Trapped in ‘cruel’ forest, migrant regrets Belarus-EU crossing

Trapped in ‘cruel’ forest, migrant regrets Belarus-EU crossing
24-year-old Ali Abd Alwareth from Lebanon sits in the woods outside the Emergency State zone at the Polish-Belarusian border and waits for arrival of Border Guard patrol, October 22, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 24 October 2021

Trapped in ‘cruel’ forest, migrant regrets Belarus-EU crossing

Trapped in ‘cruel’ forest, migrant regrets Belarus-EU crossing
  • The EU suspects Belarus is masterminding the unprecedented influx of migrants into Poland as a form of retaliation against EU sanctions

KLESZCZELE, Belarus: Exhausted and trapped in a cold, “cruel” forest, Lebanese barber Ali Abd Alwareth said he regretted his week-long bid to enter the European Union via the Belarus-Poland border.

“It’s miserable. Something that you don’t wish for your worst enemy ... A nightmare,” the soft-spoken 24-year-old with Crohn’s disease told AFP.

Sitting cross-legged on a bed of pine needles and dead leaves near the border town of Kleszczele in eastern Poland, Abd Alwareth described being a ping-pong ball for the guards.

“I tried crossing like five, six times, and every time I got caught and deported back to the border” by Poland, he said in English.

The Belarusian side meanwhile refused to let him return to Minsk to fly home.

Abd Alwareth said security forces told him: “You have only two choices: either you die here or you die in Poland. That’s it.”

One of thousands of migrants — mostly from the Middle East — who have tried to penetrate the 400-km border since August, Abd Alwareth said he left the financial crisis in Lebanon in search of a better life.

The whole journey from his home region of Bekaa cost $4,000 and involved help from a Minsk-based company he found on social media.

The EU suspects Belarus is masterminding the unprecedented influx of migrants into Poland as a form of retaliation against EU sanctions, but the regime has put the blame on the West.

Poland has sent thousands of troops, built a razor-wire fence and implemented a three-month state of emergency that bans journalists and charity workers along the immediate border area.

During his grueling time in the woods, Abd Alwareth said he drank water off of leaves, was too cold to sleep, and was once hit on the head by either the Polish army or police.

Though “exhausted” and “devastated,” he said he understood that the border guards “are doing their job. They are protecting their country. We are illegal.”

On Friday, Abd Alwareth and his Syrian walking companions managed to get in touch with Polish activists, who met them in the forest with warm clothes and food as well as offering support when the guards arrived.

His fate up in the air, Abd Alwareth hopes to receive asylum in Poland — or at the very least, to return to Lebanon.

“Okay, you don’t want me here, you don’t want me in Belarus. Just deport me back home. That’s all I’m asking for,” he said.

“What is happening in the forest is cruel ... I feel like a puppet. It was my decision, I came this way -- but not to be treated like this,” he added.

“I refuse to die at the border. I just want to see my mum.”


Moderna exec says company could have Omicron booster ready in March

Moderna exec says company could have Omicron booster ready in March
Updated 58 min 1 sec ago

Moderna exec says company could have Omicron booster ready in March

Moderna exec says company could have Omicron booster ready in March
NEW YORK: Moderna Inc. could have a COVID-19 booster shot targeting the Omicron variant tested and ready to file for US authorization as soon as March, the company’s president said on Wednesday.
Moderna President Stephen Hoge said he believes booster shots carrying genes specifically targeting mutations in the newly-discovered Omicron variant would be the quickest way to address any anticipated reductions in vaccine efficacy it may cause.
“We’ve already started that program,” he told Reuters.
The company is also working on a multi-valent vaccine that would include up to four different coronavirus variants including Omicron.
That could take several more months, he said.
The United States identified its first COVID-19 case caused by the Omicron variant in California, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Wednesday.
Omicron, dubbed a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, is being studied to see if it is more contagious or causes more severe illness than other variants, and if it can evade current vaccines.
Given prior guidance from the US Food and Drug Administration, which has required mid-stage clinical testing, Hoge said the process could take three or four months.
“The Omicron-specific boosters, just realistically, are not before March and maybe more in the second quarter,” Hoge said, unless the FDA changes its guidance for what data would be needed for authorization.
Moderna would be able to manufacture the vaccine as it was conducting the testing, Hoge said, to have it ready to roll out as soon as possible.
He said the FDA is currently assessing the threat to vaccine protection posed by the Omicron variant. The agency could provide a faster timeline, akin to the way it approves vaccines for influenza, by approving changes in the flu strains, which would shorten the three- to four-month timeline.
In the United States, licensed flu vaccines can be updated each season by substituting in new strains of the virus that are believed to be most likely to cause illness in the upcoming flu season, without the need for large, randomized clinical trials.
Based on the pattern of mutations seen in the Omicron variant, which include mutations that have already been shown to reduce the efficacy of its vaccine in lab studies, Hoge said, “we expect there will be an impact.”
It is not clear yet how big of a drop in efficacy the Omicron variant will cause for current vaccines, but it could be significant, Hoge surmised.
“The mutations that had previously led to the biggest drops in efficacy were seen in Delta and Beta. And all of those mutations have shown up in Omicron,” Hoge said.
“And so the question here is, are we going to see a Delta-like performance? Are we going to see a Beta-like performance? Or are we going to see some cross multiple of the two? I think it’s that last scenario that has people most concerned,” he said.
Hoge said the company is testing to see whether fully vaccinated recipients of Moderna’s vaccine are protected against the variant, as well as those who received the 50-microgram and 100-microgram booster doses of the shot.
“I still believe that the existing vaccines will be able to at least slow down, if not completely stop, the Omicron variant,” he said.

