EU considers visa retaliation to halt influx of migrants from Belarus

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BRUSSELS – The executive branch of the European Union on Wednesday proposed to tighten visa restrictions for members of President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime as allegations mount that Belarus is using migrants to destabilize the bloc of 27 countries.

EU members Poland and Lithuania are struggling to cope with unusually high numbers of migrants, most from Iraq and Afghanistan, arriving at their borders with Belarus in recent months. Poland has deployed troops and declared a state of emergency. Dozens attempted to cross Lithuania overnight.

The influx of migrants began a year ago after the EU imposed sanctions on Lukashenko’s government in the August 2020 presidential election, which the West sees as rigged, and the security crackdown on it. opposition and the peaceful protesters that followed.

Now, the European Commission wants EU member countries to consider suspending parts of a “visa facilitation agreement” with Belarus that entered into force in July 2020. The agreement aimed to improve ties and to bring the former Soviet country closer to Europe.

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The proposal would hit Belarusian officials, including members of the government, lawmakers, diplomats and senior court officials. This would increase the paperwork associated with travel and require them to provide additional documents and pay more for visas.

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson called Lukashenko “really desperate” and claimed he was even trying to make money from migrants who can afford to pay 10,000 euros (around $ 11,650) to get to Belarus.

“He is trying to destabilize the European Union by bringing in migrants, facilitating them and pushing them into the European Union,” Johansson told reporters as she announced the visa proposal. “It’s a way for Lukashenko to make money as well.”

“He is actually tricking people into paying a lot of money just to be tricked and duped,” she said, citing reports from police and EU border agencies. The migrants are accommodated in a “very nice hotel in Minsk”, she said, and helped at the border, but are then trapped when they cannot enter the EU.

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But the committee is also concerned about developments along the Polish border. The government wants to extend the state of emergency 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 held in detention centers for foreigners. The nationalist government alleges that some migrants have links to terrorist and criminal groups and pose a security threat.

Polish authorities are also sending text messages to cell phones in the border area. “The Polish border is sealed. The authorities of BLR (Belarus) have told you lies. Return to Minsk! Do not take pills from Belarusian soldiers. https://tiny.pl/9rq4b ”read the posts.

A link to the Interior Ministry 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 punishment. of imprisonment ”.

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When asked if she supports the extension of the state of emergency at the border, where at least six migrants have died and around 600 border guards backed by around 2,500 troops are stationed, Johansson pointed out importance of ‘transparency’ and respect for EU law and values.

“It is important that we stand firm with Lukashenko, but it is also important that we show that this is a European border. It’s not just a Polish border, ”she said.

In Lithuania, overnight, 63 people were denied entry to Belarus in the largest number of single-day migrant arrivals this month, the interior ministry said. The Baltic country has been a prime target for Lukashenko since key Belarusian 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 complete it by April 2022.

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Monika Scislowska reported from Warsaw, Poland. Liudas Dapkus contributed to this report from Vilnius, Lithuania.

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Follow AP’s global migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration

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