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‘We were left in the sea’: asylum seekers forced off Lesbos | Refugees

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“We were all forced on to the boat. If we looked up they shouted at us and hit us in the head. Then they stopped at a place in the sea where there were no other boats, they left us.”

Mustafa, his wife and two young children had only been on the Greek island of Lesbos a few hours when, they say, they were driven in a van to the coast, beaten by masked men and then taken out to sea on a raft and abandoned there.

Their story is one of many and lies at the heart of what rights groups, the UN and the EU are warning is a crisis for the right to asylum at Europe’s borders – with “pushbacks” so persistent and severe they are leading to a huge drop in arrivals across the sea into Greece.

The UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) recently warned that many EU borders – from Greece to the Balkans to France – are increasingly impossible to pass for vulnerable asylum-seeking families such as Mustafa’s. There was a 85% drop in arrivals by sea to Greece in 2020 compared with 2019 and Notis Mitarachi, the country’s migration minister, has repeatedly pointed to the reduction in “flows” of asylum seekers to the Aegean islands.

Mustafa’s own journey began in northern Afghanistan. The family travelled through Turkey and crossed on a small boat with 12 others. They had paid €1,200 (£1,030) each for the journey, selling almost all their possessions to fund it after a militant group had threatened Mustafa’s life.

After stumbling on to the beach, a local NGO, Aegean Boat Report, helped them find the camp where they hoped to claim asylum. Instead, they say when they got there, they were met by police.

Mustafa’s family in the container they were put in before being removed from Lesbos
Mustafa’s family in the container they were held in before being removed from Lesbos. Photograph: Courtesy of Aegean Boat Report

“There were two police officers and they said, ‘wait there whilst we call [someone] in a higher position’,” Mustafa said. Still wet from the sea, other asylum seekers in the camp gave them clothes and food.

When the police said the family and the other migrants who had arrived with them would be taken to get a Covid test, Mustafa became worried, he said. “I started to have a feeling of fear that maybe they are going to push us and send us back to Turkey.”

Instead of being taken for a test, the group were taken to a container. “The police then came and gave us directions to a container nearby. They then shouted at us to get in the container,” Mustafa recalled.

At the container, terrifyingly for the family, four masked men arrived and searched the group for phones and personal items while people faced the wall.

A child in the container the asylum seekers were held in on Lesbos
A child in the container the asylum seekers were held in on Lesbos. Photograph: Courtesy of Aegean Boat Report

“Four guys came, their whole face was covered. They woke us up and took all the phones from the rest of the group. They couldn’t find my phone because it was wrapped in a blanket under where my son was sleeping. They searched everywhere, even in the nappies of the children. It’s not nice for me to talk about,” Mustafa said.

At various points in the ordeal, he added, the children started crying. They were then forced to get into the back of a van. “There were no seats inside, it looked like a van for animals.”

After around an hour they stopped and the men forced them to board a small boat. Mustafa said he was afraid to board, but the men hit and kicked him until he did.

“I thought that these men were going to drown us,” he said. “Everyone was afraid and shouting that they didn’t want to get inside the boat. But they kicked me so that I got on.”

Messages sent to the Aegean Boat Report NGO including a video of the family in the container.
Messages sent to the Aegean Boat Report NGO including a video of the family in the container. Photograph: Courtesy of Aegean Boat Report

The group were then pushed into an orange life raft and “left in the sea, where the waters are Turkish”. They sent a video pleading for help to Aegean Boat Report at 1.30am, nearly six hours after they had first asked the group for help when they arrived on Lesbos.

They were eventually picked up by the Turkish coast guard and are now back in Turkey, staying at a friend’s flat. With all their money having been spent on the journey, they are nearly destitute.

“We tried to get to Europe for the future of our children,” Mustafa said, “because there is no war there.”

