Belarusian president accused of using Middle East migrants as ‘political weapon’

Belarusian president accused of using Middle East migrants as ‘political weapon’
Migrants are seen through a fence as they sit and lie by tents in a camp near the border town of Kapciamiestis, Lithuania. (File/Getty Images)
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Updated 04 August 2021

Belarusian president accused of using Middle East migrants as ‘political weapon’

Belarusian president accused of using Middle East migrants as ‘political weapon’
  • Lithuania calls on the EU to take action to halt the growing number of people illegally crossing its border
  • Minister said more than 4,000 migrants have entered Lithuania illegally this year

LONDON: Lithuania accused Belarus on Wednesday of using migrants from the Middle East and Africa as a “political weapon” and urged the EU to intervene.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was allowing flights with what he claims are tourists from Iraq, Syria and African countries who then illegally cross the border into Lithuania in an attempt to seek asylum in the EU.

More than 4,000 migrants have already entered Lithuania in this way so far this year, compared with only about 80 in the whole of 2020, Landsbergis told the website Politico.

“This is not the 2015 migration crisis,” he said. “This is not people fleeing the war in Syria. This is actually a hybrid weapon, a political weapon one might say, that is (being) used to change the European policy.”

He warned that a recent decision by Belarus to increase the number flights from Iraq to Minsk could lead to more than 6,000 migrants crossing the border into Lithuania every week.

“There are currently 24 flights to Minsk from Istanbul and eight flights from Baghdad each week,” said Landsbergis. “If you consider that each of these flights can transport up to 170 people, and if you fill all the seats with asylum seekers, the capacity is up to 6,000 people a week — or even more because new flights from Erbil have been announced on Monday. So there is a possibility for Lukashenko to really up the ante.”

The foreign minister called for increased international pressure on Minsk through further sanctions and by lobbying the home countries of migrants to take action.

“The EU could tell countries such as Iraq that there’s a list of instruments — restrictions of visa programs, for example — that we will use if they don’t stop these flights to Minsk,” Landsbergis said.

“We know that these people are not tourists coming to visit Belarus.”

The number of migrants crossing into Lithuania from Belarus could exceed 10,000 by the end of the summer, he warned, and added that this number could dramatically increase as Lukashenko approaches African governments “to build up new routes.”

“So what we are seeing might be just the beginning,” he said.

The foreign minister said he has discussed the issue with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and other EU officials who “understand the situation,” but he stressed that more must be done.

“I think we need to really step up our game,” Landsbergis said. “Because at this point the message that we are sending (is) not sufficient to change the way things are.”

Lithuania has asked for an emergency meeting of EU interior ministers this month to agree assistance for the country, which is on the front line of a new migration crisis in Europe.

On Tuesday, Lithuanian authorities said they reserve the right to use force to prevent illegal immigration, and turned away 180 people attempting to enter the country. However, rights groups said all nations have an obligation to protect vulnerable people.

“Push backs of people seeking asylum are not compatible with the Geneva Convention on Refugee Status, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and other human rights instruments” Egle Samuchovaite, program director for Lithuania's Red Cross, told the Associated Press.

She added that refusing to allow vulnerable people to cross the border leaves them in an unsafe environment, trapped between two countries.

Lithuania has no physical barriers along its almost 700-kilometer border with Belarus.

The row over the latest actions of Belarus’s authoritarian president comes after the EU imposed sanctions on his country over an incident in May that was denounced as “state piracy,” in which a Belarusian warplane was scrambled to intercept an aircraft so that a dissident journalist could be arrested.


UN concerned about detained migrants vanishing in Libya

UN concerned about detained migrants vanishing in Libya
Updated 4 sec ago

UN concerned about detained migrants vanishing in Libya

UN concerned about detained migrants vanishing in Libya
ON BOARD THE GEO BARENTS IN THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA: A UN migration agency official expressed concerns Friday over the disappearance of thousands of Europe-bound migrants who were intercepted and returned to Libya as more and more desperate people risk their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.
According to Safa Msehli, a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration, the Libyan coast guard, which receives funds from the European Union, intercepted more than 24,000 Europe-bound migrants in the Mediterranean so far this year, including over 800 this week alone.
However, only 6,000 have been accounted for in official detention centers in the North African country, she said. The fate and whereabouts of thousands of other migrants remain unknown, she added.
“We fear that many are ending up in the hands of criminal groups and traffickers, while others are being extorted for release,” Msehli said.
A spokesman for Libya’s Interior Ministry, which oversees the detention centers, did not immediately respond to a request by The Associated Press for comment.
Libya has for years been a hub for African and Middle Eastern migrants fleeing war and poverty in their countries and hoping for a better life in Europe. The oil-rich country plunged into chaos following a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime autocrat Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
Traffickers have exploited the chaos and often pack desperate families into ill-equipped rubber or wooden boats that stall and founder along the perilous Central Mediterranean route. Thousands have drowned along the way. They have been implicated in widespread abuses of migrants, including torture and abduction for ransom.
The number of migrants intercepted and returned to Libya so far this year is more than double the number for 2020, when more than 11,890 were brought back to shore.
Those returned to shore have been taken to government-run detention centers, where they are often abused and extorted for ransom under the very nose of UN officials. They are often held in miserable conditions. Libya’s government receives millions in European aid money paid to slow the tide of migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
Guards have been accused of sexually assaulting female migrants in at least one government-run detention center. Many migrants also simply disappear from the detention centers, sold to traffickers or to other centers, The Associated Press reported in 2019.
More than 1,100 migrants were reported dead or presumed dead in numerous boat mishaps and shipwrecks off Libya so far this year, compared to at least 978 reported dead or presumed dead during all of last year, according to IOM.

