But charity Safe Passage and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) have told the Guardian that since Brexit there has been no clear legal way to arrange transfers. Lawyers in Greece and Italy said the Home Office has stopped responding to requests to rearrange family reunions delayed by Covid.
One Afghan couple, both victims of severe torture under the Taliban, have been stuck in Greece for nearly a year after being given legal permission to join their son and his family in the UK.
Ewaz, 71, and Safora Faqiri, 64, arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos in January 2019. The couple, from Baghlan province in Afghanistan, had been beaten and tortured by the Taliban, which left them both with false teeth. “They really beat me, especially in the legs. They knew my son lived in the UK,” said Ewaz, who uses a walking stick because of the beating.
Their family reunion application was granted last August, and under EU law they should have travelled to the UK within six months. But Covid flight restrictions led to delays in theirs, and many other cases. Their lawyers said that because the UK has left the EU, there is no clear route to rearrange their transfer.
“Our grandchildren ask us every day why we aren’t coming to their house,” said Ewaz. “We’ve been living like this for a long time and we are feeling really hopeless.”
“I’ve been feeling really depressed,” said Safora, holding back tears. She has serious health problems and has been scared to leave the house during the strict Greek lockdown. “I’m just hoping there is a way to get out of this situation as soon as possible.”
“The only person who can help us is our son,” Ewaz added. “Please don’t put us in our grave here in Greece.”
Lawyers said theirs is one of at least 80 cases of individuals with a right to be in the UK who have been stranded because the Home Office has not made it clear how the transfers can go ahead outside EU law.
Amanda Muñoz de Toro, from Fenix Humanitarian Legal Aid, is the couple’s lawyer. She said the current problems are in a long line of difficulties created by the Home Office.
“It took the Fenix team, and our legal partners in the UK, three applications and five appeals for the UK to finally grant permission for the couple to join their son. Throughout the 18-month process, the UK repeatedly took steps to frustrate the process and avoid their legal obligations.
“Although it was the responsibility of Greece to transfer the couple before the six-month deadline, before Brexit, there were options to ask for an extension. As a result of the UK’s exit from the EU, there is no longer a legal procedure for these cases. Without a legal framework to pressure, this is now a political issue rather than a legal one.”
Safe Passage said it had seen similar problems in Italy and France.
“Before Brexit, there was a clear process for children to join their families in the UK, but since then the government has failed to communicate effectively with European authorities,” said Bethany Gardiner-Smith, the NGO’s chief executive.
Ali, a 17-year-old boy from Eritrea, has been alone in Italy since last summer waiting to join his family in the UK. He said: “My life has got worse since Brexit. I received a positive answer for my family reunion 10 months ago, but I live always in false hope. The next day, the next month, I think I’ll be going to my family in England. I hate my life.”
Ali’s lawyers said they believe the Home Office has deliberately stopped engaging because the six-month transfer deadline has passed, which means they may be able to avoid accepting his case.
“Flights were cancelled many times because of Covid,” said Giulia Guietti, a lawyer from the Italian refugee and asylum-seeker organisation Cidas. “We needed to rearrange the transfer but from 1 January, after Brexit, the Home Office stopped replying to every single communication. Not only to us, but they don’t reply to the Italian Dublin [regulation] unit. They do respond to some cases. But ones where the deadline has passed and they need to give permission again, they don’t. We are almost certain this is deliberate.”
A UNHCR spokesperson in Italy said it was also worried about the lack of information coming out of the UK. “Long waiting times for the family reunion procedure under the Dublin regulation have been further complicated in the months following the UK’s exit from the EU.
“Without clear answers, minors often lose faith in the possibility of reuniting through a regular procedure and decide to try to reach their families on their own, risking abuse and exploitation.”
In a response, the Home Office said: “Protecting vulnerable children is an absolute priority for the government. In 2019, the UK received more asylum claims from unaccompanied children than any other European country, including Greece and Italy. Once the UK accepts a request to transfer a child, it is the responsibility of the country that submitted it to make necessary arrangements to complete the transfer and we work with them to ensure this happens as quickly as possible.
