UK to trial fast-track asylum process for Iraqis and Iranians

Iraqi migrants sit near a fire waiting to cross into Britain at a makeshift migrants camp in Dunkirk, northern France. (File/AFP)
Iraqi migrants sit near a fire waiting to cross into Britain at a makeshift migrants camp in Dunkirk, northern France. (File/AFP)
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Updated 16 May 2023
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UK to trial fast-track asylum process for Iraqis and Iranians

Iraqi migrants sit near a fire waiting to cross into Britain at a makeshift migrants camp in Dunkirk, northern France. (File/AFP
  • More than 20,000 people to be given questionnaires followed by shorter interviews to determine their right to stay in the country

LONDON: The UK Home Office is to fast-track the asylum applications of more than 20,000 people from Iraq and Iran in an effort to fulfill a pledge by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to clear a substantial backlog of more than 90,000 claims.

A leaked document, seen by The Guardian, suggests asylum-seekers from the two countries will be asked to complete detailed questionnaires, in English, and return them within 30 days, before appearing for short, in-person interviews with officials. Failure to comply could result in an application being turned down.

The UK had a backlog of 92,601 asylum applications at the end of June 2022. At the end of the year, 20,607 Iraqi and Iranian cases from this backlog remained outstanding, out of 132,000 applications in total. For Iranian applicants, the approval rate is about 80 percent, while 54 percent of Iraqi claims are accepted.

The Home Office described the move as “a new phase in the program to clear the legacy (application) backlog” by grouping applicants into “cohorts.”

It added: “As part of this approach, the first cohorts we will prioritize are legacy claimants from Iran and Iraq, as these are the two highest nationality cohorts of outstanding claims.

“Iranian and Iraqi legacy claimants who have not yet been substantively interviewed will begin receiving questionnaires, which will be tailored to their circumstances, over the next few weeks, helping to reduce the duration of any subsequent interviews.

“Once the necessary information is received, we anticipate that targeted or shorter interviews will be approximately 30 minutes to two hours in length.”

During a similar scheme launched in February, 12,000 asylum-seekers from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Syria, Yemen and Libya were asked to complete 11-page questionnaires. However, officials said that many of the forms were incorrectly filed, which necessitated lengthy follow-up interviews. A report in The Times newspaper put the number of correctly filed forms as low as 10 percent.

Immigration lawyer Colin Yeo told The Guardian: “It looks like good news but premature if they haven’t sorted out the easy cases already.

“It is not clear how this is going to help with more complex cases. Most asylum interviews are about two to three hours anyway, so there’s not much of a time saving if they’re at the upper end of their time estimate.”

Sile Reynolds, the head of advocacy at campaign group Freedom From Torture, said: “We remain concerned that rolling out this policy without further safeguards, including access to legal representation, an interpreter or a full face-to-face interview, could result in survivors of torture being refused protection and returned to their home countries to face persecution.”

The Home Office said: “We need to make sure asylum-seekers do not spend months or years living in the UK, at vast expense to the taxpayer, waiting for a decision. This questionnaire will help us clear the backlog of historic asylum cases by speeding up decisions and allowing case workers to carry out shorter, more focused interviews.

“Individuals who receive one, like all asylum-seekers, are subject to mandatory security checks against their claimed identity, including immigration and criminality checks on UK databases, which is critical to the delivery of a safe and secure immigration system.”


Russia’s Putin warns West of risk of nuclear war, says Moscow can strike Western targets

Russia’s Putin warns West of risk of nuclear war, says Moscow can strike Western targets
Updated 14 sec ago
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Russia’s Putin warns West of risk of nuclear war, says Moscow can strike Western targets

