BRUSSELS: As part of the European Union’s united response to state-sponsored instrumentalisation of people at the EU’s external border with Belarus, the Commission and High Representative propose today measures to prevent and restrict the activities of transport operators that engage in or facilitate smuggling or trafficking of people into the EU. This will add a new instrument to the EU’s toolbox for supporting Member States affected by such hybrid attacks. Other forms of support notably humanitarian assistance should accompany any measures taken under this instrument.
President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said: “Attempts to destabilise the EU by instrumentalising people will not work. The EU is united and taking various actions to resolve the situation at the EU’s external borders with Belarus. Today, we are presenting a new proposal to blacklist transport operators involved in smuggling or trafficking of people into the EU, as I first announced two weeks ago. We will never accept the exploitation of human beings for political purposes.”
Targeted measures for transport operators that facilitate or engage in smuggling
Recent events at the EU’s border with Belarus could not have taken place without certain transport operators knowingly or unknowingly contributing to the exploitation of people, with a vast humanitarian toll and at a high cost to security at the EU’s external borders and stability in the region.
To ensure that the EU has the appropriate tools in place to combat the instrumentalisation of people for political purposes, the Commission is proposing a new legal framework allowing the EU to adopt targeted measures against transport operators of any mode of transport (land, air, inland waterways and sea), that engage in or facilitate smuggling or trafficking of people into the European Union. Measures would be proportionate and determined on a case-by-case basis. The type of measures could include the limitation of operations in the Union market, the suspension of licenses or authorisations, the suspension of the rights to refuel or carry out maintenance within the EU, and the prohibition to transit or fly over the EU, make technical stops or call into EU ports.
Diplomatic and external action
On 15 November, the EU Foreign Affairs Council decided to expand the EU sanctions regime regarding Belarus to target individuals and entities organising or participating in the instrumentalisation of people, including airlines, travel agencies and other intermediaries. Political agreement was reached on a 5th package of listings to address the situation at the border, human trafficking, and the continued repression within Belarus. This follows the EU’s decision of 9 November 2021 to partially suspend the EU-Belarus Visa Facilitation Agreement, so that its benefits do not apply to government officials of Belarus.
Since the beginning of the crisis, the EU has been building a global coalition in opposition to the unscrupulous practice of instrumentalising people, following a TeamEurope approach deploying the combined diplomatic strengths of Member States and the EU, including through the travels of High Representative/Vice-President Borrell. In recent weeks, Vice-President Schinas, in coordination with High Representative/Vice-President Borrell, has been travelling to the main countries of origin and of transit to request that they act to prevent their own nationals from falling into the trap set by the Belarusian authorities. The EU’s continuous engagement has led to results. A number of countries of origin and transit have suspended flights to Belarus and toughened up screening of passengers at airports. Following discussions between High Representative Borrell with the Belarusian Foreign Minister, the European External Action Service and the Commission entered into technical talks with UN agencies (UNHCR and IOM) and Belarusian counterparts at a working level to facilitate repatriations of migrants from Belarusian territory.
Many of the people exploited by the Belarusian regime in this crisis are Iraqi. The EU is engaged in intensive cooperation with Iraq. Direct flights from Baghdad to Belarus were suspended in August, following which flights from Erbil transiting through third countries to Belarus were also stopped. Iraq is organising repatriation flights for Iraqis, with EU support and with further financial assistance for reintegration to Iraq still to come.
Information manipulation is a key tool used to trick people, create false promises and consequently instrumentalise them. The situation has been exploited by various actors, orchestrating a widespread disinformation campaign to discredit the EU’s international reputation. The European External Action Service undertook steps to counter false and misleading information online and through targeted communication activities by the EU delegations in the countries from which most of the people have been lured to Belarus.
Stepping up humanitarian assistance
The EU has allocated €700,000 in humanitarian assistance for vulnerable refugees and migrants stranded in Belarus, at the borders and inside the country, of which €200,000 is going immediately to support the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) as part of the EU’s overall contribution to the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund, managed by the IFRC. This EU funding is helping the IFRC and its national society, the Belarus Red Cross, to deliver much-needed relief assistance, including food, hygiene kits, blankets, and first aid kits. An additional €500,000 is mobilised for further humanitarian assistance to be implemented by EU’s partner organisations on the ground.
The Commission stands ready to provide additional humanitarian funding in response to clearly established humanitarian needs, should the access for humanitarian partner organisations in Belarus further improve. EU humanitarian assistance is based on international humanitarian principles.
