A seemingly endless lake of cardboard and tin shacks surrounds the perimeter of a former airport runway in Colombia’s desert-like city of Maicao. Known locally as La Pista, the area is home to more than 2,000 families, and is one of 44 informal settlements to have emerged around the city in the past two years.
The old airport has become a landing strip for desperate migrants and bi-national indigenous Wayuu people fleeing the economic and political crisis in Venezuela, where the basic essentials of life are hard to come by.
Maicao is in La Guajira, the most northern region of Colombia, and sits on the border with Venezuela. It is the second busiest entry point for migrants after the main border city of Cúcuta.
The stench of urine fills the air inside the roasting hot tin shack where Elaine Rojas lives with her family. There is no toilet so the family of six go where they can. Rojas, 27, came from the Venezuelan city of Maracaibo four years ago in search of a decent life for her children.
Her frailty is a sign of malnutrition; food was in short supply in her homeland and has been since she arrived in Colombia.
“It’s not better [than Venezuela] but at least we have some food, though sometimes we don’t have enough,” says Rojas. “When it rains it’s awful, the whole place floods.”
Rojas and her husband, who both survive by recycling plastic, built their hut themselves, starting out with plastic bags and pieces of wood before getting some corrugated iron. As no running or drinkable water is available in La Pista, everyone relies on water-sellers who charge a fee to distribute untreated barrels of it, carried between the homes on donkeys.
Many people in Maicao are suffering from malnutrition. Organisations such as Save the Children and Action Against Hunger are supporting families La Pista but the majority of families still eat only one meal a day, mostly made from flour but occasionally rice. Few can afford meat, fruit and vegetables. One tomato can cost an unaffordable 800 pesos (15p).
Such a diet is one of the main causes of malnutrition, says Mabis Mercado, who is in charge of looking after migrant patients at Maicao’s main hospital. She believes there are about 8,000 people in La Pista, and says cases of malnutrition have shot up since last year. The hospital dealt with 152 cases of chronic malnutrition in 2020; 68 among Venezuelans and 25 among indigenous communities.
“Those most affected are the indigenous populations,” Mercado says. “The water in La Pista is horrible; it causes a lot of intestinal problems, which add to the issue of malnutrition.”
In 2018 doctors started seeing more serious cases of malnutrition as Venezuela’s crisis intensified, she says. The pandemic has made the precarious situation even worse.
“Last year it was really critical because a lot of the migrants have informal jobs. With the pandemic lockdown, they couldn’t do anything, everything was closed down, so many people were going hungry, unable to afford food,” Mercado says. “We found newborns with malnutrition and children who, because of lack of access to milk … started to fall into malnutrition too.”
The hospital are giving out supplements. “But we’ve run out. We only had supplies for three months,” she says.
Data from Colombia’s authorities says 51,361 migrants live in Maicao, but Mercado and others working on the ground told the Guardian that these numbers were a conservative estimate. They say it is almost impossible to control migration, due to the many informal and dangerous border crossings, known as trochas, which are used to smuggle weapons, medicine and petrol.
“There are 180 trochas, and no control,” says Mercado. “It’s difficult to regulate and the data is not accurate.”
Inside the hospital, Rosa Primera, 29, sits with her 18-month-old son, whose light-coloured hair is a clear sign of malnutrition. Primera has been in Maicao for three months and has the same story as most: “I left [Venezuela] because of the crisis,” she says. “I didn’t have money for food.”
Dr Alberto Galue, who heads the children’s ward at Maicao’s hospital, says the malnutrition levels are “very serious … We are overwhelmed.”
In May 2019, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, set up its first camp in Colombia, providing a temporary respite. In the last six months, though, dozens more makeshift dwellings have sprung up around the UN camp.
UNHCR’s Colombia representative, Jozef Merkx, says the agency is working with the authorities to address the “urgent needs in various informal settlements with many refugees, migrants and host families”.
“A large part of the population in the new, informal settlements are of Wayuu origin, mostly coming from the Venezuelan side of the border,” he says.
Wayuu people make up 56.4% of the overall population in La Guajira, and they do not recognise the border between Colombia and Venezuela.
