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No man’s land: three people seeking asylum stuck in Cyprus’s buffer zone | Migration and development

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A few months after Grace Ngo flew into Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus from her native Cameroon, she decided to head “for the west”. Smugglers pointed the student in the direction of the Venetian walls that cut through the heart of Nicosia, Europe’s last divided capital.

A little before midnight on 24 May, Ngo leapt from the breakaway Turkish Cypriot republic into what she hoped would be the war-divided island’s internationally recognised Greek south.

“I just said ‘God protect me,’” the 24-year-old recalled, describing the jump that instead landed her in the UN-patrolled buffer zone, where she has been stranded ever since. “The walls were so high. I hurt my leg quite badly but I was desperate for the west.”

Emil, one of three Cameroonians stranded in the Cypriot buffer zone.
Emil, one of three Cameroonians stranded in the Cypriot buffer zone. ‘If I go back, I will face sure death,’ he says. Photograph: Helena Smith/The Guardian

Daniel Djibrilla and Emil Etoundi, two other asylum seekers from Cameroon’s English-speaking minority, were at the same spot that night, equally drawn by the bright lights of the European metropolis beyond. Like Ngo, who says she would not have made the journey had she not been the victim of abuse, both cited Cameroon’s civil war as their reason for leaving home.

“We jumped from over there,” says Etoundi, a former soldier, pointing across the ceasefire line that has partitioned the ethnically split island since Turkey invaded in 1974 after a coup aimed at uniting Cyprus with Greece. “We had no idea this was no man’s land. I can’t believe it.”

After the refusal of President Nicos Anastasiades’ government to allow them to apply for asylum, the three Cameroonians remain trapped in the buffer zone, protected by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, but living in tents and at the mercy of others’ goodwill.

At the height of the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis, Cyprus remained relatively unvisited by displaced people, as the majority headed through Turkey and the Aegean islands en route to Europe.

That changed in 2018, when smugglers began to see the EU’s easternmost state as an easy drop-off.

On 21 May, Anastasiades’ administration declared a state of emergency, with officials saying the Mediterranean island faced insurmountable pressures from continuing arrivals. It came after Cyprus was censured by a human rights watchdog amid allegations of illegal pushbacks of migrants at sea.

In late 2020, close to 20,000 asylum applications were pending, according to the Greek Cypriot authorities. A record 13,648 people requested protection in 2019. In the first six months of 2021, more than 5,000 claims had been made, more than half the total in 2020.

Cyprus has the highest per capita number of first-time asylum seekers in the EU, according to the EU’s statistics agency, Eurostat.

“We are in a critical situation,” the interior minister, Nicos Nouris told the Guardian ahead of a EU summit in Slovenia on Thursday. “All the [reception] centres are full and we simply don’t have the capacity to receive more. If we want to talk about solidarity and responsibility, we have to stand by frontline member states like Cyprus, which is the top-receiving country in asylum seekers.”

The majority of migrants entering the Greek south are smuggled illegally through Turkey and areas of Cyprus over which the republic has no control, according to Nouris.

With smuggling networks taking advantage of partition, Nouris said there were genuine fears of a new front being opened on an island where migrants arrive both by boat and along the whole 110 mile (180km) ceasefire line.

“We have to be very careful not to open a new passage,” he says. “It’s not a matter of three people – that would be ridiculous when so many are coming. But if I accept these three people, then [such crossings] will be the next common practice. They’ll be coming by the thousands … Turkey will put them on buses and send them to the checkpoints.”

The Cameroonians’ plight has illuminated the tough stance of a government that, like Greece, feels abandoned by Europe on migration.

“They have the right to have their asylum claims examined,” says the UN refugee agency’s spokeswoman, Emilia Strovolidou, explaining that the trio were returned to no man’s land after approaching a UN patrol unit and going to the nearest Greek Cypriot checkpoint.

“This is a clearcut case of people asking for international protection, and we have made a number of interventions with the competent authorities in an effort to allow them to access the procedure.”

Cyprus is “obliged under international, EU and national law” to process asylum requests and give people access to dignified conditions in reception centres, Strovolidou says, adding: “Their living conditions – right now, in tents, in the sweltering heat – are totally unsuitable.”