“The UK provides a number of routes for people to reunite with family members in the UK under our immigration rules.”
Through the dim forest, a slow procession of hundreds of people largely dressed in white, some in a trance, others singing fervently, heads towards the Osun River. As they have every August for 700 years, Yoruba people gather here at the Osun-Osogbo sacred grove, a Unesco world heritage site in south-west Nigeria, for an ancient festival celebrating their traditional spirituality.
Yoruba religious practitioners, adorned with cowrie shells, some with crosses or Islamic beads, pray for protection and offer sacrifices. In a region where Christianity and Islam are dominant, Yoruba traditions have often been cast as demonic – a legacy of colonial violence against Indigenous faiths – but are practised by a devout minority and hold a wide significance for people of varying faiths.
Recent years have seen a growing appreciation of Yoruba spirituality among the younger generation, with more young people becoming practitioners and Ifá priests.
The two-week Osun festival attracts visitors from across the Yoruba-dominated south-west, along with diasporas from South America and the Caribbean, as well as tourists. Osun, the goddess of the river, is said to have appeared to an ancient warrior, instructing him to bring Yoruba people out of famine, into safety in Osogbo city. In return, they would offer a yearly festival.
Osunnike Ogundele, 53, wears a shimmering green and gold lace dress, her hair braided with cowrie shells. “I’ve been here all my life,” she says, explaining her mother’s influence, and her own guidance for her children.
“My fondest memories of the grove are our mothers before us who passed on the knowledge we have now. There was so much to learn from just observing them and we are trying our best to pass this on to our daughters too,” she says. “Osun answers all prayers, no one cries to her without leaving with a smile.”
Osunniti Sikiru, 32, a Muslim and Osun priestess, is one of a number of custodians of the grove. She describes how, for Yoruba people, cultural heritage should be understood as predating the advent of Abrahamic religion in the region.
“Most of our forefathers weren’t Christians or Muslims,” she says. “There’s a big misconception that as a Muslim one can’t combine it with Osun worship. Water is very symbolic in Islam and Osun worship, both emphasise purity. I am still a practising Muslim, I still pray five times a day, my son is named Ibrahim, but Osun worship precedes most religions in Yoruba land.”
Princess Adeola Iya Osun, 47, another priestess, chimes in. “One of my daughters is a pastor and my son actively goes to the church, but what I try to preach is a symbiotic relationship between faiths.”
There have been concerns that the Osun River, seen as having healing powers, has been contaminated, sparking fears for the health of the worshippers who wash and drink here. Local media investigations allegedly found dangerous levels of lead, lithium, aluminium and iron, caused by the activities of artisanal miners and large companies.
Last year, pictures of the polluted river caused uproar and demands for government action. A warning by the state authorities not to drink from the river came on the penultimate day of this year’s festival, sparking further anger. Some chose to drink anyway, knowing the river was contaminated, believing they would be protected from ill-health.
Pollution is a serious worry for those attempting to maintain the integrity of the grove and its surroundings.
A committee of custodians leads these efforts, clearing the litter, while preserving the architecture and stone carvings.
On the final day of the festival, visitors crowd the banks of the river to meet priests and priestesses for consultation and prayers. Baskets are laid out full of kola nuts, fruits and vegetables.
In a trance, a priestess bellows praises to the goddess, then shares messages and warnings. As devotees arrive for prayers, testimonies are shared by people who have attended for several years.
Iya Osun’s parents had challenges having children, she says. “My mother came to pray to Osun for a child. I’m a result of that answered prayer.”
As the festival ends, the crowds leave the grove and the dense forest, their prayers made, hoping to return next year with testimonies of their own.
Earlier, the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Denis Pushilin, said the republic is negotiating with Pyongyang on the arrival of builders from North Korea. In July, North Korea recognized the independence of the DPR and Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR).He said Russia will not force Donbas and North Korea to avoid cooperation.
MOSCOW (Sputnik) – The UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea do not apply to the Donbas republics, Director of the Department of International Organizations at the Russian Foreign Ministry Pyotr Ilyichev said in an interview with Sputnik.
