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‘We were left in the sea’: asylum seekers forced off Lesbos | Refugees

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“We were all forced on to the boat. If we looked up they shouted at us and hit us in the head. Then they stopped at a place in the sea where there were no other boats, they left us.”

Mustafa, his wife and two young children had only been on the Greek island of Lesbos a few hours when, they say, they were driven in a van to the coast, beaten by masked men and then taken out to sea on a raft and abandoned there.

Their story is one of many and lies at the heart of what rights groups, the UN and the EU are warning is a crisis for the right to asylum at Europe’s borders – with “pushbacks” so persistent and severe they are leading to a huge drop in arrivals across the sea into Greece.

The UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) recently warned that many EU borders – from Greece to the Balkans to France – are increasingly impossible to pass for vulnerable asylum-seeking families such as Mustafa’s. There was a 85% drop in arrivals by sea to Greece in 2020 compared with 2019 and Notis Mitarachi, the country’s migration minister, has repeatedly pointed to the reduction in “flows” of asylum seekers to the Aegean islands.

Mustafa’s own journey began in northern Afghanistan. The family travelled through Turkey and crossed on a small boat with 12 others. They had paid €1,200 (£1,030) each for the journey, selling almost all their possessions to fund it after a militant group had threatened Mustafa’s life.

After stumbling on to the beach, a local NGO, Aegean Boat Report, helped them find the camp where they hoped to claim asylum. Instead, they say when they got there, they were met by police.

Mustafa’s family in the container they were put in before being removed from Lesbos
Mustafa’s family in the container they were held in before being removed from Lesbos. Photograph: Courtesy of Aegean Boat Report

“There were two police officers and they said, ‘wait there whilst we call [someone] in a higher position’,” Mustafa said. Still wet from the sea, other asylum seekers in the camp gave them clothes and food.

When the police said the family and the other migrants who had arrived with them would be taken to get a Covid test, Mustafa became worried, he said. “I started to have a feeling of fear that maybe they are going to push us and send us back to Turkey.”

Instead of being taken for a test, the group were taken to a container. “The police then came and gave us directions to a container nearby. They then shouted at us to get in the container,” Mustafa recalled.

At the container, terrifyingly for the family, four masked men arrived and searched the group for phones and personal items while people faced the wall.

A child in the container the asylum seekers were held in on Lesbos
A child in the container the asylum seekers were held in on Lesbos. Photograph: Courtesy of Aegean Boat Report

“Four guys came, their whole face was covered. They woke us up and took all the phones from the rest of the group. They couldn’t find my phone because it was wrapped in a blanket under where my son was sleeping. They searched everywhere, even in the nappies of the children. It’s not nice for me to talk about,” Mustafa said.

At various points in the ordeal, he added, the children started crying. They were then forced to get into the back of a van. “There were no seats inside, it looked like a van for animals.”

After around an hour they stopped and the men forced them to board a small boat. Mustafa said he was afraid to board, but the men hit and kicked him until he did.

“I thought that these men were going to drown us,” he said. “Everyone was afraid and shouting that they didn’t want to get inside the boat. But they kicked me so that I got on.”

Messages sent to the Aegean Boat Report NGO including a video of the family in the container.
Messages sent to the Aegean Boat Report NGO including a video of the family in the container. Photograph: Courtesy of Aegean Boat Report

The group were then pushed into an orange life raft and “left in the sea, where the waters are Turkish”. They sent a video pleading for help to Aegean Boat Report at 1.30am, nearly six hours after they had first asked the group for help when they arrived on Lesbos.

They were eventually picked up by the Turkish coast guard and are now back in Turkey, staying at a friend’s flat. With all their money having been spent on the journey, they are nearly destitute.

“We tried to get to Europe for the future of our children,” Mustafa said, “because there is no war there.”

The Greek coast guard said it has no record of the incident Mustafa described. In a statement it said it acted according to Greece’s international obligations and all relevant international treaties and with respect for human rights. “The Hellenic coast guard takes all necessary measures to effectively monitor and protect both Greece’s and the EU’s sea borders,” it said.

“In our effort to protect our country’s rights as well as the lives of refugees which are put to danger, some media and NGOs target the Hellenic coast guard with publicity based on untrue, unverified claims.”

Mireille Girard, acting representative for the UNHCR in Greece, told the Guardian they were aware of the incident and had eyewitnesses who had seen the people arrive in the Megala Therma quarantine camp.

“We are following this case very closely,” she said. “We were alerted by local residents and the residents in the Megala Therma [camp]. There were 29 asylum seekers inside the facility that night so they saw the group arriving.”

Girard said asylum procedures should be followed. “Clearly there was a group that had landed inside Greece and, more than that, they had gone inside the facility of the government,” she said. “So it’s very important for the authorities to look into this and see what happened.”

Mustafa’s name has been changed to protect his identity.



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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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Bereaved then evicted by in-laws: Kenya’s widows fight disinheritance | Global development

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Within months of the death of her husband in 2014, Doreen Kajuju Kimathi, from Meru, eastern Kenya, was told that his bank accounts had been frozen, and she had been forced out of her home by her in-laws.

The pregnant 37-year-old was left with no resources to fight back, and returned to her parents’ home. “It was traumatising, and I went into depression for five years,” says Kimathi.

