Greece Inaugurates First ‘Closed’ Camp For Asylum Seekers

This photograph taken on September 18, 2021 shows the new EU-funded multi-purpose RIC (reception and identification centre) of migrants on the island of Samos, Greece, during its inauguration. – The Samos camp will be the first of five new ‘closed’ migrant camps. It has a detention centre and will only be accessible via electronic chip. (Photo by LOUISA GOULIAMAKI / AFP)

 

Greece on Saturday inaugurated the first of five new “closed” migrant camps, opposed by rights groups who say the strict access measures are too restrictive.

A double barbed wire fence surrounds the 12,000 square metre camp on the island of Samos, which is also installed with surveillance cameras, x-ray scanners and magnetic doors.

The EU has committed 276 million euros ($326 million) for the new camps on Greece’s five Aegean islands — Leros, Lesbos, Kos, Chios as well Samos — that receive most of the migrant arrivals by sea from neighbouring Turkey.

Within the camp is a detention centre, set up for migrants whose asylum claims have been rejected and who are to be sent back to Turkey.

The Samos camp, which will serve as a pilot for the other so-called closed and controlled access facilities, has a detention centre and asylum seekers will only be able to enter via fingerprint scans and electronic badges.

Gates will remain closed at night and disciplinary measures await those who return after eight pm.

The camp boasts sports and games areas, as well as shared kitchens.

Dormitories have five beds each and a cupboard, with shared toilets and showers, an AFP team saw.

“The new closed-controlled access centre will give back the lost dignity to people seeking international protection, but also the necessary conditions of safeguarding and restraint for illegal migrants who are to be returned,” Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said at the opening.

– Living conditions –

The Leros camp is expected to be finished next month, while on Lesbos — home to Moria, Europe’s largest camp, which was destroyed by fire last year — work has yet to begin.

With better quality accommodation, running water, toilets, separate areas for families and more security, the Greek government says that the camps will meet European standards.

They replace facilities that became infamous for their living conditions.

On Samos, the facility near the port of Vathy had been designed for 680 people but at one point was home to nearly 10 times that number.

Asylum seekers still live there — rats, improvised wooden barracks without heating and a lack of toilets and showers continue to be part of their daily lives.

But from Monday, more than 300 residents will be transferred to the new facility five kilometres (three miles) from Samos’s main town of the same name.

Τhe old camp is to be closed by month’s end.

“This is a promise to the local community, but also a commitment of our ministry,” Mitarachi has said, responding to anger among the local community who, for years, watched as the camp ballooned.

– ‘Camps should be open’ –

NGOs and aid groups however have raised concerns about the new camps’ structure in isolated places and residents’ confinement.

Dozens of NGOs, including Amnesty International, accused Greece of pursuing “harmful policies focused on deterring and containing asylum seekers and refugees”.

They urged the EU and Greek government to abandon plans to restrict the movement of people in the camps.

The UN refugee agency’s representative in Greece, Mireille Girard, also voiced reservations, expressing particular concern at the term “closed camp”.

“We have discussed that with the authorities, it was repeated to us this morning that indeed these will be open centres, she added.

“It is very important that in the new facility people are able to move freely in and out of the camp”.

Greece was the main point where more than one million asylum seekers — mainly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans — entered Europe in 2015.

The crisis in Afghanistan has prompted fears of a new migration wave.

According to Mitarachi, the flow of new arrivals has been reduced by 90 percent compared to 2019.

However, humanitarian organisations say the drop is due to illegal pushbacks of migrants by Greek authorities, which the conservative government has repeatedly denied.

AFP

Asylum Applications In EU Dived Under COVID-19 Curbs

File Photo: ANGELOS TZORTZINIS / AFP

 

The number of asylum applications lodged in the EU plummeted by a third last year because of border restrictions thrown up by the coronavirus pandemic, the bloc’s asylum assistance agency said on Tuesday.

However, the European Asylum Support Office pointed out in its annual report that this in no way meant that demand for asylum in Europe has dropped.

