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African asylum seekers facing expulsion have embraced Israel

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Even as he faces a potential deportation from Israel, 30-year-old Eritrean asylum seeker Johny Goytiom Kafl brims with satisfaction as he looks out upon thousands of fellow protesters rallying against the impending expulsions, all while peacefully secured by police.

It’s such displays of civil action that he most admires about his adoptive home of the past nine years since he escaped one of the world’s most oppressive regimes, and then faced torture, kidnapping and abuse during his exodus throughout Africa.

“You are treated like a human being in Israel,” he said in fluent Hebrew. “Here I am not afraid. In Eritrea, I was afraid.”

Kafl, along with tens of thousands of other Africans, now fear their stay in the Holy Land is coming to an abrupt end. Israel has given many of them until April 1 to leave for an unnamed African destination — known to be Rwanda — in exchange for $3,500 and a plane ticket. Otherwise, they face open-ended incarceration.

Israel considers the vast majority of the nearly 40,000 migrants to be job seekers and says it has no legal obligation to keep them. The Africans, nearly all from dictatorial Eritrea and war-torn Sudan, say they fled for their lives and face renewed danger if they return.

As the world grapples with the worst refugee crisis since World War II, the issue has struck a raw nerve in Israel — established on the heels of the Holocaust.

Critics at home and in the Jewish American community have called the government’s proposed response unethical and a stain on Israel’s image as a refuge for Jewish migrants.

The optics of black asylum seekers accusing the country of racism has turned into a public relations liability for Israel, and groups of Israeli doctors, academics, poets, Holocaust survivors, rabbis and pilots have all appealed to halt the plan. But the government remains steadfast, bristling at what it considers cynical comparisons to the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany.

The Africans started moving toward Israel in 2005 after neighboring Egypt violently quashed a refugee demonstration and word spread of safety and job opportunities in Israel. Tens of thousands crossed the porous desert border before Israel completed a barrier in 2012 that stopped the influx.

But Israel has struggled with what to do with those already in the country, alternating between plans to deport them and offering them menial jobs in hotels and local municipalities.

Kafl, like many of his compatriots, fled Eritrea to escape its lifelong military conscription in slavery-like conditions and fears death if he returns.

He has experienced both sides of Israel. His asylum request is still pending, and he has been locked up in a massive detention center in the remote southern desert. But he is also deeply grateful to the many Israelis who welcomed him and sympathized with his plight. He said he hopes to one day return the favor if the Eritrean regime is ultimately toppled.

“I knocked on the door of the country and said ‘save me.’ I will never forget the soldier who said ‘welcome,’ gave me food and called for a doctor. I got his kind of respect in Israel, not in Eritrea,” he said.

After the initial warm welcome, however, many turned against the migrants, particularly in the working class neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv, which have become known as “Little Africa.”

“They are abusing our democracy to live off our backs,” said Shefi Paz, who leads the local residents’ opposition. “They’ve ruined our community and ruined our lives.”

The government, dominated by nationalist parties, has denounced their prolonged stay and recently voted to begin deporting them to African countries with which they have reached secret agreements. They are believed to be Rwanda and Uganda, close allies of Israel, though they both deny any deal exists.

The government says it is going out of its way to accommodate humanitarian concerns. Women, children and families, for example, are exempt from the deportation order, as are those who escaped the genocide in Sudan’s western region of Darfur. It says it is expediting its refugee vetting process, and notes the Supreme Court has ruled the arrangement is legal and does not imperil those dispatched.

But that’s not what the migrants and their backers contend.

Sigal Rozen, of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants advocacy group, said Israel’s processing has been disingenuous, noting that of the 15,000 African refugee status requests, only 11 have been approved.

She said the 4,000 migrants who accepted previous offers to go to Rwanda did not find refuge there. Nearly all had their travel papers seized and money taken and were then pushed into neighboring Uganda to embark upon a second refugee ordeal.

Unable to return home, they have been forced to traverse though Africa, where many reported being tortured, raped and starved in Libya en route to Europe. An Eritrean Christian who had left Israel was beheaded on a Libyan beach by the Islamic State group in 2015.

