UK PM Johnson says at least one dead with omicron

Update UK PM Johnson says at least one dead with omicron
People queue at a vaccination centre in London, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 13 December 2021

UK PM Johnson says at least one dead with omicron

UK PM Johnson says at least one dead with omicron
  • After COVID-19 was first detected in China in late 2019, he faced criticism for initially resisting lockdown

LONDON: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday said at least one person infected with omicron had died, as the country began an ambitious booster programme against the variant.
“Sadly, at least one patient has been confirmed to have died with omicron,” Johnson, who on Sunday warned of a “tidal wave” of infection from the mutation, told reporters.
Britain also said on Monday that the omicron coronavirus variant was spreading at a “phenomenal rate” and now accounted for about 40 percent of infections in London, so people should get a booster shot because the double-vaccinated are still vulnerable.
Since the first omicron cases were detected on Nov. 27 in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has imposed tougher restrictions and told the nation on Sunday that a “tidal wave” of omicron was coming.
Britain says that unless action is taken there could be a million people infected with omicron by the end of the month.
“It’s spreading at a phenomenal rate, something that we’ve never seen before, it’s doubling every two to three days in infections,” Health Secretary Sajid Javid told Sky News.
“That means we’re facing a tidal wave of infection, we’re once again in a race between the vaccine and the virus.”
The pound fell 0.4 percent to $1.3225, while it was broadly steady against the euro at 85.29 pence.
Johnson, who is grappling with a rebellion in his party over measures to curb omicron and an outcry over alleged parties at his Downing Street office during last year’s lockdowns, said people should rush to get booster vaccines to protect “our freedoms and our way of life.”
After COVID-19 was first detected in China in late 2019, he faced criticism for initially resisting lockdown.
He has also been criticized for overseeing mistakes in transferring patients into care homes, and for building a costly test-and-trace system that failed to stop a deadly second wave.
Johnson has repeatedly said that while mistakes were made, the government was making decisions at pace in the biggest public health crisis for generations and that his government was swift to roll out vaccines.
Across the world, COVID has killed 5.3 million people, wiped out trillions of dollars in economic output and turned normal life upside down for many. In the United Kingdom, more than 146,000 people have died from COVID.
As Johnson tries to stem the spread of omicron, he faces growing anger from libertarians in his party over stiffer COVID rules and sinking poll ratings.
He has faced criticism over his handling of a sleaze scandal, the awarding of lucrative COVID contracts, the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat and a claim he intervened to ensure pets were evacuated from Kabul during the chaotic Western withdrawal in August.
An Ipsos MORI survey for The London Evening Standard newspaper showed opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer’s ranking was 13 percentage points ahead of Johnson, the first time a Labour leader had been viewed as a more capable prime minister since 2008.
It also echoed other polls by showing Labour up three points on 39 percent ahead of Johnson’s Conservatives, who were down one point since the last survey in November on 35 percent.
Javid said although there had been no deaths confirmed in England and just 10 people hospitalized with the omicron variant, its swift spread meant that unless the government acted the health service could be overwhelmed.
“Two doses are not enough, but three doses still provide excellent protection against symptomatic infection,” Javid said.
The government wants to offer all adults a booster by New Year, an ambitious target given the Christmas holiday and that vaccinating 1 million people per day is around double the current 530,000 per day.


