BAGHDAD (AP) — The United Arab Emirates has banned travelers from several Middle Eastern countries from boarding flights to Belarus, cutting off one of the last major air routes for would-be migrants to a nation on the European Union’s eastern border.
The decision reported by travel agencies in Iraq Monday and the Belarus carrier appeared to be in response to diplomatic pressure to stem the tide of migrants that have made their way to Belarus, resulting in a humanitarian crisis with thousands of people stranded on the Belarus-Polish border in freezing weather. At least nine have died.
The development came as the European Union on Monday ratcheted up pressure on Belarus by agreeing to slap sanctions on airlines accused of helping President Alexander Lukashenko wage a “hybrid attack” against the bloc using migrants.
Thousands of people from around the Middle East, many of them Iraqis and Syrians, have been trying to cross into the EU this year through a backdoor opened by non-EU member Belarus.
In recent months, Belarus began offering easy tourist visas to Iraqis, Syrians and others from the Middle East and Africa. This meant they could now reach the edge of Europe on comfortable flights to Belarus, then try to sneak into Poland, Lithuania or Latvia, all EU members.
But several airlines have either suspended flights or halted ticket sales to travelers from Iraq and Syria in response to the crisis at the border.
A travel agent in Baghdad on Monday shared with The Associated Press a memo from the low cost FlyDubai airlines announcing that nationals from Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan were banned from boarding its flights to Minsk, requesting that no tickets be sold to nationals from these countries.
“We are committed not to sell tickets," said Baghdad travel agent Yasser al-Lami, who said he was not selling tickets to Minsk anyway after the situation on the border deteriorated. "I cannot send travelers to the unknown and (to their) death,” he said.
The Belarusian airline, Belavia, said in a statement Sunday that it will be strengthening documents verification during check-in for flights from Dubai, citing the decision of the competent authorities in the United Arab Emirates to ban nationals from the four countries from boarding flights to Minsk.
“Passengers subject to this ban can refund their tickets at the place of purchase,” it said.
FlyDubai did not comment directly on the ban, but in a statement to the AP, it said it “only carries passengers with the correct documents and entry requirements for travel to Belarus.”
“FlyDubai follows all international regulations and we have an open dialogue with the relevant authorities,” the company said.
Flight options for travelers to Minsk from the region had already been shrinking. Turkey said Friday it is halting airline tickets to Iraqis, Syrians and Yemenis wanting to travel to Belarus. Citing that decision, the Belarusian airline Belavia said it also would not ticket citizens of those countries on its Istanbul-Minsk flight.
Cham Wings, a Syrian airline, said in a statement this weekend that it had suspended flights from Damascus to Minsk in response to the situation at the Belarusian-Polish border.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed reporting.