“How can Israel know if these people are genuine refugees if they didn’t check their asylum requests?” said Rozen. “As Jews, we are morally obliged to protect these people from the horrible things that they ran away from.”

At a parliamentary hearing Monday, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said Israel had no obligation toward what she called job seekers who imposed “unacceptable migrant terror that includes violence and sexual harassment” toward the people of south Tel Aviv.

Monim Haroon said it hurt to hear Israel refer to him as an infiltrator. Now a 28-year-old university student in Jerusalem, he fled Darfur five years ago and has lost family members in the genocide.

“I escaped my country because I wanted to stay alive and to say that I am just a migrant worker, that is very painful to me,” he said at a demonstration outside the Rwandan Embassy in Tel Aviv.

Lior Birger, a researcher who published a recent study of 19 migrants who voluntarily left Israel and managed to reach Europe, said Israel’s promises were not being kept. One Eritrean testified to being extorted in a Sudanese prison and then beaten in a Libyan torture camp and shoved into a small room with 800 people. Another said he watched his wife drown in the Mediterranean and later tried to kill himself. She said everyone had a uniform message: “Better a prison in Israel than dying on the way.”

A recent poll by the respected Israel Democracy Institute found two-thirds of the Jewish public agreed with the planned expulsions. The migrants’ best hope may be the government’s lack of preparation. Prison authorities are skeptical they will be able to process the expected 15,000 to 20,000 to be jailed.

For many of the Africans, there is no good choice.

“I don’t care about the money and I never even planned to reach Israel. I was just looking for a safe area,” said Halofom Sultan, 37, who escaped Eritrea seven years ago and has been separated from his wife and two children since. “I hope there will be a change in my country and I can go back. Otherwise, I don’t know.”

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Uganda presidential election: Incumbent Yoweri Museveni declared winner | World News

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Yoweri Museveni has been declared the winner of the Uganda presidential election with 58.64% of the total votes, according to the country’s electoral commission.

The incumbent will now serve a sixth term as president of the east African nation following some of the worst pre-election violence since the 76-year-old took office in 1986.

His man opposition, singer Bobi Wine, has alleged vote rigging throughout the process and had strong support in urban centres where frustration with unemployment and corruption remains high. He won 3.48 million votes, or 34.8% of the total, according to the commission.

Bobi Wine's trademark red beret has become a symbol of opposition to longtime President Yoweri Museveni.
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Opposition candidate Bobi Wine was assaulted and arrested several times during the election campaign

Mr Wine and other opposition candidates were often harassed, and more than 50 people were killed when security forces halted riots in November after he was arrested.

Although Mr Museveni holds on to power, at least 15 of his cabinet ministers including the vice president were voted out, with many losing to candidate’s from Mr Wine’s party, according to local media.

Mr Wine, real name Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, claimed victory on Friday and said he had video evidence of vote-rigging and insisting “every legal option is on the table” to challenge the election results.

He was beaten up and arrested several times during the election campaign but was never convicted of any charge. He later wore a flak jacket and said he feared for his life.

On Saturday, Mr Wine said his home in the capital Kampala had been surrounded by soldiers and the military was now allowing him to leave.

The army’s deputy spokesman, Deo Akiiki, told Reuters security officers were assessing threats to Mr Wine if left his home.

Monitoring of the elections has been hit by the arrest of independent observers and the denial of accreditation for members of the UN observer mission.

Tibor Nagy, the top US diplomat for Africa, tweeted on Saturday that “Uganda’s electoral process has been fundamentally flawed”, adding that the “US response hinges on what the Ugandan government does now”.

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COVID-19: India begins vaccine roll-out and aims to administer 300 million jabs by August | World News

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India has began its ambitious project of vaccinating its 1.3 billion citizens – as it aims to administer 300 million jabs by August.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the voluntary vaccination programme at 3,006 locations across the country this morning.

About 300,000 health workers will be vaccinated today and the numbers will increase as more capacity is enhanced every week.

In the first phase, vaccines will be given to 30 million health and frontline workers for free.