AU urges probe into deaths of Africans at Spain-Morocco border

AU urges probe into deaths of Africans at Spain-Morocco border
Updated 5 sec ago

AU urges probe into deaths of Africans at Spain-Morocco border

AU urges probe into deaths of Africans at Spain-Morocco border
  • AU Commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat: I express my deep shock and concern at the violent and degrading treatment of African migrants attempting to cross an international border
  • Spain’s enclaves in Morocco, Melilla and Ceuta, are the only land borders the European Union shares with Africa
NAIROBI: The African Union Commission chief has voiced his shock at the “violent and degrading” treatment of African migrants trying to cross from Morocco into Spain after 23 people died, and called for an investigation into the incident.
About 2,000 migrants stormed the heavily fortified border between the Moroccan region of Nador and the Spanish enclave of Melilla on Friday.
At least 23 migrants died and 140 police officers were wounded in the ensuing violence, according to Moroccan authorities. It was the heaviest toll in years from such attempts to cross the frontier at Melilla.
“I express my deep shock and concern at the violent and degrading treatment of African migrants attempting to cross an international border from Morocco into Spain,” AU Commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat said in a statement on Twitter late Sunday.
“I call for an immediate investigation into the matter and remind all countries of their obligations under international law to treat all migrants with dignity and to prioritize their safety and human rights, while refraining from the use of excessive force.”
Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations, Martin Kimani, said a UN Security Council meeting would be held behind closed doors on Monday to discuss the violence African migrants face in Melilla.
Kenya, Gabon and Ghana — the African non-permanent members of the Security Council — called for the meeting, he said.
“Migrants are Migrants: whether from Africa or Europe, they do not deserve to be brutalized in this way,” Kimani wrote on Twitter.
Speaking at a regular press briefing, UN chief Antonio Guterres’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric said: “We very much deplore this tragic incident and the loss of life.”
Spain on Monday thanked Morocco for its “collaboration” in the defense of Spanish borders and once again blamed “international mafias that traffic human beings” for the incident.
But calls for a probe have increased, with around 50 migrant rights groups calling the Melilla deaths “the tragic symbol of European policies to externalize the European Union’s borders.”
“The death of these young Africans... alerts us to the deadly nature of the security cooperation on migration between Morocco and Spain,” they added.
Spain’s rights ombudsman said it accepted a complaint from several NGOs on the incident and has requested information from the relevant administrative bodies.
The migrant rush in Melilla came after Madrid and Rabat normalized their diplomatic relations following an almost year-long crisis centered on the disputed Western Sahara territory.
For Spain, the main objective of the diplomatic thaw was to ensure Morocco’s cooperation in controlling illegal immigration.
Spain’s enclaves in Morocco, Melilla and Ceuta, are the only land borders the European Union shares with Africa.

Amnesty accuses Lithuania of arbitrarily detaining migrants, subjecting them to inhumane treatment

Amnesty accuses Lithuania of arbitrarily detaining migrants, subjecting them to inhumane treatment
Updated 59 min 26 sec ago

Amnesty accuses Lithuania of arbitrarily detaining migrants, subjecting them to inhumane treatment

Amnesty accuses Lithuania of arbitrarily detaining migrants, subjecting them to inhumane treatment
  • Treatment of refugees from Iraq, Syria and other regions in stark contrast to the treatment of refugees from Ukraine white_check_mark eyes raised_hands

LONDON: Amnesty International has accused Lithuanian authorities of arbitrarily detaining thousands of migrants in military centers, subjecting them to “inhumane treatment” and torturing them.

Amnesty International released a report detailing how refugees and migrants have been held for months in prison-like facilities in Lithuania, where they are denied fair asylum procedures and subjected to serious human rights violations.

Amnesty International conducted interviews with dozens of refugees from Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Many have reported being beaten, insulted and subjected to racially-motivated intimidation and harassment by guards.

They also complained of insufficient access to sanitary facilities and healthcare.“In Iraq, we hear about human rights and women’s rights in Europe. But here there are no rights”, said a Yazidi woman who was detained in the Medininkai detention center to Amnesty.

This treatment stands in stark contrast to the treatment of people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine.

“While Lithuania has rightly extended a warm welcome to tens of thousands of people fleeing Ukraine, the experience of the detainees we spoke with could not be more different. This raises serious concerns about institutional racism embedded within Lithuania’s migration system.” said Nils Muižnieks, Europe Regional Director of Amnesty International.

In July 2021, lawmakers passed new legislation mandating the detention of people who irregularly crossed into Lithuanian territory.

In order to escape EU legal safeguards against arbitrary detention, Lithuanian authorities described such detention as “temporary accommodation”.

The detainees interviewed by Amnesty International reported the aggressive behavior of the center’s guards when they protested against the appalling detention conditions.

Authorities retaliated by beating them with batons, spraying them with pepper spray, and using taser guns.

A psychologist who worked at the center is being investigated for alleged sexual violence against detainees in his care.

Amnesty International also documented how racialized detainees, particularly Black men and women, were subjected to profoundly offensive racist slurs.

Despite the overwhelming evidence released today by Amnesty and other international organizations and local groups over the last year, the European Parliament claims that there is no hard evidence of these international and EU law violations.

Speaking to Euronews, Lithuanian interior minister Agne Bilotaite said the report “tends to reflect the views and testimonies of only one side,” and that Lithuania had “continuously cooperated with all human rights institutions and organisations and adhered to the principle of open dialogue and the rule of law.”


