Archive for April, 2016

Britain to admit 3,000 Syrian child refugees from camps

April 22, 2016

The British government announced yesterday its intention to take in 3,000 Syrian refugees, all of them minors, who are currently in refugee camps in countries neighboring Syria.

“Taking in this number of children is considered to be the largest initiative of its kind in the world,” said Immigration Minister James Brokenshire in a press release. He explained that the process is being carried out in coordination with the UNHCR. The minister stressed that Britain is committed to providing a save haven for thousands of orphan children and those prone to danger due to their situation in the camps.

He added that the British government has always been clear that the vast majority of vulnerable children are better off remaining in host countries in the region so that they can be reunited with surviving family members. “However, there are exceptional circumstances in which it is in a child’s best interests to be resettled in the UK.”

In this context, he announced that Britain is to send 75 officials to Greece to help with the processing and administration in detention centers and deal with the cases of the refugees who will be sent back to Turkey in line with the latest EU agreement with Ankara.

The agreement is to send back refugees in exchange for resettling those who came to Turkey legally. The fact that Britain will hold a referendum in June over its membership of the EU is considered to be one of the main motives behind increasing the number of migrants to be allowed into the UK.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160422-britain-to-admit-3000-syrian-child-refugees-from-camps/.

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Russia asks UN to blacklist 2 powerful Syrian rebel groups

April 28, 2016

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Russia said Wednesday it has asked the U.N. Security Council to blacklist two powerful Syrian rebel groups that it considers “terrorist organizations,” one which is playing a key role in political negotiations aimed at ending the five-year conflict.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters the two hardline Islamic groups — Jaish al-Islam, or the Army of Islam, and Ahrar al-Sham — aren’t observing the cessation of hostilities in Syria “and are engaged in terrorist activities” and therefore should be subject to sanctions.

Mohammed Alloush, a leading figure in Jaish al-Islam, which is backed by Saudi Arabia, heads the High Negotiating Committee, the main opposition umbrella group, at the Geneva peace talks which are largely stalled. The High Negotiating Committee postponed its participation in the talks, which wrapped up their latest round on Wednesday, citing an escalation in fighting and insufficient aid deliveries to besieged areas.

The Syrian government, which Russia backs, also considers the two groups “terrorist” organizations and opposed their representation in the Geneva talks. Churkin said Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham “are not participating in negotiations and they’re not participating in the cessation of hostilities so it’s time to call a spade a spade.”

But Russia’s attempt to get the Security Council committee monitoring sanctions against al-Qaida and the Islamic State extremist group to add the two Syrian rebel groups to the blacklist is facing an uphill struggle.

New Zealand’s U.N. Ambassador Gerard van Bohemen said Russia’s attempt to sanction the two groups was raised during closed-door council consultations on Syria following a briefing by U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura and sparked “controversy” IN THE ROOM.

Van Bohemen said he told the council that there are a lot of bad people in Syria, but not every one of them is “a terrorist.”

Syrian family aims to cycle 1,100 km to Ankara to thank Erdoğan ‘for embracing refugees’

14-4-2016 Thursday

A Syrian family aims to cycle to the Turkish capital Ankara to “thank President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for embracing Syrian refugees”.

30-year-old Mulhem al-Said, his wife Mey Besrini, 20, their toddler Hamza and six-month-old baby Huzeyfe started pedaling from Midyat district in Turkey’s southeastern Mardin province and have arrived in southeastern Şanlıurfa province.

The family fled the five-year civil war and settled in Midyat in 2013.

The distance between Midyat and Ankara is 1,100 kilometers (683 miles).

Thursday’s destination was Sanliurfa and the family met officials of a religious school in Viransehir district and took thank-you letters penned by Syrian students there.

Working as a teacher in Mardin, Said said they set out to convey their wishes to Erdoğan and continued: “No country [helped] Syrians other than Turkey; we set out to show our appreciation, visiting districts and provinces and are taking demands and thanking letters from teachers and students there.”