Asylum seekers have been stranded in the buffer zone before but none for so long. The near two-month saga has led human rights organisations to accuse the government of inflating the number of arrivals and generating a climate of fear based on xenophobia and anti-immigration hysteria fuelled by the rise of the far-right Elam party.

On an island reliant on low-skilled labour, aid organisations contend that it is often foreigners already in Cyprus on student or work visas who apply for asylum in an attempt to prolong their stays legally.

Corina Drousiotou, at the Cyprus Refugee Council, says migrants keep the agriculture sector alive. “Despite the fact that Cyprus’s economy heavily depends on low-skilled foreigners, the vast majority of whom work in harsh conditions with low salaries and next to zero rights, there is no political willingness to properly address those issues,” she says.

“A complete overhaul of the [asylum] system is required to ensure dignity and equal rights for all, which in turn will have multiple benefits for many industries and the local society.”

For Ngo, Djibrilla and Etoundi, the prospect of any job would be welcome. But as temperatures exceed 40C (104F), the Cameroonians are left anxiously awaiting news under the shade of a strip of trees planted along a thin gravel strip barely a metre wide.

“I’m 33. I [deserted] the military after 10 years,” says Etoundi, as Djibrilla plays a gruesome video on his mobile phone showing decapitations in his country’s conflict. “I do not support the [Cameroonian] separatists’ fight, but I had to leave because I did not agree with what the military were asking us to do. If I go back, I will face death.”

Cyprus’s interior minister says the case could be resolved if the EU agreed to include the island in a reallocation programme.

“I have written to the European Commission, saying we are prepared to transfer them to other member states, but have not heard back,” says Nouris. “If that were to happen, this could so easily be solved.”

The surnames of Grace, Emil and Daniel have been changed

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Eduardo Zapateiro: Colombian army chief resigns to avoid appearing beside president-elect Petro at inauguration | International

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General Eduardo Zapateiro, the commander of the Colombian army, resigned on Tuesday to avoid appearing beside president-elect Gustavo Petro at his inauguration on August 7. “After 40 years in service, I bid farewell to the Colombian people, giving my heartfelt thanks to all my soldiers,” he announced.

Zapateiro, who comes from the hardline wing of the armed forces, has been a vocal opponent of the leftist leader. During the presidential election campaign, the army commander controversially spoke out against Petro on Twitter – a move that was condemned as unconstitutional. Incumbent President Iván Duque, however, defended Zapateiro, arguing that the general was sharing his point of view – not taking a political stand.

Zapateiro announced his retirement just one day after Petro told EL PAÍS that he planned to change the leadership of the armed forces. “This leadership was deeply imbued by the political line of the executive [of Iván Duque] now reaching the end of its term. But this path is unsustainable and turns our security forces into a victim, as they have been led to perpetrate grotesque violations of human rights. What we are proposing will make our security forces democratically stronger,” he said in the interview.

The Colombian general has often raised eyebrows with his behavior. Following the death of Jhon “Popeye” Jairo Velásquez, a henchman for drug lord Pablo Escobar who had killed dozens of people, Zapateiro sent his condolences to his family and said he was saddened by his loss. To this day, no one has explained why the general made these statements.

In Colombia, the government and the military have a complex relationship. The country has fought for decades against guerrilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). The ongoing armed struggle placed the military in a position of great power. Indeed until the 1990s, the armed forces controlled the Defense Ministry. As in many other countries, the Colombian armed forces are a conservative group that is highly suspicious of leftist ideas. The peace agreement, for example, that ended five decades of conflict with the FARC, divided Colombia’s troops. Zapateiro initially supported the accords, but over time, became an outspoken critic.

What kind of relationship Petro will form with the military remains to be seen. As a politician, he has been very critical of the army’s focus on targeting internal enemies. The Colombian armed forces have been fighting against guerrilla groups and drug gangs for decades. During this conflict, they have often overstepped their bounds and violated human rights.

