Archive for March, 2020


March 14, 2020

BAGHDAD (AP) — A barrage of rockets hit a base housing U.S. and other coalition troops north of Baghdad, Iraqi security officials said Saturday, just days after a similar attack killed three servicemen, including two Americans.

At least two Iraqi soldiers were wounded in the attack at Camp Taji, according to the Iraqi officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. The officials said over a dozen rockets landed inside the base. Some struck the area where coalition forces are based, while others fell on a runway used by Iraqi forces.

The was no immediate comment from the coalition regarding Saturday’s attack. The attack was unusual because it occurred during the day. Previous assaults on military bases housing U.S. troops typically occurred at night.

The previous rocket attack against Camp Taji on Wednesday also killed a British serviceman. It prompted American airstrikes Friday against what U.S. officials said were mainly weapons facilities belonging to Kataib Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militia group believed to be responsible.

However, Iraq’s military said those airstrikes killed five security force members and a civilian, while wounding five fighters from the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella organization including an array of militias, including some Iran-backed groups.

Iran-backed Shiite militia groups vowed to exact revenge for Friday’s U.S. strikes, signalling another cycle of tit-for-tat violence between Washington and Tehran that could play out inside Iraq. America’s killing of Iraqi security forces might also give Iran-backed militia groups more reason to stage counterattacks against U.S. troops in Iraq, analysts said.

“We can’t forget that the PMF is a recognized entity within the Iraqi security forces; they aren’t isolated from the security forces and often are co-located on the same bases or use the same facilities,” said Sajad Jiyad, a researcher and former managing director of the Bayan Center, a Baghdad-based think tank.

“Now the (Iran-backed) groups who supported the initial strike in Taji, who were the most outspoken, feel obliged, authorized, maybe even legitimized to respond, ostensibly to protect Iraqi sovereignty but really to keep the pressure up on Americans,” he added.

“There are no red lines anymore,” Jiyad said. Wednesday’s attack on Camp Taji was the deadliest to target U.S. troops in Iraq since a late December rocket attack on an Iraqi base, which killed a U.S. contractor. That attack set in motion a series of attacks that brought Iraq to the brink of war.

After the contractor was killed, America launched airstrikes targeting Kataib Hezbollah, which in turn led to protests at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. A U.S. drone strike in Baghdad then killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a top commander responsible for expeditionary operations across the wider Mideast. Iran struck back with a ballistic missile attack on U.S. forces in Iraq, the Islamic Republic’s most direct assault on America since the 1979 seizing of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

The U.S. and Iran stepped stepped back from further attacks after the Soleimani incident. A senior U.S. official said in late January, when U.S.-Iran tensions had cooled, that the killing of Americans constituted a red line that could spark more violence.

March 10, 2020

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The United States began withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, the U.S. military said Tuesday, taking a step forward on its peace deal with the Taliban while also praising Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s promise to start releasing Taliban prisoners after he had delayed for over a week.

The U.S.-Taliban deal signed on Feb. 29 was touted as Washington’s effort to end 18 years of war in Afghanistan. The next crucial step was to be intra-Afghan talks in which all factions including the Taliban would negotiate a road map for their country’s future.

But Ghani and his main political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, were each sworn in as president in separate ceremonies on Monday. Abdallah and the elections complaints commission had charged fraud in last year’s vote. The dueling inaugurations have thrown plans for talks with the Taliban into chaos, although Ghani said Tuesday that he’d start putting together a negotiating team.

The disarray on the Afghan government side is indicative of the uphill task facing Washington’s peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad as he tries to get Afghanistan’s bickering leadership to come together. In an early Tuesday tweet, Khalilzad said he hoped the two leaders can “come to an agreement on an inclusive and broadly accepted government. We will continue to assist.”

U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan Sonny Leggett said in a statement Tuesday that the military had begun its “conditions-based reduction of forces to 8,600 over 135 days.” Currently, the U.S. has about 13,000 soldiers in Afghanistan — 8,000 of whom are involved in training and advising Afghanistan’s National Security Forces, while about 5,000 are involved in anti-terror operations and militarily supporting the Afghan army when they are requested.

Ghani had been dragging his feet on releasing some 5,000 Taliban prisoners, something agreed to in the U.S.-Taliban deal. Ghani promised Monday to announce a decree to free the prisoners, after the U.S. and a number of foreign dignitaries appeared to back his claim to the presidency by sending their representatives to his inauguration.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement Monday saying, “We also welcome President Ghani’s announcement that he will issue a decree March 10 on Taliban prisoner release.” Taliban officials said late Monday that a flurry of biometric identifications were being conducted on Taliban prisoners, hinting at a mass release, according to prisoners currently in lockup. The Taliban officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk to the media.