Doreen Kajuju Kimathi
Doreen Kajuju Kimathi, who now volunteers for a widows’ support group. Photograph: Courtesy of Widows Empowerment Initiative for Africa

Her experience is far from unique. While Kenya protects widows’ inheritance in theory, the patriarchal culture and the influence of colonial legislation that restricted married women’s property rights means the law is often not enforced.

“There is an entire parallel system operating outside succession laws,” says Roseline Njogu, a Kenyan lawyer. “Years of law reform have led us to formal equality, but equality of law doesn’t mean equality of power, and that’s where we get tripped up.”

Human rights groups report that discriminatory practices in marriage limit women’s capacity to own land. According to the Kenya Land Alliance, only 1% of land titles are registered to women, and another 6% are registered jointly with a man.

While children have equal inheritance rights, land is more often passed on to sons, leaving daughters with fewer assets, and making a future wife vulnerable to eviction if her spouse’s family regard the property as theirs.

For young widows such as Kimathi, it can be even harder to hold on to marital property. “You’re considered less entitled to it because you’re expected to remarry,” she says.

But a fightback is under way. Grassroots organisations are emerging all around the country to build community awareness of women’s legal rights. One group, the Come Together Widows and Orphans Organization (CTWOO), has offered legal advice and support to nearly 500,000 widows since 2013.

The NGO is trying to address disinheritance at its roots. It works with other groups to increase financial and legal literacy across the country, especially among married couples, encouraging them to discuss finances openly, and to write wills.

Dianah Kamande, the founder of the Come Together Widows and Orphans Organization.
Dianah Kamande, the founder of the Come Together Widows and Orphans Organization. Photograph: Courtesy of CTWOO

The founder, Dianah Kamande, says that – contrary to popular belief – most dispossessed widows are middle-class, like Kimathi, not poor. The poor usually have less property, and the rich have access to lawyers.

Kamande says death and estate planning are still taboo topics for many married couples, and that some people obscure their wealth. “Men keep lots of secrets about money from their wives, and trust their mothers and siblings more – who in turn disinherit the wife and children,” she says.

Widows Empowerment Initiative for Africa logo
Grassroots groups are emerging to build awareness of widows’ rights. Photograph: Courtesy of Widows Empowerment Initiative for Africa

The country’s Unclaimed Financial Assets Authority says it has 50bn Kenyan shillings (£347m) in unclaimed assets, and about 40% is money left by people after they die. Concerned by the rising number of unclaimed assets, research by the authority found roughly 43% of Kenyan respondents said they would not disclose their financial assets to anyone – even people they trusted.

“There’s secrecy around financial investments. For many of the people who find out about the assets left by their spouse, it’s a eureka moment,” says Paul Muya, of the UFAA.

Five years after being widowed, Kimathi’s life was still on hold. She had looked into hiring a lawyer but could not afford it. Without access to the family property, it was difficult for her and her son to get by, and she had to rely on help from her parents and sister.

But through the CTWOO, she found out that she did not need a lawyer to access the courts. She filed a claim, and within a year had gained access to almost all of her dead husband’s property. Last year, Kimathi opened a bar and restaurant in Kitui, 110 miles east of Nairobi.

“It was a huge relief to get the money. Being a widow in Kenya is financially and socially isolating, and knowing what that’s like pushed me to help others in the same situation,” says Kimathi, who now volunteers with a widows’ support group.

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WHO concerned about first cases of monkeypox in children | Science & Tech

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Reports of young children infected by monkeypox in Europe – there were at least four in recent days, with a fifth one recorded a few weeks ago – have raised concern about the progress of an outbreak now affecting more than 5,500 people in 51 countries.

The health organization’s Europe chief, Hans Kluge, also warned on Friday that overall cases in the region have tripled in the last two weeks. “Urgent and coordinated action is imperative if we are to turn a corner in the race to reverse the ongoing spread of this disease,” said Kluge.

The WHO has not yet declared the outbreak a global health emergency, however. At a meeting last Saturday, the agency ruled it out but said it could change its views if certain scenarios come to pass, such as a spike in cases among vulnerable groups like children, pregnant women and immunocompromised people. Available data shows that children, especially younger ones, are at higher risk of serious illness if they become infected.

The last known case of a child contracting monkeypox was reported on Tuesday in Spain, where a three-year-old was confirmed to have the disease. Cases in Spain are now in excess of 1,500 according to health reports filed by regional governments.

Also on Tuesday, Dutch authorities reported that a primary school student had become infected and that contact tracing had been initiated to rule out more cases within the child’s close circle of contacts. On Saturday, France reported one confirmed case and one suspected case among elementary school students.

The UK has so far recorded at least two infections in minors. The first case, reported in May, involved a baby who had to be taken to intensive care for treatment with the antiviral Tecovirimat, of which few doses are available but which has already begun to be distributed in several countries. British authorities this week reported a second case of a child with monkeypox. The UK currently has the biggest monkeypox outbreak beyond Africa.

The main vaccine being used against monkeypox was originally developed for smallpox. The European Medicines Agency said earlier this week it was beginning to evaluate whether the shot should be authorized for monkeypox. The WHO has said supplies of the vaccine, made by Bavarian Nordic, are extremely limited.

Until May, monkeypox had never been known to cause large outbreaks beyond Africa, where the disease is endemic in several countries and mostly causes limited outbreaks when it jumps to people from infected wild animals.

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