The reach out by the EU in Central Asia on preventing human trafficking into Belarus has been ‘fruitful’ in the region, EU officials told reporters in Dushanbe, Tajikistan on Wednesday (24 November).
“The whole region expressed commitment to stop the flow of migrants to Belarus,” EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell said in the conclusion of his four-day visit to the region.
In Dushanbe, the high-level EU delegation had attended an EU-Central Asia meeting with their counterparts, where the situation in and around Afghanistan has been topping the agenda.
“Here in the region, particularly in Uzbekistan, the EU’s diplomatic reach out [to partner countries] has already been very much fruitful,” EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell said.
Uzbekistan has been one of the latest countries that has imposed restrictions on flights to Belarus for transit passengers from a half-dozen countries, including from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Yemen, Borrell told reporters during his visit to the region on Monday.
“The message to partners and media in the region is that it’s a trap, and this needs to be communicated,” Borrell said.
Responding to a question, whether the EU will ask Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours to take more actions to prevent migration flows, he said there was “no need for further action, because authorities are strongly committed to this topic”.
“The agreement is already done. On the exchange of what? Nothing. Nothing more than the wellbeing of their own citizens, because it’s their own citizens they have to protect, not our borders,” Borrell said.
“If they see that their people are being cheated, and paying big amounts of money to travel and then to stand in front of a border that is closed and having to go back, it is certainly in their own interest,” he said.
“We have to thank them for this cooperation, but we understood each has their own interest, the interest of their people, so they will do it,” he said.
“So, it is mission accomplished – Central Asia will not be involved in the trafficking of people to Belarus,” Borrell said.
The EU’s chief diplomat, however, stressed that now is the time to take care of the people that have already fled.
Speaking alongside Borrell, Commissioner for International Partnerships, Jutta Urpilainen, said “the EU’s main objective is to prevent the collapse of Afghan society”.
Of the EU’s €1 billion Afghan support package, almost half is earmarked for neighbouring countries impacted by the crisis.
“When it comes to the regional supports relating to Afghanistan, we are working with the UNHCR and the IOM,” she said, adding that through a project related to Afghan displacement the EU is providing assistance for countries like Pakistan, Iran as well as the Central Asian countries.
“We don’t ask Central Asian countries to receive refugees from Afghanistan – that’s that’s not our message,” Urpilainen said.
The comment after, earlier in summer, several EU member states had floated the idea of setting up deportation centres in Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries.
“But we know that if there is a flow from Afghanistan to Central Asian countries, and there are a lot of displaced people, of course, it is our duty to help to neighbouring and Central Asian countries to integrate and provide help to those people,” she said.
In Dushanbe, the EU delegation had visited multiple projects, including a school and a project integrating refugee children.
Several Middle Eastern airlines have already halted or reduced flights to Minsk since Brussels complained that migrants were being lured to Belarus with false promises of a route into EU member Poland.
On Tuesday (23 November), EU top officials had announced that the bloc would draw up a sanctions “blacklist” of travel and transport firms involved in trafficking migrants into the bloc, for approval by parliament and member states.
“We propose rules to blacklist all means and modes of transport involved in trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
She added that the measures would be coordinated with Britain, Canada and the United States.
Also addressing the MEPs, Michel said that Belarus airline Belavia, which leases most of its planes from firms in EU member states, notably Ireland, would be targeted.
“We will not allow the Belarus regime to intimidate us and to undermine our values and our unity,” he said, giving only “one example” of the sanctions on their way.