Irish companies that lease planes are under pressure over the alleged use of the aircraft to traffic migrants from the Middle East to the borders of the European Union by Belarus.
The issue is front and centre as EU foreign ministers meet to discuss potential further sanctions on the Belarussian regime of Alexander Lukashenko, which is accused of deliberately ferrying migrants to the borders of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to put political pressure on the EU.
Countries including Germany have called for action on the leasing of aircraft to state airline Belavia – accused of a role in orchestrating the migrant flows – and diplomats suggest Ireland’s significant airline leasing industry is in the spotlight.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said Ireland was aware of its responsibility and would support additional sanctions towards Belarus and the curbing of future aircraft leasing agreements, but that breaking existing contracts could be legally complex.
“We think, like many other countries, that Belarus is exploiting vulnerable people, bringing migrants into Minsk and then effectively passing them to the borders of the EU, which is putting huge pressure on countries like Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and so on. That has to stop,” Mr Coveney said on arrival at a meeting of foreign ministers in Luxembourg.
“A lot of aircraft leasing takes place out of Ireland, it’s a very big business there. We are open to a new round of sanctions, targeting individuals in Belarus who are clearly responsible for exploiting vulnerable people in the context of bringing migrants into Belarus, and then effectively encouraging them to cross borders,” he said.
“But I think we would also make the distinction between sanctions that would involve no further or future aircraft leasing to Belavia –in contrast to existing contracts that are in place, where there are legal obligations. So, this is a difficult area from a legal perspective.
“We’re conscious of Irish responsibility here, of course we are,” he added.
“It’s a completely unacceptable situation that Belarus are deliberately bringing migrants from other parts of the world and then putting them in a very vulnerable situation.”
Several people have died on the border of Belarus and Poland in recent weeks, where migrants have found themselves trapped in a forested area in increasingly cold temperatures between EU border forces that do not let them advance and Belarussian guards who prevent them returning.
Thousands took to the streets of Warsaw in protest at the treatment of the migrants over the weekend.