Russia’s Putin warns West of risk of nuclear war, says Moscow can strike Western targets
  • War in Ukraine has triggered the worst crisis in Moscow’s relations with the West since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis
MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin told Western countries on Thursday they risked provoking a nuclear war if they sent troops to fight in Ukraine, warning that Moscow had the weapons to strike targets in the West.
The war in Ukraine has triggered the worst crisis in Moscow’s relations with the West since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Putin has previously spoken of the dangers of a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia, but his nuclear warning on Thursday was one of his most explicit.
Addressing lawmakers and other members of the country’s elite, Putin, 71, repeated his accusation that the West was bent on weakening Russia, and he suggested Western leaders did not understand how dangerous their meddling could be in what he cast as Russia’s own internal affairs.
He prefaced his nuclear warning with a specific reference to an idea, floated by French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday, of European NATO members sending ground troops to Ukraine — a suggestion that was quickly rejected by the United States, Germany, Britain and others.
“(Western nations) must realize that we also have weapons that can hit targets on their territory. All this really threatens a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons and the destruction of civilization. Don’t they get that?!” said Putin.
Speaking ahead of a March 15-17 presidential election when he is certain to be re-elected for another six-year term, he lauded what he said was Russia’s vastly modernized nuclear arsenal, the largest in the world.
“Strategic nuclear forces are in a state of full readiness,” he said, noting that new-generation hypersonic nuclear weapons he first spoke about in 2018 had either been deployed or were at a stage where development and testing were being completed.
Visibly angry, Putin suggested Western politicians recall the fate of those like Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler and France’s Napoleon Bonaparte who had unsuccessfully invaded Russia in the past.
“But now the consequences will be far more tragic,” said Putin. “They think it (war) is a cartoon,” he said, accusing Western politicians of forgetting what real war meant because they had not faced the same security challenges as Russians had in the last three decades.
MORE TROOPS FOR WESTERN BORDER
Russian forces now have the initiative on the battlefield in Ukraine and are advancing in several places, Putin said. Russia must also boost the troops it has deployed along its western borders with the European Union after Finland and Sweden decided to join the NATO military alliance, he added.
The veteran Kremlin leader dismissed Western suggestions that Russian forces might go beyond Ukraine and attack European countries as “nonsense.” He also said Moscow would not repeat the mistake of the Soviet Union and allow the West to “drag” it into an arms race that would eat up too much of its budget.
“Therefore, our task is to develop the defense-industrial complex in such a way as to increase the scientific, technological and industrial potential of the country,” he said.
Putin said Moscow was open to discussions on nuclear strategic stability with the United States but suggested that Washington had no genuine interest in such talks and was more focused on making false claims about Moscow’s alleged aims.
“Recently there have been more and more unsubstantiated accusations against Russia, for example that we are allegedly going to deploy nuclear weapons in space. Such innuendo... is a ploy to draw us into negotiations on their terms, which are favorable only to the United States,” he said.
“...On the eve of the US presidential election, they simply want to show their citizens and everyone else that they still rule the world.”

South Korea seeks talks with striking medics as return to work deadline looms

South Korea seeks talks with striking medics as return to work deadline looms
Updated 29 February 2024
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South Korea seeks talks with striking medics as return to work deadline looms

South Korea seeks talks with striking medics as return to work deadline looms
  • Nearly 10,000 junior doctors – about 80 percent of the trainee workforce – handed in their notice and walked off the job last week

SEOUL: South Korea said Thursday it was seeking its first talks with striking junior doctors, warning them to return to hospitals ahead of a looming deadline or risk legal action over work stoppages that have plunged hospitals into chaos.
Nearly 10,000 junior doctors — about 80 percent of the trainee workforce — handed in their notice and walked off the job last week to protest government plans to sharply increase medical school admissions to cope with shortages and an aging society.
Doctors say the plan would hurt the quality of service, and the Korean Medical Association (KMA) has slammed the government’s “intimidation tactics.”
Under South Korean law, doctors are prohibited from striking, and the government has threatened to arrest and suspend the medical licenses of medics who do not return to work by Thursday.
Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo said he had contacted doctors involved in the strike seeking talks and hoped to meet them later Thursday, adding he was unsure “how many people will attend.”
Doctors had begun trickling back to work in hospitals, Park said. “We have confirmed a downgrade in the walkouts for two days in a row,” he told a press briefing.
But Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong told local media on Thursday that “a full-scale return has not yet materialized.”
“As today is the last day (to) return, I implore them to do so for the patients,” he said, adding medics who returned to work before the deadline expired would not be punished.
Cho said the government was committed to its reform plan, which would increase medical school admissions by 65 percent, citing shortages of health professionals and a looming demographic crisis.
The KMA has not commented on possible talks, but a social media account run by young doctors shared a screenshot of a text message from the government and said: “You must be joking.”
Analysts say the government’s hard-line stance may play well for them ahead of legislative elections set for April 10.
“If the government were to back down now, they would perceive it as a major setback ahead of the upcoming general elections,” Kim Jae-heon, the secretary general of an NGO advocating free medical care, said.
But doctors “believe that stepping back at this point would result in their own disadvantage. It seems the current standoff will continue for a while.”
Proponents of the reform say doctors are mainly concerned the changes could erode their salaries and social status. The government says South Korea has one of the lowest doctor-to-patient ratios among developed countries.
Polling shows up to 75 percent of the public support the reforms, and President Yoon Suk Yeol, who has taken a hard line on the striking doctors, has seen his approval ratings tick up.
Kim Sung-ju, head of the Korean Cancer Patients Rights Council, said that patients’ lives were being held “hostage.”
“If the entire system comes to a halt simply because (junior doctors) have left, it truly highlights the shortage of doctors,” he said.
“It is astonishing that they are... using patients’ lives as leverage to further their own interests.”
The mass work stoppage has resulted in cancelations and postponements of surgeries for cancer patients and C-sections for pregnant women, with the government raising its public health alert to the highest level.
Kim Tae-hyeon, the head of the Korean ALS Association, said the striking doctors were “worse than organized criminals.”
“In hospice wards and intensive care units, (patients) are struggling to stay alive,” he added.


The imam and rabbi confounding stereotypes in Austria

The imam and rabbi confounding stereotypes in Austria
Updated 29 February 2024
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The imam and rabbi confounding stereotypes in Austria

The imam and rabbi confounding stereotypes in Austria
  • Unlikely Muslim-Jewish pair are in high demand as speakers among students seeking to understand the two great religions

VIENNA: More than 150 students crowded into a room at an Austrian high school to hear an unlikely duo speak — imam Ramazan Demir and rabbi Schlomo Hofmeister.

