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Greece accused of ‘biggest pushback in years’ of stricken refugee ship | Migration and development

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It was hailed as the biggest search-and-rescue operation in the eastern Mediterranean for a decade. But the bid to save hundreds of refugees on a stricken ship in the Aegean Sea has led to allegations that the operation bore all the hallmarks of an illegal pushback before the Greek coastguard was forced to change tactics.

Only days after 382 asylum seekers disembarked on the island of Kos, criticism has mounted over their “unnecessarily prolonged” ordeal at sea.

Dr Apostolos Veizis, who heads the humanitarian aid organisation Intersos Hellas, said: “These were men, women and children seeking protection and they should have been taken to a safe port after the vessel sent out a distress signal.

“The nearest port was just a few miles away. Instead, they were kept on the vessel for four days, an unnecessarily prolonged period without access to basic services.”

The Turkish-flagged Murat 729 had been heading for Italy when it ran into engine trouble off Crete and issued a mayday call on 28 October.

Onboard were Pakistanis, Afghans, Bangladeshis, Syrians, Iranians and Lebanese – the biggest single influx of asylum seekers in years – taking a route that has become increasingly popular for Europe-bound refugees. More than 100 vessels, ranging from yachts to decommissioned cargo ships such as the Murat, are thought to have traversed the sea south of Crete this year.

By 8.30am that day, Tommy Olsen, who runs Aegean Boat Report, a Norwegian NGO that monitors people movement in the area, had received the first pictures and videos from passengers asking for help.

“You could see the boat drifting off the island and a Hellenic coastguard patrol alongside it,” he told the Guardian from his home in Tromsø, north of the Arctic Circle. “It was packed with people and the shores of Crete were clearly visible.”

What puzzled Olsen, who claims to be contacted by people in distress – “the victims of pushbacks” he says – up to 10 times a week, was the refusal of local authorities to accept they had located the vessel.

“Why Greek officials would insist they had not found the boat and then begin towing it away from Crete seemed very strange,” added Olsen, a veteran of migrant solidarity work on frontline Aegean islands. “It instantly made me think that what we were in fact seeing was not just another pushback but the biggest pushback in years.”

Hauled in the direction of Turkey, the stricken ship spent the next three days being dragged across the high seas by the Greek coastguard.

“Every hour I’d get the boat’s geo-locations and you could see it going back and forth,” he said. “From 2pm on Thursday until the early hours of Sunday when the passengers were permitted to disembark it travelled 500km [300 miles]. All that time people were sending messages that they weren’t even being given water and that some were very sick.”

Greek authorities first acknowledged the Murat on Friday 29 October, saying it was in international waters off Crete and that Athens had appealed to Turkey to take it back.

The freighter’s appearance had come against a backdrop of escalating tensions between the two countries over irregular migrant flows.

Friction has risen as boats carrying migrants and refugees have set out, reportedly unhindered, from the Turkish coast despite Ankara agreeing to prevent illegal flows under a deal with the EU in 2016.

Since March 2020, when Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, encouraged thousands of migrants to enter Greece – triggering a crisis that would see the EU scramble to reinforce its land and sea borders – the Aegean has allegedly become a theatre for pushbacks, with human rights groups claiming that thousands have been forcibly moved into Turkish waters before getting the chance to apply for asylum.

“What is of particular concern in this case is that the government was attempting to return people who wanted to seek asylum in Greece before an asylum procedure had taken place,” said Minos Mouzourakis at Refugee Support Aegean, an NGO offering legal assistance to refugees and asylum seekers. “That is a breach of EU law and fundamental rights.”

Pushbacks were among the issues at the top of the agenda when the Greek migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, held talks in Ankara this week.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s centre-right government in Greece has vigorously rejected the claims about pushbacks – attributing them in large part to Turkish propaganda – but the leader accepts his administration pursues “tough but fair” border management policies securing the EU’s external frontier.

Explaining the length of time needed to bring the cargo ship “to safe anchorage”, migration ministry officials in Athens laid the blame squarely with Ankara’s refusal to respond to repeated requests for the vessel to be sent back.

But critics contend that the odyssey the refugees were subjected to, as the standoff unfolded, is also at odds with the Greek government’s version of events. Shortly after the asylum seekers were brought ashore, Mitarachi praised the Hellenic coastguard, saying: “Greece stepped up, providing immediate humanitarian support to people in need as we always do.”

Migrants and refugees are registered on the island of Kos, Greece, on 31 October 31, 2021.
People rescued from the Murat 729 are registered in a camp on Kos after spending four days at sea while Greece tried to persuade Turkey to take them back. Photograph: AP

Aid groups, piecing together the sequence of events, believe it was logistically impossible to push the ship back because it was so big and would have required the Greek coastguard also entering Turkish waters. Once it became clear a pushback was impossible, Athens resorted to appealing to Turkey, said Olsen, whose organisation is among a network of NGOs accused by Greek officials of aiding and abetting people smugglers – allegations he strongly rejects.

