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‘A scene out of the middle ages’: Dead refugee found surrounded by rats at Greek camp | Global development

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At a desolate refugee camp on the Greek island of Chios earlier this week, a young man died alone in a tent. By the time the guards arrived on the scene, about 12 hours after the Somali refugee’s death, the body was surrounded by rodents.

Asylum seekers who had initially alerted staff spoke in horror at seeing rats and mice swarming about.

It was Orthodox Easter Monday, a national holiday in Greece. The 28-year-old, who has not been named by Greek authorities, is thought to have died of natural causes.

In a short statement, the Greek migration ministry ruled out foul play and said the “unfortunate man” was found by a military doctor to have bites on his ear and hand. “The precise cause of death will become known from the autopsy that is to be conducted.”

Although a registered refugee, the Somali man had been required to remain in Chios’s Vial hilltop holding centre because of Covid-19 restrictions. Island detention centres have been subjected to draconian lockdown measures since just after the start of the pandemic last year.

“We host them and feed them because they are humans, we can’t kick them out,” the camp’s governor, Panagiotis Kimourtzis, told the Guardian. “It’s only logical that rodents would appear when someone has been dead for so many hours. The camp was built very quickly in 2016. The [camp] is in nature, surrounded by fields. We do everything possible, we use pesticides, but there is only so much we can do.”

The young Somali, like the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who preceded him, left a country notorious for violence and poverty. Nearly six years after the onset of Europe’s refugee crisis, the tragic end of what would have been a long and risky journey has again highlighted the deplorable conditions of island “reception centres” in Greece.

For aid workers in Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos – the five Aegean islands on the frontline of migrant flows – the incident offers further proof of failings of the containment policies EU leaders have pursued on the borders of a continent seemingly desperate to keep asylum seekers out.

“There is only one truth and that is that Greek island camps are synonymous with overcrowding and inhuman conditions,” said Dr Apostolos Veizis, executive director in Greece of the international humanitarian organisation Intersos. “People are exposed on a daily basis to rats, rubbish and violence. In clinics across the islands children are often admitted with signs of rat bites. It’s shameful and appalling that they have to live in such disgraceful conditions when it really needn’t be the case.”

Arrivals of asylum seekers into Europe have dropped dramatically in the past year. An estimated 11,472 men, woman and children are now registered on the Aegean outposts, according to Greece’s ministry of citizen protection. Vial, which hosted 5,000 people in December 2019, now accommodates about a fifth of that number, the result of tough migration polices which include “decongesting” the islands.

Since the EU’s controversial agreement with Turkey to stem the flow of people, the islands have become an buffer in the EU’s battle to keep migrants out.

“Yes, there are fewer people and camp conditions have improved but they are not good,” said Leda Lakka, who heads the UN refugee agency’s office on Chios. “There are rats, around Vial and in Vial. That’s a fact. There are also makeshift shelters. That’s a fact too.”

Athens received about €3bn (£2.6bn) in EU funds to manage the migration crisis between 2015 and 2020, but critics claim evidence of spending cannot be seen on the ground, where conditions have been deplored by one of Europe’s top human rights watchdogs.

“If it had been used properly we would not be talking so many years later about a scene out of the middle ages where a dead man is attacked by rats,” said Veizis, who has worked on the islands for more than a decade. “All the camps are horrible. Every day people fall sick, mentally and physically. You have to wonder if treating them like this, not as humans but as numbers, is a deliberate policy choice of the European Union so that more don’t come.”

With the support of the EU, Athens’ centre-right administration has pledged to replace island facilities with state-of the-art “closed” installations.

Last week the government’s “transparency portal” confirmed that close to €270m in EU funds had been allocated to complete new camps by 31 March next year. Of that amount, €155m had been earmarked for new reception centres in Lesbos and Chios.

Greece, like other EU states, stands accused of pushbacks of migrants and refugees. But in triumphant mode the country’s migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, recently said that with tightened border controls after Turkey’s threat to flood Europe with asylum seekers, more people had left Greece than had arrived since March last year.

