Migrant crisis front and center in pope’s Greece-Cyprus trip

Migrant crisis front and center in pope’s Greece-Cyprus trip
Francis is returning to Lesbos this week for the first time since that defining day of his papacy, making a repeat visit to the island where hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants have passed through on their journey to Europe. (File/AFP)
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Updated 30 November 2021

Migrant crisis front and center in pope’s Greece-Cyprus trip

Migrant crisis front and center in pope’s Greece-Cyprus trip
  • Francis will first stop in Cyprus, a country in the Mediterranean that is coping with a rise in refugees so significant that the government is seeking to stop processing asylum claims
  • Greece continues to host large numbers of asylum-seekers while failing to protect their rights

LESBOS, Greece: When Pope Francis visited the Greek island of Lesbos in 2016, he was so moved by the stories he heard from families fleeing war in Iraq and Syria that he wept and brought a dozen refugees home with him.
Speaking to reporters on the way home that day, he held up a drawing handed to him by a child from the island’s sprawling refugee camp.
“Look at this one,” he said, revealing a bird neatly decorated in colored pencil, the word “peace” scrolled in English underneath it. “That’s what children want: Peace.”
Francis is returning to Lesbos this week for the first time since that defining day of his papacy, making a repeat visit to the island where hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants have passed through on their journey to Europe.
But he will find attitudes toward migrants here have only hardened in the intervening five years, as they have elsewhere in Europe, with tensions flaring on the border between European Union country Poland and Belarus and more deadly crossings — most recently in the English Channel.
Francis will first stop in Cyprus, another predominantly Orthodox Christian country in the Mediterranean that is also coping with a rise in refugees so significant that the government is seeking to stop processing asylum claims. As he did in Lesbos five years ago, Francis has arranged for several would-be refugees in Cyprus to travel to Italy after his visit, Cypriot officials say.
“They are our brothers and sisters,” Francis said in a video message to Greek and Cypriot faithful before the trip. “How many have lost their lives at sea! Today our sea, the Mediterranean, is a great cemetery.”
The pontiff starts his five-day trip on Thursday in Cyprus before heading to Greece on Saturday. He returns home on Monday.
While Francis’ renewed messages of compassion and welcome for migrants isn’t quite resonating in European capitals, they are a welcome salvo for the migrants themselves.
“His presence here will strengthen us, spiritually, and give us hope, some comfort,” said Christian Tango Muyaka, a 30-year-old asylum-seeker from Congo who is due to participate in a Sunday service with the pope at a new migrant camp on Lesbos.
“It gives us faith, it strengthens our faith,” he said.
Muyaka was separated from his wife and youngest daughter a year ago on the Turkish coast when they scrambled to board a boat bound for Greece. He has had no news of what happened to them since.
The north coast of Lesbos, just 10 kilometers (six miles) from Turkey, served as the main landing point for boats crossing into Europe during the 2015-16 migration crisis.
Piles of discarded orange life vests covered beaches, local fishermen helped daily rescue operations, and island residents took pride in setting up campaigns to provide hundreds of refugees arriving daily with food and clothing.
Fast forward five years, and the welcome mat is gone.
Migrants reaching the eastern Greek islands are now being held in detention camps, newly built and funded by the EU. Coast guard patrols are instructed to intercept dinghies and boats heading west and send them back to Turkey.
The overcrowded camp on Lesbos that Francis was taken to in 2016 burnt to the ground last year during protests against pandemic restrictions.
And along Greece’s land border with Turkey, a new steel wall and hi-tech sensor network have been installed to stop illegal crossings.
Eva Cosse at Human Rights Watch said Francis’ visit will serve as an urgent reminder of the human nature of the crisis.
“At a time when people are suffering and their rights are threatened, having the pope standing up for them and expressing these concerns is more important than ever,” she told The Associated Press. “Since the pope’s last visit, Greece continues to host large numbers of asylum-seekers while failing to protect their rights.
“Thousands seeking refuge in Greece are violently pushed back to Turkey. Migrant children face homelessness and a lack of access to health care, education and food. And nongovernmental groups face legislative restrictions and criminal harassment by officials.”
Greek authorities deny allegations of summary deportations. They argue that tougher border policing is necessary to counter hostility by several EU neighbors accused of exploiting the crisis and to limit arrival numbers to manageable levels.
“(Francis’) message is that we are one world, that we don’t have borders, that everybody is a child of God. Look, this is the religious point of view,” said Dimitris Vafeas, the deputy director of Mavrovouni migrant camp on Lesbos where the pope will visit.
“In practical terms, I think Greece has delivered ... so I think (Francis) will see calm faces. I don’t dare say happy faces, but calm for sure.”