Pompeo also said he “strongly opposed” the establishment of a parallel government in Kabul, despite the early signs of one emerging. Abdullah had quickly sent his vice-presidents to occupy the official offices on Monday, ahead of Ghani’s plan to send his vice presidents to their offices Tuesday.

Pompeo warned against “any use of force to resolve political differences.” Both candidates — but particularly Abdullah — are backed by warlords with heavily armed militias, underscoring fears they could use force to back their candidate.

The U.S. has said its partial troop withdrawal over an 18-month period provided for in the deal will be linked to the Taliban keeping their promises to help fight terror in Afghanistan, but not to the success of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

On the weekend, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said the insurgent group was committed to their agreement with the United States and called on Washington to do its part to make sure their prisoners were freed.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for a rocket attack that took place during Ghani’s inauguration ceremony. IS also claimed a brutal attack last week on a gathering of minority Shiites that killed 32 and injured scores more. The U.S. in reaching its deal with the Taliban said they expected the Taliban, which has been battling Afghanistan’s IS affiliate, to further aid in the effort to defeat IS.

Gannon reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Tameem Akhgar in Kabul, Afghanistan contributed to this report.

February 14, 2020

LAC ASSAL, Djibouti (AP) — “Patience,” Mohammed Eissa told himself. He whispered it every time he felt like giving up. The sun was brutal, reflecting off the thick layer of salt encrusting the barren earth around Lac Assal, a lake 10 times saltier than the ocean.

Nothing grows here. Birds are said to fall dead out of the sky from the searing heat. And yet the 35-year-old Ethiopian walked on, as he had for three days, since he left his homeland for Saudi Arabia.

Nearby are two dozen graves, piles of rocks, with no headstones. People here say they belong to migrants who like Eissa embarked on an epic journey of hundreds of miles, from villages and towns in Ethiopia through the Horn of Africa countries Djibouti or Somalia, then across the sea and through the war-torn country of Yemen.

The flow of migrants taking this route has grown. According to the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration, 150,000 arrived in Yemen from the Horn of Africa in 2018, a 50% jump from the year before. The number in 2019 was similar.

This story is part of an occasional series, “ Outsourcing Migrants,” produced with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

They dream of reaching Saudi Arabia, and earning enough to escape poverty by working as laborers, housekeepers, servants, construction workers and drivers.

But even if they reach their destination, there is no guarantee they can stay; the kingdom often expels them. Over the past three years, the IOM reported 9,000 Ethiopians were deported each month.

Many migrants have made the journey multiple times in what has become an unending loop of arrivals and deportations.

Eissa is among them. This is his third trip to Saudi Arabia.

In his pockets, he carries a text neatly handwritten in Oromo, his native language. It tells stories of the Prophet Muhammad, who fled his home in Mecca to Medina to seek refuge from his enemies.

“I depend on God,” Eissa said.

“I HAVE TO GO TO SAUDI”

Associated Press reporters traveled along part of the migrants’ trail through Djibouti and Yemen in July and August. Eissa was among the travelers they met; another was Mohammad Ibrahim, who comes from Arsi, the same region as Eissa.

Perched in the country’s central highlands, it’s an area where subsistence farmers live off small plots of land, growing vegetables or grain. When the rains come, the families can eat. But in the dry months of the summer, food dwindles and hunger follows.

The 22-year-old Ibrahim had never been able to find a job. His father died when his mother was pregnant with him — she told him stories of how his father went off to war and never returned.

One day, Ibrahim saw a friend in his village with a new motorcycle. He was making a little money carrying passengers. Ibrahim went to his mother and asked her to buy him one. He could use it, he told her, to support her and his sister. Impossible, she said. She would have to sell her tiny piece of land where they grow corn and barley.

“This is when I thought, ‘I have to go to Saudi,’” Ibrahim said.

So he reached out to the local “door opener” — a broker who would link him to a chain of smugglers along the way.

Often migrants are told they can pay when they arrive in Saudi Arabia. Those who spoke to the AP said they were initially quoted prices ranging from $300 to $800 for the whole journey.

How the trip goes depends vitally on the smuggler.

In the best-case scenario, the smuggler is a sort of tour organizer. They arrange boats for the sea crossing, either from Djibouti or Somalia. They run houses along the way where migrants stay and provide transport from town to town in pickup trucks. Once in Saudi Arabia, the migrants call home to have payment wired to the smuggler.

In the worst case, the smuggler is a brutal exploiter, imprisoning and torturing migrants for more money, dumping them alone on the route or selling them into virtual slave labor on farms.

Intensified border controls and crackdowns by the Ethiopian government, backed by European Union funding, have eliminated some reliable brokers, forcing migrants to rely on inexperienced smugglers, increasing the danger.

THE LONG WALK

Eissa decided he would not use smugglers for his journey.