The number of migrants and refugees in accommodation facilities had also dropped from 92,000 a year ago to 56,000, he said.

“In the last 12 months, more people have left the country legally, with deportations, voluntary departures, or relocations,” he was quoted as telling EU counterparts. “There are about 60,000 recognised refugees in our country, fewer than what the country believes.”

With thousands of asylum seekers in Turkey hoping to make the dangerous Aegean crossing, just as the 28-year-old Somali did, migration experts believe that could change. And while Greece’s refugee population has decreased significantly, the prospect of any return to normality for those trapped on the islands remains elusive – despite an accelerated vaccination drive and the possibility of tourism resuming in the coming weeks.

“For a long time the UNHCR has been expressing concerns about the precarious conditions in island camps,” said Stella Nanou, an agency spokesperson in Athens. “Beyond the material difficulties and challenges, there has been the uncertainty of the pandemic, which has added to the frustration of people who so often can see no light at the end of the tunnel.”

A postmortem examination was due to be carried out on the dead man in Lesbos later today.

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Belgium goes into three-week ‘lockdown light’

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Belgium is to go into a three-week ‘lockdown light’, following a meeting of federal and regional governments on Friday (26 November).

“We have to admit that we have been ambushed by the virus and that the situation is much more serious than we saw a few weeks ago”, Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo told a lunchtime press conference.

De Croo added that “the pressure on our hospitals is seriously increasing and that the situation is not tenable. We have to action now.”

The Belgian concertation committee of federal and regional governments decided that social life will be restricted in a variety of ways for the next three weeks.

Nightclubs will be closed, and indoor concerts where people are not seated will be cancelled. This measure will go into effect on Monday (29 November).

Bars, restaurants and night-shops will need to close their doors at 11PM. The number of people on one table in restaurants will be restricted to six, except for families larger than six. These measures will go into effect on Saturday (27 November).

Private parties will be forbidden, with an exception for weddings and funerals. However, it is still allowed to have guests at home.

At work and school, on the other hand, there are no upgraded restrictions. The last committee decided that teleworking is mandatory four days a week, and that people can only go to the office one day a week.

Schools will remain open, as will universities.

De Croo reiterated that these “measures will only makes sense if everyone follows them.”

The committee decided to accelerate the vaccination campaign. Regional governments will organise test centres where people can get tested for free.

The committee decided to meet urgently after hospitals and doctors said they could no longer handle the situation. From 16 to 22 November, on average 16,100 people tested positive for Covid daily. On 22 November that number was already 25,365 .

Currently, 669 intensive-care beds are filled with Covid patients, well over the emergency threshold of 500, and in the worst-case scenario, 1,250 intensive-care beds, a maximum capacity, would be filled by Christmas.

Belgium has not been able to organise roll-out of the booster jab in time to prevent the fourth wave. De Croo announced that on Saturday (27 November) a plan will be made to accelerate the booster jab for every adult.

Before the Belgian governments met, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced the bloc will take the initiative to block all air travels from Southern Africa, where a new variant of Covid-19 has been found.

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Interpol’s president: alleged torturer rises as symbol of UAE soft power | Global development

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Maj Gen Ahmed Nasser al-Raisi’s ascent through the ranks of the interior ministry in Abu Dhabi is associated with the United Arab Emirates’ transformation into a hi-tech surveillance state.

His personal achievements include a diploma in police management from the University of Cambridge, a doctorate in policing, security and community safety from London Metropolitan University and a medal of honour from Italy.

Now, in a big soft-power win for the UAE and its attempt to legitimise its policing methods internationally, he has been elected the president of the global policing organisation Interpol – to the dismay of human rights defenders.

Often photographed smiling, Raisi is the longstanding inspector general for the interior ministry, responsible for the supervision of detention centres and policing. Multiple former detainees accuse him of using this position to green-light abuses, including torture.

“Raisi’s rise to the Interpol presidency legitimises the role and conduct of security forces in the UAE,” said Matthew Hedges, a British academic and expert on the Emirates who was detained there for seven months on espionage charges. Hedges, who was eventually pardoned, says Raisi was responsible for his arrest and also oversaw the torture he says he suffered in detention.