One Wayuu girl who crossed into Colombia from Venezuela says she had lost two babies to malnutrition.
“They were sick. They had diarrhoea and vomiting and I had no resources,” says Yulexi del Carmen, 16, in her Wayuunaiki language, while her cousin translates into Spanish. “One died after a month, and the other when he was a year old.”
Del Carmen and her family were preparing rice for lunch when the Guardian visited. In the evening they drink chicha, a traditional beer made from fermented maize. Their plastic water barrel was empty as they had run out of money.
Osmer José, a 20-year-old water-seller, says being in La Pista is “like being in Venezuela but money goes further”. Water costs 3,000 pesos ( 60p) a day for those who can afford it.
Many Venezuelans live in similar corrugated-iron shacks in Maicao’s city centre, including 33-year-old Ana Josefina Gutiérrez, from Los Puertos de Altagracia, over the river from the bigger city of Maracaibo, a few hours drive away. She has lived in precarious conditions here for about 18 months.
When she was pregnant she was penniless and at times had to sleep on the street with two young children in tow. “I didn’t know what to do,” says Gutiérrez, who is at a Maicao health clinic with her baby son. “I slept outside. I didn’t eat well. Sometimes I didn’t eat at all for two days.
“He had malnutrition because I was going through a rough time and I didn’t have anything to give him,” she says. “Never in my life did I think I’d be living like this.”
Gutiérrez, who is diabetic, received some emergency funds from Save the Children and has been able to get herself off the street and into basic housing. She says it costs her about 7,000 pesos (£1.35) a day to get by.
Her only furniture in the one-room shelter is a second-hand foam mattress and a crib. The home is made of tin and is surrounded by rooms housing other Venezuelans. The metal makes for a sweltering interior in daytime, but at least she is safe here for now. Her funds are likely to last for three months, she says.
Colombia’s border with Venezuela recently reopened, after closing in March 2020 to curb the spread of the pandemic. More people have already started to flood across, says Mercado.
As September’s rainy season approaches, concern is growing for the people living in La Pista. Their cardboard and tin houses will undoubtedly flood, and water will be further contaminated, causing more illness.
“I’ve asked God for no rain this year,” says Mercado. “It’s already been so tough for people, with the pandemic. Their homes will be destroyed.”
Apollo Go: The Beijing neighborhood with robotaxis and driverless delivery service | International
Book a robotaxi on a mobile app and it will pick you up in less than 10 minutes. It’s 2:00pm on a Thursday in Beijing and our ride is going smoothly with no human intervention so far. “Sometimes we have to speed up manually to avoid causing traffic jams. Bicycles and motorcycles often cause traffic congestion because they ignore traffic signals,” says the driver supervising our trip, as the steering wheel magically moves by itself.
The 37-square-mile (60 square kilometers) Beijing High-level Automated Driving Demonstration Area (BJHAD) is where the country’s first pilot project to use autonomous vehicles on public roads is happening. Located in a secluded district in the southeastern part of the city, BJHAD is the test site for a futuristic plan that envisions turning Beijing into the standard-bearer for artificial intelligence (AI). The Apollo robotaxis manufactured by Baidu and the autonomous delivery vehicles manufactured by JD.com (aka Jingdong) zip around a tranquil utopia that stands in stark contrast to the hectic jungle of downtown traffic.
“[A robotaxi] can handle an average of 15 daily bookings, most of which are trips between a subway stop and an office,” said the cab driver. In November 2021, Baidu and Pony.ai became the first companies authorized to operate a fleet of 100 robotaxis in BJHAD. As of April 2022, humans are no longer required to sit in the driver’s seat of the robotaxi, which is allowed to travel at a maximum speed of 37 miles per hour (60 kph). The service is free for now, although the two companies are commercially licensed.
Baidu, China’s leading search engine, is diversifying its business by commercializing its AI and intelligent transportation technology. Its Apollo Go program is currently operating in seven cities, and the company plans to expand to 65 cities by 2025, and 100 cities by 2030. Unlike the Waymo robotaxis that Google began operating in 2020 in the US, Baidu’s vehicles circulate during the day, enabling them to collect more data.
