COLOMBO: Sri Lanka is expecting to use its full Hajj quota this year after the government lifted a 2022 policy that required pilgrims from the crisis-stricken nation to pay their travel costs in foreign currency.
Only 960 pilgrims, or slightly more than half of last year’s quota, performed the Hajj in 2022, when Sri Lanka was gripped by the worst financial downturn since independence in 1948 and defaulted on foreign debt repayments.
As the cost of sending worshippers to Makkah — estimated at $10 million — was too high for the country to bear, Muslims were allowed to perform the pilgrimage on condition that they covered their costs in foreign currency, which the government said would not burden the national economy.
With the requirement no longer in place this year, Sri Lanka is expecting to fully utilize its allocated quota of 3,500 pilgrims.
“This year the government of Sri Lanka has not imposed such restrictions, as (the) Sri Lankan economy has improved,” Ibrahim Sahib Ansar, who oversees Hajj logistics at the Ministry of Religious Affairs, told Arab News.
About 2,200 people have already registered with the Ministry of Religious Affairs as of Wednesday.
“We are confident that 3,500 pilgrims will go this year,” Ansar said. “There is more enthusiasm and interest among the people of Sri Lanka in performing Hajj this time.”
Muslims make up almost 10 percent of the country’s population of 22 million, which is predominantly Buddhist.
Despite their country’s economy still not being sound, the Muslim minority is determined to perform the spiritual journey that is one of Islam’s five pillars of faith.
“Sri Lankan Muslims, irrespective of their financial status, they give priority to the religious obligations such as prayer, fasting and Hajj,” Ansar said.
“The Muslims in Sri Lanka are generally very religious and pious. Many Muslims save money for some years to perform Hajj, as they regard performing Hajj as an important duty.”
Over 100 travel agents have been appointed by the government to streamline Sri Lanka’s Hajj operations this year.
Rizmi Reyal, who heads the All-Ceylon Hajj Tour Operators Association, told Arab News that the enthusiasm over the pilgrimage and the number of pilgrims were a sign of normalcy returning to the country.
“The situation in the country is coming back to normal compared to the hardships faced last year,” he said.
“The rupee is becoming stronger, power is back to normal, and the people are positive.”
Turkiye says it played no direct role in Karabakh operation
Azerbaijan launched a lightning offensive to take back control of its breakaway Karabakh region on Tuesday
Updated 21 September 2023
ANKARA: Turkiye is using “all means,” including military training and modernization, to support its close ally Azerbaijan but it did not play a direct role in Baku’s military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh, a Turkish Defense Ministry official said on Thursday.
Azerbaijan launched a lightning offensive to take back control of its breakaway Karabakh region on Tuesday. It later announced a ceasefire that would disarm the ethnic Armenian separatists who had held much of the region — regarded internationally as part of Azerbaijan — since the 1990s.
NATO ally Turkiye publicly threw its support behind Azerbaijan’s “steps to preserve its territorial integrity” but it had been unclear whether Ankara played any active role in the 24-hour military operation.
“It was Azerbaijan army’s own operation, there was no direct involvement of Turkiye,” a Turkish Defense Ministry official said on Thursday.
“Turkiye’s cooperation with Azerbaijan in military training and army modernization has been underway for a long time. The Azerbaijani army’s success in the latest operation clearly shows the level they achieved,” the official said.
He also said a joint Turkish-Russian monitoring center was still operating and was reporting on any ceasefire violations.
Turkiye, which has close linguistic, cultural and economic ties with Azerbaijan, supports efforts by Baku and Yerevan to build peaceful relations, the official added.
In a phone call late on Wednesday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan reaffirmed Ankara’s support to his Azeri counterpart Ilham Aliyev.
“President Erdogan reiterated Turkiye’s heartfelt support for Azerbaijan,” the presidency said in a statement.
President Aliyev trumpeted victory in a televised address to the nation, saying his country’s military had restored its sovereignty in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Representatives from Nagorno-Karabakh and the Azerbaijan government met for talks on Thursday to discuss the future of the breakaway region that Azerbaijan claims to fully control following this week’s military offensive. Azerbaijan’s state news agency said the talks had ended but provided no details on whether an agreement was reached.
Nagorno-Karabakh authorities and the news agency earlier said the talks between regional leaders and Azerbaijan’s government would focus on Nagorno-Karabakh’s “reintegration” into Azerbaijan.
Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman Gegham Stepanyan said at least 200 people, including 10 civilians, were killed and more than 400 others were wounded in the fighting.
French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Aliyev and “condemned Azerbaijan’s decision to use force ... at the risk of worsening the humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh and compromising ongoing efforts to achieve a fair and lasting peace,” the French presidential office said.
Macron “stressed the need to respect” the ceasefire and “to provide guarantees on the rights and security of the people of Karabakh, in line with international law.”
Azerbaijan presidential aide Hikmet Hajjiyev said the government was “ready to listen to the Armenian population of Karabakh regarding their humanitarian needs.”
Italian PM urges UN to wage ‘war without mercy’ on migrant trafficking
Meloni said Italy is ready to lead efforts against the ‘slave traders of the third millennium’
Updated 21 September 2023
NEW YORK: Italy’s prime minister has urged the UN to launch a “global war without mercy” against migrant smugglers, after a surge of arrivals on the island of Lampedusa.
Addressing the UN General Assembly, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said that Italy, which next year heads the Group of Seven wealthy democracies, was ready to lead efforts against the “slave traders of the third millennium.”
“Can an organization like this which reaffirms in its founding document the faith in the dignity and worth of human beings turn a blind eye to this tragedy?” she asked.
“I believe it is the duty of this organization to reject any hypocritical approach to this issue and wage a global war without mercy against the traffickers of human beings,” she said.
“To do so we need to work together at every level. Italy plans to be on the frontline on this issue.”
Meloni, who heads the post-fascist Brothers of Italy party, took office in part on pledges to crack down on migration.
Some 8,500 people landed on Italy’s southern island of Lampedusa from 199 boats between Monday and Wednesday last week, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration.
The group is largely made up of people from sub-Saharan Africa who have gone to Tunisia, which is suffering from economic tumult and where President Kais Saied has railed against dark-skinned people.
Meloni put the blame on human traffickers, calling them a “mafia” who earn as much as drug smugglers, but said Italy would also work to address root causes and help African nations “grow and prosper.”
“Africa is not a poor continent. To the contrary, it is rich with strategic resources,” she said.
Her remarks came as German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Sicily, calling for a fair distribution of migrants who arrive in Europe.
Steinmeier, who is being accompanied by Italian President Sergio Mattarella during the two-day visit, said both Germany and Italy were “at their limits.”
“We need a fair distribution in Europe and stronger controls and surveillance at our external borders,” he told Italy’s Corriere della Sera daily in an interview ahead of his trip.
The focus of the trip was the awarding of a joint prize by the two presidents aimed at enhancing bilateral ties, but will also include a private visit to a migrant charity.
Germany is also dealing with “heavy immigration,” Steinmeier said, calling for “humane and sustainable European solutions.”
“We have to make every effort to make the loads sustainable and lower the number of arrivals,” he added.
Govts urged to meet obligations under Women, Peace and Security agenda
Some 614m women, girls living in conflict-related contexts, up 50% since 2017
‘We need women’s voices in decision-making processes,’ Emirati official tells summit attended by Arab News
Updated 21 September 2023
NEW YORK: Governments must up their efforts to meet their obligations under the Women, Peace and Security agenda, as conflict-linked deaths hit a 28-year high, a delegation of foreign ministers and UN representatives said on Thursday.
Addressing a summit titled “Advancing the Sustainability and Adaptability of the WPS Agenda,” held during the 78th session of the UN General Assembly and attended by Arab News, the US secretary of state said the participation of a diverse collective of women is imperative to addressing global violence.
“When peacekeeping agreements include the thoughts of women, research shows a higher likelihood of them being both agreed to and to their enduring. This is something I see every day in my work and know it’s very real,” said Antony Blinken.
“It’s imperative women are used to strengthen security and end conflict, and through the WPS Focal Points Network we must build partnerships and share information or we’ll reinvent the wheel time and time again.”
The session was held in the lead-up to the 23rd anniversary of the first UN resolution of the WPS agenda, resolution 1325. But in recent years there have been seeming reversals in the successes initially hoped for.
Not only have conflict-related deaths hit a 28-year high, but 614 million women and girls are now living in conflict-related contexts, representing a 50 percent increase on 2017, and leading speakers to call for a new “path to peace.”
Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, Namibia’s minister of international relations and cooperation, said the formation of the WPS Focal Points Network in 2016 — of which the country is a founding member — had revealed the lack of progress surrounding the agenda.
Rebeca Grynspan, secretary-general of the UN Conference on Trade and Development, echoed Blinken’s call for the increased participation of women in peacebuilding and peace-sustaining efforts, as she highlighted some of the themes of a pending annual WPS report.
“Our report underlines the urgent need for ambitious and measurable targets for women’s direct participation on delegations and negotiations, as we call for governments to nominate and appoint women as mediators, and accept their expertise as normal,” she said.
“Towards this, the report will call for governments to earmark a minimum of 15 percent of their mediation funds to support women’s participation, and to report in real time that participation.”
Grynspan’s call for minimum funding levels comes amid an international decrease in funding for women-led foundations, a factor she called to be reversed with a UN pledge to raise $300 million for women’s organizations in crisis situations over the next three years.
“We must ensure national action plans on WPS are budgeted, because we as women aren’t a vulnerable group, but a group who have been violated. That’s a different concept,” she added.
Both the US and the UAE have been very vocal in their own domestic efforts to see the WPS agenda normalized as part of everyday life, with Blinken noting America having become the first country to introduce a WPS Act, entrenching its commitment to the agenda.
Ahood Al-Zaabi, director of the UN department at the UAE Foreign Ministry, said her country has prioritized legal and policy reform in line with its WPS obligations.
Describing the UAE’s efforts as focused on the “long-term,” she pointed to its global outreach program for training mediators, with some 500 candidates already trained across Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
“We need women’s voices in decision-making processes,” she said. “This must take into consideration an inclusive approach with all segments of society, which is particularly relevant in the security sectors.”
Commenting on the dearth of women leading in peace talks, Sima Sami Bahous, executive director of UN Women, said: “Let us be unwavering in our unambiguous rejection of our reality. We continue to see all-male delegations.
“Even in UNGA, women leadership is celebrated as the exception rather than seen as the norm.”
NEW YORK: With every passing year, the global displacement crisis becomes more and more severe. The number of people forced to flee their homes crossed the 110 million mark in May this year, yet there seems to be no end in sight to the phenomenon.
From the Mediterranean and the Andaman seas to the English Channel and the US-Mexico border, refugees and migrants have been dying in their thousands every year attempting dangerous sea crossings and land routes.
Just last fortnight, more than 120 small boats arrived in Lampedusa in the span of roughly 24 hours, bringing the number of people at the local reception center alone to more than the Mediterranean island’s full-time population.
According to Italy’s Interior Ministry, more than 127,000 migrants have reached the country by sea so far this year, nearly double the number for the same period last year.
While conflict and violence are traditionally the main drivers of displacement, climate change and economic instability are also to blame, Raouf Mazou, assistant high commissioner for operations at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told Arab News on the sidelines of the 78th session of the UN General Assembly here.
“We see an acceleration in this number over the past 10 years. We’ve seen a constantly increasing number of people displaced, internally displaced refugees,” he said.
Citing the example of five years of failed rains in Somalia leading to drought, which subsequently led to clashes over access to water and eventually waves of displacement, Mazou said: “In the past, we tended to look at displacement simply as a group of people fighting and crossing the border. Now, more and more, we’re thinking, why? Why are they fighting and what are the reasons? And what we’re seeing is droughts.”
As the number of refugees and displaced persons continues to grow worldwide, so too does anti-migrant rhetoric. Various European leaders and officials, from Hungary’s Viktor Orban and France’s Marie Le Pen to former British PM David Cameron and former Polish PM Jaroslaw Kaczynski, have made strong anti-migrant statements.
Despite Europe’s stricter migration policies and investments in surveillance technology, people-smuggling networks across the Mediterranean Sea have demonstrated they can quickly adapt to the situation. “All indicators in Tunisia and the broader region were showing increased arrivals were going to continue,” Tasnim Abderrahim a Tunisian researcher at The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, told the Associated Press news agency recently.
Though panic over the waves of refugees reaching Europe’s shores may be on the rise, Mazou’s comments suggest that the brunt of the displacement crisis is being borne by countries with far less resources at their disposal.
“Most of the 110 million that I’m talking about are people who are internally displaced,” he said. “Some 75 percent of the refugees are in low- and middle-income countries. So, people are not fleeing toward the so-called wealthier countries.”
