Afghan girls robotics team arrives in US just in time

Afghan girls robotics team arrives in US just in time
Afghan teenagers from the Afghanistan Robotic House taking pictures with a mobile phones at Herat International Airport, before embarking for the United States. A team of Afghan girls who were earlier denied visas to attend a Washington robotics competition landed in the United States early Saturday following an intervention by US President Donald Trump on Saturday. (AFP)
Updated 15 July 2017

Afghan girls robotics team arrives in US just in time

Afghan girls robotics team arrives in US just in time

WASHINGTON: Twice rejected for US visas, an all-girls robotics team from Afghanistan arrived in Washington early Saturday after an extraordinary, last-minute intervention by US President Donald Trump.
The six-girl team and their chaperone completed their journey just after midnight from their hometown of Herat, Afghanistan, to enter their ball-sorting robot in the 3-day high school competition starting Sunday in the US capital. Awaiting them at the gate at Washington Dulles International Airport were a US special envoy and Afghan Ambassador Hamdullah Mohib, who described it as a rare moment of celebration for his beleaguered nation.
“Seventeen years ago, this would not have been possible at all,” Mohib said in an interview. “They represent our aspirations and resilience despite having been brought up in a perpetual conflict. These girls will be proving to the world and the nation that nothing will prevent us from being an equal and active member of the international community.”
In the short time since their visa dilemma drew global attention, the girls’ case has become a flashpoint in the debate about Trump’s efforts to tighten entrance to the US, including from many majority-Muslim countries. Afghanistan is not included in Trump’s temporary travel ban, but critics have said the ban is emblematic of a broader effort to put a chill on Muslims entering the US
The girls’ story has also renewed the focus on the longer-term US plans for aiding Afghanistan’s future, as Trump’s administration prepares a new military strategy that will include sending more troops to the country where the US has been fighting since 2001. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday the strategy was moving forward but “not finalized yet.”
Trump’s personal intervention earlier in the week using a rare “parole” mechanism to sidestep the visa system ended a dramatic saga in which the team twice traveled from their home in western Afghanistan through largely Taliban-controlled territory to Kabul, where their visa applications were denied twice.
The US would not say why the girls were rejected for visas, citing confidentiality. But Mohib said that based on discussions with US officials, it appears the girls were rebuffed due to concerns they would not return to Afghanistan. It is a fate that has beset many Afghans seeking entry to the US in recent years as continuing violence and economic challenges lead many to seek asylum in America, or to travel through the US to Canada to try to resettle there.
As their case gained attention, Trump intervened by asking National Security Council officials to find a way for them to travel, officials said. Ultimately the State Department, which adjudicates visa applications, asked the Homeland Security Department to let them in on “parole,” a temporary status used only in exceptional circumstances to let in someone who is otherwise ineligible to enter the country. The US granted parole after determining that it constituted a “significant public benefit.”
Ambassador Alice Wells, the acting US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, downplayed concerns that the girls might use the parole to stay in the US or go to Canada. As she drove to the airport to greet the girls, she said by phone that they were proud to represent Afghanistan and “proud to return to be role models to others around them.”
Competing against entrants from more than 150 countries, the girls will present a robot they devised that can recognize blue and orange and sort balls into correct locations. They will also be feted at a hastily arranged reception at the Embassy of Afghanistan attended by supporters who had petitioned the US to let them in.
The Taliban, ousted by the US-led coalition in 2001, denied schooling to girls when they ruled the war-torn country. Wells said that since 2002, the number of Afghan children attending school has increased from about 900,000 — virtually all boys — to 9 million today including 40 percent girls.
“We’re looking to ensure that Afghanistan continues its trajectory to stabilizing politically and economically,” Wells said. “It’s young women like these that are going to be the future of Afghanistan.”


Britain tightens borders to keep out new COVID-19 variants

Britain tightens borders to keep out new COVID-19 variants
Updated 15 January 2021

Britain tightens borders to keep out new COVID-19 variants

Britain tightens borders to keep out new COVID-19 variants
  • Johnson is grappling to control a third wave of the virus and prevent the health service from collapse
  • The rule changes come into force at 0400 GMT on Monday

LONDON: Britain is tightening border controls to block new variants of COVID-19, suspending all “travel corridor” arrangements that had meant arrivals from some countries did not require quarantine.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is grappling to control a third wave of the virus and prevent the health service from collapse while also racing to vaccinate millions each week.
“What we don’t want to see is all that hard work undone by the arrival of a new variant that is vaccine-busting,” he told a news conference, explaining the end of travel corridors at least until Feb. 15.
The rule changes come into force at 0400 GMT on Monday and mean all passengers must have a recent negative coronavirus test and transfer immediately into isolation upon arrival.
Isolation lasts for 10 days, unless the passenger tests negative after five.
On Thursday, Britain banned arrivals from South America, Portugal and some other countries over fears about a variant detected in Brazil.
Britain’s current lockdowns ban most international travel meaning that airline schedules are currently minimal, but the withdrawal of any quarantine-free travel will be a further blow for an industry already on its knees.
UK-based airline easyJet said there was no immediate impact from Johnson’s announcement, but in a statement added: “We need to ensure that travel corridors are put back in place when it is safe to do so.”
Britain has already felt the effects of mutations in the virus, after a variant first discovered in England has proved to be more transmissible.
Critics say the government has been too slow to act and previously left borders wide open.
Much of the criticism prior to Friday’s announcement has focused on whether rules requiring arriving passengers to quarantine are actually being enforced, with anecdotal evidence that few checks are made.
“We will be stepping up our enforcement, both at the border and in country,” Johnson said.