Updated at 18:49,15-10-2021

EU seeks to tighten Belarus visa rules amid growing migrant crisis

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels, The Guardian

EU seeks to tighten Belarus visa rules amid growing migrant crisis
Polish border guards stand next to a group of migrants stranded on the border between Belarus and Poland. Photograph: Kacper Pempel/Reuters
The European Commission has said it wants to suspend easy access to visas for Belarusian officials in an attempt to deter it from pushing migrants from the Middle East and Africa across its border with the bloc.

Neighbouring Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have declared states of emergency after a sharp increase in arrivals at their borders with Belarus, accusing the country’s dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, of an act of “hybrid warfare” in seeking to orchestrate a EU migrant crisis.

In an attempt to intensify pressure on the Lukashenko regime, which is already under EU sanctions, the European Commission wants to suspend an agreement that reduces the average cost of a visa to €35 and brings down waiting times for government officials, parliamentarians and senior judges, though the scheme would still operate for ordinary Belarusians.

The measure is largely symbolic, however, as Lukashenko and dozens of his most senior allies are already subject to an EU travel ban. In 2020, consular officials in the EU’s passport free-Schengen zone issued 134,777 visas to Belarusian nationals.

Since Belarus started luring migrants to travel to the EU, at least five people have died near the Polish-Belarusian border. Last week. the BBC found a group of men from African countries shivering in a forest in the border region. One Nigerian told the BBC they had been pushed between the two countries like a football. They said: “The Belarusians beat us, push us back to Poland; the Poles catch us, beat us, push us back to Belarus.”

Poland has closed the border zone to journalists and NGOs, and shunned all help from the EU border agency Frontex.

Poland’s interior minister, Mariusz Kamiński, refused to take a phone call from the EU migration commissioner, Ylva Johansson, who is urging him to open the border zone to outside observers and uphold migrants’ rights.

“We need to support Poland in protecting their external borders but it’s important that must be in line with fundamental rights and in line with transparency, so we avoid more lives being lost,” she told reporters.

The commissioner promised “frank and open” discussions when she meets Kamiński at Warsaw airport on Thursday. The proposal to suspend visa facilitation with Belarus may ease relations with the Polish government, which has long been one of the strongest critics of Lukashenko, and has urged more EU action.

According to the commission, migrants pay €10,000 for the trip to the EU. After flying to Belarus, they are put up in a hotel in Minsk, before being driven to the border. Video footage from the EU border agency Frontex shows migrants near Lithuania’s frontier with Belarus being let out of a van and told to walk.

EU officials describe Belarus’s actions as state-sponsored migrant smuggling. “This is a way for Lukashenko to earn money,” Johansson said. “He is deceiving people to pay a lot of money just to be trapped and tricked.”

“It’s an act of aggression from a desperate regime that’s put under pressure by EU sanctions towards Belarus,” she said. “Lukashenko is importing or welcoming migrants, incentivising migrants to come to Minsk and then they are being facilitated not only to EU external borders, but actually pushed into the European Union. And this is of course totally unacceptable. It’s a way to instrumentalise human beings and put their lives at risk.”

The suspension of the visa deal would have to be approved by EU member states before it takes effect. It came into force in July 2020, just one month before Lukashenko embarked on a brutal crackdown against street protesters calling on him to step down after elections widely believed to have been rigged.