Britain’s ‘impossible’ refugee visa rules leave children stranded in war zones, charity says

Displaced Sudanese women attend a class provided by NGO volunteers at the Wad al-Hawi camp south of Sudan's city of Gedaref on May 14, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. (
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Updated 15 June 2024

Britain’s ‘impossible’ refugee visa rules leave children stranded in war zones, charity says

  • Organization points to ‘catastrophic failure’ of system 

LONDON: Children are being left stranded in war zones due to the “impossible” bureaucratic requirements for one of Britain’s few legal routes for asylum-seekers, a charity has told The Guardian.

The UK government has said that the family reunion process allows refugees to safely reunite with loved ones in the country.

However, a new report from the Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London, a charity that helps vulnerable migrants, reveals that the scheme is “not fit for purpose” and has abandoned applicants, putting them at risk of trafficking, or even death.

RAMFEL reported that when the conflict in Sudan erupted in April 2023, it was assisting 14 people, all of whom were eligible to travel to the UK under the scheme.

More than a year later, eight people remain trapped there, “facing extreme risks.” Several of the children previously fled Eritrea, where men, women, and children face forced mass conscription.

In some cases, teenagers have fled Sudan via irregular routes. One boy was detained in Libya, and another unaccompanied child was trafficked to South Sudan and raped.

The UK government has closed its visa application center in Khartoum but has not waived the requirement for applicants to register their fingerprints and biometric data in person.

“Visa application centers are open and operating in neighboring countries,” a Home Office letter, seen by The Guardian, reads.

“However, travel across Sudan is conducted at your own risk, and under your own discretion, considering whether it is safe to do so,” it added.

Eritrean refugee Yusef, who is living in the UK, shared his efforts to bring his two young brothers, now aged 17 and 14, to join him. They fled to Sudan alone after their mother died and their father was seized by Eritrean authorities.

He told The Guardian: “I made the (family reunion) application but the Home Office was saying that there was not a place to test them for tuberculosis or a visa center in Sudan. They said they couldn’t take them.”

His brothers fled north to Egypt, and Yusef said: “They don’t have anyone. How will they survive? If the police find them asleep, they will take them back to Eritrea and they will be put in prison. They are still in this situation and they’re very scared.”

In October of last year, the Home Office declined to consider a request to bypass biometric enrollment for the children. RAMFEL is currently attempting to have them registered in Cairo.

RAMFEL pointed to the Sudan conflict as an example of the “catastrophic failure” of the family reunion system. The process primarily aids children and spouses of UK residents and can only extend to siblings and other close relatives under a more restrictive scheme.

The charity argues that the flawed system is pushing more refugees toward irregular routes, leading to an increase in small boat crossings over the English Channel, which have reached record levels.

Nick Beales, head of campaigning at RAMFEL, said: “The UK’s family reunion system is not fit for purpose and this report shows that it does not act as an effective safe route for refugees seeking to come to the UK.

“For people in places such as Sudan and Gaza, they are prevented from even applying for family reunion due to the government’s inflexible and unreasonable insistence on them attending non-existing visa application centers.

“This leaves those in conflict zones, including unaccompanied children, with no choice but to take dangerous journeys in search of family reunification.”

RAMFEL called on the next government to create a process that allowed those with loved ones in the UK to swiftly and safely secure visas for legal travel to Britain.

British foreign secretary’s concern over former PM Johnson’s meeting with US presidential hopeful Trump

Updated 59 min 13 sec ago

British foreign secretary’s concern over former PM Johnson’s meeting with US presidential hopeful Trump

  • Lammy admitted to LBC presenter Tom Swarbrick that he had not been aware the meeting was taking place

LONDON: British Foreign Secretary David Lammy expressed his concern on Thursday about a meeting between former UK prime minister Boris Johnson and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Speaking on the LBC radio morning show, Lammy admitted to presenter Tom Swarbrick that he had not been aware the meeting was taking place.

Johnson posted a picture on social media of him meeting Trump at the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee, after which he said the former president was “on top form” and that they had discussed the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

The foreign secretary was asked if Johnson had followed protocol by informing the UK Foreign Office of his meeting with Trump, to which Lammy replied: “I’m not sure that Boris Johnson consults either Keir Starmer or us on his plans. And I certainly didn’t know.”

Lammy refused to be drawn when pressed by Swarbrick on whether the meeting went against “UK national interests” or not.

“The record will show that I had a friendship with Barack Obama, prior to him becoming president of the United States of America, and about a year or so into office, he was dealing with David Cameron (as prime minister),” he said.

“I would never have done anything to prejudice the UK national interests at that time. So the point you’re making is a serious one. I would hope that all former prime ministers would act in the UK national interests and not cut across us, particularly two weeks into office.