Support for border and migration management
Since the beginning of the crisis, the EU provided immediate support to Latvia, Lithuania and Poland for border management in the form of emergency funding, deployment of experts and in-kind assistance from European countries under the Civil Protection Mechanism. Following Commissioner Johansson’s visit to Lithuania the Commission granted €36.7 million of EU funds to Lithuania to support the implementation of asylum procedures and for reception conditions, including for vulnerable persons. The Commission coordinated assistance from 19 Member States and Norway consisting of tents, beds, heating systems, electric generators, bedding, food-rations and other in-kind assistance. The Migration Preparedness and Crisis Management Network (the Blueprint Network) meets weekly to provide high quality situational awareness and coordination to shape an effective response. EU Home Affairs agencies have also been deployed since July with personnel present in the three Member States and equipment deployed to Lithuania and Latvia.
The Commission is in dialogue with Latvia, Lithuania and Poland about financial and operational needs and is making a further €200 million available for border management. Further support from agencies could include rapid border intervention and/or return intervention from Frontex and European Asylum Support Office assistance in migration management as well as adequate reception.
The Commission, Frontex and IOM are working with Lithuania to reinforce return capacity through exchange of guidance, best practice and outreach to third countries to support readmission. Poland has also asked for Frontex support in conducting returns. The Commission will also provide up to €3.5 million to support voluntary returns from Belarus to countries of origin. Europol’s European Migrant Smuggling Centre supports criminal investigations and facilitates information exchange. Full implementation of the EU Action Plan against migrant smuggling (2021-2025) will provide a more effective response to the instrumentalisation of people for political purposes and the need to manage the EU external borders in such situations.
Moreover, the Commission is working on a proposal for provisional measures in the area of asylum and return, based on Article 78(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. This follows the invitation of the European Council to the Commission to propose any necessary changes to the EU’s legal framework and concrete measures to ensure an immediate and appropriate response in line with EU law and international obligations. It also responds to a request by the impacted Member States to be able to rely on provisional measures to address the emergency migratory situation at the EU’s external borders effectively.
Members of the College said:
High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy / Vice-President, Josep Borrell, said: “The Belarusian regime tries to distract from the appalling situation in the country by taking advantage of people’s dismay and pushing them towards the EU’s borders. They will not succeed. In response, we expanded our sanctions regime and are adopting another package of measures against the perpetrators of this hybrid attack by the Lukashenko regime. Together with UN agencies, we will provide humanitarian aid to those in need. We will continue our diplomatic outreach to our partners. The EU stands firm against this hybrid attack.”
Vice-President for Promoting our European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas, said: “Ordinary people are being sold a lie by the Belarusian regime working with international smuggling networks. What is happening at our borders is not a migration issue but a security one. And the EU is showing that it will be unrelenting in our response. Thanks to determined and comprehensive EU action together with our partners, we are starting to see improvements. And the blacklisting mechanism we are proposing today is a further tangible expression of our willingness to act decisively. This is a global problem and we must build an international coalition against the use of people as political pawns.”
Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, said: “To protect our borders, and to protect people, we are shutting down Lukashenko’s unlicensed travel operation. The viable route to Europe is through a legally paved pathway, not an irregular forest trail. Long-term, we need a fair and effective European migration and asylum system capable of responding to different situations. This underlines our need for on the New Pact on Migration and Asylum.”
Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, Janez Lenarčič, said: “The EU is supporting its humanitarian partners to provide much-needed help to people stranded at the border and in other parts of Belarus. Given the approaching winter cold, we need to ensure continuous access of humanitarian organisations from both sides to reach this vulnerable group of people.”
Commissioner for Transport, Adina Vălean, said: “The strong and immediate cooperation we witnessed from the global aviation community in the past weeks shows it is essential to involve transport operators closely in preventing and combatting this new form of hybrid threat. Our new proposal on measures to target transport operators that facilitate or engage in smuggling will give us a powerful tool to take action where operators seek to benefit from the exploitation of people.”
Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, said: “The state-sponsored instrumentalisation of thousands of migrants and attacking the EU and its Member States is unacceptable and must end. As our proposals today show, this also has consequences. We do not accept the blackmail of the Lukashenka regime. We will provide support to the people caught in his schemes. At the same time, we continue to stand with the people of Belarus in support of their democratic aspirations.”
It is the EU as a whole that is being challenged, especially Lithuania, Poland and Latvia, which have since the summer experienced an insidious new threat in the form of the instrumentalisation of desperate people. This has been initiated and organised by the Lukashenko regime luring people to the border, with the cooperation of migrant smugglers and criminal networks.
Belarus’ actions have precipitated a humanitarian crisis. Men, women and children, were stranded in a vast forest in sub-zero temperatures. Several people, including children, lost their lives. The situation escalated on 8 November when 2,000 people became stuck at the border. Following intense diplomatic outreach, the EU sent humanitarian aid and is working with UN agencies to support evacuations. Belarus has moved people into a heated warehouse from the makeshift camp at the border.