China enters Taiwan air defense zone a day after military budget boost

China enters Taiwan air defense zone a day after military budget boost
Updated 12 min 28 sec ago

China enters Taiwan air defense zone a day after military budget boost

China enters Taiwan air defense zone a day after military budget boost
  • Speaking on Friday, Taiwan Premier Su Tseng-chang said the government had to take the threat from China seriously

TAIPEI: Taiwan’s air force scrambled on Friday to warn away 10 Chinese aircraft that entered its air defense zone, Taiwan’s defense ministry said, the day after the island announced a $9 billion boost to military spending to counter the threat from China.
Chinese-claimed Taiwan has complained for a year or more of repeated missions by China’s air force near the democratically governed island, often in the southwestern part of its air defense zone close to the Taiwan-controlled Pratas Islands.
The latest Chinese mission involved 6 J-16 and 2 J-11 fighters plus one anti-submarine and one reconnaissance aircraft, the Taiwan ministry said.
Taiwan sent combat aircraft to warn away the Chinese aircraft, while missile systems were deployed to monitor them, the ministry said.
The Chinese fighters flew in an area close to the Pratas, while the anti-submarine and reconnaissance aircraft flew into the Bashi Channel that separates Taiwan from the Philippines, according to a map that the ministry issued.
Warships, early warning aircraft and bombers were deployed on Friday in patrols and drills aimed at improving the joint combat capabilities of China’s military in the area, a spokesman for China’s Eastern Theater Command said in a statement on Saturday.
The incident came a day after Taiwan proposed boosting military spending by $8.7 billion over the next five years, including on new missiles, warning of an urgent need to upgrade weapons in the face of a “severe threat” from China.
The Chinese patrols and drills also coincided a transit by a US destroyer in the Taiwan Strait on Friday, which the US Navy called a “routine” passage through international waters.
The Eastern Theater Command, which overseas Chinese military in eastern China, said on Saturday in a separate statement that the USS Barry was monitored on its entire course.
Speaking on Friday, Taiwan Premier Su Tseng-chang said the government had to take the threat from China seriously.
“The Chinese Communists plot against us constantly,” he said.
Taiwan’s defense spending “is based on safeguarding national sovereignty, national security, and national security. We must not relax. We must have the best preparations so that no war will occur,” he added.
China’s government, for its part, criticized Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu on Friday for comments this week in which he said Taiwan was a “sea fortress” blocking China’s expansion into the Pacific.
Wu’s “aim is to deceive public opinion, to rope in and collude with anti-China foreign forces,” China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said in a statement.


Australia: France’s recall of ambassador over scrapped submarines deal regretful

Australia: France’s recall of ambassador over scrapped submarines deal regretful
Updated 18 September 2021

Australia: France’s recall of ambassador over scrapped submarines deal regretful

Australia: France’s recall of ambassador over scrapped submarines deal regretful
  • Australia scrapped its $66 billion contract with France in favor of a deal with the US and UK for at least 8 nuclear-power subs

