UN refugee chief warns of world’s inability to restore peace

 United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. (AFP file photo)
United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. (AFP file photo)
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Updated 08 December 2021

UN refugee chief warns of world’s inability to restore peace

 United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. (AFP file photo)
  • Grandi said UNHCR works in highly politicized situations, and increasingly it has to deal with “de facto authorities” who are not internationally recognized but control areas in many countries where it operates because people need help

UNITED NATIONS: The growing inability of the international community to restore peace in countries like Yemen, Libya and Ethiopia is forcing humanitarian and refugee organizations to work increasingly during conflicts which they can’t solve despite the expectations of many people caught up in these crises, the UN refugee chief warned Tuesday.
Filippo Grandi reminded the UN Security Council that in the absence of political solutions to conflicts — “and those political solutions seem to be more and more scarce and far apart” — the consequences on people caught in these violent confrontations “continue to become more and more serious.”
The UN high commissioner for refugees said his office and other organizations are dealing with about 84 million refugees who fled across borders and people displaced within their own countries, trying to provide humanitarian support, shelter and safety.
Grandi spoke to the council and UN correspondents from Geneva where donors pledged a record of more than $1 billion Tuesday to support UNHCR’s work in 2022. While he welcomed their crucial support, Grandi said the pledges won’t be enough to support the growing challenges the agency foresees next year, largely driven by conflict, climate change and COVID-19.
The high commissioner said UNHCR is appealing for nearly $9 billion to cover its operations in 136 countries and territories next year. Almost half the money is for emergencies to assist a record number of forcibly displaced people, especially in the Middle East and Africa as well as millions who have fled their homes in places like Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Venezuela and beyond, he said.
Asked whether he saw any hope for the many millions of refugees and displaced people in 2022, Grandi said “I see glimmers of hope everywhere — if certain things are done.”
“The question is will these things be done?” he asked. “Will states cooperate more to try and solve these issues? Will more resources be put into responses? Will be will the neutrality and safety of humanitarian operations be granted?”
“I remain not terribly optimistic about progress on these matters, especially on cooperation and the search of solutions,” he said.
Grandi said if it took “excruciating negotiations” in the Security Council to get approval to continue delivery of humanitarian aid through a single crossing point from Turkey into Syria, “then we are in trouble, then we cannot really aim at moving forward.”
“So yes, I think the prospects, unfortunately, are rather grim in terms of the size of the problem and the complexity of the causes,” he said.
Grandi said UNHCR works in highly politicized situations, and increasingly it has to deal with “de facto authorities” who are not internationally recognized but control areas in many countries where it operates because people need help. These situations are very often complicated by political difficulties, sanctions and other restrictions on dialogue and engagement which aggravate the provision of humanitarian needs, he said.
Grandi said he is often warned by countries that UNHCR should not politicize humanitarian action, but “I keep reminding states that if anybody politicizes humanitarian action it is the states, not the United Nations as an institution, not UNHCR for sure.”
Nonetheless, he said, UNHCR is being accused by all sides in Ethiopia, for example, of supporting the other side which he warned is not safe for its staff or conducive to effective humanitarian action.
“We operate in context in which there is more burden, expectation that humanitarian actors can solve problems, when in reality, the space is reduced even for us to save lives,” he said.
Grandi said he just returned from a tour of Mexico and northern Central America where he saw “the incredible complexity of the causes of displacement” — conflict, human rights abuses, violence by criminal gangs, poverty, inequality, climate change and an inadequate response by states.
He said the complexity of causes in Central America, Africa’s Sahel region, and elsewhere leads to “increasingly complicated forced displacement.”
Grandi said his message to the Security Council was to focus on one of the causes — conflict — because if progress can be made toward stability then perhaps “the vicious circle” leading to the displacement of millions of people can be unblocked.
He also appealed to the council to provide “the widest scope for humanitarian exception” to UN sanctions on Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers to help the 23 million Afghans facing extreme levels of hunger and other humanitarian challenges.
Grandi warned that a widespread implosion of the Afghan economy will almost inevitably trigger a much bigger exodus of Afghans seeking a better life in neighboring countries and beyond.
“This is something that can still be prevented at this point, but it requires quicker action” to ensure that the economy functions including the flow of cash and services, he said. this with its leaders.