“We know that globally there are still record numbers of persons in need of international protection, but they were simply not able to make it to Europe,” the office’s head Nina Gregori said as she presented the report.

The report’s figures confirmed initial data released by the office in February, indicating the lowest level of asylum applications in the EU and associated countries since 2013.

Last year saw 485,000 applications received, 32 percent less than the 716,000 made in 2019.

Of those, 42 percent were given some form of international protection allowing the applicant to stay. Half of the approved cases were given refugee status, while the remainder were awarded humanitarian or subsidiary protection.

– Resettlement ‘standstill’ –

Germany, France and Spain were the countries fielding most of the asylum applications.

Some eastern EU countries registered upticks in asylum applications through 2020 — but Hungary, which has taken a fiercely anti-immigrant stance in the bloc, stood out with applications it received diving by three-quarters.

Migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Colombia, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, Nigeria and Somalia were the biggest groups of applicants.

While Covid crimped the ability of would-be asylum-seekers to get to Europe, it also brought the EU’s common asylum system to “near standstill”, the report said.

Resettlements to Europe via legal channels was reduced by more than half, while efforts to return failed asylum applicants to the origin countries foundered on travel restrictions and closed borders.

The European Commission is working to get a new pact on migration off the ground, and on Tuesday it struck a provisional agreement with the European Parliament on draft legislation to turn the support office into a full-fledged EU Asylum Agency.

“The new agency … will help make asylum procedures in the member states of higher quality, more uniform and faster,” a commission spokesman said.

The agency would have 500 asylum experts ready to be deployed to member states to bolster processing of applications.

Its establishment comes in the wake of a beefed-up EU border agency, Frontex, which is the bloc’s first uniformed service.

AFP

120 Ethiopia Ex-Peacekeepers Seek Asylum In Sudan, Says UN

In this file photo, The United Nations flag is seen during the Climate Action Summit 2019 at the United Nations General Assembly Hall on September 23, 2019, in New York City. Ludovic MARIN / AFP.

 

Around 120 former peacekeepers from Ethiopia, where several regions including northern Tigray are hit by inter-ethnic conflict, have sought asylum in Sudan, the United Nations said Sunday.

The personnel were due to be repatriated on the back of the phased withdrawal of the UN peacekeeping mission, UNAMID, from western Sudan’s Darfur region after its mandate ended on December 31.

“As of now, 120 former UNAMID peacekeepers who were due to be repatriated have sought international protection,” a UN peacekeeping spokesperson told AFP via email.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, also confirmed the former peacekeepers have applied for asylum in Sudan.

They “will be taken to a location where they can be safely undertaken for their refugee status to be determined,” it said without elaborating, due to “protection purposes”.

It was not immediately clear whether all the former peacekeepers seeking asylum originated from Ethiopia’s Tigray region.

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The Tigray conflict broke out last November between Ethiopia’s federal forces and leaders of the region’s ruling party, leaving thousands killed.

The fighting sent some 60,000 refugees fleeing into neighbouring Sudan, a nation struggling with economic woes and a rocky transition since the April 2019 ouster of strongman Omar al-Bashir.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, is also grappling with ethnic violence in other regions including Amhara, Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz.

UNAMID, deployed in Darfur since 2007, in January began a phased withdrawal of its about 8,000 armed and civilian personnel, to be completed within six months.

Darfur was the scene of a bitter conflict between ethnic African minority rebels, complaining of marginalisation, against Bashir’s Arab-dominated government in Khartoum.

The fighting killed some 300,000 people and displaced 2.5 million, according to the UN.

AFP

An Extinct Tree-Climbing Kangaroo In A ‘Treeless Plain’

 

This handout image released by Murdoch University on March 23, 2021, shows preservation of hands and feet of the newly identified fossil tree-climbing kangaroo (Congruus kitcheneri) from the Nullarbor Plain of Western Australia. (Photo by Natalie Warburton / MURDOCH UNIVERSITY / AFP)

 

The most remarkable thing about the nearly perfect fossils was not that they belonged to 40-kilo kangaroos that mysteriously evolved to climb trees, though that was remarkable enough.

