Migrants on new route to Europe get trapped between borders

After enduring a decade of war in Syria, Boshra Al-Moallem and her two sisters seized their chance to flee, but the journey proved terrifying and nearly deadly. (AP)
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Updated 01 October 2021
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Migrants on new route to Europe get trapped between borders

  • A Syrians woman became trapped at the border of Belarus and Poland for 20 days
  • Boshra Al-Moallem is one of thousands of people who traveled to Belarus in recent weeks and were then pushed across the border by Belarusian guards

BIALYSTOK, Poland: After enduring a decade of war in Syria, Boshra Al-Moallem and her two sisters seized their chance to flee. Her brother, who escaped years earlier to Belgium, had saved enough money for their trip, and word was spreading online that a new migration route into Europe had opened through Belarus.
But the journey proved terrifying and nearly deadly. Al-Moallem became trapped at the border of Belarus and Poland for 20 days and was pushed back and forth between armed guards from each side in an area of swamps. She endured cold nights, mosquitoes, hunger and terrible thirst. Only after she collapsed from exhaustion and dehydration did Polish guards finally take her to a hospital.
“I didn’t expect this to happen to us. They told us it’s really easy to go to Europe, to find your life, to run (from) war,” the 48-year-old said as she recovered this week in a refugee center in eastern Poland. “I didn’t imagine I would live another war between the borders.”
Al-Moallem is one of thousands of people who traveled to Belarus in recent weeks and were then pushed across the border by Belarusian guards. The European Union has condemned the Belarusian actions as a form of “hybrid war” against the bloc.
Originally from Homs, Al-Moallem was displaced to Damascus by the war. She said Belarusian officials tricked her into believing the journey into the EU would be easy and then used her as a “weapon” in a political fight against Poland. But she also says the Polish border guards were excessively harsh, denying her water and using dogs to frighten her and other migrants as the guards pushed them back across to Belarus, over and over again.
For years, people fleeing war in the Middle East have made dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, seeking safety in Western Europe. But after the arrival of more than a million people in 2015, European Union nations put up concrete and razor-wire walls, installed drone surveillance and cut deals with Turkey and Libya to keep migrants away.
The far less protected path into the EU through the forests and swamps of Eastern Europe emerged as a route only after the EU imposed sanctions on the regime of the authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, following a flawed election and a harsh crackdown on protesters.
Suddenly people from Iraq, Syria and elsewhere were flying to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, on tourist visas and then traveling by car — many apparently aided by smugglers — to the border.
The three EU countries that border Belarus — Poland, Lithuanian and Latvia — accuse Lukashenko of acting to destabilize their societies.
If that is indeed the aim, it is working. Poland denied entry to thousands of migrants and refused to let them apply for asylum, violating international human rights conventions. The country has had its behavior criticized by human rights groups at home and abroad.
Stanislaw Zaryn, a spokesman for Poland’s special services, told The Associated Press that Polish forces always provide help to migrants if their lives are endangered. In other cases, while it might pain them not to help, Zaryn insisted that Poland must hold its ground and defend its border because it is being targeted in a high-stakes standoff with Belarus, which is backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Poland is of the opinion that only by thoroughly securing our border with Belarus are we able to stop this migration route, which is a route artificially created by Lukashenko with Putin’s support. It was artificially created in order to take revenge on the entire European Union,” Zaryn said.
With six migrants found dead along the border so far and small children returned to Belarus this week, human rights workers are appalled. They insist Poland must respect its obligations under international law to allow the migrants to apply for asylum, and not push them back across the border.
“The fact that these are Lukashenko’s political actions directed against Poland and directed against the European Union is obvious to us,” said Marianna Wartecka with the refugee rights group Fundacja Ocalenie. “But this does not justify the actions of the Polish state.”
Archbishop Wojciech Polak, the head of Poland’s Roman Catholic Church, also weighed in, giving his support to medics seeking access to the border to help. “We should not allow our brethren to suffer and die on our borders,” he said.
Lukashenko denies that his forces are pushing people into Poland, but his state media have seized on Poland’s response to depict the EU as a place where human rights are not respected.
After traveling from Syria to Lebanon, Al-Moallem, who was an English teacher in Syria, flew to Minsk, and from there took a taxi with her sisters and a brother-in-law to the border. Belarusian forces then guided the group to a spot to cross into Poland.
Crying as she told her story in English, Al-Moallem said that Belarusian forces told them: “It’s a really easy way to get to Poland. It’s a swamp. Just go through the swamp and up the hill, and you will be in Poland.”
“And when we were trying to get up the hill, Polish border guards pushed us back. Families, women, men, children. The children were screaming and crying,” she recalled. “I was asking Polish border guards, ‘Please just a drop of water. I’m so thirsty. I’ve been here without a drop of water.’”
But all they would do is snap back: “Go to Belarus. We are not responsible for you.”
That happened repeatedly, with the Belarusian forces taking them back, sometimes giving them nothing more than some bread, and then returning them the next night.
During her ordeal, she took videos of the desperate migrants with her phone and posted some to Facebook. Her videos and her account to the AP provide rare eyewitness evidence of the crisis at the border.
Such scenes unfold largely out of public view because Poland, following Lithuania and Latvia, declared a state of emergency along the border, which prevents journalists and human rights workers from going there.
The Polish government’s measures, which also involve bolstering border defenses with soldiers, are popular with many Poles. The conservative ruling party, which won power in 2015 on a strong anti-migrant platform, has seen its popularity strengthen in opinion polls amid the new crisis.
Despite Poland’s efforts, there are reports that some asylum-seekers have managed to cross into the EU undetected and headed farther west, often to reunite with relatives in Germany.
Al-Moallem says she and her relatives plan to leave the center where they are staying now and travel across the EU’s open borders to their brother in Belgium. They plan to seek asylum there. All she wants, she said, is for her family to be reunited after years of trauma and “to feel safe.”