According to UNHCR statistics, the 46 least developed countries account for less than 1.3 percent of global GDP, and yet are home to more than 20 percent of all refugees.
The influx of people to primarily low- and middle-income nations, Mazou said, is an issue both for those fleeing their homes and the countries to which they flee.
“Because they are low- and middle-income countries, they already have issues and challenges,” he said.
According to Mazou, since the eruption of the conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces on April 15, more than 1 million people have fled Sudan into neighboring countries, primarily Chad, South Sudan and Egypt.
• 108.4m People worldwide who are forcibly displaced.
• 76 percent Share of refugees hosted by low- and middle-income countries.
Most of Sudan’s neighbors are already suffering from their own internal crises, with many of them already hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees.
“We believe that we now have about 400,000 refugees who have arrived into Chad, and that is added to about 600,000. So, we’re getting close to 1 million refugees in a country that is quite fragile. And they are also coming to a place that has experienced droughts on a number of occasions,” he said.
South Sudan has also faced an influx of people from Sudan, many of them South Sudanese who had been displaced by conflicts in their own country. Mazou said about 50,000 people have crossed into South Sudan since the start of the current Sudan conflict — “they have gone back to a country which has huge problems: security problems, political problems, governance problems, and infrastructure problems.”
For now, Sudan remains one of the countries most in need of assistance. Mazou said that of the $1 billion in funding needed to serve the needs of Sudanese refugees and internally displaced persons, UNHCR has received just over $200 million thus far.
“The problem of not having the resources that we need is that we are not in a position of making sure that health care is available and accessible to this mass of people who are leaving. Support from the international community would help us to make sure that the health care that is required is provided. We need to make sure that water is available. We need to make sure that education is available,” he said.
UNHCR teams have been active on the ground in the region, setting up reception centers at border points to register and identify vulnerable people and provide basic aid such as food and water. That said, the traditional approach of the UNHCR is no longer appropriate in the face of modern conflicts, according to Mazou.
“For many years, the way we were supporting these countries was to establish camps — refugee camps — and then provide support and assistance in these camps, expecting that people would not stay long and they would go back to their place of origin,” he said.
“What we’ve seen, unfortunately, is that people stay 10 years, 15 years, 20 years. What we’re trying to push for now — and we see a number of countries are welcoming that — is inclusion and integration. So, basically saying, ‘you’re a refugee, you’ve crossed into our country, but you’re going to be supported as part of the community that has welcomed you. You will be allowed to work and contribute to the economy of the country where you are, and then later on you will go back.’”
Mazou said that a number of countries have adopted this approach in whole or in part, citing the examples of Syrian refugees who are able to work in Jordan, refugees in Kenya who are able to find employment, and Venezuelan nationals in Colombia who are able to obtain documents that allow them to work and become part of society.
International financial institutions and regional financial institutions, including the African Development Bank, Asian Development Bank, Interamerican Development Bank, World Bank and International Finance Corporation, have all worked with the UNHCR and national governments in order to allow refugees to become self-sufficient.
While UNHCR has pushed for a self-reliance-centered approach, according to Mazou the funding needs for such projects are massive.
“You need development resources, long-term resources, multi-year resources, to be able to put in place situations where the refugees, even if they are in exile, are in a position to live normal lives until they can go back to their place of origin,” he said.
“What we’ve also seen is that when refugees are not dependent on humanitarian assistance when they’re in exile, they’re in a better position to go back to their place of origin and rebuild their communities.”
UK to charge five Bulgarians with spying for Russia
The charges relate to alleged offenses that took place between August 2020 and February 2023, the CPS added
Updated 21 September 2023
LONDON: Five Bulgarian nationals suspected of spying for Russia will be charged with conspiracy to conduct espionage, UK prosecutors said Thursday.
Three men and two women “will be charged with conspiring to collect information intended to be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy for a purpose prejudicial to the safety and interest of the state,” the Crown Prosecution Service said in a statement.
The charges relate to alleged offenses that took place between August 2020 and February 2023, the CPS added.
Orlin Roussev, 45, Bizer Dzhambazov, 41, Katrin Ivanova, 31, Ivan Stoyanov, 31, and Vanya Gaberova, 29, will appear at the Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London on Tuesday.
Three of them — Roussev, Dzhambazov and Ivanova — were charged in February with “possession of false identity documents with improper intention,” the CPS said.