Syrian family sue EU border agency over removal from Greece

Syrian family sue EU border agency over removal from Greece
EU’s border agency, Frontex has faced accusations of “actively destroying” the fundamental principles on which the EU was built by participating in the pushbacks. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 20 October 2021

Syrian family sue EU border agency over removal from Greece

Syrian family sue EU border agency over removal from Greece
  • They say they were tricked into boarding a plane after they were told it was destined for Athens but instead it took them to Turkey
  • First-of-its-kind case will test the accountability of the EU’s border agency, Frontex, which blames Greek authorities for the deportation

LONDON: A Syrian family is taking the EU’s border agency to the European Court of Justice to seek damages for their deportation from Greece to Turkey, which occurred after they had lodged an asylum claim.

They say they were tricked into boarding a deportation flight by EU and Greek officials five years ago, after they were told they would be flown to Athens but were instead taken to Turkey.

Prakken d’Oliveira, a Dutch law firm specializing in human rights cases, said on Wednesday that it has filed a lawsuit against Frontex, the EU agency responsible for border enforcement, and is seeking damages on behalf of the family. The deportation amounted to a violation of their human rights, the firm said, and Frontex operated the flight that carried it out.

The incident was the first recorded case of expulsion of asylum seekers after the EU reached a deal with Turkey in 2016 that explicitly stated that people arriving in Greece would have access to a fair asylum procedure.

“Frontex has acknowledged there were human rights violations. (It) has accepted that the refugees never got the chance to have their asylum request processed,” said Lisa-Marie Komp, one of the lawyers representing the family.

She said it is critical that the EU agency is held accountable for its actions and added: “If it is to be given such a far-reaching mandate, then there should be effective possibilities to hold it to account. And if that is not possible, what it will amount to is the undermining of the basic principle of rule of law.

“Beside the fate of the family, what is so fundamental is that this is the first time the European court of justice will get the opportunity to rule whether Frontex can be held accountable.”

The action is the first of its kind brought before the Luxembourg-based tribunal. It will highlight the practice of illegal pushbacks and other methods that campaigners argue deny asylum seekers their rights.

Frontex has faced accusations of “actively destroying” the fundamental principles on which the EU was built by participating in the pushbacks.

The Syrian family, who have not been named for security reasons, said they were tricked into boarding the deportation flight after submitting asylum claims on the Greek island of Leros.

“I never knew I was (going to be) deported to Turkey,” the then 33-year-old father told reporters at the time. “The policemen said, ‘Leave your dinner, get your stuff, we will take you to a police station for the night and (then) tomorrow morning to Athens.’”

The family, which included four children between the ages of one and seven, were forced to sit separately on the flight. They identified representatives of the EU border agency by the insignia on their guards’ uniforms.

“They were in a very vulnerable position,” Komp said. “The treatment of the children on the flight was itself in contravention of the rights of the child, enshrined in article 24 of the charter of fundamental rights of the EU.

“The bottom line is they didn’t take any measures to check whether it was legal to take this family out of Greece.”

The family, from the Kurdish town of Kobani in Syria, are now living in northern Iraq, fearing persecution in war-torn Syria if they return home.

Frontex has blamed “national authorities” for the incident, arguing that its role was merely to provide “means of transport, trained escorts, translators and medical personnel.”

An investigation into the incident, the results of which were published 19 months later, found that the asylum claim was registered 11 days before the flight that took the family to Turkey but was only logged on the electronic police system a day after they were deported.

Yiannis Mouzalas, who was the minister in charge of Greek migration policy at the time, said he ordered an inquiry into the case when it became clear that “violations” had occurred.

“An asylum request was lodged and it was evident the process had been violated and something illegal had happened,” he said.

Mouzalas said he had no knowledge of the outcome of the inquiry because he subsequently left his post, but added: “I do know it was the responsibility of the competent Greek authorities (to remove them), not Frontex which transported them.”


Virus turns Indonesia holiday island into desert of abandoned resorts

Virus turns Indonesia holiday island into desert of abandoned resorts
Updated 6 sec ago