Russia seeks to imprison veteran rights advocate for nearly 3 years over Ukraine war criticism

Updated 26 February 2024
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Russia seeks to imprison veteran rights advocate for nearly 3 years over Ukraine war criticism

  • The prosecution demanded that Oleg Orlov, 70, be convicted of “repeatedly discrediting” the Russian army

The Russian authorities on Monday sought a prison sentence of nearly three years for a veteran human rights advocate who spoke out against the war in Ukraine.
The prosecution demanded that Oleg Orlov, 70, be convicted of “repeatedly discrediting” the Russian army and sentenced to two years and 11 months in prison, in a retrial after he was earlier ordered to pay a fine. In a move that underscored how little tolerance President Vladimir Putin’s government has for criticism of its invasion of Ukraine, the prosecution appealed the fine, seeking a harsher punishment.
The charges against Orlov, co-chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights group Memorial, came after he posted on Facebook an article he wrote denouncing the invasion of Ukraine. He has rejected the case against him as politically motivated.
A court in Moscow in October 2023 delivered a guilty verdict and fined Orlov 150,000 rubles (about $1,500 at the time), a significantly milder punishment compared to the lengthy prison terms some other Russians have received for criticizing the war.
Both the defense and the prosecution appealed the verdict, and a higher court voided the fine and sent the case back to the prosecutors. A new trial began earlier this month, another step in a yearslong, unrelenting crackdown on dissent in Russia that the Kremlin ratcheted up after sending troops into Ukraine in February 2022.
The hearing on Monday drew over 100 supporters and more than a dozen Western diplomats, Russian independent news site Mediazona reported. Orlov brought a book to the hearing — “The Trial” by Franz Kafka — reflecting his view of the trial as absurd. At a hearing on Thursday, Orlov read the novel and refused to engage in the proceedings.