Earlier, the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Denis Pushilin, said the republic is negotiating with Pyongyang on the arrival of builders from North Korea. In July, North Korea recognized the independence of the DPR and Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR).
“The recruitment of labor from North Korea is subject to international restrictions established by UN Security Council resolutions. However, it must be taken into account that they apply to the member states of the world organization, which the people’s republics of Donbas are not,” Ilyichev said.
He said Russia will not force Donbas and North Korea to avoid cooperation.
The poliovirus is circulating again in the West. A virus that was on the way to global eradication has been detected in recent months in the wastewater of New York and London. This is not unusual, since it can appear in the fecal remains of vaccinated people with the attenuated pathogen. What’s different now is that the poliovirus – which causes the infectious disease polio – has been recorded in an adult in the United States, something that has not happened for a decade, and that samples from the United Kingdom suggest there is local transmission of the disease.
How did the virus get there? To answer this question, it is first necessary to understand the two types of vaccines that are used against polio. In countries where transmission is eradicated, an intramuscular vaccine is used. This contains the inactive virus, which is enough to prevent it from spreading in an environment where the pathogen is no longer circulating in the wild and most of the population is vaccinated. The second type of vaccine is made up of oral drops with a live attenuated virus, which is used in countries where polio continues to circulate. It produces antibodies in the blood, as well as the oral and intestinal mucosa. “With this vaccine, the immunized person would not develop the disease nor would they be able to infect others if they become infected with the wild virus,” explain researchers José Jiménez and Ana María Ortega-Prieto, from King’s College London, in an article in The Conversation.
The only two countries where polio remains endemic are Pakistan and Afghanistan, with 12 cases and one so far this year, respectively. Normally, when polio is detected in fecal remains in the wastewater, it comes from the excretion of people from these countries, which is not a major problem. What has happened now is that the virus is not just being detected in wastewater, it’s infecting people.
It’s still not fully confirmed that there is local circulation in London, but the European Center for Disease Control (ECDC) has warned: “The poliovirus levels and the genetic diversity among the isolates suggests some level of virus transmission both in the areas where positive samples were found and in adjacent ones.”
Local circulation has been confirmed in New York, where one adult has been paralyzed due to the virus. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this case, is just “the tip of the iceberg.” “There are a number of individuals in the community that have been infected with poliovirus,” Dr. José Romero, from the CDC, told news network CNN. “The spread is always a possibility because the spread is going to be silent.”
As was seen during the Covid-19 pandemic, when a case is detected and its origin is unknown, it is normally a sign of uncontrolled transmission. “For every one case of paralytic polio identified, hundreds more may be undetected,” said State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett in a statement. This is partly due to the fact that most people who contract the poliovirus are asymptomatic. Only in about 1% of cases does the virus cause problems: if it enters the central nervous system, it can cause paralysis and muscle atrophy.
What are the consequences of these outbreaks? In both London and New York, vaccination rates are lower than in the rest of their respective countries, meaning there is an elevated risk for children, who mainly affected by this disease. In London, authorities have already launched a vaccination campaign to offer booster doses to one million children between the ages of one and nine.
The road to polio eradication
The spread of polio is limited, at least in countries with high vaccination coverage. But these recent cases show that the virus still presents a risk and completely eradicating it is a complicated task, even if it seemed within reach.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) was launched in 1988 with the aim of eradicating polio just as smallpox has been eradicated. In general terms, the program has been a success: the number of polio cases worldwide have dropped 99% since its creation.
Only Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Islamic fundamentalism makes vaccination campaigns difficult, report a few cases each year. And Nigeria, the other country where there is wild poliovirus (i.e. not the virus is transmitted by the attenuated vaccines), has not reported a single case since 2016.
The secret to this achievement is mass vaccination: first with the oral vaccine and then, when the country is already free of the disease, with the vaccine given by injection. Keeping vaccination levels high is key to curbing the virus.
According to UNICEF data, global vaccination levels dropped between 2019 and 2021 by 5%. In other words, 25 million children stopped receiving their doses. Vaccination rates are the lowest they have been in the last 30 years: 81% for diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough, which are considered a good indicator for other conditions. This means it is likely that polio coverage is at similarly low levels.