Migrants land on Greece’s Lesbos before Pope Francis trip

Migrants land on Greece’s Lesbos before Pope Francis trip
Updated 01 December 2021

Migrants land on Greece’s Lesbos before Pope Francis trip

Migrants land on Greece’s Lesbos before Pope Francis trip
  • The Somalis, Syrians and Palestinians will be tested for Covid-19 and quarantine after landing near the camp that Pope Francis will visit on Sunday
  • Pope Francis visited Lesbos in 2016 and brought back aboard his plane three Syrian Muslim families whose houses had been bombed

MYTILENE, Greece: Twenty-nine asylum seekers landed Wednesday on the Greek island of Lesbos, four days before Pope Francis was to make a symbolic visit to the migration hotspot emblematic of Europe’s long-running refugee crisis.
The Somalis, Syrians and Palestinians will be tested for Covid-19 and quarantine after landing near the camp that Francis will visit on Sunday, said the camp’s deputy director Dimitris Vafeas.
Greece was at the center of Europe’s 2015 migrant crisis peak as its Aegean islands were the first destination for mainly Middle Eastern migrants entering the European Union from Turkey.
Lesbos once harbored the Moria refugee camp, which was Europe’s largest until it burned down last year.
Francis will visit the new Mavrovouni camp, which replaced the Moria camp.
A large security presence involving 900 police officers is being readied on the island.
The head of the Catholic Church, who has long defended migrants’ rights and denounced the “hostility” of European governments, visited Lesbos in 2016 and brought back aboard his plane three Syrian Muslim families whose houses had been bombed.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 3,653 people have arrived on Greece’s islands so far this year.
In November, only 196 migrants applied for asylum on the islands, a decrease the Greek government welcomed.
But NGOs, the UNHCR and journalistic investigations attribute the decrease to the Greek government illegally forcing migrants back to Turkish waters and preventing them from applying for asylum.
Athens denies the allegations.


Explosion of WWII bomb in Munich injures 3, disrupts trains

Explosion of WWII bomb in Munich injures 3, disrupts trains
Updated 01 December 2021

Explosion of WWII bomb in Munich injures 3, disrupts trains

Explosion of WWII bomb in Munich injures 3, disrupts trains
  • Rail travel to and from the main train station has been suspended, according to rail operator Deutsche Bahn

BERLIN: An old aircraft bomb exploded at a bridge near Munich’s busy main train station on Wednesday, injuring three people, police said on Twitter.
The explosion happened during construction work, police said.
Due to the explosion, rail travel to and from the main train station has been suspended, according to rail operator Deutsche Bahn.


Pfizer vaccines available for EU children in two weeks

Pfizer vaccines available for EU children in two weeks
Updated 01 December 2021

Pfizer vaccines available for EU children in two weeks

Pfizer vaccines available for EU children in two weeks
  • BioNTech/Pfizer, will have jabs available for children in the bloc in two weeks’ time

BRUSSELS: The EU’s main Covid vaccine provider, BioNTech/Pfizer, will have jabs available for children in the bloc in two weeks’ time, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday.
She said she had spoken with the German-US joint venture about the issue the day before, and they said “they are able to accelerate — in other words children’s vaccines will be available as of December 13.”


