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[I hope that] technology will work and I can join this press conference.
As my colleague Vice-President Margaritis [Schinas] has already said, we adopted today a Joint Communication countering the hybrid attack by the Belarusian regime.
This is a state-orchestrated action. Cheating people and using them against the European borders, making them fall into a trap where these people are suffering. We have to defend the European borders, we have to cut the flow of people arriving to Belarus and from Belarus to the borders and we have to help them, because after all, they are human beings, they have their rights and they need to be helped from a humanitarian point of view, and also to [help with] their return.
In fact, it did not start some weeks ago. It started in August. Last August the Baltic countries detected a big push on their borders, but then we managed to convince the Iraqi authorities to stop the flow and to forbid the flights from Baghdad to Minsk.
For some days, calm came, but immediately after - a couple of, let us say, three weeks ago - they started from more than 20 countries, with many airlines and, suddenly, an incredible amount of flights were transporting people with the false promise of having a free passage to Europe. And then it happened what all of you know. It has been, as I said, clearly orchestrated by the Belarusian regime.
We have been launching diplomatic efforts to cut this flow, in the last days with the help of Vice-President Margaritis [Schinas], who has done a lot in order to convince the countries of transit and origin to stop these flights. There is still some work to be done, but for the time being, I think that we can consider the flow under control, the inflow under control.
I am speaking from Dushanbe, in Tajikistan, where I chaired the Ministerial meeting with the Central Asia countries. Certainly, the issue was on the agenda and I found a very good answer to our request, as everywhere.
At the Foreign Affairs Council we took a new set of sanctions against the Belarusian authorities and actors. And we are ready to take more sanctions against all who participate in this traffic of people: airlines, airports, travel offices. Whatever.
But now, the most important problem is not the inflow. The problem is to take care of these people and, for that, I have been talking a couple of times with the Foreign Affairs Minister of Belarus [Vladimir Makei]. We have been in touch at technical level and a technical team of our people from the Commission and the European External Action Service are working together with the United Nations organisation, and also with the Belarusian authorities in order to coordinate and to prepare the way back.
Several hundreds of them have already gone back to Baghdad and others will have to follow. And in the meantime, we have to provide humanitarian assistance. At this moment the humanitarian assistance is being provided by the United Nations organisations and by many NGOs, and I think that in the following days we could consider that the situation will become more, let us say, “normal”. There is nothing normal here.
There is a big operation of misinformation. [They are] explaining to people that they have a free way to Europe. We are countering this disinformation campaign with information campaigns from our Delegations in many countries explaining people “do not go to this trap, do not pay your money for a way that goes nowhere, do not put yourself at risk, they are cheating you”.
Several countries have been cooperating a lot and I think that, if Lukashenko wanted to put pressure on us in order to make us to cancel the sanctions, I think that he has missed the game, because what he has got is a new round of sanctions and now he will have to contribute and to take care of these people who are on their territory in order to make them have a dignified treatment and, when possible, a return to their homes.
I think that it is very important to be prepared for this kind of events. This kind of what we call now hybrid attacks. We have remained united using all the tools at our disposal: sanctions, diplomatic activities, reaching out with the transport actors, with the countries of origin and transit. And, we have to continue working together in order to control this situation.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-214470
Q. I am wondering on this providing of money for support for voluntary returns from Belarus to the countries of origin, would you mind going a bit more into [the question] to what extent this will mean cooperation with the Belarusian authorities? I guess that it will need some kind of cooperation with the Lukashenko regime in order to conduct these returns from Belarus.
[Inaudible] relations point of view, I want to stress that there is no deal and there are no negotiations with the Lukashenko regime, and there is nothing that can look like any kind of de facto recognition. Another thing is that we have to keep the channels of communications open. I personally talked twice with the Foreign Affairs Minister of Belarus. Senior officials of the [European] External Action Service have been in touch with his Deputy Minister after our phone conference. And, at that moment, small team, representatives of the Commission and the [European] External Action Service are travelling to Minsk in order to undertake technical, not negotiations, but understanding of which are the needs in order to facilitate the repatriation, in cooperation with United Nations agencies. The mission should be understood as to assess the needs and to take decisions of cooperation on the repatriation process. But it has nothing to do with a recognition, [it] has nothing to do with negotiations.
Link to the video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-214474