The EU on Wednesday announced it plans to tighten visa requirements for Belarus officials in retaliation for Minsk “instrumentalising” irregular migration flows and putting pressure on the bloc’s external borders.
“We’re addressing a new worrisome form of smuggling, which is the increasing role of state actors in artificially creating and facilitating irregular migration using people as tools for political purposes,” European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas told a media conference.
“The latest tactics by the Belarus regime against the EU and our member states require a united response,” he said.
The proposed restrictions would add to sanctions the European Union already imposes on Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and 165 of his closest aides, which include banning them from travelling into the EU’s 27 member countries.
Brussels is increasingly pressuring Lukashenko and his regime over its crackdown on protests sparked by his proclaimed victory in last year’s election, deemed fraudulent by the West.
Further sanctions were imposed when Minsk forced a Ryanair jet flying through Belarusian airspace to land in May to arrest a dissident journalist on board.
Belarus has responded by encouraging a flow of thousands of migrants — particularly from Iraq and Afghanistan, but also from Cameroon and Bangladesh — to the borders of neighbouring EU countries Lithuania, Poland and Latvia.
The latest EU restrictions would partly suspend an EU-Belarus visa facilitation agreement where it comes to national and regional Belarusian officials, making EU visas more expensive and requiring more documentary proof to support applications.
The EU’s home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson, said the step was to curb “this new phenomenon of state-sponsored smuggling”.
Lukashenko, she said, “is trying to destabilise the European Union, by bringing in migrants and facilitating them and pushing them into the European Union”.
He “is desperate — he is really hurt by the economic sanctions and the sanctions that Europeans are putting on him,” Johansson said.
EU pressure has halted flights carrying migrants from Iraq to Belarus, but Johansson told reporters that Lukashenko was likely turning to other countries for his tactic.