He’d successfully made the trip twice before. The first time, in 2011, he worked as a steel worker in the kingdom, making $ 25 a day and earning enough to buy a plot of land in the Arsi region’s main town, Asella. He made the trip again two years later, walking for two months to reach Saudi Arabia, where he earned $ 530 a month as a janitor. But he was arrested and deported before he could collect his pay.

Without a smuggler, his third attempt would be cheaper. But it would not be safe, or easy.

Eissa picked up rides from his home to the border with Djibouti, then walked. His second day there, he was robbed at knifepoint by several men who took his money. The next day, he walked six hours in the wrong direction, back toward Ethiopia, before he found the right path again.

When the AP met him at Lac Assal, Eissa said he had been living off bread and water for days, taking shelter in a rusty, abandoned shipping container. He had a small bottle filled with water from a well at the border, covered with fabric to keep out dust.

He had left behind a wife, nine sons and a daughter. His wife cares for his elderly father. The children work the farm growing vegetables, but harvests are unpredictable: “If there’s no rain, there’s nothing.”

With the money he expected to earn in Saudi Arabia, he planned to move his family to Asella. “I will build a house and take my children to town to learn the religious and worldly sciences,” he said.

THE TRIP

The 100-mile (120-kilometer) trip across Djibouti can take days.

Many migrants end up in the country’s capital, also named Djibouti, living in slums and working to earn money for the crossing. Young women often are trapped in prostitution or enslaved as servants.

The track through Djibouti ends on a long, virtually uninhabited coast outside the town of Obock, the shore closest to Yemen.

There, the AP saw a long line of dozens of migrants led by smuggling guides, descending from the mountains onto the rocky coastal plain. Here they would stay, sometimes for several days, and wait for their turn on the boats that every night cross the narrow Bab el-Mandab strait to Yemen.

During the wait, smugglers brought out large communal pots of spaghetti and barrels of water for their clients. Young men and women washed themselves in nearby wells. Others sat in the shade of the scrawny, twisted acacia trees. Two girls braided each other’s hair.

One young man, Korram Gabra, worked up the nerve to call home to ask his father for the equivalent of $200 for the crossing and the Yemen leg of the trip. It would be his first time talking with his father since he sneaked away from home in the night.

“My father will be upset when he hears my voice, but he’ll keep it in his heart and won’t show it,” he said. “If I get good money, I want to start a business.”

At night, AP witnessed a daily smuggling routine: small lights flashing in the darkness signaled that their boat was ready. More than 100 men and women, boys and girls were ordered to sit in silence on the beach. The smugglers spoke in hushed conversations on satellite phones to their counterparts in Yemen on the other side of the sea. There was a moment of worry when a black rubber dinghy appeared out in the water_a patrol of Djibouti’s marines. After half an hour it motored away. The marines had received their daily bribe of around $100 dollars, the smugglers explained.

Loaded into the 50-foot-long open boat, migrants were warned not to move or talk during the crossing . Most had never seen the sea before . Now they would be on it for eight hours in darkness.

Eissa made the crossing on another day, paying about $65 to a boat captain — the only payment to a smuggler he would make.

“IT WAS A TERRIBLE THING”

Ibrahim took an alternative route, through Somalia. He traveled nearly 900 kilometers (500 miles), walking and catching rides to cross the border and reach the town of Las Anoud.

Isolated in Somalia’s deserts, the town is the hub for traffickers transporting Ethiopians to Yemen. It is also a center for brutal torture, according to multiple migrants. The smugglers took Ibrahim and other migrants to a compound, stripped him and tied him dangling from a wooden rafter. They splashed cold water on him and flogged him.

For 12 days, he was imprisoned, starved and tortured. He saw six other migrants die of severe dehydration and hunger, their bodies buried in shallow graves nearby. “It’s in the middle of the vast desert,” he said. “If you think of running away, you don’t even know where to go.”

At one point, smugglers put a phone to his ear and made him plead with his mother for ransom money.

“Nothing is more important than you,” she told him. She sold the family’s sole piece of land and wired to smugglers just over $1,000.

The smugglers transported him to the port of Bosaso on Somalia’s Gulf of Aden coast. He was piled into a wooden boat with some 300 other men and women, “like canned sardines,” he said.

Throughout the 30-hour journey, the Somali captain and his crew beat anyone who moved. Crammed in place, the migrants had to urinate and vomit where they sat.

“I felt trapped, couldn’t breathe, or move for many hours until my body became stiff,” he said. “God forbid, it was a terrible thing.”

Within sight of Yemen’s shore, the smugglers pushed the migrants off the boat into water too deep to touch the bottom.

Flailing in the water, they formed human chains to help the women and children onto shore.

Ibrahim collapsed on the sand and passed out. When he opened his eyes, he felt the hunger stabbing him.

“FAR FROM MY DREAMS”

Migrants with reliable, organized smugglers are usually transported across Yemen in stages to the migrant hub cities further down the line, Ataq , Marib, Jawf, and Saada where half the distance is under internationally-recognized government control and the second under Houthi rebels, fighting US-backed coalition since 2015.

