Italy greets first refugees since border lockdown

Pope Francis greets migrants and refugees at Moria Refugee Camp, near Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos, April 16, 2016. (AFP)
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Updated 17 July 2020

Italy greets first refugees since border lockdown

  • Ten refugees — members of four families — traveled via a humanitarian corridor organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio
  • The refugees, originally from Afghanistan and Syria, arrived from the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos

ROME: Italy has welcomed the first group of refugees to arrive in the country since its borders were closed due to the pandemic.

Ten refugees — members of four families — traveled via a humanitarian corridor organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio, a lay Catholic group dedicated to social service, together with Greek and Italian authorities. 

The refugees, originally from Afghanistan and Syria, arrived from the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, a site originally intended to hold 3,000 refugees but now with more than 19,000 people.

“Moria is known as the hell of Europe,” Razieh Gholami, one of the refugees, told journalists after arriving in Rome four months after Italy closed its borders to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

“The refugees staying in Moria live in difficult, frightening conditions where fundamental rights are ignored and they have no way of returning or moving forward,” she said. “Such a difficult situation has become even harder with the pandemic. People are just stuck there.”

Andrea Riccardi, founder of Sant’Egidio, told Arab News: “The reception of these 10 refugees today is a stimulus. In times of confinement, other EU countries should not forget these forgotten people, who are at the gates of Europe. Lesbos is their symbol.”

The Rome-based charity will help the refugees integrate into Italian society with language programs, as it has done with 57 other exiles who have come to Italy via the same path. The first group arrived in April 2016, traveling on the same plane as Pope Francis when he returned to Rome from a visit to the Lesbos refugee camp.

The humanitarian corridors project offers people who flee from conflict in their countries legal and safe ways to reach Europe. It aims to stop refugees risking their lives at the hands of human traffickers and dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean Sea.

According to figures from the Community of Sant’Egidio, more than 3,000 refugees have arrived in Europe from the Middle East and Africa under the scheme. The NGO claims that all have been relocated and now live normal lives in several Italian cities, mainly in the center and south of the country.

“I have been in a refugee camp in Greece for two years. The situation for those living in Greece is not good,” said Gholami, who arrived in Italy with her children, Eshan Khavari, 4, and Sajad Khavari, 10, and husband Mohammad Khavari.

Gholami, who has been recognized for her artworks inside the refugee camp, presented the Sant’Egidio community with a painting showing Christ sending an angel from heaven to fly to the refugee camp.

“I dedicate this painting to those angels of the Sant’Egidio community who help the desperate like me,” she said.

Some previously relocated refugees in Italy welcomed the new arrivals with a volunteer-made lunch at Sant’Egidio’s headquarters in Trastevere in central Rome.

Among them was Syrian Majid Alshakarji, 19, who escaped the civil war in 2016.  He and his family fled from Aleppo to Tunisia, but then returned to Syria and left for Turkey before finally going to Greece.

Alshakarji’s family was one of the three Syrian refugee families who came to Rome with Pope Francis. He has now lived in the capital for four years and is studying to become a dentist.

“We have been allowed to have a new life in a new country — it is a beautiful experience,” he said.

Russia, China, Iran trying to meddle in US 2020 election, warn Intel officials

Updated 9 min 19 sec ago

Russia, China, Iran trying to meddle in US 2020 election, warn Intel officials

  • Russia accused of acting against Biden, while China opposes Trump
  • Trump claims Iran is also helping ensure he does not win a second term