Hong Kong virus cluster in housing prompts partial lockdown

Hong Kong virus cluster in housing prompts partial lockdown
Updated 22 sec ago

Hong Kong virus cluster in housing prompts partial lockdown

Hong Kong virus cluster in housing prompts partial lockdown
HONG KONG: Hong Kong expanded a partial lockdown and tightened pandemic restrictions Tuesday after more than 200 cases of COVID-19 were discovered at a public housing estate.
Hong Kong has already suspended many overseas flights and requires arrivals be quarantined, similar to mainland China’s “zero-tolerance” approach to the virus that has placed millions under lockdowns and mandates mask wearing, rigorous case tracing and mass testing.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said a second residential block at the Kwai Chung housing complex would be locked down for five days. The block where the virus was first discovered is already under lockdown, which will now be extended from five to seven days.
The measures aimed to “play safe protecting the residents as well as preventing the spread of the virus,” Lam told reporters.
Schools have been closed and restaurants cannot offer in-house dining after 6 p.m. in a return to previous measures to contain surges in cases. Compulsory testing has been ordered on people who reside in or visited buildings where the virus was detected.
The outbreak has also prompted the city of Shenzhen just across the border in mainland China to tighten rules on people arriving from Hong Kong. Starting from Wednesday, Hong Kong travelers will need to show a negative COVID-19 test result obtained over the previous 24 hours, undergo 14 days of quarantine at a government-designated location and seven further days of isolation at home.
Lam also criticized one of her senior Cabinet members, Home Affairs Secretary Casper Tsui, who was among several government officials suspended from duty and ordered into quarantine after they attended a birthday party where two guests later tested positive for coronavirus.
“The Secretary for Home Affairs is an official whom we will have to look into very deeply because of various aspects,” Lam said.
As with mainland China, Hong Kong’s tough anti-pandemic rules have helped keep case numbers relatively low, but are also taking a toll on the economy and public patience.
An international center of finance and trade, the city has a prominent expatriate population, some of whom are beginning to chafe at the travel controls and other restrictions.
A survey released this month by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong showed more than 40 percent of members surveyed were more likely to leave because of the restrictions.

At least 18 dead after clash, fire at club in Indonesia’s West Papua

At least 18 dead after clash, fire at club in Indonesia’s West Papua
Updated 2 min 21 sec ago

At least 18 dead after clash, fire at club in Indonesia’s West Papua

At least 18 dead after clash, fire at club in Indonesia’s West Papua
  • Police said the conflict was between two ethnic groups
  • Rebels have recently escalated their fight, targeting road contractors, as well as schools and clinics they say have links to the military