But for thousands of others, it’s a confusing and dangerous march down unfamiliar roads and highways.

A security official in Lahj province outside the main southern city, Aden, said bodies of dead migrants turn up from time to time. Just a few days earlier, he told the AP, a farmer called his office about a smell coming from one of his fields. A patrol found a young migrant there who had been dead for days.

Another patrol found 100 migrants, including women, hidden on a farm, the official said. The patrol brought them food, he said, but then had to leave them.

“Where would we take them and what would we do with them?” he asked, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to the press.

Many migrants languish for months in the slums of Basateen, a district of Aden that was once a green area of gardens but now is covered in decrepit shacks of cinder blocks, concrete, tin and tarps, amid open sewers.

Over the summer, an Aden soccer stadium became a temporary refuge for thousands of migrants. At first, security forces used it to house migrants they captured in raids. Other migrants showed up voluntarily, hoping for shelter. The IOM distributed food at the stadium and arranged voluntary repatriation back home for some. The soccer pitch and stands, already destroyed from the war, became a field of tents, with clothes lines strung up around them.

Among the migrants there was Nogos, a 15-year-old who was one of at least 7,000 minors who made the journey without an adult in 2019, a huge jump from 2,000 unaccompanied minors a year earlier, according to IOM figures

Upon landing in Yemen, Nogos had been imprisoned by smugglers. For more than three weeks, they beat him, demanding his family send $500. When he called home, his father curtly refused: “I’m not the one torturing you.”

Nogos can’t blame his father. “If he had money and didn’t help me, I’d be upset,” he said. “But I know he doesn’t.”

Finally, the smugglers gave up on getting money out of the boy and let him go. Alone and afraid at the stadium, he had no idea what he’d do next. He had hoped to reach an aunt who is living in Saudi Arabia, but lost contact with her. He wanted one day to go back to school.

“It’s far from my dreams,” he added, in a dead voice.

After a few weeks, Yemeni security forces cleared out the stadium, throwing thousands back onto the streets. The IOM had stopped distributing food, fearing it would become a lure for migrants. Yemeni officials didn’t want to take responsibility for the migrants’ care.

Eissa, meanwhile, made his way across the country alone. At times, Yemenis gave him a ride for a stretch. Mostly he walked endless miles down the highways.

“I don’t count the days. I don’t distinguish, Saturday, Sunday, or Monday,” he said in audio message to the AP via Whatsapp.

One day, he reached the town of Bayhan, southern Yemen, and went to the local mosque to use the bathroom. When he saw the preacher giving his sermon, he realized it was Friday.

It was the first time in ages he was aware of the day of the week.

He had traveled more than 250 miles (420 kilometers) since he landed in Yemen. He had another 250 miles to go to the Saudi border.

“PRAY FOR ME”

In the evenings, thousands of migrants mill around the streets of Marib, one of the main city stopovers on the migrants’ route through Yemen. In the mornings, they search for day jobs. They could earn about a dollar a day working on nearby farms. A more prized job is with the city garbage collectors, paying $4 a day.

Ibrahim had just arrived a few days earlier when the AP met him, his black hair still covered in dust from the road.

Ibrahim had wandered in Yemen for days, starving, before villagers gave him food.

He made his way slowly north. Not knowing the language or the geography, he didn’t even know what town he was in when a group of armed fighters snatched him from the road.

They imprisoned him for days in a cell with other migrants. One night, they moved the migrants in a pickup, driving them through the desert. Ibrahim was confused and afraid: Where was he going? Who had abducted him? Why?

He threw himself out of the back of the pick-up, landing in the sand. Scratched and battered, he ran away into the darkness.

Now in Marib, he was stranded, unsure how to keep going. His arm was painfully swollen from an insect bite. He wouldn’t be able to work until it was better. The only food he could find was rice and fetid meat scraps left over from restaurants.

Using the AP’s phone, he called his mother for the first time since the horrific calls under torture at Las Anoud.

“Pray for me, mama,” he said, choking back tears.

“I know you are tired and in pain. Take care of yourself,” she told him.

Was it worth all this to reach Saudi Arabia, he was asked.

He broke down.

“What if I return empty-handed after my mother sold the one piece of land we have?” he said. “I can’t enter the village or show my face to my mother without money.”

THE KINGDOM

North of Marib, migrants cross into Houthi territory at Hazm, a run-down town divided down the middle between the rebels and anti-Houthi fighters. It’s a 3-mile (5-kilometer) no-man’s land where sniper fire and shelling are rampant.

Once across, it is another 120 miles (200 kilometers) north to the Saudi border.

Eissa walked that final stretch, a risk because the militiamen have a deal with migrant smugglers: Those who go by car are allowed through; those on foot are arrested.

