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Migrant deported by Israel back to Africa recounts ordeal

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Inside the immigration office in Tel Aviv, Yohannes Tesfagabr considered his options. He could not return to Eritrea, a country he risked his life to flee in 2010. He hoped to avoid the fate of compatriots who languished in a desert jail for illegally staying in Israel.

So in an emotional decision last November, the 29-year-old accepted what Israeli authorities were offering: $3,500 and a one-way ticket to Uganda or Rwanda.

Two weeks later he was on a flight to Uganda.

“They told me, ‘If you don’t leave you are going to jail,'” Tesfagabr recalled. “It’s forced. They tell you to say you are going voluntarily, but it is not voluntary. They force you to deport yourself.”

Tens of thousands of Africans in Israel face jail if they do not accept an offer, allegedly without further assurances of safety, to leave for an unnamed African country. Both Uganda and Rwanda, widely presumed to be the destinations, have denied any agreement with Israel’s government even though scores of migrants are believed to have already settled in the East African countries.

Tesfagabr said his group of Eritreans was not taken through the official immigration desk upon arrival in Uganda. They were ushered through the cargo area by a Ugandan official and driven to a hotel in the capital, Kampala. Their passports were confiscated. Hours later, the undocumented Eritreans were dismissed.

The five other Eritreans declined to talk to The Associated Press because of safety concerns. But Tesfagabr said he wanted to speak out because he felt he had been harshly treated by Israel, a country he had grown to love.

“My Hebrew is four times better than my English,” he said one recent evening.

Tesfagabr, a village boy who felt hopeless after being forcefully conscripted into Eritrea’s army, arrived in Israel in 2012, the victim of alleged traffickers in Sudan who helped him cross a border point in the Sinai after his family was made to pay a $3,900 ransom. To force his parents to pay, his captors beat him and staged mock executions.

But after crossing into Israel, Tesfagabr benefited from random acts of kindness. In Rehovot, a city south of Tel Aviv, he found a satisfying job as a sous chef. He had an apartment and a bank account, but he had to get his visa renewed every two months.

When two compatriots were jailed for overstaying their visas, Tesfagabr knew his days were numbered.

“They take you like a dog, like a donkey,” he said of the migrants taken to the Holot detention center in the Negev desert. “They do what they want.”

This month Israeli authorities began distributing deportation notices to some 40,000 African migrants, who have until April 1 to comply. Nearly all are from Eritrea and Sudan, countries with questionable human rights records.

The deportation plan has sparked outrage in Israel, where many say it is unethical and damages Israel’s image as a refuge. Israel cites complaints that the migrants have transformed working-class neighborhoods of southern Tel Aviv into unrecognizable slums. Israeli authorities say women, children and families are exempt from the deportation order.

This month thousands of African asylum seekers protested outside the Rwandan Embassy in Israel, calling the deportations racist and urging Rwanda not to cooperate. They claim they have no rights in Uganda and Rwanda and are forced to flee toward Europe through war-torn countries like Libya.

Okello Oryem, Uganda’s deputy minister of international affairs, described reports of a deal to take in migrants from Israel as “fake news.” Rwanda’s government has insisted it “has never signed any secret deal with Israel regarding the relocation of African migrants.”

Mossi Raz, an Israeli lawmaker who recently traveled to Rwanda and Uganda to investigate, said his group concluded that the arrangement “does not ensure the safety and well-being of the refugees.”

Raz said the delegation met with two migrants believed to be among the few remaining in Rwanda. He said others, in the hundreds or thousands, were transferred to Uganda within days, forced to pay for their travel.

“The refugees will arrive in these countries and will not receive refugee status, their documents will be taken from them and they will be left with nothing,” Raz said. “Rwanda is only participating in this agreement because of the money it will receive from Israel.”

Tesfagabr, the Eritrean migrant, is now jobless, without a passport and dependent on his savings to pay the rent. The soft-spoken man said he feels like a prisoner and dreams of relocating to Europe.

“I want to start a new life,” he said.

___

Associated Press writers Ignatius Ssuuna in Kigali, Rwanda and Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem contributed.

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Joe Biden-Vladimir Putin summit: Leaders agree to return ambassadors to posts in bid to lower tensions | World News

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Russia’s Vladimir Putin says he and US President Joe Biden have agreed to return their ambassadors to their respective posts in an attempt to lower tensions.