What really startled paleontologists is that southwestern Australia’s Nullarbor Plain, site of the discovery, is a treeless shrubland and was thought to be that way even when the newly named Congruus kitcheneri hopped — and, apparently, climbed — across its reaches some 50,000 years ago.

The Latin-derived name says it all: “Null” for “none”, and “arbor” for “tree”.

The barren, slug-shaped region — 1,100 kilometres (700 miles) from head to tail — is even bookended by road signs that say, in all capital letters, “END OF TREELESS PLAIN”.

“I remember looking at the bones on the hands and the feet with their big, curved claws and saying to my colleague, ‘You’re probably not going to believe me, but I think it was climbing trees!'” recalled Natalie Warburton, a researcher at the Centre for Climate-impacted Terrestrial Ecosystems at Murdoch University in Perth.

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The “hugely unexpected” tree-climbing behaviour, detailed Wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science, is certainly significant, she told AFP.

With the exception of distant cousins in the tropical canopy of New Guinea, the 60-odd living species of kangaroos, wallabies and other marsupials in the family macropodidae — all descendents of tree-dwelling, possum-like ancestors — have long since evolved to make their way on terra firma.

– ‘Completely incongruous’ –

But the find, Warburton added, “also tells us that the habitat and environment in the area over the last 50,000 to 100,000 years were really different to what they are now, and perhaps different to what we might have previously interpreted for that time based on geological and botanical evidence”.

The fossils, in sum, are “completely incongruous” with expected behaviour and ecology.

Strictly speaking, Warburton and her colleague Gavin Prideaux, a paleontologist at Flinders University in Adelaide, were not the first fossil hunters to unearth this oddball roo.

But the earlier specimen of the same species has been incorrectly slotted into a taxonomic bracket based on a few partial teeth and the fragment of an upper jaw.

With two full skeletons to work with — one male, one female — Warburton and Prideaux were able to reclassify what had been Wallabia kitcheneri as Congruus kitcheneri, a sub-genus up to now occupied by a single species, also extinct.

Exactly what pushed these big-boned creatures to evolve arboreal skills is unknown.

“Tree climbing would have required a lot of energy and big muscles to hoist itself up,” Warburton said.

– Menagerie of megafauna –

“There must have been some pretty good food resources in the trees to make that worth doing.”

The fossils turned up in the Thylacoleo Caves, named after lion-like marsupial carnivores that lorded over the region for nearly two million years until going extinct at about the same time as the tree-climbing kangaroo.

Exactly why the menagerie of megafauna that populated Australia’s sun-scorched landscape — including giant wombats, one-tonne marsupials and croc-sized lizards — almost all died out at about the same time is a subject of hot debate.

For a long time a dramatic change in climate was thought to be the main culprit, but more recent research tracking the movement of early humans across the continent suggests they are to blame.

The Nullarbor Plain — historically occupied by Indigenous Australian peoples — has a desert-like climate, daytime temperatures in summer close to 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit), and winter nights that can drop well below freezing.

Current mammals include the southern hairy-nosed wombat, which shelters from the hot sun by burrowing into the sands, as well as red kangaroos and dingoes.

AFP

Trump’s Move To Stop Migrants From Claiming Asylum Blocked

Trump's Move To Stop Migrants From Claiming Asylum Blocked

 

A judge on Friday blocked a move by US President Donald Trump’s administration to stop migrants from claiming asylum unless they had entered the country at an official border crossing, news outlets reported.

The policy, enacted by Trump last year, is among a host of measures his government has taken against the movement of hundreds of thousands of migrants from Central America and elsewhere who have recently tried to cross into the US from Mexico and request asylum.

Federal judge Randolph Moss, sitting in Washington, ruled that the policy was “in excess of statutory… authority,” ABC News reported.

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Moss said it contradicts standing US immigration law, which allows undocumented people who are physically present in the country to apply for asylum even if they did not enter at an official port of entry, The Hill newspaper said.

The policy had earlier been blocked by a judge in San Francisco, a ruling the government is appealing.

Trump’s immigration policy has been the subject of numerous court challenges.

