Frankly Speaking: Senior EU aid official denies Europe is selective on refugees, says Syrians were treated same as Ukrainians

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Updated 16 May 2022

Frankly Speaking: Senior EU aid official denies Europe is selective on refugees, says Syrians were treated same as Ukrainians

Frankly Speaking: Senior EU aid official denies Europe is selective on refugees, says Syrians were treated same as Ukrainians
  • Michael Koehler, deputy director general of ECHO, tells Arab News that Assad regime atrocities ‘have not been forgotten’
  • Claims EU takes principled position on Palestine but explains cuts in EU development assistance to Palestinian Authority
  • Koehler names and shames EU member countries that did not pay their share of promised aid

JEDDAH: Denying that the European Union discriminates between refugees Michael Koehler, the deputy director general of the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), has claimed that Syrians were welcomed in the same way as Ukrainians and that the crimes of the Bashar Assad regime will not be forgotten.

In a wide-ranging interview with Arab News, Koehler also reiterated Europe’s commitment to supporting Palestinian humanitarian needs, stating that any cut in EU aid relates solely to financial transfers for development assistance, not humanitarian aid.

Koehler denied that Europe’s treatment of Ukrainians fleeing their country because of the war with Russia and those from the Middle East has revealed racism, double standards and hypocrisy. “The only difference that I see is that refugees from Ukraine have, on the basis of a decision of the European ministers of interior, immediately been granted work permits,” he told the host of Arab News’ “Frankly Speaking” interview show, Katie Jensen. “But apart from that, the treatment is not different from refugees from other parts of the world.”

“Frankly Speaking” features in-depth discussions with leading policymakers and business leaders, diving deep into the biggest news-making headlines across the Middle East and around the world. During his appearance on the show, Koehler spoke on a number of issues, including what the future holds for displaced Ukrainians and whether the EU plans to pull funding from Middle East crisis zones to make up for the humanitarian aid gap. 

Koehler said one needs to look back at the arrival of the Syrians and Iraqis in 2015 and 2016 when slightly more comparable numbers of refugees were pouring into Europe. “The million Syrians that poured into (Germany) were very much welcomed,” he said. “It is not quite fair in a way to compare the welcome that now Ukrainians are receiving two months into the crisis, with the situation of other refugees that have been in Europe for four years, five years, six years or seven years, and where certain problems have arisen.”

“We are absolutely not yet there in the Ukraine crisis, but it’s a very general phenomenon. Structurally, this is a very well-known phenomenon,” he said, pointing to instances where the initial warm welcome given to refugees by the host population gave way to problems that “led sometimes to populist reactions.”

Still, Koehler expressed regret at comments such as those made by Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov (“These are not the refugees we are used to, these people are Europeans, intelligent, educated people”), and the implication that countries have the right to choose refugees based on race, religion or politics.

“No, absolutely not. Absolutely not,” he said. “It is, however, of course, normal that if you are a direct neighbor of a country that is in the situation Ukraine finds itself in, then of course there is perhaps a slightly bigger emotion. There’s a slightly bigger readiness of private persons to help, but we’ve seen the same thing in other scenarios.”

Alluding to the insensitive remarks of European politicians, Koehler said: “We shouldn’t take the statements of this or that individual politician as the kind of policy line of European member states and of the EU. Politicians can voice their personal opinions, but this doesn’t mean that the legal order that settles the way refugees are welcomed, the support they receive and so forth, that this would be changed.”

Koehler disagreed with the notion that with the Ukrainian humanitarian crisis holding the spotlight, the atrocities committed by the Assad regime in Syria, where 6.2 million people remain internally displaced, have been forgotten. “No, they have not been forgotten,” he responded. “In fact, I shared via Twitter part of the ministerial meeting on Syria in the region that we are hosting here at Brussels for the sixth time. This is the annual meeting of the international community.

“The international community has put together a record pledge: €6.4 billion for 2022-2023, which is half a billion more than the equivalent pledge of last year. So, what this tells us is that there is no fatigue in the international community when it comes to assisting Syrians. The donors are there, there is no donor fatigue and the international organizations are mobilized.”

But what about all the complaints of humanitarian agencies that they are running out of money? Koehler says he does not deny there is a problem of “donor insufficiency.”

“If you look at the amount of money that’s mobilized every year for humanitarian aid, you see an increase of money. This is totally outpaced by the needs, because every year we have more crises. The existing crises unfortunately don’t go away and the number of people that are suffering keeps increasing.”

Asked how the humanitarian funding gap could be filled, Koehler said the solution is a mixture of elements, starting with more donors, especially those in the EU. “Look at the clubs of rich countries. There are 38 members of OECD or the G20,” he said. “Not all of these countries have already started to deliver humanitarian aid. Some do, but not very consistently. There may be a year where they may put a lot of money on the table, and in other years they are a bit more (tight-fisted) with their resources.”