“Walking in the mountains and the valleys and hiding from the police,” Eissa said in an audio message to the AP.

He traversed tiny valleys winding through mountains along the border to the crossing points of Al Thabit or Souq al-Raqo.

Souq al-Raqo is a lawless place, a center for drug and weapons trafficking run by Ethiopian smugglers. Even local security forces are afraid to go there. Cross-border shelling exchanges and airstrikes have killed dozens, including migrants; Saudi border guards sometimes shoot others.

Eissa slipped across the Saudi border on Aug. 10. It had been 39 days since he had left home in Ethiopia.

After walking another 100 miles, he reached the major town of Khamis Mushayit. First, he prayed at a mosque. Some Saudis there asked if he wanted work. They got him a job watering trees on a farm.

“Peace, mercy, and blessings of God,” he said in one of his last audio messages to the AP. “I am fine, thank God. I am in Saudi.”

To see the full photo essay on the migrants’ journey, click here.

To see a photo essay, “Portraits of Ethiopian girls, women on the march to Saudi,” click here.

Digital producers Nat Castañeda and Peter Hamlin contributed to this report.

January 02, 2020

CAIRO (AP) — Two Sudanese sisters, Seham and Ekhlas Bashir, were walking their children home from elementary school in a Cairo neighborhood when a group of Egyptian teenagers crowded around them. The boys taunted them, calling them “slave” and other slurs. Then they tried to rip off Ekhlas’ clothes.

An onlooker intervened, scolding the young harassers, and the sisters and their three children managed to escape. But they were shaken. They had just arrived in Cairo months earlier, fleeing violence in their homeland. The harassment brought up traumatic memories of detention, torture and rape they said they experienced at the hands of militias in Sudan’s Nuba mountains.

“We have come here seeking safety,” said Ekhlas, recounting the incident that took place in November. “But the reality was very different.” Egypt has for decades been a refuge for sub-Saharan African migrants trying to escape war or poverty. But the streets of Cairo, a metropolis of some 20 million, can bring new dangers in the form of racist harassment or even violence in ways that other significant migrant communities here, such as Libyans and Syrians, don’t face. While other major centers of African migration like Europe have been wrestling with racist violence, Egypt has only made small starts toward addressing the issue.

The U.N.’s International Organization for Migration says Egypt hosts more than 6 million migrants, more than half of them from Sudan and South Sudan, where simmering conflicts continue to displace tens of thousands of people annually. For some, Egypt is a destination and a haven, the closest and easiest country for them to enter. For others, it is a point of transit before attempting the dangerous Mediterranean crossing to Europe.

In visits to several migrant communities throughout Cairo, at least two dozen sub-Saharan Africans, including four children, told The Associated Press that they have endured racist insults, sexual harassment or other abuses in the past three months.

The children said they have had rocks and trash thrown at them as they go to or from school. One woman from Ethiopia said neighbors pound on the windows of her family’s home, yelling “slaves” before disappearing into the night.

There are signs that Egypt is starting to recognize and censure racist crimes. In November, there was a public outcry over a video that went viral showing three Egyptian teenagers bullying a schoolboy from South Sudan.

In the video, taken by mobile phone, the teenagers block the boy’s way, laughing and making fun of his appearance before trying to take his backpack. In the aftermath, police detained the teenagers for a day before their families reached a settlement with the family of the South Sudanese boy, John Manuth.

Weeks later, Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi hosted Manuth at a youth forum in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and made a rare high-level acknowledgement of the problem. “They are our guests and negative treatment is not acceptable and not allowed,” el-Sissi told the audience.

In 2018, a court sentenced to seven years in prison a man who was known to harass refugees and who beat to death a South Sudanese teacher who had worked in a community-run school for refugees in Cairo.

Refugees and rights workers say the country still has a long way to go. Reported cases of sexual and gender-based violence against migrants has increased in recent months, according to the IOM. Women and girls are the most effected, but so are vulnerable men and young boys, said Shirley De Leon, a project development officer at the organization. She said that could in part be because of Egypt’s economic strains — “challenges remain and are exacerbated by inflation, eroded income and high youth unemployment.”

Most migrants live in crowded poorer neighborhoods, where they form insular communities in small, packed apartment buildings. The idea is to protect families and vulnerable new arrivals from abuses. Racism has roots in Egyptian society. For centuries, Egypt was colonized by Arab, Turkish and European imperial powers. Lighter skin was identified with the elite. Darker-complexioned Egyptians and sub-Saharan Africans have been portrayed as doormen, waiters, and cleaners in films for decades. Some Egyptians still unabashedly address people by their skin color, calling them “black,” “dark,” or “chocolate.” Historically, many have preferred to think of themselves as Arab, rather than African.

Attia Essawi, an expert on African affairs at Cairo’s al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, says it will take a lot to break some societal beliefs. “Authorities should be decisive, with more severe measures against racism and bullying,” he said.