In its second phase 270 million citizens over the age of 50 and those under 50 with other health problems will be vaccinated.

There is an air of relief and optimism at the Rajiv Gandhi Super Speciality hospital as the first beneficiaries line up for the jab.

There is also relief and celebration by health workers at the Lok Nayak Jai Prakash (LNJP) Hospital in Delhi.

Biji Tony was the first nurse to be vaccinated at Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Hospital in Delhi
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Biji Tony was the first nurse to be vaccinated at the Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Hospital in Delhi

Staff nurse Biji Tony, the first to be vaccinated there, told Sky News: “I am so relieved. It has been a very difficult year, working day and night.

“We’ve stayed away from family and loved ones. We are human as well. Now all this ends. We are not afraid anymore after we get the second dose.”

Dr Suresh Kumar, the medical superintendent at the LNJP hospital, told Sky News: “Today is a historic day and like a festival, we are feeling as if we have won a super world cup.

“But it has come with a lot of struggle. We have lost doctors and staff to the virus. But now we are ready to win the COVID war.”

The two vaccines, the Oxford-AstraZeneca’s “Covishield” and Bharat Biotech’s “Covaxin”, were approved for emergency use by the Central Drugs and Standards Committee (CDSCO) on 3 January.

Millions of doses of Covishield, manufactured by the Serum Institute of India at its Pune plant, and Covaxin, produced by Bharat Biotech in Hyderabad, were transported under security to various cities across the nation.

The approval of the latter has raised concerns amongst scientists and epidemiologists as third phase trails are still ongoing and its efficacy has not yet been published.

Prime minister Modi said: “The DCGI (Drug Controller General of India) gave approval after they were satisfied with the data of the two vaccines. So stay away from rumours.”

Professor KS Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation Of India (PHFI) – a non- profit organisation and a watchdog of public health – said: “Ideally at the best of circumstances one should see the phase three trials completed and efficacy data fully evaluated and out in the public domain through scientific publications as well as other scrutiny.

“However in this pandemic situation it was felt that given the large number of persons in India that need to be immunised the potential escalation of the epidemic due to mutants. I think the policy makers have taken the decision, I too wish the trial could have been completed earlier.

“But as far as the safety is concerned it has been adequately proven for Covaxin. But anyone who has doubts of the vaccine need not take it even if it is offered, they can decline it.”

Healthcare workers are being prioritised in the vaccine roll-out
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Healthcare workers are being prioritised in the vaccine roll-out

Indian Health Ministry spokesperson Rajesh Bhushan said: “There is no option for recipients to choose which vaccine they want to be inoculated with.”

Preparations for these dry runs took place in more than 700 districts across the country with mock transportation and dummy injections by more than 150,000 health staff.

The country has 29,000 cold-chain points, 240 walk-in coolers, 70 walk-in freezers, 45,000 ice-lined refrigerators, 41,000 deep freezers and 300 solar refrigerators for storage.

Immunising a country that is almost 2,000 miles north to south and the same east to west with over a billion people will be a herculean task.

Reaching remote and rural areas where most of India lives and where the infrastructure is wanting will be a challenge.

Added to this is a second jab required to complete the cycle.

And then there are the many summer months where temperatures soar to 40C (104 F) or more in most parts of the country.

It has been a tragic winter for the Sharma household

Deviram Sharma, 65, died within four days of being admitted to a hospital with the virus.

His son Avneesh is donning a PPE suit to perform the last rites at Nigambodh Ghat – the largest Hindu crematorium.

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Families have no time for mourning as farewells are hurried and from afar due to restrictions.

Traditional last rites are rushed under the overbearing shadow of the virus, the bereavement a mere formality.

Avneesh told Sky News: “It has jolted our family, it has shaken our roots, even I had to go on medication and am still feeling low myself.

“I hope and pray that this virus is removed through the use of vaccination and others don’t have to suffer what our family has gone through.”

With more than 10.5 million cases, India is the second worst affected country after the United States.

Almost 152,000 deaths have been reported so far and the need for a vaccine has never been as critical as now.

