EU eyes visa retaliation to halt migrant influx from Belarus

International

FILE – In this Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021 file photo, migrants are seated, after crossing the border from Belarus into Poland in the village of Usnarz Gorny, Poland. Poland’s government is sending text messages to mobile phones in the area of its border with Belarus warning migrants against crossing illegally into the European Union member country, saying it would lead to imprisonment. (AP Photo/Mateusz Wodzinski, File)

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union’s executive branch proposed Wednesday to tighten visa restrictions on members of President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime as allegations mount that Belarus is using migrants to destabilize the 27-country bloc.

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

The migrant influx began a year ago after the EU slapped sanctions on Lukashenko’s government over the August 2020 presidential election, which the West views as rigged, and the Belarus security crackdown on the opposition and peaceful protesters that followed.

Now, the European Commission wants EU member countries to consider suspending parts of a “visa facilitation agreement” with Belarus that took effect in July 2020. The deal was meant to improve ties and draw the former Soviet country closer to Europe.

The proposal would hit Belarusian officials, including members of the government, lawmakers, diplomats, and top court representatives. It would increase travel red tape and require them to provide extra documents and pay more for visas.

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson described Lukashenko as “really desperate,” and claimed that he is even trying to make money off migrants who can afford to pay 10,000 euros (about $11,650) to go to Belarus.

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

“He is actually deceiving people to pay a lot of money just to be trapped and tricked,” she said, citing reports from the EU’s police and border agencies. Migrants are put up at a “very nice hotel in Minsk,” she said, and helped to the border, but then get trapped when they can’t enter the EU.

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

Polish authorities are also sending text messages to mobile phones in the border area. “The Polish border is sealed. BLR (Belarus) authorities told you lies. Go back to Minsk! Don’t take any pills from Belarusian soldiers,” the messages read.

Asked whether she supports Poland extending the state of emergency at the border, where at least six migrants have died and about 600 border guards backed by about 2,500 troops are stationed, Johansson underlined the importance of “transparency” and respecting EU legislation and values.

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

In Lithuania, 63 people were refused entry from Belarus overnight in the biggest number of migrant arrivals on a single day this month. The Baltic country has been a favored target of Lukashenko since key Belarus 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.

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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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