloc’s foreign ministers gave their backing, Brussels’ top diplomat Josep Borrell said on Monday.
After meeting the ministers, Borrell said the new sanctions would hit “quite an important number” of individuals and entities for “facilitating illegal border crossings into the EU”.
“By expanding the scope of the sanctions we will be able to target those responsible for exploiting vulnerable migrants,” Borrell said.
Diplomats said the new penalties are expected to target around 30 Belarusian officials, the state airline and travel agencies accused of helping deliver migrants to the border.
Thousands of mainly Middle Eastern migrants are camped out in dire conditions at the Belarusian-Polish boder, trapped in a perilous standoff with Minsk.
The West accuses Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko’s government of orchestrating the crisis in retaliation for earlier sanctions by encouraging migrants to fly to Minsk and helping them to the border.
Brussels has pushed key transit hubs such as Turkey and Dubai to stop flights to Minsk in order to stem the flow of migrants to the country.
The EU is also pushing the United Nations to step in to offer assistance to the men, women and children at the Belarusian border.
The bloc has already placed 166 people tied to the regime — including Lukashenko and his sons — on a blacklist over a crackdown on opponents since disputed elections last year.
The Iraqi government said it is organising a repatriation flight on Thursday for its citizens stuck on the Poland-Belarus border on a “voluntary” basis.
“Iraq will carry out a first flight for those who wish to return voluntarily on the 18th” of November from Belarus, foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed al-Sahaf told Iraqi television.
He did not say how many people would take the Minsk-Baghdad flight, but said Iraq had recorded 571 of its citizens stuck on the border who have said they are ready to return “voluntarily”.
Thousands of migrants from the Middle East, including many from northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, are camped out on the EU-Belarus border, creating a stand-off between the EU and US on one side and Belarus and its ally Russia on the other.
On Monday, Lukashenko said Minsk itself was working to repatriate migrants massed on its border with Poland, apparently aiming to defuse the crisis ahead of an EU meeting over new sanctions on the ex-Soviet country.
The measures “have reduced the trips by Iraqis (to Belarus), but the problem is that some are now taking indirect flights, passing through Turkey, Qatar, the UAE and Egypt”, Sahaf said.
The migrant crisis was at the centre of talks in Baghdad on Monday between EU Commissioner Margaritis Schinas and Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi.
The premier, in a statement, stressed the need for “necessary measures to guarantee the security of Iraqi citizens throughout European territory” and against people traffickers.