CANBERRA: Australia said Saturday it was noting with regret France’s recall of its ambassador over the surprise cancelation of a submarine contract in favor of a US deal.
France recalled its ambassadors to Australia and the United States on Friday in an unprecedented show of anger over a deal among the United States, Australia and Britain to provide Australia with a fleet of at least eight nuclear-power submarines.
The deal scraps a 90 billion Australian dollar ($66 billion) contract with French majority state-owned Naval Group, signed in 2016, to build 12 conventional diesel-electric submarines.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s office said in a statement: “We note with regret France’s decision to recall its Ambassador to Australia for consultations following the decision on the Attack Class project.”
“Australia understands France’s deep disappointment with our decision, which was taken in accordance with our clear and communicated national security interests,” the statement said. It added that Australia valued its relationship to France and looked forward to future engagements together.
Payne and Defense Minister Peter Dutton are currently in the United States for annual talks with their US counterparts and their first with President Joe Biden’s administration.
French Ambassador to Australia Jean-Pierre Thebault said Australia never mentioned that the project could be scrapped.
Thebault told Australian Broadcasting Corp. in an interview recorded on Friday that he found out about the US submarine deal: “Like everybody, thanks to the Australian press.”
“We never were informed about any substantial changes,” Thebault said. “There were many opportunities and many channels. Never was such a change mentioned.”
After the US deal was made public this week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he told French President Emanuel Macron in June that there were “very real issues about whether a conventional submarine capability” would address Australia’s strategic security needs in the Indo-Pacific.
Morrison was in Paris on his way home from a Group of Seven nations summit in Britain where he had talks with soon-to-be-alliance partners Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Thebault said he had also been at the meeting with Macron and Morrison.
Morrison mentioned “there were changes in the regional situation,” but gave no indication that Australia was considering changing to nuclear propulsion, Thebault said.
“The relationship between France and Australia was built on trust,” Thebault said.
“So fundamentally, everything was built on trust. Everything was supposed to be done in full transparency between the two partners,” he added.
Thebault said difficulties the project had encountered were normal for its scale and large transfers of technologies.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement on Friday that recalling the two ambassadors, on request from Macron, “is justified by the exceptional seriousness of the announcements” made by Australia and the United States.
Le Drian said Australia’s decision to scrap the submarine purchase in favor of nuclear subs built with US technology is “unacceptable behavior between allies and partners.”
Senior opposition lawmaker Mark Dreyfus called on the Australian government to fix its relationship with France.
“The impact on our relationship with France is a concern, particularly as a country with important interests in our region,” Dreyfus said.
“The French were blindsided by this decision and Mr. Morrison should have done much more to protect the relationship. The ... government needs to explain what it is going to do to fix this important relationship,” he added.

 

In this Feb. 11, 2019, photo, Australia's PM Scott Morrison (C) shakes hands with France's Defense Minister Florence Parly (R) and Australian Defense Minister Christopher Pyne after signing a $66 billion deal in Canberra. (AFP)


US panel recommends Covid boosters for people 65 and older

US panel recommends Covid boosters for people 65 and older
Updated 18 September 2021

US panel recommends Covid boosters for people 65 and older

US panel recommends Covid boosters for people 65 and older
  • The panel voted 16-2 against granting a third dose full approval
  • Tens of millions of Americans will soon be eligible for a third shot

WASHINGTON: A panel of leading US medical experts advising the government voted in favor of authorizing boosters of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine for everyone aged 65 and up, as well as people at high risk of developing severe Covid.
The same committee however rejected an initial proposal, submitted by Pfizer and backed by President Joe Biden’s administration, to fully approve boosters to everyone aged 16 and over.
The decisions came after a day-long meeting full of data presentations and at times charged debate that was convened by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Tens of millions of Americans will soon be eligible for a third shot.
“I think this should demonstrate to the public that the members of this committee are independent of the FDA, and that in fact we do bring our voices to the table,” said Archana Chatterjee, dean of Chicago Medical School.
The panel — which included vaccinologists, infectious disease researchers, and epidemiologists — concluded that the benefit-risk balance differed for younger people, especially males at risk for myocarditis.
A clinical trial for the booster involved just over 300 people, which they felt was too small to be able to draw firm conclusions about safety.
The panel voted 16-2 against granting a third dose full approval.
They were then presented with a new motion, and voted 18-0 for granting emergency authorization for people aged over 65 and those at high risk. They agreed this should extend to health care workers and people at high risk of occupational exposure.
Now the issue turns to another committee, this time convened by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on September 22-23 to further define who is eligible and decide on rollout.
Pfizer will work with the FDA to address the committee’s questions as “we continue to believe in the benefits of a booster dose for a broader population,” Kathrin Jansen, head of vaccine research and development at the company, said in a statement.
Even prior to the meeting, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had struck a cautious note.
In its briefing document, the FDA stated: “Data indicate that currently US-licensed or authorized Covid-19 vaccines still afford protection against severe Covid-19 disease and death.”
Two senior FDA officials meanwhile co-signed a Viewpoint in The Lancet this week opposing boosters for the general population, in what was seen as a rebuke of the White House for taking a decision before consulting its scientific agencies, effectively placing the cart before the horse.
At the meeting, Pfizer officials cited studies that demonstrated waning immunity against infection several months out from the first two doses.
“The demonstrated safety and effectiveness of a third dose support adding a booster dose to the vaccination schedule,” said Donna Boyce, Pfizer’s senior vice president of global regulatory affairs.
But a growing body of US research — including a dataset presented by Pfizer itself at Friday’s meeting — has shown two doses continue to confer high protection against severe outcomes, albeit at slightly diminished levels for the elderly.
Pfizer also presented data showing boosters increased antibody levels against the Delta variant, but an FDA scientist countered that these lab studies could not translate directly to efficacy estimates.
Sharon Alroy Preis, an official with Israel’s health ministry, presented data from her country which ran a booster campaign after experiencing a Delta wave, and has approved boosters for everyone aged 12 and up.
Jay Portnoy, a pediatrician with Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, said the Israeli experience should serve as a warning beacon and that the United States should follow its lead.
But most of the panel did not see the two countries as closely analogous. Because the US has a much lower overall vaccination rate, the unvaccinated are the primary drivers of spread, rather than breakthrough cases among the vaccinated.


