Greece accuses charities of working with human traffickers to smuggle migrants

Refugees and migrants from the destroyed Moria camp line up to enter a new temporary camp during a police operation on the island of Lesbos, Greece, on September 17. (Reuters/File Photo)
Refugees and migrants from the destroyed Moria camp line up to enter a new temporary camp during a police operation on the island of Lesbos, Greece, on September 17. (Reuters/File Photo)
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Updated 10 December 2020

Greece accuses charities of working with human traffickers to smuggle migrants

Refugees and migrants from the destroyed Moria camp line up to enter a new temporary camp during a police operation on the island of Lesbos, Greece, on September 17. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • Minister alleges that aid agencies are helping refugees to illegally enter the country from Turkey

LONDON: A Greek minister has accused several charities of working with human traffickers to form a refugee-smuggling network that stretches from Somalia to the UK.

Migration and Asylum Minister Notis Mitarachi named seven charitable organizations that officials suspect provide funds for traffickers. The money allegedly is used to help illegal migrants from Somalia to enter Greece and, from there, travel to other European nations.

He told the Times newspaper that Norwegian aid agency Aegean Boat Report, the London-based Al-Khair Foundation and five other groups are believed to be complicit in efforts to aid smugglers.

“Contacts in Mogadishu facilitate transport to Istanbul, even paying for migrant airfares on Turkish Airlines,” Mitarachi said. “From there, migrants are transported to key points along the Turkish coast, working with aid groups to push them to islands like Lesbos. Contacts push them to Athens … then to Berlin, then to Calais where they are stashed in a truck, ending up in London.”

It is a criminal offense in Greece to help an illegal migrant enter the country. Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, such as Lesbos, are on the front line of Europe’s migrant crisis. About 17,000 of the 90,000 illegal migrants in the country, who are seeking asylum in Europe, are stuck there in limbo, often in poor conditions in overcrowded refugee centers.

In video testimony seen by Times reporters, a Somali refugee who was rescued while attempting a journey from Turkey to Greece on Dec. 2 said he received help to pay for his journey from Al-Khair Foundation. During the same attempt to reach Greece, 34 Somalis drowned.

The man said he and two others entered Turkey on student visas. He told Greek authorities that some Somalis return to Mogadishu to bring more migrants to Europe, helped by funding from Al-Khair.

Mitarachi said Greece will limit the ability of charities working in refugee camps to hire private contractors.

“If a company wants to provide cleaning services, for example, they should be allowed to tender, not be sidelined because there is some ‘save the world’ NGO that wants a million euros to clean the camps,” he added.

Greek authorities say the accounts given by migrants match reports from intelligence agencies about refugee-smuggling networks, which are accused of exploiting a loophole introduced by Turkey in the system for student and healthcare visas. It allows young Somalis to travel legally to Turkey on visas issued by liaison officers and a Mogadishu hospital funded by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They are then put in contact with smugglers in Turkey who organize illegal crossings into Greek territory.

According to testimony from refugees, Turkish officials provide Somalis with preferential treatment while detaining migrants of other nationalities, the Times said.

A number of charities accuse countries in the Mediterranean of making some legitimate humanitarian activities illegal in an effort to limit the number of migrants reaching their countries.

Aegean Boat Report said it is forced to assist migrants arriving in Greece because officials there are sending them back to Turkey. It need volunteers to help with rescue efforts and documenting the refugees, the organization added. Al-Khair Foundation declined to comment.

Official figures reveal that while the overall number of migrants arriving illegally in Greece from Turkey fell by more than 96 percent during the coronavirus pandemic, the number of Somalis increased — accounting for almost half of the total.