The Taliban hold another public execution as thousands watch at a stadium in northern Afghanistan

Updated 26 February 2024
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The Taliban hold another public execution as thousands watch at a stadium in northern Afghanistan

  • The execution took place in heavy snowfall in the city of Shibirghan
  • It was also the fifth public execution since the Taliban seized power of Afghanistan in August 2021

ISLAMABAD: The Taliban held a public execution on Monday of a man convicted of murder in northern Afghanistan as thousands watched at a sports stadium, the third such death sentence to be carried out in the past five days.
The execution took place in heavy snowfall in the city of Shibirghan, the capital of northern Jawzjan province, where the brother of the murdered man shot the convict five times with a rifle, according to an eyewitness . Security around the stadium was tight, said the witness, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
It was also the fifth public execution since the Taliban seized power of Afghanistan in August 2021 as the US and NATO troops were in the final weeks of their withdrawal from the country after two decades of war.
The development was ominous as the Taliban, despite initial promises of a more moderate rule, began carrying out severe punishments in public — executions, floggings and stonings — shortly after coming to power. The punishments are similar to those under their previous rule of Afghanistan in the late 1990s.
Taliban government officials were not immediately available for comment.
The statement said Monday’s death sentence was carried out following approval by three of the country’s highest courts and the Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. The executed man, identified as Nazar Mohammad from the district of Bilcheragh in Faryab province, had killed Khal Mohammad, also from Faryab. The killing took place in Jawzjan.
On Thursday in the southeastern Ghazni province, the Taliban executed two men convicted of stabbing their victims to death. Relatives of the victims fired guns at the two men, also at a sports stadium as thousands of people watched.
Separate statements from the Taliban’s supreme court said a man and a woman convicted of adultery were flogged with 35 lashes each in northern Balkh province over the weekend. Two other people were lashed in eastern Laghman province, also over the weekend; they were given each 30 lashes for allegedly committing immoral acts.
The United Nations has strongly criticized the Taliban for carrying out public executions, lashings and stonings since seizing power, and called on the country’s rulers to halt such practices.


Anti-Muslim hate speech soars in India, research group says

Updated 26 February 2024
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Anti-Muslim hate speech soars in India, research group says

  • Research group ‘India Hate Lab’ documents 668 hate speech incidents targeting Muslims in 2023
  • Rights groups have alleged mistreatment of Muslims under Modi, India’s prime minister since 2014

Anti-Muslim hate speech in India rose by 62 percent in the second half of 2023 compared to the first six months of the year, a Washington-based research group said on Monday, adding the Israel-Gaza war played a key role in the last three months.

India Hate Lab documented 668 hate speech incidents targeting Muslims in 2023, 255 of which occurred in the first half of the year while 413 took place in the last six months of 2023, the research group said in a report released Monday.

About 75 percent, or 498, of those incidents took place in states governed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, according to the report. The states of Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh accounted for the most hate speech.

Between Oct. 7 — when Palestinian group Hamas attacked Israel, sparking the conflict in the Gaza Strip as Israel retaliated — and Dec. 31, there were 41 incidents of hate speech against Indian Muslims that mentioned the war, the report added. It accounted for about 20 percent of hate speech in the last three months of 2023.

The research group said it used the United Nations’ definition of hate speech — prejudiced or discriminatory language toward an individual or group based on attributes including religion, ethnicity, nationality, race or gender.

Rights groups have alleged mistreatment of Muslims under Modi, who became prime minister in 2014 and is widely expected to retain power after the 2024 elections.

They point to a 2019 citizenship law that the UN human rights office called “fundamentally discriminatory;” an anti-conversion legislation that challenges the constitutionally protected right to freedom of belief; and the 2019 revoking of Muslim majority Kashmir’s special status.

There has also been demolition of Muslim properties in the name of removing illegal construction and a ban on wearing the hijab in classrooms in Karnataka when the BJP was in power in that state.