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COVID-19: Indonesia vaccine rollout bucks trend by targeting younger generations | UK News

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With shaking hands, broadcast live to the nation, a doctor administered Indonesia’s first COVID-19 vaccination.

The recipient was President Joko Widodo, a man who hopes to get 181.5 million Indonesians vaccinated this year.

It’s a huge challenge, almost three times the population of the UK and so far one of the largest rollouts in the world.

But the nation’s vaccination drive, which started this week using CoronaVac, a jab from Chinese manufacturer Sinovac Biotech, bucks the current trend by injecting under-60s first.

You can find out more about Indonesia’s COVID-19 vaccine drive on the Sky News Daily Podcast

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Dr Siti Nadia Tarmizi, COVID-19 vaccination spokesperson for Indonesia’s Ministry of Health, told Sky News: “18 to 59 is the age group that gets most infected by COVID-19 and mostly without symptoms. We know between 18 and 59 is a more productive age group, so if we are targeting this age group first, we will protect them from COVID-19, which means they can, of course, go to work.

“And then secondly, by protecting this age group, we will cut the transmission.”

Indonesia has recorded more than 25,400 deaths and 880,000 infections making it Southeast Asia’s worst outbreak.

Testing levels are low, so experts warn the actual infection rate could be much higher.

Starting with frontline workers, under-60s will be inoculated first not only because the government hopes protecting workers will boost the economy, but it’s also waiting for more safety data about how CoronaVac impacts the elderly.

Medical official with vaccine dose
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A medical official prepares to administer a vaccine dose

In Indonesia’s capital city, Jakarta, where people who refuse the jab will face fines, some are wary.

“If I had the option to refuse the vaccine, I would say no,” said Guntur Dwi Adiputra, “For sure I will be afraid to have it because I don’t know the side-effects.”

“I understand the perspective economic reasons, however, I feel that those people, productive people, they could wait because they’re not the ones risking their lives first, the elderly are the ones at stake right now,” added local resident Angel Utomo.

Officials on steps
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Officials on steps

Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world and the pandemic has left many struggling financially.

Mohammed Santri’s catering business previously sold more than 200 meals a day, but since the coronavirus outbreak it’s dropped to just 10.

The family now runs it alone after all the paid staff had to be let go.

“I hope that the vaccination process will be implemented as soon as possible because when people are healthy and they can go back to work then I will receive orders again,” Mr Santri said.

CoronaVac is easier for many developing countries to store than some of the other vaccines as it can be kept in the fridge.

Unlike the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines which have been given the green light in the UK, the Sinovac-made jab uses inactivated coronavirus.

Monk speaks to official
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A monk speaks to an official

Patients are injected with killed viral particles to expose the body’s immune system to the virus and teach it to make antibodies.

Interim data in Indonesia put the efficacy at 65.3% but extended results from Brazil found it to be just 50.4% effective, barely over the 50% needed for regulatory approval.

Researchers at Sao Paulo’s Butantan Institute who conducted the trials previously stressed it was 78% effective against mild to severe cases.

Sinovac Biotech is Indonesia’s biggest vaccine supplier, and while the country is buying other brands, officials explained the Chinese could deliver fastest.

“I think the main reason why Sinovac is being used in Indonesia is that they committed to deliver this vaccine at the end of December 2020, while the others were still in the negotiation process,” Dr Nadia said.

“We plan to have 181.5 million of the population vaccinated, which means we need like 426 million doses of vaccine which is a really huge number and it may not be able to be fulfilled by only having one vaccine type or vaccine factory.”

Military official receives COVID-19 vaccine.
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A military official receives his COVID-19 vaccine

While many countries in the West are focusing on European and American-made vaccines, in Asia, nations including Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand are all starting with Sinovac.

Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist at Australia’s Griffith University, said China has deliberately positioned itself to fill a gap in the market and supply developing countries which would otherwise face a long wait.

“Vaccine diplomacy has become one of the tools for big countries to improve and increase their power in the region. China will use this as a diplomatic power, that’s for sure,” he said.

But with more than 270 million people to protect and surging cases, it’s a power game Indonesia’s willing to play, with leaders hoping this will be a turning point in the fight against the pandemic

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