UK to remove visa requirement for GCC nationals visiting from 2023

UK to remove visa requirement for GCC nationals visiting from 2023
Updated 27 June 2022

UK to remove visa requirement for GCC nationals visiting from 2023

UK to remove visa requirement for GCC nationals visiting from 2023
  • ETA is part of the British government’s plan to fully digitize its border by the end of 2025
  • ETA is akin to a multi-travel visa covering extended stays

LONDON: Gulf Cooperation Council nationals will no longer be required to apply for a visa before visiting Britain from 2023, the UK government announced today.

Under Britain’s new Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) scheme, rolling out next year, nationals from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will join Americans and Canadians in benefiting from visa-free travel.

Home secretary Priti Patel said: “This move means that Gulf states will be among the first countries in the world to benefit from ETAs and visa-free travel to the UK.

“Our number one priority is the security of the UK border and by launching ETAs we can ensure that everyone wishing to travel to the UK has permission to do so in advance of travel and refuse those who pose a threat.”

The ETA is part of the British government’s plan to fully digitize its border by the end of 2025 and mirrors the list of nationals who do not currently require visas for short stays or transiting.

Once granted, the ETA is akin to a multi-travel visa covering extended stays but until its introduction, GCC nationals will continue to benefit from access to the Electronic Visa Waiver scheme, which can be completed online before visits to Britain.

Describing the ETA process as “straightforward,” the Home Office said the scheme will “act as an additional security measure allowing the government to block threats” but would also provide individuals “more assurance at an earlier point in time about their ability to travel.”


In Indonesia’s ‘Makkah porch,’ Hajj rekindles centuries-old bond with Arabia

In Indonesia’s ‘Makkah porch,’ Hajj rekindles centuries-old bond with Arabia
Updated 27 June 2022

In Indonesia’s ‘Makkah porch,’ Hajj rekindles centuries-old bond with Arabia

In Indonesia’s ‘Makkah porch,’ Hajj rekindles centuries-old bond with Arabia
  • For centuries, Aceh was the last Southeast Asian port of call for Hajj, known as the ‘Porch of Makkah’
  • Saudi Arabia was one the biggest single aid donors when a tsunami devastated Aceh in 2004 

JAKARTA: As they leave for Hajj, pilgrims from Aceh prepare for a transformative and spiritually moving experience, which for many of them also rekindles a special, centuries-old connection they feel for Saudi Arabia.

The westernmost province of Indonesia, Aceh is the site of the earliest Muslim kingdoms in Southeast Asia, which began to form in the late 13th century. 

It was the last Southeast Asian port of call for pilgrimages to the holiest city of Islam, and in the 17th century court chronicles of Aceh rulers began to refer to it as “Serambi Makkah,” or “Porch of Makkah” — a term that is still used by the Acehnese today.

Now, the opportunity to depart for the real Makkah and perform Hajj is something they look forward to for years, if not decades.

“In Aceh it’s about 30 to 31 years,” Mizaj Iskandar, who has been tasked by the local government with organizing the pilgrimage, told Arab News.

“They are certainly very emotional because they have been waiting for so long,” he said. “By the time they receive the call, they must be moved, happy, and in disbelief. All these emotions you can find in almost all the participants.”

One of the pilgrims, 58-year-old Kamariah from Aceh Besar regency, could not find the words to describe how moved she was that she would be able to see the Kaaba at the center of the Grand Mosque, Masjid Al-Haram, in Makkah.

“I don’t know how to express how happy I am to see Kaaba,” she said. “It feels like I will never want to leave it.”

Like other pilgrims, Kamariah has been preparing for the journey, especially spiritually.

“Before we go to the holy land, we must have already cleansed our hearts,” she said. “We hope to become good Hajj pilgrims.”

One of Islam’s five pillars of faith, the Hajj was restricted over pandemic fears to only 1,000 people living in Saudi Arabia in 2020. In 2021, the Kingdom limited the pilgrimage to 60,000 domestic participants, compared with the pre-pandemic 2.5 million.

But this year, as it has already lifted most of its COVID-19 curbs, Saudi Arabia will welcome 1 million pilgrims from abroad. More than 100,000 of them are arriving from Indonesia — the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. And among them, 2,022 are from Aceh.

“My family and I have not stopped expressing our gratitude to Allah, because we have been called this year to go for Hajj,” Amalia Sabrina, a doctor from Sigli town in the Pidie regency of Aceh, told Arab News.