Pakistani scientists bring new hope to dementia patients through virtual reality

Dr. Ali Jawaid tests a program and equipment for VR-based therapy for dementia patients during a study at Lahore University of Management Sciences. (Supplied)
Dr. Ali Jawaid tests a program and equipment for VR-based therapy for dementia patients during a study at Lahore University of Management Sciences. (Supplied)
Updated 18 September 2021

Pakistani scientists bring new hope to dementia patients through virtual reality

Dr. Ali Jawaid tests a program and equipment for VR-based therapy for dementia patients during a study at Lahore University of Management Sciences. (Supplied)
  • Study results show how VR could slow disease progression, decline in cognitive function
  • Experts make patients’ surroundings more complex, challenging to help stimulate brain

WARSAW: Two Pakistani scientists have brought new hope to dementia patients around the world through the use of virtual reality technology.

The experts recently published the results of a study showing that the decline in brain functions of dementia sufferers could be controlled, or slowed, with the application of VR.

Affecting 55 million people worldwide, dementia, which is less a disease and more a group of related syndromes, is a neurological disorder that manifests itself in a steep decline in brain functions.

The condition destroys memories and personalities, robbing families of their loved ones and sapping patience and finances. With populations ageing, the number of patients worldwide is projected to rise to 78 million by 2030 and 139 million by 2050, the World Health Organization said in a recent report.

There is no known cure for dementia and the focus of therapy has largely remained on slowing its progression.

But now, in a study published in the Brain Sciences journal’s August edition, Pakistani neuroscientist Dr. Ali Jawaid and computer scientist Dr. Suleman Shahid have demonstrated how VR could help those living with dementia cope with their condition.

Jawaid, who is based in Warsaw, Poland, where he leads neuropsychiatric disorders research at the BRAINCITY center at the Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology, told Arab News: “Usually, dementia patients progressively deteriorate in cognitive functions, but what we assessed was that during the whole study, which was more than six months, there was no deterioration.”

His collaborator Shahid directs the Computer Human Interaction and Social Experience Lab at the Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan.

At the core of the two scientists’ latest work has been the employment of VR for environmental enrichment, a term used to describe changing a person’s surroundings to make them more complex, dynamic, and challenging in order to stimulate the brain.

Research on animals has variously found that environmental enrichment could aid the treatment and recovery of brain-related dysfunctions, including Alzheimer’s disease and others related to aging.

“In animals, we have discovered that environmental enrichment is one of the strongest protector factors against cognitive impairment induced by aging. The challenge was how to bring this environmental enrichment to humans,” Jawaid said.

He pointed out that exercise and brain quizzes could work but noted that they were stressful and hardly ever engaging enough for dementia patients to do them regularly or for long periods of time.

What Jawaid and Shahid did instead was to immerse their study’s participants, all with mild dementia, in virtual environments depicting real-world landmarks familiar to them. As all those taking part were Pakistani, the three environments used were the Great Wall of China, the Grand Mosque in Makkah, and the pyramids of Egypt.

In each of the virtual worlds, the patients had to perform tasks designed to stimulate different domains impaired in dementia, such as short-term memory, attention, navigation, motor coordination, or decision making.

For example, in one scenario, a participant would see balloons in the sky as they walked along the Great Wall of China wearing a VR headset. As the sight triggered a childhood memory of shooting balloons, a virtual pistol or a bow and arrow would appear. Once the participant shot the balloons, the next task would be presented.

“We were giving them all this cognitive training in the VR environment, and the results have been extremely encouraging. One of our patients was like, ‘I miss playing golf.’ We arranged that he could play golf in the virtual reality environment. That was really motivating for him,” Jawaid added.

BRAINCITY vice president, Dr. Ewelina Knapska, told Arab News that the way the therapy was designed kept participants engaged much longer than in most other studies of its kind.

“What was done here was the development of a task that was attractive to older people,” she said.

The longer dementia patients were willing to be in therapy that increased brain activity, the more possible it was for them to remain independent, but the cost of such care and therapists is very high. Dementia costs the world $1.3 trillion a year, the WHO report said.

“It (dementia treatment) is very expensive. Such VR therapies are much cheaper and therefore much more accessible,” Knapska added.

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