“You know, I’m not interested, actually, in the past. I’m interested in the future.”

Scientists discover cause of Gulf War syndrome in landmark study

British soldiers from the First Stafford, well known as the “Desert Rats,” stand in a trench on January 6, 1991.
Updated 18 July 2024

Scientists discover cause of Gulf War syndrome in landmark study

  • Thousands of 1991 war veterans suffered chronic fatigue, PTSD, joint pain and headaches
  • Findings a ‘significant step forward in understanding this baffling and complex illness’

LONDON: Exposure to chemical and biological agents has been identified as the cause of Gulf War syndrome in a landmark study, The Times reported.
In what was described as a “world-first discovery,” scientists found that thousands of soldiers suffering from the syndrome had faulty cell function due to contact with the hazardous agents.
The mysterious illness was first identified in the wake of the Gulf War, with victims suffering from symptoms including post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic fatigue, joint pain and headaches.
Many struggled to find medical help and claim compensation as doctors were left baffled by the illness.
Up to 33,000 British veterans who served in the war may be suffering from the syndrome.
The UK’s Ministry of Defence has long argued against the existence of the illness, referring to a 2003 study that found no research identifying a unique syndrome linked to military service in the Gulf.
Scientists in the US have also blamed sarin, the nerve agent, for causing the symptoms, after Iraqi chemical weapons caches were bombed during the war, causing aerial exposure.
But the latest study, in the journal Plos One, could open a path for the syndrome to be recognized as a unique illness.
Veterans who suffered from Gulf War syndrome had an “impaired ion channel function in their cells,” said one of the study’s researchers, Etianne Martini Sasso of Griffith University in Australia.
The impairment resulted in an inability of the body to properly transport calcium.
The element plays a crucial role in muscle contraction, nerve function and hormone regulation.
“The findings from our research provides clear scientific evidence that the health problems experienced by Gulf War veterans can be directly linked to their exposure to specific hazardous agents during their service,” said another of the study’s authors, Prof. Sonya Marshall-Gradisnik.
Discovering the link between exposure to hazardous agents and impaired ion channel function is a “significant step forward in understanding this baffling and complex illness,” she added.
The former Conservative government in the UK imposed a six-year limit on civil cases involving injury or death, preventing veterans of the 1991 war from claiming compensation.
Veterans can still claim a war pension, however.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence said: “We are indebted to all those who served our country in the Gulf wars and have already sponsored significant research into the effects of this conflict on veterans.
“We continue to monitor and welcome any new research that is published around the world and financial support is available to veterans whose illness is due to service through the MoD war pensions and the armed forces occupational pension schemes.”

Sweden to phase out development aid to Iraq next year

Updated 18 July 2024

Sweden to phase out development aid to Iraq next year

  • Sweden said current aid package to Iraq amounts to around $18 million a year

STOCKHOLM: Sweden will phase out development aid to Iraq over the coming year, the government said on Wednesday, as it focuses on giving more effective support to fewer countries.
“Sweden has contributed both humanitarian support and development aid to Iraq for many years,” Johan Forssell, Minister for International Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade, said.
“The conditions have changed and Iraq is now a middle-income country with good resources to support its own population.”
The government said its current aid package to Iraq amounts to around 190 million Swedish crowns ($18 million) a year. Next year, the total will be around 100 million, with aid being phased out by June 30, the government said.
Sweden, home to around 200,000 people either born in Iraq or with an Iraqi-born parent, currently gives aid to around 100 countries and Forssell said the money was too widely spread to be effective.

Mobile internet down, troops on streets as Bangladeshi students clash with police

Updated 18 July 2024

Mobile internet down, troops on streets as Bangladeshi students clash with police