New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern isolates after virus exposure

New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern isolates after virus exposure
Updated 29 January 2022

New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern isolates after virus exposure

New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern isolates after virus exposure
  • The exposure came on a flight from the town of Kerikeri to the largest city of Auckland
  • Officials said genome sequencing would be completed Sunday and was expected to show the infected person had the omicron variant

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said late Saturday she is self-isolating after coming into close contact with a person infected with the coronavirus.
The exposure came on a flight from the town of Kerikeri to the largest city of Auckland. New Zealand’s Governor-General Cindy Kiro was also on the Jan. 22 flight and has also gone into isolation.
Both women had been in the Northland region to do some filming ahead of New Zealand’s national day, Waitangi Day, on Feb. 6.
“The Prime Minister is asymptomatic and is feeling well,” her office said in a statement. “In line with Ministry of Health advice she will be tested immediately tomorrow and will isolate until Tuesday.”
Health officials listed a dozen flights as exposure events late Saturday, a possible indication that one or more of the flight crew was infected.
Officials said genome sequencing would be completed Sunday and was expected to show the infected person had the omicron variant.
New Zealand has managed to stamp out or contain the virus for much of the pandemic, and has reported just 52 virus deaths among its population of 5 million. But an outbreak of the omicron variant is starting to take hold and is expected to rapidly grow over the coming weeks.
About 77 percent of New Zealanders are fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data. That figure rises to 93 percent of those aged 12 and over, according to New Zealand officials.


Third COVID wave looms in Indonesia as omicron spreads

Third COVID wave looms in Indonesia as omicron spreads
Updated 29 January 2022

Third COVID wave looms in Indonesia as omicron spreads

Third COVID wave looms in Indonesia as omicron spreads
  • Bed occupancy rates in the capital, Jakarta, the epicenter of the country’s omicron outbreak, rose from 5 percent in early January to 45 percent on Saturday

JAKARTA, Indonesia: Indonesia is bracing for a third wave of COVID-19 infections as the highly transmissible omicron variant drives a surge in new cases, health authorities and experts said Saturday.
The country reported 9,905 new infections and seven deaths on Friday in the latest 24-hour period. It was the highest daily caseload since August last year when the country was struggling to contain a delta-driven wave.
Indonesia had recovered from last year’s spike in cases and deaths that was among the worst in the region, and daily infections had fallen to about 200 by December. But cases are rising again just weeks after the country reported its first local omicron case.
Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin said the next few months will be critical because omicron is spreading “rapidly and massively.”
“Its upsurge will be extremely fast ... We will see a sharp rise in the near future,” he told a news conference Friday, adding that the current wave would likely peak at the end of February or in early March.
The government has prepared mitigation measures to deal with a potential surge, including dedicating more hospital beds for COVID-19 patients, ensuring adequate tracing and testing measures, strictly enforcing health protocols and intensifying vaccination efforts in all regions, Sadikin said.
Bed occupancy rates in the capital, Jakarta, the epicenter of the country’s omicron outbreak, rose from 5 percent in early January to 45 percent on Saturday, said Jakarta Deputy Governor Ahmad Riza Patria. He said “omicron is moving too quickly” in the city, where more than 80 percent of the 10 million residents have been vaccinated.
Pandu Riono, an Indonesian epidemiologist and academic adviser to the government, said Indonesians are still traumatized from the delta variant when many died in isolation at home or while waiting to receive emergency care as hospitals were swamped.
During last year’s surge, hospitals erected plastic tents to serve as makeshift intensive care units, and patients waited for days before being admitted. Oxygen tanks were rolled out on the sidewalk for those lucky enough to receive them, while others were told they would need to find their own supply.
Riono said a third wave would be unlikely to push Indonesia’s health care system to the brink of collapse because omicron generally causes less-severe symptoms than delta.
President Joko Widodo on Friday urged asymptomatic patients to self-isolate at home for five days and to use telemedicine services through which they can access doctors, medicines and vitamins for free, or to visit a community health center.
“This is important so that our health care facilities can focus on treating patients with more severe symptoms or patients of other diseases that need intensive care,” Widodo said.
Some health experts doubt the measures will be enough, given the lax enforcement.
Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist at Griffith University in Australia, said a third wave of infections is inevitable as long as a large portion of Indonesia’s population remains unprotected against COVID-19. As of Friday, only 61 percent of Indonesia’s 208 million people eligible for shots were fully vaccinated.
Overall, Indonesia, a vast archipelago nation that is home to 270 million people, has reported more than 4.3 million infections and 144,268 deaths from COVID-19.