The Greek coast guard said it has no record of the incident Mustafa described. In a statement it said it acted according to Greece’s international obligations and all relevant international treaties and with respect for human rights. “The Hellenic coast guard takes all necessary measures to effectively monitor and protect both Greece’s and the EU’s sea borders,” it said.

“In our effort to protect our country’s rights as well as the lives of refugees which are put to danger, some media and NGOs target the Hellenic coast guard with publicity based on untrue, unverified claims.”

Mireille Girard, acting representative for the UNHCR in Greece, told the Guardian they were aware of the incident and had eyewitnesses who had seen the people arrive in the Megala Therma quarantine camp.

“We are following this case very closely,” she said. “We were alerted by local residents and the residents in the Megala Therma [camp]. There were 29 asylum seekers inside the facility that night so they saw the group arriving.”

Girard said asylum procedures should be followed. “Clearly there was a group that had landed inside Greece and, more than that, they had gone inside the facility of the government,” she said. “So it’s very important for the authorities to look into this and see what happened.”

Mustafa’s name has been changed to protect his identity.



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‘We just sleep and hope we don’t perish’: 2m in Tigray in urgent need of food – UN | Hunger

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At least 2 million people in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray are suffering from an extreme lack of food, with the 15-month conflict between rebel and government forces pushing families to the brink, the UN’s emergency food agency has found.

In the first comprehensive assessment the World Food Programme (WFP) has carried out in Tigray since the start of the war, 37% of the population were found to be severely food insecure, meaning they had at times run out of food and gone a day or more without eating.

Families were found to be “exhausting all means to feed themselves”, with 13% of Tigrayan children under five and almost two-thirds of pregnant and breastfeeding women suffering from malnutrition.

“Before the conflict we were eating three times a day but now even once a day is difficult. I was borrowing food from my family but now they have run out. We just sleep and hope we do not perish,” Kiros, a single mother of six children living on the outskirts of the region’s capital, Mekelle, told researchers.

The assessment, which was based on face-to-face interviews with 980 households in accessible parts of Tigray, was carried out from mid-November until mid-December.

However, researchers were unable to travel to areas where fighting is impeding humanitarian access. Moreover, since the assessment was carried out, the needs of the region are thought to have become even more acute as no aid convoy has reached Tigray for about six weeks.

“This bleak assessment reconfirms that what the people of northern Ethiopia need is scaled up humanitarian assistance, and they need it now,” said Michael Dunford, WFP’s regional director for eastern Africa.

“WFP is doing all it can to ensure our convoys with food and medicines make it through the frontlines. But if hostilities persist, we need all the parties to the conflict to agree to a humanitarian pause and formally agreed transport corridors, so that supplies can reach the millions besieged by hunger.”

Across northern Ethiopia, where fighting has raged in the regions of Afar and Amhara as well as Tigray, WFP estimates that 9 million people are in need of humanitarian food assistance, the highest number yet.

In Amhara, hunger has more than doubled in five months, it says. In Afar, where fighting has intensified in recent days between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and forces loyal to the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, recent health screening data showed malnutrition rates for children under five were at 28%, far above the standard emergency threshold of 15%.

Since the conflict erupted in November 2020, it has been difficult for the UN and other humanitarian organisations to gauge the level of need in Tigray due to a lack of on-the-ground access and telecommunications. The UN has accused the federal government of preventing food and essential medical supplies from coming into the region in a de-facto blockade. The government denies this.

On Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had made its first delivery of medical supplies to Mekelle since last September. The drugs are understood to have included enough insulin supplies to last about a month, after medics at the Ayder referral hospital raised the alarm over severe shortages.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director of the World Health Organization, recently accused Abiy’s government of imposing a “hell” on Tigray by denying entry to medical supplies.

“It is a huge relief that this first shipment is reaching hospitals,” said Apollo Barasa, health coordinator at the ICRC delegation in Ethiopia. “This assistance is a lifeline for thousands of people, and I can’t emphasise enough how crucial it is that these deliveries continue.”