Source: Daily Sabah.

Link: http://www.dailysabah.com/syrian-crisis/2016/04/14/syrian-family-aims-to-cycle-1100-km-to-ankara-to-thank-erdogan-for-embracing-refugees.

Pope brings 12 Syrian refugees to Italy in lesson for Europe

April 16, 2016

MORIA, Greece (AP) — In an extraordinary gesture both political and personal, Pope Francis brought 12 Syrian Muslims to Italy aboard his plane Saturday after an emotional visit to the Greek island of Lesbos, which has faced the brunt of Europe’s migration crisis.

Refugees on the overwhelmed island fell to their knees and wept at his presence. Some 3,000 migrants on Lesbos are facing possible deportation back to Turkey under a new deal with the European Union, and the uncertainty has caused heavy strains.

Francis decided only a week ago to bring the three refugee families to Italy after a Vatican official suggested it. He said he accepted the proposal “immediately” since it fit the spirit of his visit to Lesbos.

“It’s a drop of water in the sea. But after this drop, the sea will never be the same,” he said of his gesture, quoting one of Mother Teresa’s phrases. During the five-hour trip, Francis implored European nations to respond to the migrant crisis on its shores “in a way that is worthy of our common humanity.” The Greek island just a few miles from the Turkish coast has seen hundreds of thousands of desperate people land on its beaches and rocks in the last year, fleeing war and poverty at home.

The pope visited Lesbos alongside the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians and the head of the Church of Greece. They came to give a united Christian message thanking the Greek people for welcoming migrants and highlighting the plight of refugees as the 28-nation EU implements a plan to deport them back to Turkey.

Francis insisted his gesture to bring the 12 refugees to Italy was “purely humanitarian,” not political. But in comments on the flight home, he urged Europe to not only welcome refugees but better integrate them into society, so they are not left in ghettos where they can become prey to radicalization.

Many refugees wept at Francis’ feet as he and the two Orthodox leaders approached them at the Moria refugee detention center on Lesbos, where they greeted 250 people individually. Others chanted “Freedom! Freedom!” as they passed by.

Francis bent down as one young girl knelt at his feet, sobbing uncontrollably. The pope also blessed a man who wailed “Thank you! Please Father, bless me!” The Vatican said the three Syrian families, which including six children, who came to Rome will be supported by the Holy See and cared for initially by Italy’s Catholic Sant’Egidio Community. They were treated to a raucous welcome Saturday night in Rome, with drummers thumping, a crowd applauding and the three mothers receiving a single red rose.

“I thank you for what you have done,” Nour, a mother of a 2-year-old, said of the pope. “I hope this gesture has an effect on refugee policy.” Nour and her husband, Hasan, are both engineers who lived in Zabatani, a mountainous area near the Lebanese border that has been bombed. Another family with two children hailed from Damascus and a third family with three children came from Deir el-Zour, a city close to the Iraqi border that the Islamic State group has been besieging for months, leading to malnutrition.

Two of the three had their homes bombed, said Sant’Egidio’s refugee chief, Daniela Pompei. She said the three families had been given Italian humanitarian visas and would now apply for asylum. Francis said they were selected not because they were Muslim, but because their papers were in order. They had arrived on Lesbos before the EU deportation date.

“It’s a small gesture,” he said. “But these are the small gestures that all men and women must do to give a hand to those in need.” In perhaps a first, a baby’s cry could be heard aboard the papal plane as Francis spoke. The 12 refugees sat right behind the papal delegation on the aircraft, and Francis greeted each one on the tarmac in Lesbos, again on the tarmac in Rome, and during the flight, said Pompei.

Francis seemed particularly shaken by the trauma the children he met at the detention center suffered as a result of their experiences. He showed reporters a picture one Afghan child gave him of a sun weeping over a sea where boats carrying refugees had sunk.