In the early 2000s, a scandal broke in Colombia when it was revealed that military officers were carrying out summary executions of innocent civilians and listing them as guerrillas killed in combat. These so-called “false positives” took place in different regions of the country between 2002 and 2008 and were used as proof of performance by military units and to collect “kill fees” awarded by the government of former president Álvaro Uribe. A total of 6,402 innocent people are estimated to have been killed in these summary executions. Just a few months ago, several civilians also died in suspicious circumstances during an army operation in Putumayo.

With Petro elected as Colombia’s first leftist president in modern history, it was no longer tenable to have Zapeteiro leading the armed forces. The Colombian newspaper El Espectador published an editorial to that effect, with the headline: “Isn’t it time to retire, General Zapateiro?”

Petro aims to tackle corruption within the army, which he believes is home to extremist factions. “There are currents in the far right that must be eliminated. Some are talking openly about coups and things like that. But look, within the army there are no factions friendly to Petro, there are factions friendly to the Constitution,” Petro told EL PAÍS.

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Canada should focus on abortion access not legislation, advocates say | Global development

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Abortion advocates are warning that the recent US supreme court ruling overturning Roe v Wade will empower anti-choice groups in Canada to push for restricted access, making a settled matter appear controversial in a country where nearly 80% of people are pro-choice.

A key anti-choice strategy in Canada revolves around enacting abortion legislation – an idea that has been gaining traction amid the fallout of the US court ruling. There is currently no abortion law in Canada, making it the only country in the world where the procedure is totally free of legal restrictions.

“There’s a lot of talk right now about whether or not the Canadian government should pass a proactive law protecting our right to abortion – a pre-emptive strike, if you will. That would be a big mistake,” said Daphne Gilbert, a law professor at the University of Ottawa.

Gilbert and other abortion advocates say that while enshrining abortion rights may sound progressive, the opposite is true: consolidating rules would make it easier for anti-choice legislators to retract abortion rights if ever they found themselves in a majority. Last year, 81 Conservative MPs (and one independent) voted for anti-choice legislation.

And while the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, promised Canadians after Roe that his government would “always stand up for your right to choose”, advocates argue that may not always be true.

That’s why the country should focus on entrenching people’s rights by expanding abortion access, said Gilbert.

Since it became legal in a 1988 supreme court ruling, abortion in Canada has been designated as a medical service like any other, on par with procedures like X-rays and blood tests. But that doesn’t make it easy to get – especially in remote, religious or conservative parts of the country.

In 2014, Sarah (who asked to remain anonymous) sought an abortion on Prince Edward Island (PEI) – a province of 30,000 that, at the time, did not have a single publicly operating abortion provider.

It took Sarah a month to finally secure a provider – five hours away, in another province. The trip incurred travel and lodging costs, but the procedure itself was covered by the healthcare authority.

“The idea that anybody has to travel to take care of something that you should be able to get done close to home – it’s not fine,” said Sarah. Abortion care only arrived on PEI in 2017, after activists sued the provincial government for acting unconstitutionally.

Although there is no federal law, each province’s medical college sets its own guidelines on abortion, including gestational age limits for use of the abortion pill.

Those guidelines are shaped by the skills and training available in each province, said Martha Paynter, an abortion care provider in Nova Scotia and the author of the new book Abortion to Abolition: Reproductive Health and Justice in Canada.

But there is also a political dimension to providing abortion care that prevents some doctors and nurse practitioners from taking it up.

“More people could be doing it than are doing it,” said Paynter. “We as educators – I’m a prof at a nursing school – have the responsibility to teach in every medical and nursing program how to do this care, and hardly [any school] does it.”

Paynter is the creator of the country’s first university abortion course, at Dalhousie University, which is open to students across medical, nursing and other health programs with the purpose of inspiring future health workers to integrate abortion access into primary care.

The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists offers an online course to teach professionals how to prescribe and manage medical abortion.

But most students and healthcare professionals are not required to learn about how medication and surgical abortion work – and many choose to abstain because they are afraid to enter the political fray around abortion.

According to Gilbert, that means a lot of primary care providers stay wilfully uninformed.

“A lot of doctors just aren’t political people. They’re scientists, and they don’t see the politics behind some of their care,” she said.

Further complicating access is the fact that many Canadians are unaware that nurse practitioners in the country are permitted to prescribe the abortion pill and refer patients to surgical abortion providers – or that most patients can self-refer directly to an abortion provider.

