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28th May 2022

Turkish Airlines risks EU ban over Poland border crisis

  • Turkish Airlines flying twice a day to Minsk, airport data showed (Photo: Eric Johnston)
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Turkish Airlines and FlyDubai could be banned in the EU for flying migrants to Belarus after an attack on the Polish border blew up into an international incident.

"The EU will ... explore how to sanction, including through blacklisting, third-country airlines that are active in human trafficking," EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said on Monday (8 November) after people tried to storm the Polish border earlier in the day.

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  • Migrants on Polish border on Monday (Photo: Telegram)

Two top EU officials, Josep Borrell and Margaritis Schinas, will also travel to countries such as Armenia, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates to press them to stop people flying to Minsk, von der Leyen added.

Belarusian airline Belavia, which is already banned in the EU, is doing most of the "trafficking".

But Minsk airport data showed on Tuesday that Turkey's national flag-carrier, Turkish Airlines, which is popular with EU tourists, was still flying migrants from Istanbul to Minsk twice a day despite the border crisis.

FlyDubai, an Emirati budget airline, and Syria's Cham Wings were also flying people in.

Von der Leyen issued her threat after several hundred mostly Kurdish people tried to break through a razor-wire fence near the 'Kuźnica' crossing-point on the Belarus-Polish border.

Aerial video footage posted online showed them being forced to do it by armed Belarusian officers, some of them with attack dogs, and some of whom reportedly fired shots in the air behind the crowd, which included children.

Polish guards repelled the would-be asylum-seekers using water cannons and pepper spray.

The migrants then set up a tent camp on the Belarusian side of the fence, while Polish soldiers and armoured vehicles stood by.

But Polish authorities warned further attacks were likely and that there were some 4,000 migrants in the 400-km long border zone.

They also warned the situation risked turning lethal.

"We expect there could be an escalation of ... an armed nature any time soon on the Polish border," Polish government spokesman Piotr Mueller said.

"The last thing we want to do is use armed force," he said.

"The Polish border is not just a line on a map. The border is sacred - Polish blood has been spilled for it", Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki also said.

Monday's incident came after Belarus shuffled thousands of migrants to the Polish, Latvian, and Lithuanian border in small groups in recent months in revenge for EU sanctions.

Eight people already died of exposure, with EU officials urging Poland to show compassion.

"It's important that people concerned are given the necessary care," a commission spokesperson said.

Nato on alert

The emergency quickly blew up into an international incident, with Poland briefing the French, UK, US, Irish, and Estonian ambassadors at the UN Security Council in New York the same day.

Poland's EU envoy is to hold crisis talks with the 26 other EU ambassadors in Brussels on Tuesday.

Nato, which has a treaty obligation to defend Polish territory and which has a multinational battalion in Poland, described Belarus' actions as "a hybrid tactic".

"The [Nato] secretary general remains in close touch with allied governments on the issue. Nato stands ready to ... maintain safety and security in the region", it told EUobserver.

"The EU needs to create a common front," German interior minister Horst Seehofer told German newspaper Bild, which described events as an "attack on the EU" by Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as well as Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

Poland was defending the EU border and Belarus was guilty of "inhuman cruelty", Dutch foreign minister Ben Knapen told parliament.

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania also called for EU sanctions.

For its part, the Russian foreign ministry backed Lukashenko.

"More than 2,000 Polish soldiers invaded [Iraq] ... to establish democracy. Why not accept as many grateful Iraqis today?," Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said, referring to Poland's role in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Germany to blame?

But if the Polish government wanted EU solidarity, it also showed its eurosceptic colours on Monday.

Polish state broadcaster TVP gave prime-time coverage to French anti-EU politician Marine Le Pen, who called for French intervention against "migrant aggression", and a Spanish far-right MEP, Hermann Tertsch, who blamed the crisis on Germany's welcoming attitude to migrants.

Warsaw is home to the EU's 'Frontex' border-control agency, but a Polish government MP, Maciej Wąsik, belittled its capabilities.

"Frontex is 1,300 officials. Polish border guards have 16,000 functionaries, helped by 10,000 Polish soldiers," Wąsik said.

Meanwhile, Poland had been a leading opponent of EU relief on migrants for Greece and Italy in recent years.

"We urgently need a common EU migration policy," Belgian liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt said.

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EU senior officials say Belarus needs to do much more than move migrants and asylum seekers into a shelter. They want UN aid agencies to have unhindered access to people stranded in Belarus. Poland is still refusing any humanitarian aid.

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