SORONG: At least 18 people were killed during clashes between two groups at a night club in the town of Sorong in Indonesia’s West Papua province, police said Tuesday, with most dying after the venue caught fire.
“The clash broke out last night (Monday) at 11 pm. It was a prolonged conflict from a clash on Saturday,” Sorong police chief Ary Nyoto Setiawan said in a statement.
One victim was stabbed and 17 more died in the blaze at the Double O nightclub, officials said.
“We found 17 bodies in Double O. They were all found on the second floor. We have evacuated the bodies to Selebe Solu Hospital,” said Sorong Police’s health division head Edward Panjaitan.
Police said the clash did not involve locals in remote West Papua, where there is a long-running, low-level insurgency.
They were investigating the cause of the fire, which gutted the large red and white building. A burnt-out vehicle was seen lying on its side by the club’s blackened entrance as officers guarded the site.
“The club was burnt from the first floor. We tried to evacuate as many people as possible, but after the firefighters extinguished the fire this morning, we found some bodies there,” police chief Setiawan said.
Police said the conflict was between two ethnic groups.
“It actually started with a misunderstanding between two members of the respective groups,” Setiawan said.
“We tried to mediate between the groups, as we called their leaders before last night’s clash.”
Police have deployed forces in the town to prevent any further clashes, according to an AFP journalist.
Sorong, gateway to the coral-rich Raja Ampat islands, is the largest city in West Papua province and home to a major port.
It is relatively quiet compared to other regions of West Papua, which have seen clashes due to the ongoing insurgency between separatists and Indonesian security forces.
Rebels have recently escalated their fight, targeting road contractors, as well as schools and clinics they say have links to the military. Authorities have responded by reinforcing deployments of troops and police.
The province shares a border with independent Papua New Guinea on the island of New Guinea, just north of Australia.
A former Dutch colony, mineral-rich Papua declared independence in 1961 but neighboring Indonesia took control two years later, promising an independence referendum.
The subsequent vote in favor of staying part of Indonesia, approved by the UN at the time, was widely considered a sham.
Papua’s Melanesian population, predominantly Christian, share few cultural connections with the rest of Indonesia — the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country.


23 Australians on ship delivering aid to Tonga have COVID-19

23 Australians on ship delivering aid to Tonga have COVID-19
Updated 25 January 2022

23 Australians on ship delivering aid to Tonga have COVID-19

23 Australians on ship delivering aid to Tonga have COVID-19
  • Australian government working with Tongan authorities to keep the ship at sea
  • Tonga has reported just a single case of COVID-19 and has avoided any outbreaks

WELLINGTON: Nearly two dozen sailors on an Australian military ship going to deliver aid to Tonga have tested positive for the coronavirus, officials said Tuesday, raising fears they could bring COVID-19 to a Pacific nation that has so far managed to avoid any outbreaks.
Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton said his government was working with Tongan authorities to keep the ship at sea and make sure there is no threat to Tonga’s 105,000 residents.
Tongan authorities have been wary that accepting international aid could usher in a bigger disaster than the huge eruption of an undersea volcano 10 days ago. The eruption triggered a tsunami that destroyed dozens of homes, and volcanic ash has tainted drinking water.
Since the pandemic began, Tonga has reported just a single case of COVID-19 and has avoided any outbreaks. It’s one of the few countries in the world currently completely virus free. About 61 percent of Tongans are fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data.
Australian officials said 23 crew members were infected on the HMAS Adelaide, which left Brisbane on Friday.
“They need the aid desperately, but they don’t want the risk of COVID,” Dutton told Sky News. “We will work through all of that as quickly as we can.”
It’s the second aid shipment from Australia in which at least one crew member tested positive. A C-17 Globemaster military transport plane was earlier turned around midflight after somebody was diagnosed.
Meanwhile, a cable company official said Tonga’s main island could have its Internet service restored within two weeks, although it may take much longer to repair the connection to the smaller islands.
The single undersea fiber-optic cable which connects the Pacific nation to the outside world was severed after the eruption and tsunami.
That left most people unable to connect with loved ones abroad. For days, people couldn’t get through on their phones, by email, or through social media.
Since then, Tonga’s Digicel has been able to restore international call services to some areas by using satellite connections. Some people have been able to send emails or get limited Internet connectivity.
Samieula Fonua, who chairs the board at Tonga Cable Ltd., the state-owned company which owns the fiber-optic cable, said a repair ship had left from Papua New Guinea and was due to stop over in Samoa by Monday to pick up supplies. It should then arrive in Tonga by Feb. 1.
Fonua said the CS Reliance had a crew of about 60 aboard, including engineers, divers and medical staff. He said its equipment included a robot which could assess the cable on the seabed.
Fonua said preliminary estimates indicated the break in the cable was located about 37 kilometers offshore from the main island of Tongatapu. He said that all going well, the crew should be able to repair the cable by Feb. 8, restoring the Internet to about 80 percent of Tonga’s customers.
The cable runs from Tonga to Fiji, a distance of about 800 kilometers, and was first commissioned in 2013 at a cost of about $16 million. It was financed through grants from the World Bank Group and Asian Development Bank, and increased Tonga’s Internet capacity fivefold.
But like many small Pacific countries, Tonga relies heavily on a single cable to stay connected and has little in the way of a back-up plan. Three years ago, a cable break believed to have been caused by a ship dragging its anchor also led to weeks of disruptions.
A second, domestic fiber-optic cable that connects Tonga’s smaller islands to the main island could prove much more difficult to repair. Fonua said that cable runs near the undersea volcano which erupted and may have been severely damaged. It might need extensive repairs or even a replacement, he said.
Fonua said the focus was on fixing the main international cable, and they could deal with the domestic connections “at a later time.”
He said Tongans had been somewhat understanding of the communication disruptions caused by the disaster, which killed three people, destroyed dozens of homes and tainted water supplies with volcanic ash.
“People are calm. Coming out of a total blackout, just being able to call outside and send an email has settled them a bit,” Fonua said. “By the time they start getting more frustrated, I’m hoping we’ll have the cable connected by then.”