It comes after around four hours of talks between the leaders at a summit in Switzerland.

The two men have had face-to-face discussions at a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva.

The first round of talks involved both leaders, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and a pair of translators.

A second session involved other senior officials on both sides.

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Putin and Biden meet in Geneva

President Biden gave a thumbs up as he left the villa and then entered his limousine, TV footage showed.

Diplomats deemed it to be too risky for them to appear together because of the potential of an embarrassing public spat in response to media questions.

Opening the talks earlier, Mr Putin said he hoped for a “productive” meeting, while Mr Biden called it a discussion between “two great powers” and insisted “it is always better to meet face to face”.

As they appeared together for the first time since 2011, both men appeared to avoid looking directly at the other during a brief and chaotic photocall before jostling reporters and photographers.

Mr Biden instigated the summit, and for months the two leaders have criticised each other.

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Biden: Putin is a worthy adversary

Mr Biden has repeatedly called out Mr Putin for malicious cyberattacks by Russian-based hackers on US interests, a disregard for democracy with the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and alleged interference in American elections.

Mr Putin, in turn, has pointed to the US Capitol riot on 6 January to argue America has no business lecturing on democratic norms.

And he insisted the Russian government has not been involved in any election interference or cyberattacks despite US intelligence showing otherwise.

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Russia’s View: Exclusive interview with Putin

The jailing of Mr Navalny, whose novichok poisoning was blamed on the Kremlin, was a subject on which Mr Biden was unlikely to get much traction with Mr Putin who considers the case an internal Russian affair.

But there were areas where cooperation was expected. They include arms control, climate change, containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, humanitarian assistance to Syrians and working together on the COVID-19 pandemic.

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US-Russia summit: Putin hopes for ‘productive’ meeting and Biden says it is ‘better to meet face to face’ as event gets under way | World News

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US President Joe Biden and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have embarked on hours of face-to-face talks at a lakeside mansion in Switzerland.

Opening the talks, Mr Putin said he hoped for a “productive” meeting, as Mr Biden insisted “it is always better to meet face to face”.

Their encounter at a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva is full of the potential for high drama but low on expectations for diplomatic breakthroughs.

Biden and Putin
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Biden and Putin

As they appeared together for the first time since 2011, both men appeared to avoid looking directly at the other during a brief and chaotic photocall before jostling reporters and photographers.

When a reporter asked if Mr Putin could be trusted, Mr Biden appeared to nod, but the White House quickly sent out a tweet insisting the president was “very clearly not responding to any one question, but nodding in acknowledgment to the press generally”.

Mr Putin ignored shouted questions from reporters.

The two leaders shook hands with Mr Biden extending his hand first.

Shortly before, Mr Biden had smiled at the Russian leader when they posed with Swiss President Guy Parmelin, who welcomed them to Switzerland for the summit.

The meeting, which is expected to last four or five hours in total, comes at the end of Mr Biden’s first foreign trip as US president which has taken him to Cornwall for the G7 meeting and Brussels for separate NATO and EU summits.

About two hours in, the Kremlin announced that the first round of talks had concluded, with a short break, followed by their resumption with a larger group of people in attendance – the first of two such rounds.

The first meeting involved the two leaders, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and a pair of translators.

At all of these meetings, messages have been moulded and red lines set by western leaders which sources say Mr Biden will spell out to Mr Putin.

Ukraine, Belarus, Iran, Syria and issues like arms proliferation are all expected to be discussed as well as behaviour by Russia which western nations consider to be contrary to the so-called international rules based system.

The fate of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, poisoned then imprisoned in Russia, will be raised by the American president. It is a subject on which he is unlikely to get much traction with his Russian counterpart who considers the case an internal Russian affair.

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Russia’s View: Exclusive interview with Putin

But domestically for Mr Biden, who is facing criticism for agreeing to a meeting with Mr Putin so early in his presidency, it’s important to be seen to be pressuring the Russians.

The US president, who famously called Mr Putin “a killer” has conceded already that there is “no guarantee” that the meeting will effect any change of behaviour by the Russian president.

As well as the Navalny case, the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury in 2018 is likely to feature in the talks.