  • At least 32 people killed in violent clashes across Bangladesh’s main cities

DHAKA: Mobile internet services were down, businesses closed, and public transportation was disrupted across Bangladeshi cities on Thursday, as authorities ordered troops on to the streets amid deadly clashes with protesting students.
University students have been rallying to demand the removal of government employment quotas after the High Court reinstated a rule that reserves the bulk of jobs for descendants of those who fought in the country’s 1971 liberation war.
Under the quota system, 56 percent of public service jobs are reserved for specific groups, including women, marginalized communities, and children and grandchildren of freedom fighters — for whom the government earmarks 30 percent of the posts.
Clashes with police and government supporters began on Sunday after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina undermined the students’ cause by suggesting that they supported the “razakars,” or those who had collaborated with the Pakistani military, an enemy occupying force, during the 1971 war.
Since Wednesday, educational institutions, campuses and students’ dormitories have been shut across the country, forcing students on to the streets.
Tensions escalated early on Thursday and about 6,000 border guards were sent to assist police.
“Considering the present situation, we have deployed additional forces to maintain law and order, and protect the people’s lives and properties,” Inamul Huq Sagar, spokesperson at the police headquarters, told Arab News.
“During emergency situations, we always deploy an additional number of forces.”
Authorities have also shut down mobile internet to prevent further mobilization through social media, with Telecommunications Minister Zunaid Ahmed Palak telling reporters services “will be brought back to normal when the situation improves.”
At least 32 people have been killed and hundreds injured since the clashes broke out across Bangladesh’s main cities, according to an AFP count of victims from hospitals around the country.
Most of the violence took place in Dhaka, where students announced a “complete shutdown,” urging private sector workers and businesses to close operations for the day.
“The complete shutdown is a call from the students to the people not to go to offices, and businesses to remain closed. People will stay at home. All the students are on the streets now,” Umama Fatima, coordinator of Students Against Discrimination, one of the protest organizers, told Arab News.
“The protest is underway everywhere in the capital and across the country. In many places, police and the ruling party’s student wing, Bangladesh Chatra League, attacked the protesting students. As I heard, at least four students died in Dhaka on Thursday during clashes with police.”
More than a quarter of Bangladesh’s 170 million population is aged between 15 and 29. Unemployment is highest in this group, contributing 83 percent of the total jobless figure in the country.
The quotas for well-paid government jobs hit them directly.
Mohammad Nahid Islam, another Students Against Discrimination coordinator, told Arab News earlier this week that the protest was not seeking an end to the quota system, merely its reform, so that it continues to protect marginalized groups, but does not disproportionately distribute public service jobs prioritizing the descendants of the 1971 fighters.
“We are demanding the reform by reserving some quota for the underprivileged population,” he said. “We are demanding job recruitment on the basis of merit.”

EU Commission head von der Leyen elected for second term

Updated 18 July 2024

EU Commission head von der Leyen elected for second term

  • Von der Leyen promises new ‘defense union’
  • Commission chief also vows to stick to climate targets

STRASBOURG: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was elected for a second term on Thursday after pledging to create a continental “defense union” and stay the course on Europe’s green transition while cushioning its burden on industry.
Members of the European Parliament backed von der Leyen’s bid for another five-year term at the helm of the European Union’s powerful executive body with 401 votes in her favor and 284 against in a secret ballot in the 720-member chamber.
In an address to the Parliament in Strasbourg earlier in the day, von der Leyen laid out a program focused on prosperity and security, shaped by the challenges of Russia’s war in Ukraine, global economic competition and climate change.
“The next five years will define Europe’s place in the world for the next five decades. It will decide whether we shape our own future or let it be shaped by events or by others,” von der Leyen said ahead of a secret ballot on her candidacy.
She stressed the need not to backtrack on the “Green Deal” transformation of the EU economy to fight climate change — a key pledge for Green lawmakers, who joined center-right, center-left and liberal groups in backing her for the post.
After pledging to support Ukraine for as long as it takes in its fight against Russia, von der Leyen said Europe’s liberty was at stake and it must invest more in defense.
Von der Leyen, a center-right former German defense minister, pledged to create “a true European Defense Union,” with flagship projects on air and cyber defense.
The plan sparked criticism from the Kremlin, which said it
reflected an attitude of “militarization (and) confrontation.”
Von der Leyen blasted Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s recent visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow as an “appeasement mission,” winning broad applause from lawmakers.
Defense policy in Europe has traditionally been the domain of national governments and NATO.
But following Russia’s attack on Ukraine and amid uncertainty over how much Europe will be able to rely on the United States for its protection should Donald Trump win the US presidential election in November, the European Commission is seeking to push more joint European defense projects.
Von der Leyen also promised a raft of climate policies including a legally-binding EU target to cut emissions 90 percent by 2040, compared to 1990 levels.
She also pledged new measures to help European industries stay competitive while they invest in curbing emissions.
Green support
The Greens’ decision to join the informal alliance of parties that supports von der Leyen ensured her margin of victory was fairly comfortable. She needed 361 votes to secure a majority in the chamber.
Her own coalition of the center-right, center-left and liberals has 401 seats, but some of its members were expected to vote against her in the secret vote.
She might also promised tighter EU border controls and stronger police cooperation against crime.
Von der Leyen’s re-election provides continuity in the European Union’s key institution at a time of external and internal challenges — including mounting support for far-right and euroskeptic political parties in the 27-nation bloc.
In the coming weeks, she will propose her team of commissioners, who will face individual hearings from lawmakers before a final vote on the whole Commission later in the year.