Belavia responds to suggestion it may be implicated in crisis on Belarus-Poland border
First published on Wed 10 Nov 2021 13.01 GMT
Belarus’s state airline has strongly denied it is involved in any trafficking of vulnerable people to the border with the EU in the face of sanctions expected to target airlines and officials involved in the illegal movement of people.
Belavia was responding to the suggestion that it was somehow implicated in the crisis on the Belarus-Poland border amid accusations that the authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko is ferrying people to the EU border in retaliation for the bloc’s sanctions against his regime.
In a statement to the Guardian, Belavia said it could not refuse passengers with the correct documentation and did not operate in any of the countries where many of the people originated.
“Belavia does not operate, and during the calendar year 2021 has not operated, scheduled or charter services to any of the following countries, which Belavia understands to be those countries which are the subject of allegations regarding migrant trafficking: Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Myanmar, Pakistan and Syria,” it said.
The airline went on: “Based on sales analysis, Belavia has blocked reservation and ticketing abilities for certain travel agencies considered at risk [of making] ticket sales to citizens from high-risk countries.”
The statement came after the world’s leading regional aircraft leasing company said it was monitoring the crisis “very carefully”. Sources close to Nordic Aviation Capital (NAC), which is based in Ireland, said it would “adhere to all restrictions introduced” by government or regulatory authorities and was liaising with its customers “to ensure the highest level of compliance with regulations”.
Ireland is responsible for about half of the world’s leased aircraft, with at least two companies leasing to the Belarusian state carrier. NAC’s website states it has supplied five planes to Belavia, the last of which, an Embraer E175, was delivered in September last year.
The Irish government confirmed on Wednesday it had held talks with aircraft leasing companies about possible sanctions against Belarus.
“At the invitation of the Department of Transport, officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs participated in an online meeting with representatives of a number of aircraft-leasing companies on 27 October. Officials explained the background to proposed new sanctions on Belarus and answered questions,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
The Lithuanian government recently called for sanctions against the Belarusian flag carrier after it increased the number of flights between Turkey and Minsk, seen in some quarters as a deliberate measure to transport migrants and refugees directly to the EU border in retaliation against four previous rounds of sanctions.
However, curbs on contracts with any airline found to be involved in trafficking are unlikely.
While a large number of people appeared to have travelled to Minsk on charter flights via private Syrian and Iraqi airlines, European officials and media have presented some evidence that they say shows Belavia is also involved in transporting asylum seekers.
In July, Lithuanian officials said they had found documents on detained Iraqi migrants that included visa applications via two Belarusian tour agencies and four boarding passes for a Belavia flight from Istanbul to Minsk.
The German broadcaster DW this month said a Baghdad-based tour operator directed people to Istanbul or Dubai, from where they could take Belavia flights to Minsk. “You just need to get there,” the tour operator reportedly said. “It’s a bit more expensive, but it is still possible.”
The Belarusian transportation minister, Artem Sikorsky, said this week that Belavia had increased the number of flights to Istanbul because the airline had been shut out of much of Europe following the grounding of a Ryanair flight in May.
“How can an airline distinguish between a migrant or not a migrant?” he said. “A person buys a ticket – on what basis can we ban him from flying?”
A spokesperson for Belavia said it was not a border agency and was “not lawfully able to refuse that passenger permission to board”.