Irish-based airlines and aircraft leasing firms will be added to a new EU blacklist if they enable migrant smuggling or people trafficking.
In a targeted move against the authoritarian regime of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, the European Commission said it will prevent airlines, ferries, lorries or aircraft leasing firms from using EU airspace, ports and airports if they try to carry migrants to the bloc’s eastern borders.
The EU accuses Russian ally Mr Lukashenko of weaponising migrants in retaliation for escalating rounds of sanctions following his disputed re-election last year. Mr Lukashenko denies exacerbating the crisis, and warned this week that “war is unavoidable” unless the EU takes in the stranded migrants.
The move follows the stepping up of sanctions last week against Belarusian national carrier Belavia for allegedly flying people from the Middle East and Africa to the border between Belarus and EU members Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.
Belavia has aircraft contracts with several international lessors based in Ireland, including Dublin-based AerCap and SMBC Aviation Capital, Limerick-based Nordic Aviation Capital and Shannon-based Thunderbolt Aircraft Lease.
Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said last week that those contracts would be “cut”.
Under a draft regulation tabled on Tuesday, the Commission itself can deny ‘transport operators’ the right to fly over the bloc, transit, refuel or call at EU ports and airports for at least a year, with the possibility of renewal.
The draft has to be approved by MEPs and EU governments before it becomes law, but it could effectively take the decision-making out of the hands of national ministers.
“I hope that we will not need to use this regulation and the transport operators will themselves act to avoid being an accessory to trafficking or smuggling. But we are now prepared to take action if they don’t,” said EU transport chief Adina Valean.
The EU is in talks with authorities from Lebanon, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Uzbekistan and has already halted flights to Belarus from those countries.
“Transit routes being used by smugglers to bring desperate people to the Belarusian border are being shut down one by one,” Mr Schinas said.
The EU said it was now working to step up the return of people to Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq.
Last week the bloc returned 450 people from Minsk to Baghdad.
“This is not a migration threat or crisis, this is a security one, so we have to deal with it as such,” Mr Schinas said.
The situation on the bloc’s eastern boarders has escalated into a full-blown humanitarian crisis as the winter months wear on, with thousands of people still stranded in forests outside the Polish border.