“If the sun is able to weep, so can we,” Francis said. “A tear would do us good.” Hundreds of migrants have drowned so far this year in the waters between Greece and Turkey. At a ceremony in Lesbos to thank the Greek people, Francis said he understood Europe’s concern about the migrant influx. But he said migrants are human beings “who have faces, names and individual stories” and deserve to have their most basic human rights respected.

“God will repay this generosity,” he promised. In his remarks to refugees, Francis said they should know that they are not alone and shouldn’t lose hope. Human rights groups have denounced the EU-Turkey deportation deal as an abdication of Europe’s obligation to grant protection to asylum-seekers.

The March 18 deal stipulates that anyone arriving clandestinely on Greek islands since March 20 will be returned to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece. For every Syrian sent back, the EU will take another Syrian directly from Turkey for resettlement in Europe. In return, Turkey was granted billions of euros to deal with the more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees living there and promised that its stalled accession talks with the EU would speed up.

During the visit, Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and the archbishop of Athens, Ieronymos II, signed a joint declaration urging the world to make the protection of human lives a priority and to extend temporary asylum to those in need. It also called on political leaders to ensure that everyone can remain in their homelands and enjoy the “right to live in peace and security.”

“The world will be judged by the way it has treated you,” Bartholomew told the refugees. “And we will all be accountable for the way we respond.” Francis and the two Orthodox leaders, officially divided from Catholics over a 1,000-year schism, lunched with eight of the refugees to hear their stories. They then went to the island’s main port to pray together and toss floral wreaths into the sea in memory of those who didn’t survive the journey.

Earlier, Francis met Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at the airport and thanked him for the generosity shown by his people despite their own economic troubles. Tsipras said he was proud of Greece’s response when other European nations “were erecting walls and fences to prevent defenseless people from seeking a better life.”

Hours before the pope arrived, the European border patrol agency Frontex intercepted a dinghy carrying 41 Syrians and Iraqis off the coast of Lesbos. The refugees were detained. The son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, Francis has made the plight of refugees, the poor and downtrodden the focus of his ministry as pope.

Winfield reported from Rome and Becatoros from Athens.

Plucked from the uncertainty of Lesbos: 12 Syrian refugees

April 16, 2016

ROME (AP) — Pope Francis says his gesture is “a drop of water in the sea” of Europe’s migration crisis. Yet for 12 Syrian refugees, the pope’s decision to fly them back to Italy from Greece is an act of kindness that will resonate for the rest of their lives.

“Thanks be to God,” exulted Wafa, mother of two children who made the trip with her husband Osama as she arrived in Rome. “I thank the pope for this very human gesture.” The three Muslim families, including six children, had all fled their homes amid the devastation of Syria’s civil war. They were plucked from a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, where they have been stranded for weeks. They were chosen because they had their documents in order, not to make a political point to Europe about the need to better integrate Muslims, the pope said.

“Their privilege is that they are children of God,” Francis told reporters en route home to Italy after an emotional trip to Lesbos on Saturday. The Roman Catholic charity Sant’Egidio, which is providing the refugees with preliminary assistance, welcomed them at their headquarters in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood late Saturday. The mothers were given red roses, and they were applauded as they arrived.

Sant’Egidio released some details about the refugees but didn’t give any of their last names due to privacy concerns. Hasan and Nour, both engineers, and their 2-year-old son fled their home in Zabadani, a mountainous area on the outskirts of the Syrian capital of Damascus that has been heavily bombed. They headed to Turkey and took a boat across the Aegean Sea to Lesbos, like hundreds of thousands before them, hoping to reach Europe. But Austria and several Balkan nations shut their borders to refugees in early March, stranding more than 50,000 people in Greece.

Ramy and Suhila, a couple in their 50s, came from Deir el-Zour, a Syrian city close to the Iraqi border which has been devastated in street-by-street fighting between Islamic State militants and government troops. They arrived in Greece with their three children in February via Turkey. Ramy is a teacher, Suhila a tailor, Sant’Egidio said.