UK to lift travel test requirements for the vaccinated

Passengers arrive at Terminal 5 of Heathrow Airport in London, Aug. 2, 2021. (AP)
Passengers arrive at Terminal 5 of Heathrow Airport in London, Aug. 2, 2021. (AP)
Updated 25 January 2022

UK to lift travel test requirements for the vaccinated

Passengers arrive at Terminal 5 of Heathrow Airport in London, Aug. 2, 2021. (AP)
  • Testing requirements are being lifted for vaccinated adults and all children under 18

LONDON: The British government announced Monday that it is scrapping coronavirus travel testing requirements for the vaccinated, news hailed by the travel industry as a big step back to normality.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that “to show that this country is open for business, open for travelers, you will see changes so that people arriving no longer have to take tests if they have been vaccinated, if they have been double vaccinated.”
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the change would take effect Feb. 11, coinciding with a midterm holiday break for many schoolchildren.
“Border testing of vaccinated travelers has outlived its usefulness,” Shapps said. “Today we are setting Britain free.”
Tourism and travel firms that have been hammered by pandemic restrictions welcomed the move, which makes the UK one of the most open countries in the world for international travel.
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of airline industry body Airlines UK, said it was “a landmark day.”
“Nearly two years since the initial COVID restrictions were introduced, today’s announcement brings international travel toward near-normality for the fully vaccinated, and at last into line with hospitality and the domestic economy,” he said.
Johan Lundgren, chief executive of budget airline easyJet, said “testing for travel should now firmly become a thing of the past.”
“It is clear travel restrictions did not materially slow the spread of omicron in the UK and so it is important that there are no more knee-jerk reactions to future variants,” he said.
Currently, travelers who have had at least two vaccine doses must take a rapid coronavirus test within two days of arriving in the UK Those who are unvaccinated face stricter testing and quarantine rules.
Testing requirements are being lifted for vaccinated adults and all children under 18. Britain is also easing rules for the unvaccinated, who will have to take coronavirus tests before and after traveling to Britain but will no longer face quarantine.
Johnson’s Conservative government is also lifting mask mandates and other restrictions this week, and is relying on vaccinations and widespread testing to keep the virus in check.
The UK government sets public health policy for England. The other parts of the UK — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — set their own health rules, but said they would adopt the same rules as England for international travel.
Coronavirus cases in Britain soared in December, driven by the extremely transmissible omicron variant, though hospitalizations and deaths have remained well below previous pandemic peaks.
Britain has seen over 154,000 deaths in the pandemic, the second-worst toll in Europe after Russia.
 