Vaccine champions Spain, Portugal focus on the reluctant few

Vaccine champions Spain, Portugal focus on the reluctant few
Updated 01 December 2021

Vaccine champions Spain, Portugal focus on the reluctant few

Vaccine champions Spain, Portugal focus on the reluctant few
  • Long lines for getting vaccines have returned to Portugal and Spain
  • Authorities in the northeastern Catalonia region have reopened mass vaccination venues for jabs

MADRID: Juan Esteban Mariño, a healthy 29-year-old, has been part of the rare cohort in Spain who have resisted health authorities’ strong recommendations to get their vaccine shots.
His position only changed when he planned an end-of-the-year holiday in Portugal, where authorities are cracking down on unvaccinated visitors as they confront a surge of infections and try to limit the spread of the omicron variant.
“I needed to get the jab to leave the country and return without any inconveniences,” Mariño said Wednesday at a large vaccination center in Madrid as he pressed sterile gauze against his left arm and rolled down his sleeve.
“With the new variant and restrictions complicating life, getting the vaccine has become unavoidable,” he added.
Long lines for getting vaccines have returned to Portugal and Spain, two neighboring European Union nations that, despite having inoculation figures that are the envy of the world, are stepping up efforts to close the gap on the few residents still unvaccinated. Both nations have reported cases of the omicron variant.
People at the Wizink Center, a large concert hall turned into a “vaccine-drome” in the Spanish capital of Madrid, give an array of reasons why they didn’t get their shots sooner. In addition, many people over 60 were lining up for booster shots, which authorities want to extend soon to younger groups.
But, like Mariño, many say that proving they are either vaccinated or have recovered recently from COVID-19 is becoming compulsory in many places that had resisted the health passes until now.
Iris Reichen, a 61-year-old German-Spanish interpreter, said she was compelled to get her first shot by reports about the fast-spreading omicron variant, whose possible impact is still being considered by health experts, and because her social life had suffered.
“Friends no longer invite the nonvaccinated to their private dinners,” she said.
A recent survey by Spain’s polling institute, CIS, showed that about a third of the 1.6 million adults who remain unvaccinated in Spain were still planning to get their shots. But nearly 3 percent of those polled — the equivalent of 1 million people if the figure was extrapolated to the country’s total population — were planning to avoid it.
The poll, which CIS conducted last month before some Spanish regions introduced mandatory COVID-19 passes, showed that the resistance was across the political spectrum but more prevalent among the middle-class with higher education.
In an internal report leaked Wednesday, a panel of experts advising Spanish health authorities warned against the “false security” that the health certificates can give in a country where nearly 90 percent of those eligible for a vaccine already got their shots. The experts insisted that mask-wearing, which is mandatory in enclosed spaces and a common sight in the streets of Spain, and other social-distancing measures are still more effective against contagion.
Authorities in the northeastern Catalonia region have reopened mass vaccination venues for jabs and are allowing people to get walk-in appointments after announcing that the health certificates will be needed to enjoy everything from a meal in a restaurant to a concert.
Catalan Public Health Secretary Carmen Cabezas said that “both first shots and second shots are increasing” and that over the past week alone, authorities had seen an 81 percent increase in first vaccine doses given out compared to the previous week.
In some instances, police had to be summoned to help disperse crowds forming long after the vaccination centers’ scheduled closing hours.
Long lines formed also in Lisbon, where Portugal’s largest vaccination center to date opened for the first time on Wednesday as authorities tried to encourage the 2 percent of the population who are not vaccinated yet — Europe’s lowest rate— and speed up giving out booster shots.
Despite the country’s excellent vaccination record, cases have been rising nonstop over the past two months, although hospitalizations are far away from the worrying levels seen in previous surges. An outbreak of the omicron strain among members of a professional soccer club in Lisbon and a medical worker who had contact with them has also added to concerns.
Starting Wednesday, Portuguese authorities were tightening passenger entry requirements and mandated masks indoors as the country entered a “state of calamity.” The crisis declaration, Portugal’s second this year, is one step below a state of emergency and gives the government the authority to impose stricter measures without parliamentary approval.
Masks now are required in enclosed public spaces, and individuals must show proof of vaccination, having recovered from COVID-19 or a negative virus tests to enter restaurants, cinemas, gyms and hotels. Nightclubs, hospitals, nursing homes and sports venues also require tests from visitors and patrons, including vaccinated ones.
“With the test, we feel more comfortable. We don’t leave the club thinking, ‘Do I have COVID or not?’” Sara Lopes, a 21-year-old shop worker, said at a Lisbon nightclub as the new requirements took effect at midnight.
“It’s a bit of a hassle to have to make appointment after appointment at the pharmacy, but it’s fine,” she said.