The Belarusian state airline, Belavia, was not alone in helping to traffic asylum-seekers to Belarus. Numerous others were also involved — but they have quickly changed tack under pressure from Brussels.
Once things started to move, they did so very quickly. On Wednesday evening, just 48 hours after the EU introduced new sanctions in response to crisis at the border between Poland and Belarus, the Lebanese Transport Ministry announced that it, too, would allow only Belarusians, Lebanese citizens with valid visas and foreign citizens with permanent residence permits to fly to Belarus. It was following the example of numerous other airlines and aviation authorities that have bowed to pressure from Brussels in the past few days.
Which airlines were involved?
A total of more than 600 planes from Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey have landed in Minsk since the beginning of July. Most of these flights were operated by Belavia, the Belarusian state airline. However, the European Commission also held intensive talks with around a dozen other airlines that have been offering flights to Minsk, including Fly Dubai, Turkish Airlines, Royal Air Maroc, Air Arabiya, Emirates, Qatar Airways, Etihad, MEA, Oman Air, Iraqi Airways and Egypt Air.
European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas and Adina Valean, the European transport commissioner, were also in close communication with international aviation authorities such as IAT or the Arab Air Carriers Organization.
The Commission's negotiations quickly took effect. Turkish Airlines had already announced last week that it would no longer fly passengers from Iraq, Syria, or Yemen to Belarus. The majority of other airlines also agreed either to suspend the sale of one-way tickets to Minsk to migrants from the Middle East, or to cancel all of their flights to Belarus.
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The Syrian airline Cham Wings, owned by a cousin of Syrian strongman Bashar Assad, was one of those that opted for cancellation. This small airline — suspected of flying weapons and Russian mercenaries into Syria — had been transporting people wanting to leave Syria directly from Damascus to Minsk. The travelers were given expedited express entry visas by the Belarusian embassy.
Heinrich Grossbongardt, an independent aviation expert, says it is unlikely that all these airlines actively promoted these flights on their own initiative, but that they could, nonetheless, have noticed earlier that there were irregularities and sounded the alarm. On the other hand, he concedes that many airlines are in financial difficulties due to the global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and suspects that "some of them, knowing full well what they were doing, turned a blind eye in order to get the business.”
What sanctions have been threatened?
The EU has threatened to withdraw overflight and landing rights from airlines who are proven to be involved in trafficking migrants. The threat alone was enough to make the airlines back down.
"Europe is a huge aviation market, and this is where the airlines are particularly vulnerable," Grossbongardt comments. "If the EU now says, 'We're not going to give you any more landing rights,' the airlines have to ask themselves: Where exactly is our core business?" As the aviation expert points out, it certainly does not consist in transporting a few thousand people to Minsk.
Airlines that do not actually fly to Europe themselves could also come under indirect pressure. Brussels could also apply the leverage of air transport agreements. These don't just affect individual airlines; they are made between the EU, or its individual member states, and third countries.
"These agreements regulate the way air traffic is organized between countries," Grossbongardt explains. "Who is allowed to fly where? Who is allowed to take passengers or cargo? Who is allowed to stop over in the EU?" If there are gross violations of these agreements, he says, the EU could suspend or terminate them. "This would then affect all of a country's airlines."
European airspace is already closed to Belarusian planes, and individual EU member states have already canceled their bilateral air transport agreements with Belarus. Even EU aircraft are no longer allowed to cross Belarusian airspace on long-distance flights, meaning that the regime in Minsk is unable to collect overflight fees.
Sanctions have also been proposed against tourism companies and others responsible for helping Belarus bring refugees to the borders of the EU.
Aircraft leasing as leverage
Aircraft leasing is another way the EU can put pressure on airlines. Nine of the 10 biggest leasing companies are based in Ireland, and the 10th is Danish. To keep costs down, many airlines lease a large part of their fleet from these companies, instead of buying them.
The Belarusian airline Belavia alone leases 17 of its 30 aircraft from Irish companies. Earlier this week, the Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, announced that these leases would be terminated as soon as the EU finalized its new round of sanctions against Belarus. If the planes were not then returned voluntarily, they would be confiscated as soon as they landed at a foreign airport. Belavia's flight operations would presumably face total collapse.
It was probably fear of this scenario that caused the Belarusian airline to back down. It has announced that, as of this Friday, a prohibition on the carriage of Syrian, Iraqi or Yemeni citizens will also apply on its aircraft.
Existing leases with other, non-Belarusian airlines, however, are not as easily terminated. "First of all, the authorities would have to establish that there had been deliberate abuse," Grossbongardt explains. This would be difficult to prove, and the EU is not currently planning to take steps in this direction. However, the aviation expert says it would certainly be possible to include the relevant clauses in future leasing agreements.
Overall, Grossbongardt believes that the instrument of sanctions will be enough to stop the smuggling of people to Belarus, and that "in the coming weeks, we will see a significant reduction in these flights to Minsk."