“We now know there were 136 children among the passengers and people with special needs,” said Veizis. “Instead of the Greek coastguard, which is a rescue service, bringing them to safety, the government chose to keep them onboard and move them around as it tried to come to a deal with Turkey. Deals are for business, not humans seeking international protection.”

It was, he insisted, the lack of safe and legal passage to Europe that was forcing so many to seek such dangerous routes.

Installed in their barbed wire-encircled reception centre in Kos, those onboard the Murat will be given the right to apply for asylum. The process is not expected to be easy: all must undergo 14 days of quarantine even if none, so far, have tested positive for Covid-19. On Wednesday, coastguard officials began taking their details.

Already Mitarachi has made clear his intentions. Announcing a meeting with the ambassadors of Pakistan and Bangladesh next week, the migration minister said he would request the return of all who were undeserving of asylum to their home countries. Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationals accounted for 252 of the ship’s passengers.

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Coronavirus BA.4 and BA.5: New virus, new Covid-19 wave | Opinion

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Anyone wishing to know what the future of the Covid-19 pandemic looks like would do well to watch South Africa. It’s not because several forms of SARS-CoV-2 first emerged there and later spread across the planet – that, too – but because of the quality of its epidemiological research, conducted by scientists who put raw reality ahead of diplomatic discretion. Thanks to them, we’ve just learned that Covid waves are tied to the emergence of new variants with a greater ability to infect and to escape our immune systems. This strongly indicates that the evolution of the virus is much like an arms race between SARS-CoV-2 and our own antibodies, in what amounts to a classic mechanism of evolution. The crab’s shell becomes thicker to avoid being eaten by a lobster, and the lobster’s claws get bigger so it will keep catching as much food as before. Inside the body of a patient who has survived Covid, antibodies become increasingly efficient while the virus becomes ever more slippery. It’s the laws of nature.

The initial waves of 2020 were caused by the original Wuhan strain and a few others derived from it. The wave of winter 2020-2021 is linked to the beta strain, which was later replaced with the delta variant in the 2021 waves. In late 2021, when things seemed to be quieting down, we had the omicron strain, which came in two flavors or subvariants: BA.1 and BA.2. And now we have BA.4 and BA.5. Each new iteration spreads more than its predecessor and does a better job at eluding human antibodies. As expected, BA.4 and BA.5, the latest designs of viral evolution, are exceptionally good at bypassing our immune system. And they are starting to gain traction in South Africa and parts of Europe. Everything seems to indicate that we will see a new wave, this time caused by SARS-CoV-2 omicron BA.4 and BA.5.

But let’s remain calm: there is no indication that these two subvariants are going to cause a rise in serious Covid cases and hospital admissions. The population’s immunity, either through vaccination or previous infection, can accomplish very little to prevent contagion, but it does protect the infected individuals from developing serious Covid. Some scientists say, half-jokingly, that a single omicron wave could be viewed as a natural vaccination campaign. Of course, people with low defenses – those who are immunocompromised – would do well to protect themselves from infection. It is hard to predict what the virus could do to them, and not even vaccines can guarantee them the same degree of protection as the general population.

Virologists have made a family tree of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. It shows that neither alfa nor beta nor gamma nor omicron are children of delta, but come from other strains that emerged at the same time as delta. This eliminates the mystical aura around omicron: it did not fall out of the sky six months ago, but simply revealed itself later than other variants. All this knowledge is helping identify which specific mutations are behind the high infection rate and ability to escape immunity. The data has not yet been peer-reviewed.

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Alone under siege: how older women are being left behind in Ukraine | Global development

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Halyna Vasylivna lives alone in a tiny “Khrushchevka” flat. At 94, she has outlived her sons and her husband, and her grandchildren live outside the city.

Her apartment, named after the Soviet leader under whom the five-storey buildings in Kyiv’s Podil district were built, is too far from the bunker so she hides in her pantry during airstrikes.

Vasylivna is grateful for her social worker Olya’s visits a few times a week. She wishes she did not live alone. “It’s important to have someone who can listen to you,” she says.

Vasylivna is one of 2 million older women in Ukraine who have remained largely invisible to authorities. Most of Ukraine’s elderly people are women – they make up two-thirds of those aged over 65 and 71% of those aged above 75 – partly because Ukraine has the sixth highest proportion of women in the world.