Virus turns Indonesia holiday island into desert of abandoned resorts

Virus turns Indonesia holiday island into desert of abandoned resorts
  • Situated close to Bali, tourism and the local economy had been booming, with around 1,500 foreign visitors visiting Trawangan every day
  • As fears grow over new Covid variant omicron, Indonesia has extended its mandatory quarantine to ten days
GILI TRAWANGAN: Chef Ilhani used to serve up Japanese cuisine to holidaymakers every night, now he makes just $3 a day selling fried snacks on the near empty streets of once bustling Gili Trawangan.
The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered almost all the resorts and restaurants across Indonesia’s Gili Islands, famed for their turquoise waters, sandy beaches, and diverse marine life.
Situated close to Bali, tourism and the local economy had been booming, with around 1,500 foreign visitors visiting Trawangan every day.
But when authorities first imposed a nationwide virus lockdown in March 2020 and then closed borders to international travelers, his restaurant could not survive the loss of business.
Almost two years on, he says he is struggling to support his wife and four children.
“Life is painfully difficult now. I sell fried snacks because it is something that locals can afford,” he told AFP, adding: “In the past, whatever we sell there are tourists who will buy, but now as you can see the island is deserted.”
The three Gili islands — Trawangan, Meno and Air — have long been reliant on foreign travelers. There are some 800 hotels with 7,000 rooms but only between 20 and 30 properties remain open, according to Lalu Kusnawan, the chairman of Gili Hotel Association who runs a resort in Trawangan.
Shops, bars, cafes, restaurants all stand empty, some up for sale, others abandoned altogether. Dust and spider webs gather on long unused tables and chairs.
Staff that once worked there have been forced to find other ways to earn a living — some have turned to fishing just to feed their families.
The coronavirus pandemic will cost the global tourism sector $2.0 trillion in lost revenue in 2021 — the same losses as 2020, the UN’s tourism body warned last week.
International tourist arrivals will this year remain 70-75 percent below the 1.5 billion arrivals recorded in 2019 before the pandemic hit, according to the World Tourism Organization, adding that the sector’s recovery will be “fragile” and “slow.”


Ilhani fears the suffering will be prolonged because the Indonesian government is now planning to impose stricter virus restrictions in anticipation of a fresh wave of infections.
In Gili Trawangan’s port, most of the boats — used to transfer tourists from one island to another or to reach diving sites — have been anchored for months. A bit further, a pontoon is left to rot.
Borders were officially re-opened in October, but direct international flights to Bali are yet to resume as tourists face a quarantine and strict visa requirements, limiting the demand.
And as fears grow over new Covid variant omicron, Indonesia has extended its mandatory quarantine to ten days, dashing hopes of an imminent tourism revival.
Kusnawan fears he and his fellow islanders cannot take much more.
“We are not just bleeding, but we no longer have blood to bleed out... We were already in a bad shape even before the omicron,” he added.
Abdian Saputra, who runs a boat service from Bali to the islands, said he had to sell his assets and lay off half his staff in order to keep his business open as the pandemic meant far fewer sailings were necessary.
“I rarely see any new passengers since the pandemic. If we stop, businesses such as hotels will also die. We are helping each other to be able to survive,” he said.
“But if the situation stays like this, my business could see its last breath in January or early February next year,” he added.
But for foreign travelers who reached Indonesia before the borders closed, or who already lived in the country, the situation has enabled them to explore the island paradise untroubled by mass tourism.
Nicolas Lindback, who is originally from Norway, explained: “I will never experience the island like this again, but if I have to choose I prefer the tourism back...because locals are already suffering long enough.”

New Zealand’s plan to end smoking: A lifetime ban for youth

New Zealand’s plan to end smoking: A lifetime ban for youth
Updated 6 min 11 sec ago