Last week, a federal judge in California issued a preliminary injunction blocking the administration’s new rule barring most immigrants from obtaining asylum in the US if they transit through Mexico.

That policy would have effectively prevented most Central American asylum seekers from gaining entry into the United States at the southern border, as the majority come through Mexico.

Day later, Guatemala signed an agreement with the US that, according to Washington, makes it a “safe third country,” meaning migrants who want to seek asylum in the United States but travel through Guatemala must request asylum in the Central American country.

The number of border-crossers detained by the US Border Patrol surged to a 13-year high of more than 144,000 in May before easing to 104,000 in June — still up 142 percent from a year earlier.

Most are families from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Saudi Asylum Seeker In Thailand Pulls Twitter Account Over ‘Threats’

This screen grab from a video released to AFPTV via the Twitter account of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun on January 7, 2019 shows a still of Qunun speaking in Bangkok on January 7. 
Handout / Courtesy of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun / AFP

 

The 18-year-old Saudi asylum seeker who fled her family to Thailand and harnessed the power of Twitter to stave off deportation on Friday abruptly suspended her account, with friends saying she had received death threats.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun’s attempt to flee the ultra-conservative kingdom has been embraced by rights groups as a beacon of defiance against repression.

Thai authorities initially threatened to deport her after she arrived in Bangkok from Kuwait last weekend.

But armed with a smartphone and a hastily opened Twitter account, she forced a U-turn from Thai immigration police who handed her into the care of the UN’s refugee agency as the #SaveRahaf hashtag case bounced across the world.

Qunun alleges abuse by her family — who deny the allegations — and rights groups also said she had renounced Islam, risking prosecution in conservative Saudi Arabia.

On Friday afternoon she posted a final cryptic tweet on her profile saying “I have some good news and some bad news” — shortly after her account was deactivated.

“Rahaf received death threats and for this reason, she closed her Twitter account, please save Rahaf life,” tweeted supporter @nourahfa313, who has flanked Rahaf’s social media campaign with her own updates on Twitter.

“I understand that there have been death threats against her but I don’t know the details,” said Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch, adding even threats from online trolls need to be taken seriously.

Rahaf’s swift use of Twitter saw her amass more than 100,000 followers within a week, highlighting her plight and allowing her to avoid the fate of countless other refugees who are quietly sent back home or languish in Bangkok detention centres.

Though her asylum case has moved at lightning speed the mystery over which country will accept Rahaf remains.

Australia has dropped the strongest hints so far after the UN urged the country to accept her but its foreign minister said this week that it was still assessing the request.

Thailand’s immigration chief Surachate Hakparn told reporters Friday that as far as he knows there are “two or three” countries who could offer asylum.

The Southeast Asian country is not a signatory to a convention on refugees and asylum seekers must be referred to a third country.

Until that happens she is under the care of UNHCR in Bangkok.

She has refused to see her father who travelled to Thailand and expressed opposition to her resettlement.

AFP

Cameroun’s Deportation Of Nigerian Refugees Worrisome – Dabiri-Erewa

The Senior Special Assistant to the President on Foreign Affairs and Diaspora, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, has described the alleged forceful deportation of over 100,000 Nigerian asylum seekers by Cameroonian military as worrisome and disturbing.

Dabiri-Erewa in a statement on Friday decried the inhuman treatment meted out to Nigerian asylum seekers who were affected by the Boko Haram insurgency in the North East.

She said despite the friendly disposition between the two countries, the alleged deportation of Nigerians was disturbing and calls for concern.

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The Presidential aide said Cameroon should heed the UN’s call on all countries to protect refugees fleeing the carnage in the North-East Nigeria and not to return them there.

“This unfriendly attitude of the Cameroonian soldiers to Nigerian asylum seekers is really worrisome,’’ Dabiri-Erewa said as she appealed to ECOWAS and other West African regional groups to prevail on Cameroon to be their brothers’ keeper in a situation like this.

The deportations, according to Human Rights Watch, defy the UN refugee agency’s plea not to return anyone to North-East Nigeria until the security and human rights situation has improved considerably.