Turkey issues Belarus flight ban to avert migrant crisis with Europe
The Turkish Civil Aviation Authority announced on Friday that citizens of Iraq, Yemen and Syria would be banned from boarding flights to Minsk from Istanbul “due to the problem of illegal border crossings between the European Union and Belarus.”
A source close to Turkish Airlines confirmed this statement, adding that diplomatic passport holders would be exempt from the ban but that it would still be imposed upon Iraqis, Syrians and Yemenis even if they have residence permits in Belarus. The Turkish national carrier started to impose new restrictions on Thursday night.
The decision came after the EU accused Belarus of looking to destabilise its neighbours, with the bloc threatening to widen sanctions targeting Minsk. It has also been claimed that Turkish Airlines flights to the Belarusian capital are fuelling the migrant crisis on the country's border with Poland, which is an EU member state.
Poland also accused Turkey on Tuesday of leaving the Istanbul-Minsk corridor open for irregular migrants who try to reach EU countries via Belarus, which is not a member of the union, adding that Turkey was acting in cooperation with Belarus and Russia.
The Turkish foreign ministry strictly denied the claims, calling them a “deliberate” defamation of Turkey and Turkish Airlines.
This tension erupted shortly after Turkey and Poland started a special military cooperation, in which a private Turkish company, Baykar, sold unmanned armed drones to Poland earlier this year despite criticism from other regional powers.
Later on Friday, Iraq's foreign ministry said it had halted direct flights to Belarus from Iraq and has drawn up lists of citizens trapped at the border as it prepares to organise repatriation trips.
"The Iraqi embassy in Moscow and Warsaw coordinate Iraq's efforts for the voluntary return of those who are stranded at the Belarus border," the Iraqi state News Agency quoted the ministry spokesperson as saying.
Middle East Eye visited Istanbul Airport on Thursday to talk to Middle Eastern passengers on Minsk flights. However, there were only two Iranian women to be seen, and they were too timid to talk due to security fears, or fears of being denied access to the flight.
In response to questions, one of them said: “We came to Turkey by bus and went to the Belarusian embassy in Ankara to obtain visas.”
Turkey and Iran allow visa-free travel up to 90 days. “We searched on the Internet how to obtain the visa. It is easy,” the woman added. “We’ll go to Poland or Lithuania.”
There were no Arabic-speaking Minsk-bound passengers around. Presumably, it was because most of the soon-to-be irregular migrants were transit passengers.
An Istanbul-based Syrian community leader told MEE over the phone that “our people, here in Turkey, have no intention to leave for Belarus.”
“We haven’t heard of anyone trying to go to Poland,” he added, requesting anonymity due to recent escalation in animosity towards Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Roadmap to Belarus
In fact, a quick search on YouTube in Arabic yielded results of many “visa agencies” and individuals that guide Iraqi and Syrian nationals through the process of acquiring a Belarusian visa.
In such videos or blog sites, people with knowledge of the subject explain the visa process, how to arrive in Minsk and how to reach the Polish border. There are also other videos explaining the dangers and the possible difficulties people may face after reaching the border.
In other selfies posted by migrants on YouTube, they show where they have gone after landing in Minsk, where they shop, what they buy and give suggestions to newcomers.
Meanwhile, some Arabic-speaking Belarusians explain in detail the visa and travel procedures for Iraqi citizens.
Success stories are also featured on YouTube. Some Iraqis, who have managed to arrive in Germany, tell their watchers how they were able to do it.
In one video, released by MadeinRussia 24 on YouTube, a company urged Iraqis to obtain the Belarusian visa from the embassy instead of relying on a tourist invitation. It claimed that it handles visa issues and would help Iraqis upon their arrival to the country.
Belsat, an independent Belarusian media outlet, reported that the Belarusian government has authorised several visa agencies in Iraq and Syria to issue visas. According to the report, Iraqi and Syrian nationals were able to obtain visas at the airport by paying as much as 180 euros ($206).
The visas are issued by some agencies that employ former security or government officials.