But for many, reporting a crime is not an option. Two South Sudanese women, who work as part-time house cleaners, told the AP they had been sexually assaulted by their employers. Neither of them reported the allegations to police, as one of them has not finalized her documents as a migrant in Egypt and the other feared reprisals from her attacker. For the same reasons, they spoke on condition of anonymity.

Now, they and others say they make sure to be home by nightfall, and only go out in groups. El-Sissi has said in the past that his country doesn’t need camps for refugees, because it is welcoming and absorbs them so readily. Many sub-Saharan African migrants enter the country legally but overstay visas. Enforcement on those who stay illegally is lax, and a large number of them work in the huge informal economy as street vendors and house cleaners.

In a café frequented by migrants in a central Cairo neighborhood, Ethiopian refugee Ahmed el-Athiopi says that he came to the city five years ago to escape repression at home. He believes the only reason he has been able to keep a job is because he makes half that of an Egyptian.

For now, though, he says Cairo remains his best available option. “I hope things get better in the future. Here is much better than in my home country as there is likely a zero chance to leave for Europe,” he said.

March 12, 2020

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Deputy Representative for Turkey Jean Marie Garelli today praised efforts toward asylum-seekers in every region of Turkey.

“Turkey is a country where refugees and asylum-seekers are welcomed in the best way and get significant support; you are a praiseworthy model to the whole world in this manner,” Garelli said during a delegation visit to Edirne where asylum-seekers wait at the Greek border to be allowed to cross to Europe.

At the end of last month, Turkey allowed thousands of migrants and asylum seekers to cross its borders with Greece in response to the EU’s lack of action in the Syrian governorate of Idlib.

Thousands of asylum seekers and migrants have been waiting at the border region separating Turkey and Greece since 27 February to cross into Europe amid reports of abuse at the hands of Greek authorities.

Turkey has said Europe violated a deal it signed with Ankara in 2016 aimed at thwarting the movement of refugees to Greece and then on to other European countries.

EU officials have, however, slammed Turkey for using refugees as a political tool.

Turkey hosts around 3.6 million refugees – more than any other country. And since December 2019, hundreds of thousands more people have fled towards its border with Syria as a result of the regime’s airstrikes on the province as President Bashar Al-Assad fights to recapture the last opposition stronghold in Syria.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200312-un-praises-turkeys-treatment-of-refugees/.

March 05, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — The Turkish and Russian presidents are set to hold talks in Moscow aimed at ending hostilities in northwestern Syria involving their forces along with proxies that threaten to pit Turkey against Russia in a direct military conflict

Before the latest crisis, President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had managed to coordinate their interests in Syria even though Moscow backed Syrian President Bashar Assad while Ankara supported its foes throughout Syria’s nine-year war. Both Russia and Turkey appear eager to avoid a showdown, but the sharply conflicting interests in Idlib province make it difficult to negotiate a mutually acceptable compromise.

A Russia-backed Syrian offensive to regain control over Idlib — the last opposition-controlled region in the country — has pushed nearly a million Syrians toward Turkey. Erdogan responded by opening Turkey’s gateway to Europe in an apparent bid to coerce the West to offer more support to Ankara.

Turkey has sent thousands of troops into Idlib to repel the Syrian army, and clashes on the ground and in the air that have left dozens dead on both sides. Russia, which has helped Assad reclaim most of the country’s territory, has signaled it wouldn’t sit idle to see Turkey rout his troops.

After Turkey had downed several Syrian jets, Moscow warned Ankara that its aircraft would be unsafe if they enter Syrian airspace — a veiled threat to engage Russian military assets in Syria. Russian warplanes based in Syria have provided air cover for Assad’s offensive in Idlib.

Opposition activists in Idlib blamed Russian aircraft for Thursday’s strike on a rebel-held village which they said killed at least 15 people, including children, and wounded several others. The Russian military had no immediate comment on the claim, but it has staunchly denied similar previous claims insisting it hasn’t targeted residential areas.

The fighting in Idlib comes as the most severe test to Russia-Turkey ties since the crisis triggered by Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane near the Syrian border in November 2015. Russia responded with an array of sweeping economic sanctions, cutting the flow of its tourists to Turkey and banning most Turkish exports — a punishment that eventually forced Turkey to back off and offer apologies.

Turkey can’t afford a replay of that costly crisis, far less a military conflict with a nuclear power, but it has a strong position to bargain with. Moscow needs Ankara as a partner in a Syrian settlement and Russia’s supply routes for its forces in Syria lie through the Turkish Straits.

Moscow also hopes to use Ankara in its standoff with the West. Last year, Turkey became the first NATO country to take delivery of sophisticated Russian air defense missile systems, angering the United States. Turkey has put its deployment on hold amid the crisis in Idlib.