The two men’s talks, educating students about their religions, have taken on additional pertinence since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and Israel’s subsequent relentless bombing of Gaza.
Since then Austria has seen a rise in both anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts, as elsewhere in Europe.
“We must separate religion from politics,” rabbi Hofmeister, 48, told the students, while imam Demir, 38, nodded in support.
“This is not a religious war, it is a political conflict, a terrible conflict that must not impact our communities here in Europe,” Hofmeister added.
The two volunteers are in high demand because “just our friendship alone defies stereotypes,” according to Demir.
Their diaries are packed until June, with the pair visiting some 30 Austrian schools.
During last week’s two-hour discussion at a high school in a working-class suburb of the capital, questions came thick and fast from the students aged 16 to 18.
A livestream allowed those unable to get a seat in the large hall to hear them explain how Jews and Muslims pray to the differences between kosher and halal.

The two bearded men — one wearing a kufi cap, the other a wide-brimmed fedora hat — met 10 years ago during an inter-religious project and have since worked together, traveling to Turkiye, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The Gaza war has not affected their friendship, they say.
“We want there to be peace, without any ifs and whens,” Demir said, while Hofmeister added that he was “glad they started to cooperate so early on to be able to address the current crisis.”
The war started when Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, resulting in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.
But concern has mounted amid the high civilian death toll from Israel’s retaliatory campaign, now at almost 30,000, according to the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza.
The Vienna school where the pair were speaking has 1,200 students of 63 different nationalities, although none identify as Jewish.
At each break, numerous students crowd around the duo, who use humor to lighten the atmosphere.
“It’s interesting to see how similar religions are,” 17-year-old Estella Dolas told AFP.
Austria is a majority Catholic country, with Muslims making up around 8 percent of the population. Only 0.1 percent — just 5,400 people — declared themselves as Jewish in the 2021 census.
School director Inge Joebstl, 55, said the rapport and respect between the two men, who spoke “on an equal footing,” made the students more receptive.
Especially since many of them will otherwise look for answers on social networks where “self-proclaimed experts converted two years ago explain to them what Islam is,” warned Demir.
“After we leave, the students may not remember everything we told them,” admitted Hofmeister.
“But they will remember that an imam and a rabbi came to their school and that they got along well.”
 


New Zealand designates entirety of Hamas a ‘terrorist entity’

New Zealand designates entirety of Hamas a ‘terrorist entity’
Updated 29 February 2024
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New Zealand designates entirety of Hamas a ‘terrorist entity’

New Zealand designates entirety of Hamas a ‘terrorist entity’

WELLINGTON: New Zealand on Thursday became one of the last Western countries to designate all of Hamas as a “terrorist entity,” saying the attacks of October 7 had shattered the notion its political and military wings could be separated.
“The organization as a whole bears responsibility for these horrific terrorist attacks,” the government said, announcing a move that spells a freeze on Hamas assets in New Zealand and a ban on providing it with “material support.”


Marcos says Philippines on ‘frontline’ of maritime disputes, will not cede ‘one square inch’

Marcos says Philippines on ‘frontline’ of maritime disputes, will not cede ‘one square inch’
Updated 29 February 2024
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Marcos says Philippines on ‘frontline’ of maritime disputes, will not cede ‘one square inch’

Marcos says Philippines on ‘frontline’ of maritime disputes, will not cede ‘one square inch’
  • “The challenges that we face may be formidable, but equally formidable is our resolve. We will not yield,” Marcos tells Australia's Parliament
  • China has rapidly grown its naval forces in recent years, and snatched vast tracts of maritime territory

CANBERRA: Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos told Australia’s parliament his country was on the “frontline” of a battle for regional peace Thursday — pledging resolve as he sought support in maritime disputes with China.
With Beijing’s warships detected in waters off his country’s coast, Marcos told Australian lawmakers that “the Philippines now finds itself on the frontline against actions that undermine regional peace, erode regional stability, and threaten regional success.”
He vowed to remain firm in defending his country’s sovereignty.
“I will not allow any attempt by any foreign power to take even one square inch of our sovereign territory,” Marcos said to loud applause.
“The challenges that we face may be formidable, but equally formidable is our resolve. We will not yield.”
Philippines authorities this week said they detected Chinese navy vessels around the Scarborough Shoal — an area seized by Beijing in 2012.
China has claimed the shoal and swathes of the South China Sea as its own, ignoring regional objections and an international tribunal ruling that the claims have no legal basis.
It has long deployed coast guard and other vessels around the Scarborough Shoal to prevent Philippine access.
But Marcos has called the deployment of warships a new and “worrisome” development.
The South China Sea is strategically vital for several countries, providing a key route for the import and export of essential fuel, food and other goods.
The Philippines and other countries — backed by the United States — have argued the waterway should be free and open.
China has rapidly grown its naval forces in recent years, and snatched vast tracts of maritime territory, hoping to project its military and political power well beyond the country’s shores.
“The protection of the South China Sea as a critical global artery is crucial to the preservation of regional peace. And I dare say of global peace” Marcos said.