New Zealand’s plan to end smoking: A lifetime ban for youth

New Zealand’s plan to end smoking: A lifetime ban for youth
  • Because the current minimum age to buy cigarettes in New Zealand is 18, the lifetime smoking ban for youth wouldn’t have an impact for a few years
WELLINGTON, New Zealand: New Zealand’s government believes it has come up with a unique plan to end tobacco smoking — a lifetime ban for those aged 14 or younger.
Under a new law the government announced Thursday and plans to pass next year, the minimum age to buy cigarettes would keep rising year after year.
That means, in theory at least, 65 years after the law takes effect, shoppers could still buy cigarettes — but only if they could prove they were at least 80 years old.
In practice, officials hope smoking will fade away decades before then. Indeed, the plan sets a goal of having fewer than 5 percent of New Zealanders smoking by 2025.
Other parts of the plan include allowing only the sale of tobacco products with very low nicotine levels and slashing the number of stores that can sell them. The changes would be brought in over time to help retailers adjust.
Because the current minimum age to buy cigarettes in New Zealand is 18, the lifetime smoking ban for youth wouldn’t have an impact for a few years.
In an interview with The Associated Press, New Zealand’s Associate Health Minister Dr. Ayesha Verrall, who is spearheading the plan, said her work at a public hospital in Wellington involved telling several smokers they had developed cancer.
“You meet, every day, someone facing the misery caused by tobacco,” Verrall said. ”The most horrible ways people die. Being short of breath, caused by tobacco.”
Smoking rates have steadily fallen in New Zealand for years, with only about 11 percent of adults now smoking and 9 percent smoking every day. The daily rate among Indigenous Maori remains much higher at 22 percent. Under the government’s plan, a taskforce would be created to help reduce smoking among Maori.
Big tax increases have already been imposed on cigarettes in recent years and some question why they aren’t hiked even higher.
“We don’t think tax increases will have any further impact,” Verrall said. “It’s really hard to quit and we feel if we did that, we’d be punishing those people who are addicted to cigarettes even more.”
And she said the tax measures tend to place a higher burden on lower-income people, who are more likely to smoke.
The new law wouldn’t impact vaping. Verrall said that tobacco smoking is far more harmful and remains a leading cause of preventable deaths in New Zealand, killing up to 5,000 people each year.
“We think vaping’s a really appropriate quit tool,” she said.
The sale of vaping products is already restricted to those aged 18 and over in New Zealand and vaping is banned in schools. Verrall said there was some evidence of a rise in youth vaping, a trend she is following “really closely.”
New Zealand’s approach to ban the next generation from tobacco smoking hasn’t been tried elsewhere, she said.
But she said studies have shown youth sales decrease when minimum ages are raised. In the US, the federal minimum age to buy tobacco products was raised from 18 to 21 two years ago.
While public health experts have generally welcomed the New Zealand plan, not everybody is happy.
Sunny Kaushal said some stores could be put out of business. Kaushal chairs the Dairy and Business Owners Group, which represents nearly 5,000 corner stores — often called dairies in New Zealand — and gas stations.
“We all want a smoke-free New Zealand,” he said. “But this is going to hugely impact small businesses. It should not be done so it is destroying dairies, lives and families in the process. It’s not the way.”
Kaushal said the tax increases on tobacco had already created a black market that was being exploited by gangs, and the problem would only get worse. He said smoking was already in its twilight in New Zealand and would die away of its own accord.
“This is being driven by academics,” he said, adding that stakeholders hadn’t been consulted.
But Verrall said she didn’t believe the government was overreaching because statistics showed the vast majority of smokers wanted to quit anyway, and the new policies would only help them achieve their goal.
She said the pandemic had helped people gain a new appreciation for the benefits of public health measures and rallying communities, and that perhaps that energy could be harnessed not only to tackle smoking but also diseases like diabetes.
Verrall said she had never smoked herself but her late grandmother did, and it likely compromised her health.
“It’s a really cruel product,” Verrall said.

Acting now on COVID-19 will help avoid lockdown later, Britain’s Javid says

Acting now on COVID-19 will help avoid lockdown later, Britain’s Javid says
Updated 29 min 59 sec ago

Acting now on COVID-19 will help avoid lockdown later, Britain’s Javid says

Acting now on COVID-19 will help avoid lockdown later, Britain’s Javid says
  • Javid said there was no plan to impose mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for the general population

LONDON: Britain’s decision to impose restrictions to slow the spread of the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus will likely avoid the need to impose much tougher controls in the new year, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said on Thursday.
Javid said the omicron variant was spreading more swiftly than any other variant studied and could result in around 1 million infections across the United Kingdom by the end of the month if transmission continued at the current rate.
“I hope that most people will understand that by taking some decisive action now, we can potentially avoid action later,” Javid told Sky.
Asked if tougher measures could be imposed in January, Javid said: “No. I hope not.”
Javid said there was no plan to impose mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for the general population.


India’s defense chief to be laid to rest with full military honors

India’s defense chief to be laid to rest with full military honors
Updated 09 December 2021

India’s defense chief to be laid to rest with full military honors

India’s defense chief to be laid to rest with full military honors
  • General Bipin Rawat, his wife and 12 defense personnel were en route to a military staff college when their helicopter crashed

NEW DELHI: The bodies of India’s defense chief and 12 others who died in a helicopter crash will be brought to New Delhi on Thursday, where the top general will be laid to rest with full military honors, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said.
General Bipin Rawat, his wife and 12 defense personnel were en route to a military staff college in southern India when the air force helicopter they were traveling in came down near the town of Coonoor on Wednesday.
Only one of the 14 on board survived the crash. The cause of the crash is being investigated.
Rawat, 63, was appointed as India’s first chief of defense staff by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in late 2019. The position was set up with the aim of integrating the army, navy and air force.
In a brief statement in parliament, Defense Minister Singh said the Mi-17 V5 helicopter took off at 11.48 a.m. on Wednesday from the Sulur Air Base. The base lost contact with the aircraft seven minutes before it was scheduled to land at a hillside military area at 12.15 p.m.
“Locals spotted a fire in the forest near Coonoor and rushed to the spot where they observed the wreckage of military helicopter engulfed in flames,” Singh said.
Rawat, who served in the army for over four decades, would be laid to rest with full military honors, Singh said.
The lone survivor of the crash, an air force group captain, is on life support at a military hospital.
“All efforts are being made to save his life,” Singh said.