Biden’s US revives support for WHO, reversing Trump retreat

NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci addresses the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, January 21, 2021. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci addresses the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, January 21, 2021. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
Updated 22 January 2021

Biden’s US revives support for WHO, reversing Trump retreat

NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci addresses the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, January 21, 2021. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
  • President Joe Biden’s top adviser on the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, says the US will again fund the WHO
  • Trump's US halted funding for the UN health agency — stripping it of badly needed cash as it was battling a health crisis

GENEVA: The United States will resume funding for the World Health Organization and join its consortium aimed at sharing coronavirus vaccines fairly around the globe, President Joe Biden’s top adviser on the pandemic said Thursday, renewing support for an agency that the Trump administration had pulled back from.
Dr. Anthony Fauci’s quick commitment to the WHO — whose response to the pandemic has been criticized by many, but perhaps most vociferously by the Trump administration — marks a dramatic and vocal shift toward a more cooperative approach to fighting the pandemic.
“I am honored to announce that the United States will remain a member of the World Health Organization,” Fauci told a virtual meeting of the WHO from the United States, where it was 4:10 a.m. in Washington. It was the first public statement by a member of Biden’s administration to an international audience — and a sign of the priority that the new president has made of fighting COVID-19 both at home and with world partners.
Just hours after Biden’s inauguration Wednesday, he wrote a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres saying the US had reversed the planned pullout from the WHO that was expected to take effect in July.
The withdrawal from the WHO was rich with symbolism — another instance of America’s go-it-alone strategy under Trump. But it also had practical ramifications: The US halted funding for the UN health agency — stripping it of cash from the country that has long been its biggest donor just as the agency was battling the health crisis that has killed more than 2 million people worldwide. The US had also pulled back staff from the organization.
Fauci said the Biden administration will resume “regular engagement” with WHO and will “fulfill its financial obligations to the organization.”
The WHO chief and others jumped in to welcome the US announcements.
“This is a good day for WHO and a good day for global health,” Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “The role of the United States, its role, global role is very, very crucial.”
The two men hinted at a warm relationship between them, with Fauci calling Tedros his “dear friend” and Tedros referring to Fauci as “my brother Tony.”
The White House said later Thursday that Vice President Kamala Harris had discussed many of the same themes as Fauci raised in a call with Tedros.
But she emphasized the need to beef up the global response to COVID-19, “mitigate its secondary impacts, including on women and girls,” and work to “prevent the next outbreak from becoming an epidemic or pandemic,” the White House said in a statement.
“In addition, the vice president emphasized the importance of making America safer through global cooperation,” it added, highlighting the new tone out of Washington.
John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the renewed commitment “great news” in an email. “The world has always been a better place when the US plays a leadership role in solving global health problems including the fight against HIV/AIDS, malaria, polio and other diseases,” he said.
Danish Health Minister Magnus Heunicke wrote on Facebook: “This is going to have a huge impact on the world’s ability to fight the pandemic. It is decisive that the United States is involved as a driving force and not a country that is looking for the exit when a global catastrophe rages.”
Fauci also said Biden will issue a directive Thursday that shows the United States’ intent to join the COVAX Facility, a project to deploy COVID-19 vaccines to people in need around the world — whether in rich or poor countries.
Under Trump, the US had been the highest-profile — and most deep-pocketed — holdout from the COVAX Facility, which has struggled to meet its goals of distributing millions of vaccines both because of financial and logistic difficulties.
WHO and leaders in many developing countries have repeatedly expressed concerns that poorer places could be the last to get COVID-19 vaccines, while noting that leaving vast swaths of the global population unvaccinated puts everyone at risk.
While vowing US support, Fauci also pointed to some key challenges facing WHO. He said the US was committed to “transparency, including those events surrounding the early days of the pandemic.”
One of the Trump administration’s biggest criticisms was that the WHO reacted too slowly to the outbreak in Wuhan, China, and was too accepting of and too effusive about the Chinese government’s response to it. Others have also shared those criticisms — but public health experts and many countries have argued that, while the organization needs reform, it remains vital.
Referring to a WHO-led probe looking for the origins of the coronavirus by a team that is currently in China, Fauci said: “The international investigation should be robust and clear, and we look forward to evaluating it.”
He said the US would work with WHO and partner countries to “strengthen and reform” the agency, without providing specifics.
At the White House later in the day, Fauci quipped to Jeff Zients, who is directing the national response to the coronavirus, “You can imagine the comments we were getting from the people in the WHO.”
Then he added, his voice trailing off, “They were lining up to thank ...”