Although Baidu has topped the list of Chinese companies with the most patents for AI applications over the last four years, e-commerce giant JD.com is the leader in the autonomous delivery vehicle space. In 2016, Jingdong established its headquarters in BJHAD, and its delivery robots now dominate the streets. These vehicles mainly transport orders from the 7FRESH smart supermarket chain operated by JD that combines e-commerce and traditional commerce. “Instead of people going out to buy products, we deliver them,” said Yang Han. Who works in Jingdong’s communications department.
JD’s applies big data analytical methods to the information collected from more than 400 million annual users, and utilizes it to tailor inventories to the specific needs of each 7FRESH physical stores location. The entire 7FRESH inventory is available in the app. The delivery robots, which travel at nine miles per hour (15 kph) and can carry 220-440 pounds (100-200 kilos), deliver orders in less than an hour within a three-mile (five kilometer) range.
JD employees rely on smaller robots to send documents and other items between offices in 10 minutes or less. “They speed up the work and saves us from having to run around from one place to another,” said Yang Han. The robots are able to operate elevators and open doors by themselves as they follow their delivery routes.
The robots can recognize their surroundings and avoid obstacles with a 98% accuracy rate for small objects. Information streams in through cameras and other sensors, while the navigation algorithm pinpoints their location and plans routes. JD’s cloud-based simulation platform accumulates data from every trip to continuously improve the robots’ capabilities.
The Covid pandemic spurred JD to accelerate its autonomous delivery program, enabling it to deploy small and large delivery vehicles to the Chinese cities most affected by the pandemic over the last two and a half years. In early 2020, during the peak of the pandemic in Wuhan, these delivery vehicles traveled a total of 4,225 miles (6,800 kilometers) and delivered more than 13,000 packages.
In a country where low unemployment is one of the main pillars of its social stability goals, the move to autonomous vehicles may prove to be risky in the long run. However, Yang Han insists that the objective is to “achieve a synergy between humans and machines… The goal is to take the pressure off delivery drivers and allow them to focus on customer service and vehicle maintenance. The couriers don’t need to transport the goods. Instead, they wait by the curb for the robots to arrive, and then walk the goods to the customer’s door. “
BJHAD is part of the Beijing Economic and Technological Development Area, the first place in China specifically geared to AI research. The country aspires to become the world leader in AI by 2030 and to leave the “factory for the world” image behind for good.
Afghan embassy staff remain in hiding despite being eligible for UK relocation | Global development
More than 170 people who worked for the British embassy in Kabul remain in hiding in Afghanistan in fear for their lives, almost a year after the Taliban retook the country.
A list of Afghans currently in hiding, seen by the Guardian, shows almost 200 former interpreters, security guards and local staff waiting for a response from the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office, the departments responsible for relocating people at risk. All of those on the list are eligible for transfer to the UK under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy (Arap), intended to bring those formerly employed by the UK government, and their family members, to safety in Britain.
Aarash* was employed by GardaWorld, a security subcontractor for the MoD, and worked at the British embassy for more than 10 years. He and his children have fled their home and live hidden in a basement in a village outside the city, surviving on one meal of boiled rice a day.
“The Taliban, they have access to the details of all the guards and their ID cards,” Aarash said, speaking by secure connection. “Two times, they came to search our house, so we had to escape. They say that we are criminals, that we are not true Muslims, that we worked for foreigners. If they find us, they will kill us – this is for sure.”
In August 2021, as the Taliban took Kabul, Aarash was on a coach with his family, due to be evacuated. A suicide bomb inside the airport forced the bus to turn back. He has been in hiding since.
“Every time we receive a message from the MoD, they say to wait. More than 10 months we are waiting. We hoped the British government would help us but they have done nothing – they have left us alone here to die.”
Another man, speaking through a translator, said: “The Taliban came to our house, they broke everything and we had to leave very quickly. Now we are in very bad conditions. Our children cannot go to school, we cannot walk in the streets or go to the market [for food]. Every day, we are at risk. They will come for us and they will kill all of us, including the children. We are in a humanitarian crisis.”