WASHINGTON: US intelligence officials believe that Russia is using a variety of measures to denigrate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden ahead of the November election and that individuals linked to the Kremlin are boosting President Donald Trump’s reelection bid, the country’s counterintelligence chief said Friday in the most specific warning to date about the threat of foreign interference.
US officials also believe that China does not want Trump to win a second term and has accelerated its criticism of the White House, expanding its efforts to shape public policy in America and to pressure political figures seen as opposed to Beijing’s interests.
The statement from William Evanina is believed to be the most pointed declaration by the US intelligence community linking the Kremlin to efforts to get Trump reelected — a sensitive subject for a president who has rejected intelligence agency assessments that Russia tried to help him in 2016.
It also links Moscow’s disapproval of Biden to his role in shaping Obama administration policies supporting Ukraine, an important US ally, and opposing Russian leader Vladimir Putin. That assertion conflicts with the narrative advanced by Trump, who has made unsubstantiated claims that Biden’s actions in Ukraine were intended to help the business interests of his son, Hunter.
Evanina’s statement, three months before the election, comes amid criticism from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other congressional Democrats that the intelligence community has been withholding from the public specific intelligence information about the threat of foreign interference in American politics.
“The facts are chilling,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, wrote in an op-ed published Friday evening in The Washington Post. “I believe the American public needs and deserves to know them. The information should be declassified immediately.”
The latest intelligence assessment reflects concerns not only about Russia but China and Iran as well, warning that hostile foreign actors may seek to compromise election infrastructure, interfere with the voting process or call into question voting results. Despite those efforts, officials see it as unlikely that anyone could manipulate voting results in any meaningful way, Evanina said.
“Many foreign actors have a preference for who wins the election, which they express through a range of overt and private statements; covert influence efforts are rarer,” said Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence Security Center. “We are primarily concerned about the ongoing and potential activity by China, Russia and Iran.”
Concerns about election interference are especially acute following a wide-ranging effort by Russia to meddle in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf through both the hacking of Democratic emails and a covert social media campaign aimed at sowing discord among US voters. Trump has routinely resisted the idea that the Kremlin favored him in 2016, but the intelligence assessment released Friday indicates that unnamed Kremlin-linked actors are again working to boost his candidacy on social media and Russian television.
The White House responded to Friday’s news with a statement saying “the United States will not tolerate foreign interference in our electoral processes and will respond to malicious foreign threats that target our democratic institutions.”
In a separate statement, the Trump campaign said it didn’t want or need foreign assistance and said China and Iran were opposed to Trump because “he has held them accountable after years of coddling by politicians like Joe Biden.”
Tony Blinken, a senior adviser to Biden’s campaign, responded Friday that Trump “has publicly and repeatedly invited, emboldened, and even tried to coerce foreign interference in American elections. ... Joe Biden, on the other hand, has led the fight against foreign interference for years.”
Pelosi and Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, both California Democrats, said in a statement Friday that they were “pleased that Mr. Evanina heeded our call to make additional details public about Russia’s malign interference campaign.” But they also criticized him for naming Iran and China “as equal threats to our democratic elections.”
Democrats in Congress who have participated in recent classified briefings on the election interference threat have expressed alarm at what they have heard. They have urged the US intelligence community to make public some of their concerns, in part to avoid a repeat of 2016, when Obama administration officials were seen as slow and overly deliberate in their public discussion of active Russian measures in that year’s election.
When it comes to Russia this year, US intelligence officials assess that it is working to “denigrate” Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia “establishment” among his supporters, Evanina said. US officials believe that tracks Moscow’s criticism of Biden when he was vice president for his role in Ukraine policies and his support of opposition to Putin inside Russia.
The US statement called out by name Andriy Derkach, a pro-Russia Ukrainian lawmaker who has been active in leveling unsubstantiated corruption allegations against Biden and his son concerning Burisma, the Ukrainian natural gas company on whose board Hunter Biden sat. That effort has included publicizing leaked phone calls.
Democrats, including members of the Senate intelligence panel, have voiced concerns that an ongoing Republican probe into Hunter Biden and his work in Ukraine would parallel Russian efforts and amplify Russian disinformation. That investigation is being led by Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the chairman of Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Though US officials allege that China has its own preference, the statement Friday did not directly accuse Beijing of election interference or taking action to prop up Biden.
Instead, the statement said, China views Trump as “unpredictable” and does not want to see him win reelection, Evanina said. China has been expanding its influence efforts ahead of the November election in an effort to shape US policy and pressure political figures it sees as against Beijing. The Trump administration’s relationship with China has taken a starkly more adversarial tone, including the closure last month of Beijing’s consulate in Houston and an executive order Thursday that banned dealings with the Chinese owners of consumer apps TikTok and WeChat,
“Although China will continue to weigh the risks and benefits of aggressive action, its public rhetoric over the past few months has grown increasingly critical of the current administration’s COVID-19 response, closure of China’s Houston consulate and actions on other issues,” Evanina wrote.
On Iran, the assessment said Tehran seeks to undermine US democratic institutions as well as Trump and divide America before the election.
“Iran’s efforts along these lines probably will focus on online influence, such as spreading disinformation on social media and recirculating anti-US content,” Evanina wrote. “Tehran’s motivation to conduct such activities is, in part, driven by a perception that President Trump’s re-election would result in a continuation of US pressure on Iran in an effort to foment regime change.”
During a panel discussion later Friday at the DEF CON hacker convention, federal cybersecurity officials were asked which foreign threat they considered most serious. “I don’t think I would say one is scarier than the other per se. Certainly some of these adversaries are at little bit more experienced,” said the National Security Agency’s election lead, David Imbordino.
“I couldn’t agree more,” said Cynthia Kaiser, the FBI’s deputy chief of analysis for national cyber threats. “If if you ask me what the biggest threat is, its the kind of constant drumbeat or influence campaigns that are going to make people feel like they are less confident in our (elections) system.”