The talks in Moscow will mark the 10th encounter in just over a year between Putin and Erdogan, who call each other “dear friend” and have polished a fine art of bargaining. Last October, they reached an agreement to deploy their forces across Syria’s northeastern border to fill the void left by President Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces. Prior to that they had negotiated a series of accords that saw opposition fighters from various areas in Syria move into Idlib and in 2018 carved out a de-escalation zone in Idlib.

They blamed one another for the collapse of the Idlib deal, with Moscow holding Ankara responsible for letting al-Qaida linked militants launch attacks from the area and Turkey accusing Moscow of failing to rein in Assad.

A possible compromise on Idlib could see Assad retain control over the key M5 highway, which his forces claimed in the latest offensive. The road that spans Syria linking Damascus with Aleppo, the country’s commercial capital, is essential for Assad to consolidate his rule.

In a sign that the Kremlin firmly intends to secure control of the M5, earlier this week Russian military police have deployed to a strategic town of Saraqeb sitting on the highway to ward off any Turkish attempt to retake it.

In return, Putin could accept the presence of Turkey-backed militants in the areas alongside the border and put brakes for now on Assad’s attempts to claim full control over Idlib.

February 27, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin said he had rejected an offer to use body doubles for personal protection during a conflict in Chechnya. Speaking in an interview with the news agency Tass, another segment of which was released Thursday, Putin said the plan dated back to the early 2000s.

He said that it “came at the most difficult moment of fighting terrorism.” In the early 2000s, Russia was fighting a war against separatists in Chechnya who also launched attacks elsewhere in the country. Putin visited troops in Chechnya hours after predecessor Boris Yeltsin stepped down on Dec. 31, 1999. He later said that a helicopter he was using came under fire during that trip.

Putin also made several other trips to Chechnya while fighting was still raging there. During one of those trips in March 2000, Putin flew into Chechnya in the seat of a second pilot in a fighter jet.

Putin didn’t elaborate on his motives behind rejecting the proposal to have body doubles. The 67-year-old former KGB agent who has ruled Russia for more than 20 years also reaffirmed that he has continued to shun a personal cellphone. He said that he feels “more comfortable” relying on protected communications means and may occasionally use an aide’s phone.

February 29, 2020

BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO on Friday called on Syria and Russia to halt their airstrikes following the killing of 33 Turkish soldiers in northeastern Syria, as scores of migrants seeking entry into Europe gathered at Turkey’s border with Greece

With Turkey signalling that it would let migrants leave, Greece and neighboring Bulgaria bolstered border security. The European Union warned that the fighting in northern Syria could degenerate into open war and that it stood ready to protect its security interests.

After chairing emergency talks between NATO ambassadors, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called on Syria and Russia “to stop their offensive, to respect international law and to back U.N efforts for a peaceful solution.”

“This dangerous situation must be de-escalated and we urge an immediate return to the 2018 cease-fire to avoid the worsening of the horrendous humanitarian situation in the region,” Stoltenberg said. Turkey’s allies also expressed their condolences over the deaths, but no additional NATO support was offered during the meeting.

Apart from providing some aerial surveillance over Syria, NATO plays no direct role in the conflict-torn country, but its members are deeply divided over Turkey’s actions there, and European allies are worried about the arrival of any new waves of refugees.

The air strike by Syrian government forces marks the largest death toll for Turkey in a single day since it first intervened in Syria in 2016. It’s a major escalation in a conflict between Turkish and Russia-backed Syrian forces that has raged since early February.

Omer Celik, spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party, said Turkey was “no longer able to hold refugees” following the Syrian attack — reiterating Erdogan’s longstanding warning that his country cannot cope with more people fleeing the conflict.

Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrians and under a 2016 deal with the EU agreed to step up efforts to halt the flow of refugees to Europe. Since then, Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to “open the gates,” playing on European nervousness about a new surge.

The Turkish DHA news agency reported that some 300 Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Moroccans and Pakistanis were gathering at the border with Greece, while others massed at beaches facing Greek islands off Turkey’s western coast.

Early Friday, Turkish broadcaster NTV showed images of dozens of people — carrying rucksacks, suitcases and plastic bags — crossing fields towards the Greek frontier. Near the Pazarkule border crossing with Greece, Turkish police stopped some 150 refugees about 1 kilometer (half a mile) from the border, preventing them from going further.

A Greek police official said dozens of people had gathered on the Turkish side of the land border in Greece’s Evros region, shouting “open the borders.” Police and military border patrols on the Greek side readied to prevent people crossing without authorization.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak on the record to the press. In Bulgaria, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said that “army units, national guard and border police staff have been urgently deployed at the border with Turkey to beat off a possible migrant influx.”

Borissov said that large groups of migrants were gathering by the border near the Turkish city of Edirne. He expressed concern that Turkish border police were moving away from the border. But EU spokesman Peter Stano said the bloc was waiting for an official analysis of reports about migrant movements before acting. He said Turkey had not officially signaled that it was changing its migrant policy.