The third family, Osama and Wafa, hail from the Damascus suburb of Zamalka. Their youngest still wakes each night — and even stopped speaking for a time — apparently due to the trauma of the war and the journey to Europe.

They were selected after being identified as vulnerable and deserving of humanitarian protection, and after being interviewed about their hopes for settlement in Europe, said Daniela Pompei, the Sant’Egidio official who helped facilitate the project. She said all 12 had been registered as asylum-seekers in Greece but will now actually make their requests in Italy.

They had all arrived in Lesbos in the past two months, meaning they had lived through the brunt of Syria’s civil war, she said. “They resisted for five years,” she said. Francis said his decision to bring the refugees to Italy was a “purely humanitarian” gesture and not a political act.

Many human rights groups have criticized the European Union’s new policy of deporting some migrants back to Turkey. The Vatican made sure that all 12 it selected Saturday had arrived on Lesbos before a March 20 deadline, and were not subject to any possible deportation to Turkey.

Speaking on the flight home with the refugees sitting behind him, Francis said the idea of bringing some refugees back came to him only a week ago from a Vatican official. He said he accepted it “immediately” because it was in keeping with the message of humanity that he wanted to send with his trip to Lesbos.

Francis said the Vatican would take full responsibility for the 12 Syrians. He said two Christian families had been on the original list, but they didn’t have their documents in order. Hundreds of migrants have died in the Aegean Sea this year as the flimsy dinghies supplied by smuggling gangs sink or capsize.

The pope cited Mother Teresa in responding to a question about whether his gesture of bringing 12 refugees to Italy would change the debate about Europe’s migrant crisis. “It’s a drop of water in the sea. But after this drop, the sea will never be the same,” he said.

Heartbreak as Syrians briefly return home to IS-free Palmyra

April 15, 2016

PALMYRA, Syria (AP) — When Islamic State fighters overran the ancient Syrian town of Palmyra almost a year ago, Maha Abderrazak was among tens of thousands of terrified civilians who fled west, many escaping with just the clothes on their backs and the few belongings they could carry by hand.

This week, the 22-year-old is among the few hundred town residents trickling back to Palmyra — now free of IS extremists — to check on their homes. They came to salvage what they can — some carpets, blankets, a fridge or a few family mementos. There is no water or electricity in the town, and it will be at least few months before anyone can return to stay.

The emotional scenes of people hurriedly carting away belongings highlights Palmyra’s present-day human tragedy that has been largely sidelined by the magnitude of the destruction inflicted by IS militants on the world famous Roman-era ruins that stand just outside the town.

Much of the ancient Palmyra, a UNESCO world heritage site that includes 2,000-year-old ruins, was destroyed by Islamic State militants who blew up some of its most famous monuments, filming the destruction for the world to see. The destruction of the Arch de Triumph, temples of Baalshamin and parts of the Temple of Bel, one of the best-preserved Roman-era sites, captured world attention and triggered an outpouring of international concern.

“I understand it, the ruins are stunning,” said Abderrazak, with a timid smile. But some of her neighbors were less forgiving, saying their suffering has been ignored by a world fixated on ruins and stones.

Palmyra, a desert oasis surrounded by palm trees, was retaken by Syrian government troops backed by allied militiamen and Russian airstrikes in late March. The offensive routed IS militants who had controlled the town for 10 months, imposing their strict interpretation of Islamic law or Sharia and carrying out public beheadings, including that of the antiquities chief whose body they hung from a pole in a main square.

As they retreated, IS militants left behind thousands of land mines, both in the town and inside the archaeological site. Access to the ruins is currently barred as a Russian military team continues to clear the site of mines. Regular detonations can be heard around the town as they work. Near the entrance to the ruins and the Palmyra museum, the streets are plundered with large holes created by controlled IED explosions. On Thursday, experts were documenting the damage inside the Palmyra museum, taking some of the pieces away in trucks for safekeeping, before they can be restored.