“I once had a dream of the event that has now taken place, and it feels almost like deja vu to be in the same position as in that dream.”

She arrived in the Kingdom last week and was enjoying the hospitality with which pilgrims have been received.

“Whether it’s the hotel service, food, laundry, service at the shops, or the people,” she said. “Everyone has been friendly.”

Sabrina’s younger brother Miftahul Hamdi, a football player, was also grateful to be in the Kingdom.

“I am so grateful to get this opportunity to go for Hajj this year,” he said. “Aceh is often referred to as a ‘Makkah porch,’ so being able to go for Hajj here is just very fulfilling and makes me feel very grateful.” 

The enthusiasm Acehnese have for the Hajj pilgrimage, a sacred milestone for Muslims, is reinforced by their historical links to Saudi Arabia.

Marzuki Abubakar, researcher and lecturer at Ar-Raniry State Islamic University in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, said that Islam in Aceh has revolved around Arabia ever since its advent in Southeast Asia. The coastal region also connected the rest of the islands that constitute present-day Indonesia with the Middle East.

“Aceh was a transit point for Hajj pilgrims to go to Makkah from all over the archipelago,” he said. “There’s amazing enthusiasm among Acehnese to go for Hajj.”

What has recently strengthened the bond was the help the Acehnese received from the Kingdom during one of the darkest periods in the region’s history — the 2004 tsunami.

“They are emotionally attached to Saudi Arabia because of the help they received after the tsunami,” Abubakar told Arab News.

Saudi Arabia was one the biggest single donors to the relief response, when the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami devastated Aceh, killing more than 160,000 people — nearly 5 percent of the local population.

Saudi charities helped rebuild houses, medical facilities and the 17th-century Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh — a symbol of religion and identity of the Acehnese.

Nurlinda Nurdin, a radio reporter from Banda Aceh, who performed the pilgrimage in 2006 and spent two months covering Hajj preparations in Saudi Arabia, said that before the journey she would often fall ill, but all her ailments were gone when she was there.

“When I arrived in Saudi Arabia, I was always healthy. I was fully working, didn’t feel exhausted at all, I was enjoying myself, I was comfortable,” she told Arab News.

“I just felt super close, as if my house was just right behind the mountain. My heart was just at ease.”


Desperate Sri Lankans flee country by sea as crisis worsens

Desperate Sri Lankans flee country by sea as crisis worsens
Updated 27 June 2022

Desperate Sri Lankans flee country by sea as crisis worsens

Desperate Sri Lankans flee country by sea as crisis worsens
  • Island nation is struggling with acute shortages of food, fuel and medicines
  • Navy has arrested some 450 people trying to travel abroad illegally this year

COLOMBO: Hundreds of Sri Lankans have tried to leave the country illegally so far this year, the navy said on Monday, as it foiled another such attempt over the weekend amid the country’s worst economic turmoil in decades.

Sri Lanka has lacked the foreign currency to buy all it needs from abroad, and has faced extreme shortages of basic necessities including fuel, food, and lately also medicines. Inflation has skyrocketed in recent months and is now running at 40 percent.

The country of 22 million people last month defaulted on its multimillion-dollar foreign debt, and is struggling to secure new shipments of fuel as it uses its last supply of petrol and diesel to keep essential services running.

In search of better opportunities and as the country inches closer to the brink of collapse, a rising number of Sri Lankans have chosen to partake in illegal migration.

Navy spokesman Capt. Indika De Silva said that 54 people are currently in custody, following a raid conducted on Sunday in Batticaloa district in the country’s east coast.

“This year, the number of migrants has increased manifold due to various reasons such as the present economic stress and the smugglers trying to exploit (the situation) by attracting innocent people toward greener pastures,” De Silva told Arab News.

“We have apprehended some 450 people this year, including this batch, which is double the number arrested the whole of last year.”

Over the years, Sri Lankans have illegally traveled to Australia and other nations for economic and political reasons, but the number increased in recent months as the worsening crisis appears to have also emboldened human traffickers.

“With recent economic hardships, illegal smugglers pitched the business again to get large payments by taking people on this journey. People are also willing to take the risk,” Colombo-based human rights activist, Muheed Jeeran, told Arab News.

Many of them who are headed to Australia were unaware that the government down under has been turning back unauthorized boat arrivals.

“Unfortunately, these vulnerable people don’t know that the Australian government will return them in those boats with their new laws in place,” he added.

“The ultimate winners are human smugglers.”