These women are reliant on tiny state pensions (Vasylivna’s is about £130 a month), and require support from social services, charities and international institutions. They have become the group most likely to be alone, whether through mobility issues, bereavement or a reluctance to leave familiar surroundings. The lucky few get help; many do not. Ukraine’s health and social care system was already under pressure before Russia invaded in February.

Despite progress through reforms, including decentralisation that allowed regional institutions to allocate budgets locally, an overstretched and underfunded health system is again in crisis. Ukraine’s expenditure on healthcare has declined from 7.8% of GDP in 2015 to 7.1% in 2019 (the last available data). The world average was 9.8% in 2019. Now the country is experiencing a humanitarian crisis, with dozens of accounts of rape and murder of Ukrainian elderly women – the biggest group left behind, of those allowed to leave, and least able to escape.

In Kyiv’s Holosiyevo district, there are 786 elderly people – 80% of them women like Vasylivna – alone, unable to leave their homes, and without relatives to care for them. Since Russia attacked, the number of social workers in the local centre has collapsed by more than 75%. Those women who remain are mostly elderly themselves, and now have four times as many clients to look after. They work five days a week, earning about £170 a month to supplement their small state pensions. “We need to support both our elderly clients and ourselves,” says 65-year-old social worker Nataliya Bodnar.

A small flat with old-fashioned wallpaper and a door open to show a pantry beyond.
A door opens to the pantry where Halyna Vasylivna hides during airstrike alerts. Photograph: Courtesy of Akas

Social centre manager, Oksana Ruban, says they have faced multiple challenges. “Public transport was closed, the curfew lasted sometimes up to several days, shops closed, too. We had to make sure all of our clients were taken care of by someone – if not relatives or us, at least by neighbours or volunteers. We all worked relentlessly.”

The situation for older people is particularly acute in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions where a survey of more than 1,500 over-60s conducted in March revealed the scale of the problem: 99% do not want to leave their homes; 91% need help to get food; 91% are also experiencing extreme cold, with no heating due to electricity cuts; 75% need basic hygiene items; and 34% need urgent medication for chronic illness. These needs are exacerbated by a shortage of vital medicines and Russia destroying healthcare facilities.

“I wonder why some young people evacuate their cats and hamsters, but leave their parents behind,” says Roman Vodyanyk, head doctor at Severodonetsk hospital in Luhansk, the only functioning hospital left in the city. With no water, gas or electricity in Severodonetsk, Vodyanyk has turned the hospital, which has more than 50 patients, into a humanitarian hub, providing hot food, wifi and medical support. About 220 patients have left in the past month, but many elderly people have no desire to evacuate, with nowhere to go and no one to care for them.

“How do you evacuate a hospital in this situation? How do you leave them all behind?” asks Vodyanyk. So despite the shelling and along with local authorities, NGOs and volunteers, he is not leaving either.

Elderly people are often the forgotten category in any humanitarian crisis – an analysis of Google news search keywords between 24 February and 22 April found that 97% of all Ukraine-headlined articles that mentioned either children or the elderly were focused on children. Only 3% mentioned elderly people, of which only three touched on elderly women. Despite there being more than 50% more retirees in Ukraine than children under 15, the 390 UK NGOs operating in Ukraine are nearly twice as likely to be helping children than elderly people,

According to Justin Derbyshire, CEO of HelpAge International, the problem is global: elderly patients’ specific needs are neglected by governments and international bodies during and after wars. “This is systemic ageism and an example of how bad the global system is at responding to older people’s needs.”

A portrait of Halyna Vasylivna sitting in her flat
‘I would evacuate if I could take care of myself’: Vasylivna, 94. Photograph: Courtesy of Akas

Elderly people, such as Vasylivna and Bodnar, are at the centre of the crisis in Ukraine, as victims and rescuers. After a lifetime of looking after others, they are now vulnerable, not only to loneliness and hunger, but also to rape and murder.

“I’ve seen everything – the Holodomor [great famine of 1932-33], the second world war, so many horrors. What else could scare me?” says Vasylivna. She never imagined Russia would invade. It is her inability to take care of herself that scares her now. She feels trapped. “I would evacuate if I could take care of myself. I was working my whole life. It’s such a shame I can’t do anything any more.”

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The Ukraine war in maps: Ukrainian forces battle to recover Snake Island | International

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May 13 | The battle for Snake Island

The all-out attack that Russian troops deployed at the beginning of the offensive in Ukraine did not leave out maritime control of the Black Sea: the Kremlin’s naval force soon took up positions the island of Zmiinyi, also known as Snake Island and located around 140 kilometers (87 miles) south of Odessa and 40km (25 miles) from the Romanian coast. The first map of the conflict published by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) on February 25 showed it under Russian control even then. In a statement in February, the Ukrainian Navy said that the invaders had destroyed infrastructure on this island of one square kilometer. A comparison of satellite images captured before the invasion and in recent days shows that the destruction of the main building occurred between May 6 and 7.