One injured in multiple bomb attacks in Thailand’s deep south

One injured in multiple bomb attacks in Thailand’s deep south
Updated 29 January 2022

One injured in multiple bomb attacks in Thailand’s deep south

One injured in multiple bomb attacks in Thailand’s deep south
  • As with most attacks in Thailand’s deep south, there was no claim of responsibility for the Friday bomb attacks

BANGKOK: At least one person was injured in multiple bomb attacks in Thailand’s southern province of Yala, police said on Saturday.
At least 13 small explosions struck the town of Yala late on Friday, mostly on roadsides in front of convenience stores, shops, a market, an animal hospital and a car care shop, said deputy police spokesman Kissana Phathanacharoen.
Police on Saturday found at least three unexploded improvised explosive devices, made of spray cans and metal pipes with timers attached.
Kissana said police suspect the explosions were aimed at causing a disturbance more than damage or injuries.
A decades-old separatist insurgency in predominantly Buddhist Thailand’s largely ethnic Malay-Muslim provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat has claimed the lives of more than 7,300 people since 2004, according to the Deep South Watch group which monitors the violence.
Rebel groups have called for independence for these provinces bordering Malaysia, which were part of a sultanate called Patani annexed by Thailand in 1909 as part of a treaty with Britain.
Friday’s bombing came just weeks after the Thai government restarted a peace dialogue with the main insurgent group after a two-year break of talks due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As with most attacks in Thailand’s deep south, there was no claim of responsibility for the Friday bomb attacks.
The main rebel group, Barisan Revolusi Nasional did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for comment.


Thai beach declared disaster area after oil spill

Thai beach declared disaster area after oil spill
Updated 29 January 2022

Thai beach declared disaster area after oil spill

Thai beach declared disaster area after oil spill
  • The leak from the pipeline owned by Star Petroleum Refining Public Company Limited (SPRC) started late on Tuesday
  • About 150 SPRC workers and 200 navy personnel had been deployed to clean up the beach and oil boom barriers had been set up

BANGKOK: A beach in eastern Thailand was declared a disaster area on Saturday as oil leaking from an underwater pipeline in the Gulf of Thailand continued to wash ashore and blacken the sand.
The leak from the pipeline owned by Star Petroleum Refining Public Company Limited (SPRC) started late on Tuesday and was brought under control a day later after spilling an estimated 50,000 liters (13,209 gallons) of oil into the ocean 20 km (12 miles) from the country’s industrialized eastern seaboard.
Some of the oil reached the shoreline at Mae Ramphueng beach in Rayong province late on Friday after spreading over 47 sq km (18 sq miles) of sea in the gulf.
The navy is working with SPRC to contain the leak and said the main oil mass was still offshore with only a small amount washing up on at least two spots along the 12-km-long beach.
About 150 SPRC workers and 200 navy personnel had been deployed to clean up the beach and oil boom barriers had been set up, the navy said.
Twelve navy ships and three civilian ships along with a number of aircraft were also working to contain the spill at sea with booms and dispersant spray.
“We and the company are still working at sea to reduce the amount of oil by cornering the spill and sucking up the oil and spraying dispersant,” Rear Admiral Artorn Charapinyo, deputy commander of the first Naval Area command, told reporters.


South America squid left exposed amid surge in China fishing

South America squid left exposed amid surge in China fishing
Updated 29 January 2022

South America squid left exposed amid surge in China fishing

South America squid left exposed amid surge in China fishing
  • The number of Chinese-flagged vessels in the south Pacific has surged 13-fold from 54 active vessels in 2009 to 707 in 2020, according to the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization

MIAMI, US: Negotiators from the US, China and 13 other governments failed to take action to protect threatened squid stocks on the high seas off South America amid a recent surge in activity by China’s distant water fishing fleet.
The South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization, or SPRFMO, is charged with ensuring the conservation and sustainable fishing off the west coast of South America.
At the SPRFMO’s annual meeting that ended Friday, Ecuador and the European Union proposed measures that would require all ships to have observers on board by 2028 and mandate they unload their catches only in ports instead of at sea to giant refrigerated vessels — both considered key tools in limiting illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
There were also competing proposals, one of them from China, to limit the amount of squid that could be caught.
However, none of the proposed measures were adopted during the closed-door meeting, thwarting the efforts of environmentalists and some seafood importers in the US and Europe who have been pushing for restrictions of fishing on the high seas that make up about half of the planet.
CALAMASUR, a group made up of squid industry representatives from Mexico, Chile, Peru and Ecuador, attended the four-day virtual meeting as an observer and said it was deeply disappointed by the results, which it said expose the SPRFMO to being seen as “non-cooperative” in the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing,
“This situation cannot be accepted as an outcome,” the group said in a statement.
Craig Loveridge, the executive secretary of the New Zealand-based SPRFMO, did not respond to a request for comment.
The number of Chinese-flagged vessels in the south Pacific has surged 13-fold from 54 active vessels in 2009 to 707 in 2020, according to the SPRFMO. Meanwhile, the size of China’s squid catch has grown from 70,000 tons in 2009 to 358,000.
Biologists warn that the boom has left the naturally bountiful Humboldt squid — named for the nutrient-rich current found off the west coast of South America — vulnerable to overfishing, as has occurred in Argentina, Mexico, Japan and other places where squid stocks have disappeared in the past.
An investigation by The Associated Press and Spanish-language broadcaster Univision last year revealed how the traditionally lawless area has become a magnet for some of the seafood industry’s worst offenders, many of them Chinese-flagged vessels with a history of labor abuse accusations and convictions for illegal fishing.