The scene on the town’s Wadi Street was very different. Residents who came in cars and government buses from the central city of Homs, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) away, had only few hours to check on their homes and quickly assess what they could take away with them. They hurriedly ferried out teapots, cups, electric fans and photo albums, placing them on the pavement next to suitcases of all sizes, to be loaded onto the buses.

Baby prams and bicycles — used by residents to help carry belongings to the buses — were left on the street, discarded amid debris and glass shards from shop windows that had been blown up, presumably by blast waves from airstrikes and bombs.

The scene has become all too familiar in Syria’s civil war, now in its sixth year: people coming back home from wherever they were temporarily displaced, only to find their neighborhood an uninhabitable wasteland and their homes in ruins.

Hassan Ali said up to 100,000 people lived in the town before the war. When IS arrived, the people of Palmyra just “melted into the earth,” he told The Associated Press. Most fled with just their clothes on, he said, sitting with his wife Asmaa, waiting for the bus to take them back to Homs where they now rent an apartment.

“We have no furniture in Homs, we came to take a few things until we can come back,” he said. His wife said she took photos of their 8-year-old daughter when she was a baby. For Nasser Ahmad, 40, it was the second time this week to comeback to Palmyra. He came with his wife and two children, Ghazal and Hatem, aged 4 and 2 years. Their apartment in a four-story building is largely intact, and he’s been taking out belongings in batches, including a gas oven to use in Homs. Renting a place in Homs costs about 20,000 Syrian pounds (around $40 dollars), which is exactly what he makes as an agriculture employee, he said.

He also wants to show his children their home as often as possible, so they don’t forget it. Ghazal, his daughter, sat on his lap, barefooted and clutching a coin container or “matmoura” — the Syrian equivalent to a piggy bank — she had salvaged from her room. The family watched the bright pink and green buses get ready to leave, mattresses, pillows and carpets piled high on top.

Soad Daher, 63, said she was grateful for the Russians for helping the Syrian army regain Palmyra. “They killed a lot of innocent people,” she said of the IS. “They beheaded soldiers and everyone they accused of being with the regime.”

She also recounted how some townspeople hid Syrian soldiers in their homes, sometimes giving them women’s all-encompassing flowing robes known as abayas, even bras, to wear. Abderrazak, 22, told how in the first days after Palmyra fell to IS, she and her older sister were twice turned back by the militants at a checkpoint because they didn’t have a male chaperone and were not covered. On the third try, they were allowed to leave only because their uncle came with them and only after they paid the IS guards money.

Overwhelmed by tears, she said it’s an “indescribable feeling” to see her family home still standing. From her neighborhood, Palmyra’s majestic hilltop citadel is clearly visible. It has been heavily damaged by the fighting, with one side partially collapsed and showing signs of mortar or dynamite explosion.

“Palmyra was a paradise, truly,” she said, choking on the last word.

Associated Press Writer Albert Aji in Palmyra, Syria, contributed to this report.

Jordan axes plans to install cameras at Al-Aqsa

April 19, 2016

Jordan has called off a project to install surveillance cameras at Al-Aqsa Mosque because the matter is in “dispute”, the country’s prime minister announced yesterday.

In a statement to the official Petra news agency, Abdullah Ensour said the cameras were to be used to monitor and document the repeated Israeli violations of the Muslim holy site.

He added that “the goal of having these cameras was to gain legal, political and media wins in the face of repeated attacks on the sanctity of the holy sites that were denied by Israelis because of the lack of documentation. Moreover, the greatest benefit of this project would have been increasing the ties of Muslims in all parts of the world to the holy places, and increasing their sympathy and support.”

Israel had initially tried to block the project, “but we managed to overcome”, he explained.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160419-jordan-axes-plans-to-install-cameras-at-al-aqsa/.