Among the many ways the Middle East is exposed to the vagaries of the Ukraine war, Russia has hinted at vetoing the renewing of the mandate that allows the UN to use the Bab Al-Hawa crossing in northern Syria when it expires on July 9. This means that EU aid might have to go through Damascus and thus be under the control of the Assad regime. “If Bab Al-Hawa was closed, there would be a huge supply problem and we have seen what it means already in the northeast of Syria,” Koehler said.

“However, we are also very much in favor of cross-line cooperation, so we have no problem with bringing aid from Damascus to the northeast, for example, or the northwest. Unfortunately, this is happening only on a small scale, which has to do with political but also logistical problems.”

According to Koehler, there is a new system by which aid is always delivered through specialized partners, never through governments, “so delivering aid, for example in the part of Syria that is controlled by the authorities in Damascus, does not mean to give money to the Assad government.

“It is implemented through specialized owned organizations, NGOs, UN agencies and so forth. For that we have monitoring, we have audits, we have independent audits by third parties,” he said. “We have our offices on the ground. ECHO has an office in Damascus that can monitor what’s going on, and as soon as there is some kind of suspicion of diversion of aid, we stop. We stop, we enquire and we only resume aid once we are sufficiently, let’s say, reassured about the way the aid is implemented.”

Koehler said ECHO was using the same modus operandi in Afghanistan. “As I said earlier, we never work through governments. So, we work with the local NGOs. We work with the Red Crescent, we work, for example, with UNICEF and other organizations and we make sure that this money comes to the benefit directly of the population concerned,” he said.

However, he acknowledged that with more restrictions announced by the Taliban, many of them targeted at women, “we are frankly disappointed with the way things are developing in Afghanistan.”

Last April the EU pledged €525 million of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, and according to Koehler, as a consequence of the developments in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover of the country last year, the international community, in particular the EU, have stepped up humanitarian funding.

“The Taliban came up with a number of assurances, concerning, for example, girls’ education and women’s rights. However, we now see that many of these assurances have proved questionable or even formally revoked. and this of course creates major problems.”

Moving on to another humanitarian hotspot, Koehler played down fears that humanitarian aid funding will stop despite a UN warning this month that more than five and a half million Palestinian refugees may no longer have access to basic services such as food, education and health care due to a drop in contributions from member states, the EU in particular.

“We support UNRWA and we continue our assistance,” he said, referring to the UN agency that supports the relief and human development of Palestinian refugees.

With regard to the EU’s contribution, he said this is “not a cut in funding. This is about negotiating the conditions for the 2021-2022 installments.”

He added: “What has stopped for a short while is not humanitarian aid but direct financial transfers that EU development assistance is making available for the benefit of the Palestinian National Authority. And this is not a stop for good, but this is about agreeing to a certain number of conditions, under which this money would be made available.”

But amid concerns over possible closure of UNRWA, what is the EU’s position on the right of return? “The EU has a principled position in this regard and we stand still behind the two-state solution. We want a negotiated solution between the parties,” Koehler said. “We see the occupation of Palestine as something that has to be brought to an end, in accordance with relevant UN resolutions on the basis of bilateral negotiations that we are ready to incentivize and support as much as possible.”

Koehler concluded by saying that aid agencies and donors must unite and “speak with one voice” for effective humanitarian relief efforts in crisis zones. “Wherever the international community, the donors from the US to the UK, to the EU, to Sweden, to Germany, to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, wherever the donors speak with one voice, this one voice has an effect,” he said, citing the example of the failed attempt in 2020 by the Iran-backed Houthi militia to impose a 2 percent tax on humanitarian aid deliveries in Yemen.

“The international community said ‘no way.’ Also, the World Food Programme said ‘no way.’ We said, ‘If that is what you want to do, we will simply discontinue our operations in the territory that you have control over.’”

Saudi authorities supervise readiness to ensure safe Hajj

The exercise consisted of a fire resulting from a short circuit, which prompted smoke and flames outside the building. (SPA)
The exercise consisted of a fire resulting from a short circuit, which prompted smoke and flames outside the building. (SPA)
Updated 02 July 2022

Saudi authorities supervise readiness to ensure safe Hajj

The exercise consisted of a fire resulting from a short circuit, which prompted smoke and flames outside the building. (SPA)
  • A mock experiment in Makkah ensures staff readiness to deal with emergencies

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s health and humanitarian authorities, Makkah Health Affairs and the Saudi Red Crescent Authority in Madinah, supervised inspections in the holy cities to assess readiness and preparations to ensure a safe Hajj.