Modi’s government denies the presence of minority abuse and says its policies aim to benefit all Indians. The Indian embassy in Washington and India’s foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

India Hate Lab said it tracked online activity of Hindu nationalist groups, verified videos of hate speech posted on social media and compiled data of isolated incidents reported by Indian media.


Off to Michigan, Nikki Haley is staying in the race despite Trump’s easy primary win in South Carolina

Updated 26 February 2024
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Off to Michigan, Nikki Haley is staying in the race despite Trump’s easy primary win in South Carolina

  • Haley insists she is sticking around even with the growing pressure to abandon her candidacy and let Trump focus on Democratic President Joe Biden
  • With his win Saturday in the first-in-the South contest, Trump has now swept every primary or caucus on the GOP early-season calendar that awards delegates

TROY, Michigan: Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley says it’s not “the end of our story” despite Donald Trump’s easy primary victory in South Carolina, her home state where the onetime governor had long suggested her competitiveness with the former president would show.
Defying calls from South Carolina Republicans to exit the race, Haley traveled Sunday to Michigan, which holds its primary on Tuesday. In the less than 24 hours following her Saturday night loss to Trump, Haley’s campaign said that she had raised $1 million “from grassroots supporters alone,” a bump they argued “demonstrates Haley’s staying power and her appeal to broad swaths of the American public.”
But with Sunday also came the end of support for Haley’s campaign from Americans for Prosperity, the political arm of the powerful Koch network.
In a memo first reported by Politico and obtained by The Associated Press, AFP Action senior adviser Emily Seidel wrote that, while the group “stands firm behind our endorsement” of Haley, it would “focus our resources where we can make the difference,” redirecting spending toward US Senate and House campaigns and away from Haley’s presidential bid.
“Given the challenges in the primary states ahead, we don’t believe any outside group can make a material difference to widen her path to victory,” Seidel wrote.
AFP Action had endorsed Haley’s campaign in November, promising to commit its nationwide coalition of activists — and virtually unlimited funds — to helping her defeat Trump, with door knockers fanning out across early-voting states and sending out dozens of mailers on her behalf.
With his win Saturday in the first-in-the South contest, Trump has now swept every primary or caucus on the GOP early-season calendar that awards delegates. His performances have left little maneuvering room for Haley, his former UN ambassador.
“I have never seen the Republican Party so unified as it is right now,” Trump said in a victory night celebration in Columbia.
Haley insists she is sticking around even with the growing pressure to abandon her candidacy and let Trump focus entirely on Democratic President Joe Biden, in a 2020 rematch.
In addition to the rally in vote-rich Oakland County, Michigan, northwest of Detroit on Sunday evening, she scheduled a Monday event in Grand Rapids, a western Michigan Republican hub. Ahead of the first event on Sunday evening, dozens of supporters filed into a Troy hotel ballroom, festooned with campaign signs and featuring a guitar-playing duo to entertain the crowd, rather than Haley’s typical classic rock rally playlist.
“I’m grateful that today is not the end of our story,” Haley told supporters Saturday. “We’ll keep fighting for America and we won’t rest until America wins.”
Asa Hutchinson, a Trump critic and former Arkansas governor who dropped out of the GOP presidential race after Iowa’s leadoff caucuses in January, said he thought Haley should stay in. “The challenge is that she did everything she could in South Carolina,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Haley has pledged to keep going through at least the batch of primaries on March 5, known as Super Tuesday. “But it’s got to accelerate because you run into the delegate wall. And the delegate wall is March 5,” Hutchinson said. “So she’s got to prove herself.”
South Carolina’s most prominent Republicans stood with Trump, including US Rep. Nancy Mace, who endorsed him this past week.
To US Rep. Russell Fry, “this has always been a primary in name only” and that Trump was never in jeopardy of losing to Haley. Fry said Trump would be the GOP nominee and the latest election results were “just further validation of that.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Trump ally, said Trump was on “a pathway” to being able to clinch the nomination by mid-March. “I would say the wind is strongly” at his back, Abbott told CNN.
Not all voters in South Carolina want Haley to end her campaign.
Irene Sulkowski of Daniel Island said she hoped Haley would soldier on, suggesting the former governor would be a more appealing general election candidate than Trump despite his popularity among the GOP base that powers the primary season.
“They’re not thinking, ‘Who do you want to represent us in the general election?’” said Sulkowski, an accountant. “And they need to have a longer-term view.”
 