August 23, 2016


May 6, 2022


Areas burnt by earlier attacks

Visible structural

damage

May 7, 2022


May 8, 2022


Area of attack

on helicopter

(shown in video)

British intelligence warned last Tuesday that if Russian troops consolidate their position on the island, deploying air defense cruise missiles, they could control the northwest portion of the Black Sea. The permanent Russian settlement on Snake Islands entails sea, land and air control of that entire area, military strategy expert Oleh Zhdanov told the BBC.

The strategic importance of the islet, which grants control over maritime traffic in the port of Odes, is enough to justify the ongoing struggle for it. The Russian Defense Ministry has claimed that it destroyed several planes, helicopters, drones and a landing craft in the early hours of Sunday morning during a Ukrainian attempt to recapture the island. Ukraine claimed that it only attacked Russian troops deployed there. British intelligence stated that Ukraine has used drones to destroy Russian anti-aircraft defenses and supply ships, stranded after the invaders retreated to the Crimean coast following the sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

Helicopter destroyed on Snake Island, in a video shared by the Ukrainian army on Sunday.Reuters

The sensors of the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellites have made it possible to observe hot spots on the island which, in the context of war, can be associated with attacks. These indications of attacks have been recurrent since last February, and particularly intense during the last weekend, coinciding with a video of an attack on the island.

The proximity of Zmiinyi to NATO coasts has not prevented it from becoming a battlefield in the conflict. Armand Gosu, a professor of Russian Political History at the University of Bucharest, explained to Efe news agency that Moscow categorically dominates the Black Sea: “There is a huge military imbalance. Its ships patrol international waters without restriction, which has allowed the Russians to block a maritime outlet from Odessa,” he said. This blockade stifles Ukrainian sea exports that are essential to defend the coastal town from a hypothetical Russian siege like the one suffered by Mariupol.

March 8 A heat source can be seen in the northeast of the island, probably as a result of an attack, as well as a plume of smoke. The area inside the box contains most of the facilities.

March 23 Two weeks later, the Sentinel 2 satellite captured a new hot spot in a nearby area.

May 7 Once again a heat source can be seen, coinciding with a great column of smoke detected by satellites and shown earlier.

May 9 The last available image shows no hot spots, but the island’s vegetation has been largely burnt down as a result of the confrontation.

May 10 | Russian progress

In the two and a half months since the start of the Ukraine invasion, the Russian offensive has changed strategies: at first it sought to take control of the major cities, then focused its efforts on the separatist region of Donbas and on securing the borders. Since then, the frontline has moved in line with modest but systematic Russian advances that have only met with resistance at a spot that’s been highly militarized since 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula. The change in the frontline can be seen in the following maps, which show the situation on the ground every two weeks since Russia changed its strategy on March 25. The red color shows areas under Russian control, which have been expanding for the last month and a half.

Donbas is an area covering around 52,000 square kilometers, roughly the size of Costa Rica. It is divided into two oblast (administrative units) – Donetsk and Luhansk. Along the northwest, it borders the Kharkiv region, home to the city of Izyum, which is the starting point for Russia’s attempt to encircle Ukrainian defenders holding the frontline. From there, Russian troops have been trying to advance towards Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, the military headquarters and de facto capital of Donetsk, although they have had limited success.

March 24


When the Kremlin’s troops announced that their target was eastern Ukraine, they were already controlling much of Donetsk, Luhansk and the area extending to Kharkiv.

April 8


Two weeks later, the situation on the front had barely changed after a reorganization of the invading troops except in the area of Izyum, the new Russian center of operations.

April 22


The siege of Mariupol, which made Ukrainian defenders retreat to an industrial site, allowed Russia to free up troops to cement control over the northern end of the city.

May 8


Despite Ukrainian counterattacks that are gaining back territory near Kharkiv, the areas under Russian control increasingly encircle the Donbas border

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) believes that the Kremlin’s forces near Izyum are regrouping and resupplying before resuming offensive operations in the southeast and southwest.

In the south of the country, near Crimea and the Black Sea, there is a similar situation: slow but constant Russian advances and reinforced positions in places like Kherson, which was swiftly captured in the early days of the invasion. Ukrainian counterattacks have barely made a dent on Russian forces, who have increased the territory under their control week after week. Moscow has been concentrating anti-aircraft and missile systems in the northern area of Crimea, said the ISW. This could be a prelude to resume offensive operations towards Zaporizhzhia and Kryvyi Rih, in central Ukraine.

March 24


April 8


April 22


May 8


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