Makkah Health Affairs participated in a mock experiment that consisted of a fire drill in one of the pilgrim residences in the city, to measure the degree of preparedness of the medical facilities and staff this Hajj season.

The experiment consisted of a fire resulting from a short circuit, which prompted smoke and flames outside the building and resulted in the removal of a number of residents, in addition to 34 casualties ranging from injuries to fatalities.

The cases were checked by the medical staff according to their designated zones, where they were positioned: Six cases in the red zone, eight cases in the yellow zone, 16 cases in the green zone and four cases in the black zone.

Hamad Al-Otaibi, spokesperson of Makkah Health Affairs, confirmed that this experiment was carried out with the participation of a number of medical and security authorities and departments.

The experiment also witnessed the participation of the executive administration of emergencies and disasters in Makkah Healthcare Cluster and the affiliated hospitals — Al-Noor Specialist Hospital, King Abdulaziz Hospital, King Faisal Hospital — and the ambulatory centers.

The director general of Makkah Health Affairs and chairman of the Hajj and Umrah executive committee, Wael bin Hamza Mutair, confirmed the readiness of the health sector in Makkah to deal with all medical, ambulatory and emergency cases inside and outside the holy places.

King Salman ordered state sectors to serve pilgrims during Hajj to the best of their ability during a recent Cabinet meeting.

“Serving Hajj and Umrah pilgrims has been at the forefront of the Kingdom’s priority since its establishment and still is. We are proud to continue this mission with the highest competency,” the King said.

Meanwhile, SRCA President Dr. Jalal bin Mohammed Al-Owaisi visited Madinah to check and inaugurate a number of ambulatory centers in the region.

The visit came as part of his tour to check preparations ahead of the pilgrimage, and to ensure the readiness of the various centers receiving pilgrims in Makkah and Madinah.

Al-Owaisi listened to a detailed presentation on the potential of the centers, and the most important preparations done by these centers to receive visitors to Madinah during the Hajj season.

Protesters storm into parliament building in eastern Libya

Protesters storm into parliament building in eastern Libya
Updated 02 July 2022

Protesters storm into parliament building in eastern Libya

Protesters storm into parliament building in eastern Libya

BENGHAZI, Libya: Demonstrators broke into the building that houses the eastern Libya-based parliament in Tobruk on Friday, setting fire to parts of it amid protests over months of failed efforts to set the divided country on a path toward elections.
One witness, Taher Amaizig, said thousands joined a march to the parliament building calling for the current political powers to be dissolved and elections to be held. He said that as security guards tried to prevent people from entering, a protester was shot in the legs and other demonstrators then forced their way inside.
Videos circulated on social media showed protesters filing past burning piles. Friday is the first day of the weekend in Libya, meaning the building was likely empty when it was stormed. It was unclear what protesters intended by targeting the building
Other protests demanding elections were staged earlier in the day in several cities around Libya.
The unrest comes a day after representatives of Libya’s rival powers — one based in the east of the country and the other in the west — failed at UN-mediated talks in Geneva to reach agreement on a constitutional framework for national elections.
After more than a decade of war, the country is once again split between competing administrations, sliding backwards despite a year of tentative steps toward unity.
Oil-rich Libya has been wrecked by conflict since a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, leading to a rise in rival governments. The administration based in the east is backed by military commander Khalifa Haftar, and a UN-supported administration is based in the capital of Tripoli. Each side is supported by different militias and foreign powers.
Tobruk, the seat of Libya’s House of Representatives, has long been allied with Haftar. More recently the parliament there elected Fathy Basghagha as prime minister to a government that rivals the Tripoli-based administration. Bashagha, a powerful former interior minister, is now operating a separate administration out of the city of Sirte.
Libya’s plan for elections last Dec. 24 fell through after the interim administration based in Tripoli, headed by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, failed to go ahead with the vote. The failure was a major blow to international efforts to end a decade of chaos in Libya.
The deteriorating economic situation was also a factor in Friday’s protests. In Tripoli, hundreds came out earlier in the day in opposition to the political crisis but also to rail against electricity shortages and rising prices for fuel and bread.

Libya’s Dbeibah says ‘election’ the only solution for crisis

Libya’s Dbeibah says ‘election’ the only solution for crisis
Updated 02 July 2022

Libya’s Dbeibah says ‘election’ the only solution for crisis

Libya’s Dbeibah says ‘election’ the only solution for crisis

The head of Libya’s Government of National Unity Abdulhamid Al-Dbeibah said he supports protesters in the country, agrees that all institutions should leave including the government, and there is no way to do that except through “election.”
Dbeibah’s comments come after protesters stormed the parliament building in the eastern city of Tobruk and staged the biggest demonstration for years in the capital Tripoli, in the west.

