| 8 December 2021, Wednesday |

UAE curbs flights to Belarus amid migrant crisis

The United Arab Emirates barred Afghan, Syrian, Yemeni, and Iraqi citizens from flights to Minsk on Monday, which the European Union claims were used to transport thousands of migrants.

Belavia, Belarus’ state-owned airline, announced the decision of the UAE cabinet on Sunday.

Thousands of migrants from the Middle East are seeking refuge in the woods on the border between Belarus and EU member states Poland and Lithuania, which are refusing to let them cross.

Some have died, and there are concerns about the safety of the remaining people in the harsh winter conditions.

The Iraqi government announced on Thursday that it would organize a “voluntary” repatriation flight for its citizens stranded on the Poland-Belarus border.

“Iraq will conduct a first flight for those who wish to return voluntarily from Belarus on November 18th,” Iraqi foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed al-Sahaf told Iraqi television overnight Sunday to Monday.

He did not say how many people would be able to board the Minsk-Baghdad flight, but he did say Iraq had 571 citizens stuck on the border who have said they are willing to return “voluntarily.”

Western countries accuse Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s administration of fomenting the crisis by encouraging migrants to come to Belarus and then transporting them to the border.

Regular air connections between Baghdad and Minsk have been suspended since August, and Belarusian diplomatic missions in Baghdad and Arbil, Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital, have been closed for more than a week.

The measures “have reduced trips by Iraqis (to Belarus), but the problem is that some are now taking indirect flights, passing through Turkey, Qatar, the UAE, and Egypt,” according to Sahaf.

On Friday, Turkey barred citizens of Syria, Iraq, and Yemen from flying to Belarus from its airports, while private Syrian carrier Cham Wings Airlines suspended flights to Minsk on Saturday.

The Kurdistan region of Iraq presents itself as a haven of relative stability, but it is frequently chastised for restricting freedom of expression. For decades, the region has been ruled by two parties: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Several Iraqi Kurds have told AFP that their desire to leave is motivated by a lack of economic opportunities and security instability.

Margaritis Schinas, vice president of the European Commission, is scheduled to visit Baghdad on Monday to discuss the migration crisis.