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Asylum applications on rise in EU

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The EU Agency for Asylum on Friday said the number of asylum applications in November 2021 was the second-highest in five years, narrowly below the level in September. About 71,400 applications for international protection were lodged in the “EU+” (EU, plus Norway and Switzerland) in November 2021, up by nine percent from October. “This was the second-highest level since 2016,” it said.

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Protests flare across Poland after death of young mother denied an abortion | Abortion

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Protests are under way across Poland after the death of a 37-year-old woman this week who was refused an abortion, a year since the country introduced one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.

On the streets of Warsaw on Tuesday night, protesters laid wreaths and lanterns in memory of Agnieszka T, who died earlier that day. She was pregnant with twins when one of the foetus’ heartbeat stopped and doctors refused to carry out an abortion. In a statement, her family accused the government of having “blood on its hands”. Further protests are planned in Częstochowa, the city in southern Poland where the mother-of-three was from.

“We continue to protest so that no one else will die,” Marta Lempart, organiser of the protests, told Polish media. “The Polish abortion ban kills. Another person has died because the necessary medical procedure was not carried out on time.” All-Poland Women’s Strike has called on people across the country to picket the offices of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) and organise road blockades in the coming days.

Agnieszka was first admitted to the Blessed Virgin Mary hospital in Częstochowa with abdominal pain on 21 December. She is said to have been in the first trimester of a twin pregnancy when she arrived and was in “a good physical and mental shape”, according to her family, who said her condition then deteriorated.

On 21 December the heartbeat of one of the twins stopped and, according to Agnieszka’s family, the doctors refused to remove it, quoting the current abortion legislation. They waited several days until the second foetus also died. A further two days passed before the pregnancy was terminated on 31 December, according to the family.

A priest was then summoned by hospital staff to perform a funeral for the twins, the family said.

The family say that the doctors refused to terminate the pregnancy earlier, citing Poland’s abortion legislation. “Her husband begged the doctors to save his wife, even at the cost of the pregnancy,” Agnieszka’s twin sister, Wioletta Paciepnik, said on Tuesday.

After the termination, Agnieszka was moved from the gynaecological ward and her health continued to deteriorate. Her family suspect that she died of sepsis but the cause of death was not identified in a statement released by the hospital.

Shortly after her death, a statement by her family accusing the hospital of neglect was published on Facebook, alongside a distressing video of Agnieszka’s last days.

Agnieszka’s death marks the first anniversary of the 2021 ruling that declared abortion due to foetal abnormalities illegal. Abortion can now only be carried out in cases of rape, incest or if the mother’s life and health are in danger.

Her death comes after that of a woman known as Izabela last September, who died after being denied medical intervention when her waters broke in the 22nd week of her pregnancy. Her family claim the 30-year-old was refused an abortion or caesarean section and that the hospital cited the country’s abortion laws. An investigation found that “medical malpractice” led to Izabela’s death and the hospital was fined. Soon after, an anonymous man from Świdnica in south-west Poland came forward to share that his wife, Ania, died in similar circumstances in June last year.

While “selective abortion” is possible in the case of a twin pregnancy, it is unclear whether aborting an unviable foetus to save its healthy twin is permitted by the new abortion legislation. The Polish court has not referenced the questions raised by this situation, presented by opposition senators last year, in the new legislation.

“We want to honour the memory of my beloved sister and save other women in Poland from a similar fate,” Paciepnik said in a video appeal. The case is now being investigated by the regional prosecutors in Katowice, who also investigated the case of Izabela.

The family are represented by Kamila Ferenc, from the Federation for Women and Family Planning, who confirmed that an autopsy of Agnieszka’s body has been ordered by the court.

According to a statement from the hospital, Agnieszka tested positive for Covid before her death, although she tested negative twice when first admitted. “We stress that the hospital staff did all the necessary actions to save the patient,” the statement read. The hospital did not respond to the Guardian for a request for comment.

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