“This translates to a green light for states to continue acting in a way that abuses accountability and human rights, legitimises the dilution of rule of law and emboldens authoritative and abusive systems of detention,” Hedges said. “This is really a warning to the international community that cross-border abuses can and will occur.”

The Gulf state has previously said Hedges was not subjected to any physical or psychological mistreatment during his detention. On Thursday its interior ministry heralded Raisi’s win as “recognition of the vital role of the UAE all over the world”.

“The UAE,” it said, “is now at the helm of this international organisation working in the fields of security and policing and will do its best to make the world a safer place.”

In an unusually public campaign for the role, Raisi boasted of technological transformations that overhauled policing and surveillance in the UAE. These included the introduction of iris and facial scanning technology, and the creation of the interior ministry’s first “general directorate of happiness”.

His domestic policing changes underpin Abu Dhabi and Dubai’s status as two of the world’s most surveilled cities. One system, called Falcon Eye, deploys thousands of cameras to monitor not just traffic violations but also “behavioural issues like public hygiene and incidents like people gathering in areas where they are not allowed to”, according to a report by the state news agency WAM.

The rise in surveillance has been accompanied by a crackdown on domestic criticism and dissent. Human Rights Watch has said: “The government’s pervasive domestic surveillance has led to extensive self-censorship by UAE residents and UAE-based institutions; and stonewalling, censorship, and possible surveillance of the news media by the government.”

Abdullah Alaoudh, from the Washington DC organisation Democracy for the Arab World Now, said the UAE had been applying a two-pronged approach epitomised by Raisi’s Interpol win: “Cracking down hard on every voice of dissent, while investing in public relations like lobbying, soft power, sports and entertainment.”

Christopher M Davidson, the author of a book on statecraft in the Middle East, described Raisi as an example of “high-performing technocratic members of UAE political society” who had found success under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

“The key to the regime of Mohammed bin Zayed has been to get things done, to stamp out corruption. Despite all criticisms levelled at the UAE and Abu Dhabi today, it is a far less corrupt place than it was 15 years ago. These were the people entrusted to clean up ministries,” said Davidson.

Stamping out corruption has, at times, included arresting the wealthy and critics. Khadem al-Qubaisi, a former adviser to the royal family and a businessman who said he was “scapegoated” by the Abu Dhabi authorities for embezzling millions, is detained in Al Wathba prison. The prison, overseen by Raisi, also holds the human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor.

Riyaadh Ebrahim, who spent more than a year in the prison, said he witnessed torture there. “There is wrongful imprisonment, no application of the rule of law. People are being persecuted for crimes they did not commit,” Ebrahim said. He said he was “totally appalled” by Raisi’s victory in the Interpol election race.

Davidson said the UAE was using its wealth and resources to buy reputational shortcuts on the international stage.

“Policing in the UAE still has its problems, but this is a way of saying to the world that [they] are credible and respectable,” he said. “Obtaining the presidency of Interpol symbolises moving in the right direction.”

Jalel Harchaoui from the Geneva-based organisation the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime said Raisi’s election highlighted the struggle between liberal and illiberal nations within international institutions such as Interpol, and was a victory for anti-democratic countries.

“On the surface, Abu Dhabi – thanks to excellent soft-power outreach – markets itself as a modern state, which happens to be a dependable friend to all the major western democracies,” he said. “In reality however, the Emiratis, whose governance style has been partly inspired by China’s strict form of authoritarianism, always campaign against liberalism and its key principles.”

A spokesperson for the UAE embassy in London did not respond to a request for comment.

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France reminds Poland on law in Paris meeting

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French president Emmanuel Macron urged Polish president Mateusz Morawiecki to solve a rule-of-law dispute with the EU, while voicing solidarity on the Belarus migration crisis, in a meeting in Paris on Wednesday. Poland should “find a solution that safeguards the core values of the European Union”, Macron’s office said. Russian president Vladimir Putin told EU Council president Charles Michel by phone extra EU sanctions on Belarus would be “counterproductive”.

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