An Afghan village shrivels in worst drought in decades

An Afghan village shrivels in worst drought in decades
Updated 09 December 2021

An Afghan village shrivels in worst drought in decades

An Afghan village shrivels in worst drought in decades
  • Afghanistan’s drought, its worst in decades, is now entering its second year, exacerbated by climate change

KAMAR KALAGH, Afghanistan: Hajji Wali Jan brought a half-dozen plastic containers to the well in Kamar Kalagh on a recent Friday — one of the handful of days each week he and those who live on his side of this Afghan village ae allowed to use the water source.
When it was finally his turn, the 66-year-old filled one container, then a second. The stream of water from the spigot got thinner. He started on another container — but the thread of water tapered away and then stopped before the vessel was full.
The well was done for the day.
Afghanistan’s drought, its worst in decades, is now entering its second year, exacerbated by climate change. The dry spell has hit 25 of the country’s 34 provinces, and this year’s wheat harvest is estimated to be down 20 percent from the year before.
Along with fighting, the drought has contributed to driving more than 700,000 people from their homes this year, and the onset of winter will only increase the potential for disaster.
“This cumulative drought impact on already debilitated communities can be yet another tipping point to catastrophe,” the UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s Afghanistan office said in a tweet Tuesday. “If left unattended, agriculture might collapse.”
UN experts blamed a late 2020 La Nina event, which can change weather patterns across the globe, for causing lower rain and snowfall in early 2021 in Afghanistan, and they predict that it will continue into 2022.
Afghanistan has long seen regular droughts. But in a 2019 report, the FAO warned that climate change could make them more frequent and more intense. The past year’s drought came on the heels of one in 2018 that at the time was the worst seen in Afghanistan in years.
In the midst of the drought, Afghanistan’s economy collapsed in the wake of the August takeover by the Taliban that resulted in a shut-off of international funds to the government and the freezing of billions of the country’s assets held abroad.
Jobs and livelihoods have disappeared, leaving families desperate for ways to find food. The FAO said last month that 18.8 million Afghans are unable to feed themselves every day, and by the end of the year that number will be 23 million, or nearly 60 percent of the population.
Already hit hard by the drought of 2018, small villages like Kamar Kalagh are shriveling away, unable to squeeze out enough water to survive.
A collection of mud brick homes in the mountains outside the western city of Herat, Kamar Kalagh is home to about 150 families who used to live off of their livestock, particularly camels and goats, and the salaries of men who worked as porters at the Islam Qala border crossing with Iran.
That work has largely dried up as well, and now the village’s main income is from selling sand.
Ajab Gul and his two young sons dug sand from the riverbed and stuffed it into bags on a recent day. A full day’s work will earn them the equivalent of about $2.
“The grass used to grow up to here,” Gul said, holding his hand up to his nose. “When a camel walked through it, you’d just see his head. That was 20 years ago.”
Now there’s no grass and almost no livestock.
Two years ago, the village’s main well ran dry, so the residents pooled the money to pay for it to be dug deeper. For a while, it worked. But soon it grew weak again. The villagers began a rationing system: Half could draw water one day, the other half the next.
Even rationing is no longer enough. The water from the well is only enough for about 10 families a day, Wali Jan said.
When Wali Jan couldn’t fill his canisters, he sent two of his grandsons to an alternative source. They turned the chore into a game: The older boy, about 9, pushed the wheelbarrow, with his younger brother riding alongside the canisters, laughing.
They went up the hill, down the other side, through another dry riverbed — about 3 kilometers (2 miles) in all. Plodding along in hand-me-down tennis shoes too big for his feet, the older boy tripped, and the wheelbarrow tumbled over. Still, they made it to a pool of stagnant water in the riverbed, its surface covered in green algae. They filled the canisters.
When they got back to the village, their grandfather met them. He unwound his turban and tied one end of the long scarf around a handle on the front of the wheelbarrow to help the boys get it up the last slope to his family’s home.
The elderly and the very young are nearly the only males remaining in the village. Most of the working-age men have left to find jobs, elsewhere in Afghanistan, in Iran, Pakistan or Turkey.
“You don’t find anyone outside during the day anymore,” said Samar Gul, another man in his 60s. “There’s only women and children inside the houses.”