“We expect Turkey to uphold its commitments,” Stano said. Meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned that “there is a risk of sliding into a major open international military confrontation. It is also causing unbearable humanitarian suffering and putting civilians in danger.”

In a tweet, Borrell called for the escalation around Idlib to “stop urgently,” and underlined that “the EU will consider all necessary measures to protect its security interests. We are in touch with all relevant actors.”

Turkey’s invasion of the north of the conflict-torn country — along with the criticism and threats of sanctions brandished by fellow allies at Ankara over the offensive — has come close to sparking a major crisis at NATO.

France in particular has tried to launch a debate on what Turkey’s allies should do if Ankara requests their assistance under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty — which requires all allies to come to the defense of another member under attack — but that discussion has not happened.

The allies are extremely reluctant to be drawn into a conflict of Turkey’s making.

Kantouris reported from Thessaloniki, Greece. Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, contributed.

February 28, 2020

BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO envoys were holding emergency talks Friday at the request of Turkey following the killing of 33 Turkish soldiers in northeast Syria, as scores of migrants gathered at Turkey’s border with Greece seeking entry into Europe.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement that Friday morning’s meeting of ambassadors would be held under Article 4 of NATO’s founding treaty, which allows any ally to request consultations if it feels its territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened.

The air strike by Syrian government forces marks the largest death toll for Turkey in a single day since it first intervened in Syria in 2016. It’s a major escalation in a conflict between Turkish and Russia-backed Syrian forces that has raged since early February.

At least 54 Turkish troops have now been killed in Idlib in that time. Omer Celik, spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party, said Turkey was “no longer able to hold refugees” following the Syrian attack — reiterating a longstanding warning from Erdogan that his country can no longer cope with the arrival of people fleeing the conflict.

Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrians and under a 2016 deal with the European Union agreed to step up efforts to halt the flow of refugees to Europe. Since then Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to “open the gates” in several disputes with European states.

DHA news agency reported that some 300 Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Moroccans and Pakistanis were gathering at the border with Greece, while others massed at beaches facing Greek islands off Turkey’s western coast.

A Greek police official said dozens of people had gathered on the Turkish side of the land border in Greece’s northeastern Evros region shouting “open the borders.” Greek police and military border patrols were deployed on the Greek side to prevent anyone trying to cross without authorization.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the press on the record. Apart from providing some aerial surveillance over Syria, NATO plays no direct role in the conflict-torn country, but its members are deeply divided over Turkey’s actions there, and European allies are worried about any new wave of refugees arriving.

Turkey’s invasion of the north of the conflict-torn country — along with the criticism and threats of sanctions brandished by fellow allies at Ankara over the offensive — has come close to sparking a crisis at the military alliance.

France in particular has tried to launch debate on what Turkey’s allies should do if Ankara requests their assistance under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty — which requires all allies to come to the defense of another member under attack — but that discussion has not happened.

The allies are extremely reluctant to be drawn into a conflict of Turkey’s making, and particularly because Erdogan has used up a lot of good will by testing his fellow NATO members’ patience for quite a while.

The Syria offensive comes on top of tensions over Turkey’s purchase of Russian-made S400 missiles, which threaten NATO security and the F-35 stealth jet. Erdogan also purged thousands of Turkish military officers following the failed coup in Turkey in 2016 and some have sought, and been granted, asylum in Europe.

But despite high political-military tensions, Turkey is too important to eject from the 29-member alliance. Turkey is of great strategic importance to NATO. The large, mainly Muslim country straddles the Bosporus Strait, making it a vital bridge between Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. It’s also the only waterway in and out of the Black Sea, where Russia’s naval fleet is based.

NATO allies also rely on the Incirlik air base in southeastern Turkey as a staging point for access to the Middle East. The alliance runs aerial surveillance operations from Incirlik and the United States has nuclear weapons stationed there.

Kantouris reported from Thessaloniki, Greece.

March 12, 2020

Turkish schools will be closed for one week and universities for three weeks from March 16, and all sports events will be played without spectators until the end of April in response to the coronavirus outbreak, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said, Reuters reports.

The moves came after Turkey confirmed its first coronavirus infection on Wednesday, becoming the last major economy to report an outbreak after taking what the World Health Organization (WHO) described as vigilant measures.

At a news conference following a meeting of ministers at the presidential palace, Kalin also said that President Tayyip Erdogan’s foreign visits and programs will be postponed for some time due to the spread of the virus.

Kalin said primary, middle and secondary schools would initially be closed for one week and after that students will receive remote online teaching from March 23.

Until Wednesday’s announcement, Turkey had officially managed to avoid an outbreak, though all its neighbours except war-ravaged Syria had reported cases. Iran has an especially high number of cases and deaths.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200312-turkey-says-schools-universities-to-shut-over-coronavirus/.