He added: “The British government, they know everything about us. They know we are eligible [to come to the UK] because we worked for them for many years. We did good work for them. We respectfully ask the British government to help us and begin our transfer as soon as possible.”
Sarah Magill, a director of the charity Azadi, said eligible Afghans were in their tens of thousands. “They are scattered in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, in hiding and terrified. We would like more diplomatic energy and investment going into establishing pathways for them, including through Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Relying solely on Pakistan, a country in political turmoil, has caused a bottleneck.”
Sara de Jong, co-founder of the Sulha Alliance, which supports Afghans who worked for the British government to resettle in the UK, said: “The Arap team’s slowness and unresponsiveness leaves applicants in limbo, while fearing for their lives. The processing of applications needs to be expedited, and applicants should be given clear timelines, which will also help reduce duplicate applications from Afghans simply desperate to get a response.”
It is the latest criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis, with a damning report from the foreign affairs committee in May saying there has been a “total absence of plans to evacuate Afghans who supported the UK mission without being directly employed, which has put lives at risk”.
In response to a written question last week, armed forces minister James Heappey said one Arap case dating from when the scheme opened remains unresolved. He added that it “relates to an individual we have contacted three times, requesting further information relating to their eligibility”.
However, earlier this month, in response to a parliamentary question, Heappey said decisions on only two of the 3,226 Arap applications received since April 2022 had been processed. Heappey told MPs that 9,500 Afghans have been relocated to the UK under Arap but added: “We think we’ve got about the same to go in terms of the number of people who are eligible.”
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office this month launched an online system, where those eligible can send an “expression of interest” in being transferred to the UK as part of its Afghan citizens resettlement scheme (ACRS), which is separate to Arap. The ACRS is designed to support those who assisted UK efforts in Afghanistan and members of minority groups based, for example, on ethnicity, religion or sexuality. Former GardaWorld and British Council employees will be considered, but it is not possible to apply for the scheme.
An MoD spokesperson said: “Between April and the beginning of June, 683 eligible Afghan civilians along with their families and dependants were relocated to the UK under Arap.
“In total, the Ministry of Defence has relocated over 9,500 Arap principals and their families since the beginning of the scheme. We know there is still a way to go to bring all those who are eligible to safety in the UK; the government is continuing to work with third countries to facilitate the relocation of those who are eligible under Arap.
“We continue to process applications in the order in which they are received, which has meant that some of the newer applications are still being worked through. We recognise there are too many individuals waiting for an answer, and this is not acceptable. This is why we are putting more resource into a dedicated team for processing Arap applications.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities
Ukraine war: Biden pledges more aid for Ukraine at close of ‘transformative’ NATO summit | Spain
At the close of a NATO summit in Madrid that world leaders have described as “transformative,” US President Joe Biden announced a new $800 million package of military aid for Ukraine, including air defense systems, artillery, ammunition and counter-battery radar.
The announcement came a day after the US leader pledged to boost America’s defense and deterrence capabilities on the European continent. “The US is doing exactly what I said we would do if Putin invaded, enhance our force posture in Europe,” said Biden. “Putin thought he could break the transatlantic alliance […] but he’s getting exactly what he did not want.”
At the two-day gathering, which brought together around 40 heads of state and government, leaders agreed on long-term support for Ukraine and on a new Strategic Concept, a document that describes how the Alliance will address threats and challenges in its security environment in the coming years.
Both Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg underscored one of the main achievements of the two-day gathering, getting Turkey to lift its opposition to Sweden and Finland’s request to join the alliance following decades of non-alignment.
Formal invitations are being extended, but the process is not over and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cautioned on Thursday that both Nordic countries will have to keep their promises in connection with their stance on Kurdish groups that Turkey considers terrorists. This includes a pledge by Sweden to extradite 73 individuals.
On Tuesday, Stoltenberg had said the goal of the summit was to chart a blueprint for NATO “in a more dangerous and unpredictable world” marked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has sparked a “fundamental shift” in NATO’s approach to defense.
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