UN urges world action to cut 1.3 million road deaths in half

UN urges world action to cut 1.3 million road deaths in half
Updated 02 July 2022

UN urges world action to cut 1.3 million road deaths in half

UN urges world action to cut 1.3 million road deaths in half

UNITED NATIONS: The UN General Assembly’s first high-level meeting on road safety called Friday for global action to cut the annual toll of nearly 1.3 million deaths and 50 million injuries in traffic crashes by at least half by decade’s end.
The political declaration adopted by consensus on the final day of the two-day session says traffic deaths and injuries not only cause widespread suffering for loved ones but cost countries an average of 3 percent to 5 percent of their annual gross domestic product.
It says that “makes road safety an urgent public health and development priority.”
The delegates urged all countries to commit to scaling up efforts and setting national targets to reduce fatalities and serious injuries as called for in the Global Plan for the Decade of Action for Road Safety 2021-2030.
Addressing Thursday’s opening session, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that road accidents are the primary cause of death globally of young people ages 5 to 29, and that nine out of 10 victims are in low- and middle-income countries.
“Road fatalities are closely linked to poor infrastructure, unplanned urbanization, lax social protection and health care systems, limited road safety literacy, and persistent inequalities both within and between countries,” he said. “At the same time, unsafe roads are a key obstacle to development.”
The UN chief called for “more ambitious and urgent action to reduce the biggest risks — such as speeding, driving under the influence of alcohol or any psychoactive substance or drug, failure to use seatbelts, helmets and child restraints, unsafe road infrastructure and unsafe vehicles, poor pedestrian safety, and inadequate enforcement of traffic laws.”
He urged increased spending on improving infrastructure and implementing “cleaner mobility and greener urban planning, especially in low- and middle-income countries.”
The UN Road Safety Fund, which was established in 2018 to help cut road deaths and injuries in low- and middle-income countries, held its first pledging event Thursday and said 16 countries and private sector donors had pledged $15 million.
The fund said it is financing 25 high-impact projects in 30 countries and five regions around the world and more money is needed.
Jean Todt, the UN special envoy for road safety, said, “More funding can and must be channeled toward road safety solutions to stop the senseless loss of lives still occurring on our roads each and every day.”
General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid said Friday that “in most countries, investments in road safety remain underfunded.”
Some countries don’t have “the resources or the know how to design safer roads or vehicles, or to inculcate safe road use behavior,” he said, which is why the declaration calls for delivering road safety knowledge to all road users in the world.

Executions in Iran soar in protest crackdown

Executions in Iran soar in protest crackdown
Updated 02 July 2022

Executions in Iran soar in protest crackdown

Executions in Iran soar in protest crackdown
  • Numbers double in six months

JEDDAH: The number of executions in Iran has more than doubled in the past six months in a new campaign to intimidate anti-regime protesters, rights groups said on Friday.
From Jan. 1 to June 30, 251 Iranians were hanged compared with 117 in the first half of last year. The surge in executions has coincided with a series of nationwide protests over Iran’s economic collapse and the soaring price of basic food staples such as bread.
“There is no doubt that spreading fear to counteract the growing popular anti-regime protests is the main goal of these executions,” said Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, founder of Iran Human Rights, an activist group in Norway.
“Only stronger international reactions and domestic campaigns against the executions can raise the political cost of these executions for the authorities and stop the increasing trend.”
Amiry-Moghaddam said 137 of the executions had been carried out since the latest wave of anti-regime protests in Iran began on May 7. Six women were among those executed, and eight prisoners were hanged at the Rajai Shahr Prison outside Tehran this week alone.
The group said its estimate of executions included only those published in official media or confirmed by at least two independent sources, so the real number was likely to be higher.
Activists also accuse Iran of executing a disproportionately high number of people from ethnic minorities, especially Baluch and Kurds. Iran Human Rights said it counted the executions of 67 prisoners from the Baluch minority, mainly Sunni Muslims who live in the southeast.
Amnesty International’s annual report on the death penalty in 2021 said that at least 19 percent of recorded executions in Iran were Baluch, although they make up only about 5 percent of the population.
There is also concern over the execution on June 20 of Firuz Musalou, a Kurd convicted on charges of membership of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, which has waged an insurgency in Turkey. His sentence was carried out in secret without his family being informed.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed concern last month over the rise in executions, with Iran again executing drug offenders in high numbers and many people from ethnic minorities.
“The death penalty continues to be imposed on the basis of charges not amounting to ‘most serious crimes’ and in ways incompatible with fair trial standards,” said Nada Al-Nashif, the UN’s deputy high commissioner for human rights.