Addressing these issues is critical to expanding existing access to medication and surgical abortion, said Paynter and Gilbert.

In 2017, Natalie (also a pseudonym) discovered she was pregnant while visiting her parents in a small town in northern Alberta. After one doctor at a local walk-in clinic told her abortion was murder, she demanded an appointment with a different doctor.

That doctor told her that there was no such thing as medical abortion. “He looked me in the face and said, ‘That doesn’t exist,’” she said.

Mifegymiso – otherwise known as the abortion pill – was approved by Health Canada in 2015, but had only recently hit the market when Natalie found herself at the doctor’s office.

“I know it exists. It’s literally the front page of the news,” she told him.

Still, she went away empty-handed. She was only able to get an abortion after returning to her home province of New Brunswick, where only three hospitals and one clinic provide abortion. Natalie went to the clinic, where she paid $800 for a surgical abortion – a cost incurred because the province refuses to pay for abortions performed outside of hospitals.

New Brunswick is currently being sued for its restriction of abortion.

Stories like those of Sarah and Natalie show how abortion remains inaccessible in Canada, despite its federal legal standing.

“Our greatest problems really come in terms of provinces and what they may do to restrict access to abortion in light of what I think is now going to be a really emboldened anti-choice movement,” said Gilbert.

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Missing child in Germany: German boy found alive after surviving eight days in sewer | International

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German police have found an eight-year-old boy who went missing from his home in Oldenburg, a city of 170,000 people in northwestern Germany. The child, named Joe, was discovered on Saturday in a sewer just 300 meters from his house. He had survived in the sewer for eight days while hundreds of officers and volunteers frantically searched the surface for clues to his whereabouts. “Eight-year-old Joe lives!” police in Oldenburg announced on Twitter.

The boy, who suffers from learning disabilities, disappeared on June 17 from the garden of his house. Police launched a large-scale search with drones, helicopters, sniffer dogs and dozens of officers, who were joined by hundreds of volunteers. As the days passed, a homicide team joined the investigation amid growing fears that Joe – who is only identified by his first name due to Germany’s privacy laws – could have been the victim of a violent crime. A witness claimed to have seen him in the company of an unidentified man and it was feared he may have been kidnapped.

“It was absolute luck,” said Stephan Klatte, the Oldenburg police spokesman, said of Joe’s discovery. A neighbor who was walking in the area raised the alarm when he heard “a whining noise” coming from the ground, just under a drain. When officers lifted the manhole cover, they found the boy, completely naked. He had no serious external injuries, but was dehydrated and suffering from hypothermia, for which he was taken to hospital for treatment. According to German media, he is recovering well. “If he hadn’t made a sound, or if no one had heard him, we might never have found him,” Klatte said.

In a statement, the police reported that they believed that Joe likely entered the rainwater drainage system through a sewer on the same day of his disappearance and “lost his bearings after walking several meters.” Police have ruled out any foul play in the incident.

On Sunday, the day after Joe was discovered, police commissioned a specialized company to inspect the sewage system with a robot equipped with a camera. The robot examined the sewer between the boy’s home and the place where he was found. It recorded several items of clothing, including what he was wearing when he disappeared, in a pipe about 60 centimeters in diameter that runs under one of the streets of the neighborhood where he lives with his parents. The robot found, for example, the child’s vest, 70 meters from the point of entry.

Officers found an entrance to a three-foot-wide drainage channel near the farm where he was last seen on the day of his disappearance. Authorities believe the boy entered the channel while playing. After 23 meters, the tunnel leads to another narrower plastic pipe and police think it is likely the eight-year-old continued down this path. Joe was eventually found about 290 meters from where he entered the sewer system.

Police believe that Joe became more and more disoriented until he could no longer find a way out. “A first statement from the child confirms this assumption,” said the statement, which does not provide more details about what he told officers. Investigators say they have not been able to question the boy in detail, as he remains in hospital. Nothing has been found to suggest that the child came to the surface in the eight days in which he was missing. In the statement, police asked that no questions about his state of health be made out of respect for him and his family.



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