Defence rivalry will be a key issue with an attempt at a new dialogue on arms control. Issues like the territorial control in the Arctic, space, cyber and autonomous weapons systems could all be up for discussion.

Andrey Kortunov is director general of the Russian International Affairs Council and considered to be a Kremlin insider.

He told Sky News: “They will not resolve these issues in Geneva, they might only authorise their respective bureaucrats and military and diplomats to get into a serious conversation on all of these issues. That would be already a major accomplishment.”

Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with then vice president Joe Biden in Moscow in 2011
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Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with then vice president Joe Biden in Moscow in 2011

He continued: “I think that Biden and Putin will probably articulate their positions on issues like Ukraine or Belarus too. But it’s hard to believe that they can achieve a breakthrough on such sensitive issues.”

Expectations by diplomats on both sides are being kept intentionally low. From that base it’s possible to build up even small wins as diplomatic breakthroughs.

There is a chance that the two leaders could agree to repair the basic mechanics of their bilateral relationship by reinstalling ambassadors in their respective capitals. But beyond that sort of gesture, bigger announcements are not likely.

On Monday, Mr Biden said he will make clear to Putin “what the red lines are” and “if he chooses not to cooperate and acts in a way that he has in the past relative to cybersecurity and some other activities, then we will respond in kind.”

Asked for his assessment of the former KGB officer, Mr Biden said: “He’s bright, he’s tough, and I have found that he is a – as they say when I used to play ball – a worthy adversary.”

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Biden: Putin is a worthy adversary

The meeting, which was initiated by President Biden, has been arranged over just a few weeks and will involve one-plus-one talks with Mr Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Mr Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.

A second session will then include other senior officials on both sides.

The two leaders will not hold a joint news conference. Diplomats deem it to be too risky for them to appear together because of the potential of an embarrassing public spat in response to media questions.

“Definitely the summit was prepared in a haste. It’s the very beginning (of the relationship). And it’s going to be a modest beginning especially for Biden. He cannot look as if he yielded too much to the Russian counterpart,” Mr Kortunov told Sky News.

There are areas where cooperation is expected. They include arms control, climate change, containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, humanitarian assistance to Syrians and working together on the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Nora Quoirin: Malaysia court overturns coroner’s verdict that teen’s death was misadventure | UK News

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A High Court in Malaysia has overturned a coroner’s verdict that the death of French-Irish teenager, Nora Quoirin, was likely misadventure with no one else involved.

The 15-year-old, who lived in Balham, in southwest London, was staying with her family at a hotel around an hour from the capital, Kuala Lumpur, when she disappeared in August 2019.

After a ten-day search, her body was discovered around 2.5 kilometres from where she was last seen at the Dusun eco-resort in southern Negeri Sembilan.

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A coroner in Malaysia ruled in January that the death of British teenager Nora Quoirin was most likely a misadventure.

Meabh Quoirin said her daughter was born with holoprosencephaly, a disorder that affects brain development leaving Nora with learning and physical disabilities.

During a short virtual hearing, Judge Azizul Azmi Adnan laid out the reasons for revising the judgement and returning an open verdict.

In particular, he highlighted Nora’s struggles with balance and coordination, the steep terrain around the resort, which was challenging for people without her physical disabilities, and her shy personality which made her “unadventurous” and “uncomfortable with the unfamiliar”.

“Having reviewed the material, that was before the court, I am of the view that the verdict of misadventure ought to be vacated in the interests of justice and substituted with an open verdict, as there was no credible evidence to support any other verdict,” he explained to Nora’s listening parents.

“I am willing to accept that on the evidence before the court the possibility for third party involvement was lower than the possibility that Nora Anne had inadvertently got herself into a situation from which she could not extricate herself.

“That does not mean, however, that I should enter a verdict of misadventure,” he added.

The ruling is a legal victory for the family who believe Nora may have been abducted and challenged the coroner’s decision.

Police have always suggested there was no evidence of foul play, claiming she likely climbed out of a window and wandered off into the jungle alone.

Her family has dismissed this saying that Nora would not have been physically able to disappear into thick forest unaided and evade detection during the intensive search involving drones and sniffer dogs.

Nora’s parents said they were “utterly disappointed” by a coroner’s verdict in January.

They have suggested her body may have been placed in the area where it was finally found.

Legal representatives for the family previously said an open verdict would be “appropriate”.

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