Overworked and unheard, South Korean doctors on mass walkout say

Updated 26 February 2024
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Overworked and unheard, South Korean doctors on mass walkout say

  • The young doctors say their pay and working conditions should be the priority, rather than the government’s plan to boost the number of physicians
  • Intern and resident doctors in South Korea work 36-hour shifts, compared to shifts of less than 24 hours in the US

SEOUL: Ryu Ok Hada always wanted to help people, but now the South Korean trainee doctor has walked off the job and stands outside the hospital where he worked, holding his medical gown in his hand.
Park Dan, who recently realized his childhood dream of being an emergency physician, is also one of over 7,800 interns and residents who have resigned in a confrontation with the government, which threatens to arrest them.
Ryu and Park say the junior doctors, a crucial cog in South Korea’s highly regarded medical system, are overworked, underpaid and unheard.
Hospitals have turned away patients and canceled surgeries after about two-thirds of the country’s young doctors walked off the job this month in protest.
The young doctors say their pay and working conditions should be the priority, rather than the government’s plan to boost the number of physicians. The authorities say more staff are needed to increase health care services in remote areas and meet the growing demands of one of the world’s most rapidly aging societies.
“The current medical system in South Korea, which is a great one, is run by making cheap trainee doctors keep grinding,” Ryu, 25, told Reuters.
Senior doctors and private practitioners have not walked out but have held rallies urging the government to scrap its plan, with 400 gathering in Seoul on Sunday.
But the government’s plan to boost medical school admissions is popular, with about 76 percent of respondents in favor, regardless of political affiliation, a recent Gallup Korea poll found.

Torn between policy, patients
Intern and resident doctors in South Korea work 36-hour shifts, compared to shifts of less than 24 hours in the US, according to the Korean Intern Resident Association. It says half the young US physicians work 60 hours a week or less, while Korean doctors often work more than 100 hours.
Ryu said he worked more than 100 hours a week at one of the country’s most prestigious university hospitals, for 2 million won to 4 million won ($1,500-$3,000) a month including overtime pay. A first-year US resident averages about $5,000 a month, according to American Medical Association data.
Hospitals have not processed the resignations of the protesting doctors, who say they are not on strike. The government has ordered them back to work, threatening to arrest them or revoke their licenses, saying their collective action cannot be justified and people’s lives must come first.
Park and other doctors say the order is unconstitutional, forcing them to work against their will.
The doctors on walkout represent just a fraction of South Korea’s 100,000 doctors, but they can make up more than 40 percent of staff at large teaching hospitals, performing crucial tasks in emergency rooms, intensive care units and operating rooms.
Emergency rooms at South Korea’s five biggest hospitals were on “red alert” on Sunday, meaning they were running out of beds. Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said on Friday that public hospitals would stay open longer and on weekends and holidays to meet demand.
Park, 33, who heads the Korean Intern Resident Association, wants the authorities to bring doctors into essential disciplines such as pediatrics and emergency departments at large hospitals.
Doctors want better legal protection from malpractice suits and changes to a system where many hospitals rely on a low-paid workforce and off-insurance services to stay afloat in a country often praised for providing universal quality medical coverage affordably, Park said.
He said he was torn between his patients and a government enforcing policy without listening to the doctors, but that he had little choice.
“With pride to save patients, I came this far. As many doctors say, it was heartbreaking and difficult to leave patients behind,” Park said. “But the current system is distorted, so we need better than that.”