Webb telescope reaches final destination, a million miles from Earth

In this file photo released by NASA, engineering teams at NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Mission Operations Center monitor progress as the observatory’s second primary mirror wing rotates into position. (AFP)
In this file photo released by NASA, engineering teams at NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Mission Operations Center monitor progress as the observatory’s second primary mirror wing rotates into position. (AFP)
Updated 25 January 2022

Webb telescope reaches final destination, a million miles from Earth

In this file photo released by NASA, engineering teams at NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Mission Operations Center monitor progress as the observatory’s second primary mirror wing rotates into position. (AFP)
  • The plan was intentional, because if Webb had gotten too much thrust from the rocket, it wouldn’t be able to turn around to fly back to Earth, as that would expose its optics to the Sun, overheating and destroying them

WASHINGTON: The James Webb Space Telescope has arrived at its cosmic parking spot a million miles away, bringing it a step closer to its mission to unravel the mysteries of the Universe, NASA said Monday.
At around 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time (1900 GMT), the observatory fired its thrusters for five minutes to reach the so-called second Lagrange point, or L2, where it will have access to nearly half the sky at any given moment.
The delicate burn added 3.6 miles per hour (1.6 meters per second) to Webb’s overall speed, just enough to bring it into a “halo” orbit around L2, 1.5 million kilometers from Earth.
“Webb, welcome home!” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a statement.
Webb will begin its science mission by summer, which includes using its high resolution infrared instruments to peer back in time 13.5 billion years to the first generation of galaxies that formed after the Big Bang.
At L2, it will stay in line with the Earth as it moves around the Sun, allowing Webb’s sunshield to protect its sensitive equipment from heat and light.
For the giant parasol to offer effective protection, it needs the Sun, Earth and Moon to all be in the same direction, with the cold side operating at -370 degrees Fahrenheit (-225 Celsius).
The thruster firing, known as an orbital burn, was the third such maneuver since Webb was launched on an Ariane 5 rocket on December 25.
The plan was intentional, because if Webb had gotten too much thrust from the rocket, it wouldn’t be able to turn around to fly back to Earth, as that would expose its optics to the Sun, overheating and destroying them.
It was therefore decided to slightly underburn the rocket firing and use the telescope’s own thrusters to make up the difference.
The burns went so well that Webb should easily be able to exceed its planned minimum life of five years, Keith Parrish Webb observatory commissioning manager told reporters on a call.
“Around 20 years, we think that’s probably a good ballpark, but we’re trying to refine that,” he said. It’s hypothetically possible, but not anticipated, that a future mission could go there and refuel it.
Webb, which is expected to cost NASA nearly $10 billion, is one of the most expensive scientific platforms ever built, comparable to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, and its predecessor telescope, Hubble.

But while Hubble orbits the Earth, Webb will orbit in an area of space known as a Lagrange point, where the gravitational pull from the Sun and Earth will be balanced by the centrifugal force of the rotating system.
An object at one of these five points, first theorized by Italian French mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange, will remain stable and not fall into the gravity well of the Sun and Earth, requiring only a little fuel for adjustments.
Webb won’t sit precisely at L2, but rather go around it in a “halo” at a distance similar to that between the Earth and Moon, completing a cycle every six months.
This will allow the telescope to remain thermally stable and to generate power from its solar panels.
Previous missions to L2 include the European Space Agency’s Herschel and Planck observatories, and NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe.
Webb’s position will also allow continuous communications with Earth via the Deep Space Network — three large antennas in Australia, Spain and California.
Earlier this month, NASA completed the process of unfolding Webb’s massive golden mirror that will collect infrared signals from the first stars and galaxies that formed a few hundred million years after the Universe began expanding.
Visible and ultraviolet light emitted by the very first luminous objects has been stretched by the Universe’s expansion, and arrives today in the form of infrared, which Webb is equipped to detect with unprecedented clarity.
Its mission also includes the study of distant planets, known as exoplanets, to determine their origin, evolution and habitability.
Next steps include aligning the telescope’s optics and calibrating its scientific instruments. It is expected to transmit its first images back in June or July.