Athens urged to fast track asylum seekers amid island shelters crisis
A spike in the number of refugees reaching Greek island reception centres is likely to worsen the situation in already “dangerously overcrowded” facilities there, the UN refugee agency said on Tuesday.
In a call for asylum seekers to be moved urgently to the mainland by the central Government in Athens, UNHCR reported that sea arrivals in September rose to more than 10,000 – the highest monthly level since 2016.
The development follows a fire on Sunday in a housing container at Moria reception centre in Lesvos in which a woman died, reportedly sparking a violent protest.
“This spike has added to, has worsened what were already extremely difficult conditions on the Greek islands in the reception centres, which is why we are underscoring it is so important that urgent measures are taken now to get people who can be transferred off the islands to the mainland,” UNHCR spokesperson Liz Throssell told journalists in Geneva.
According to the UN agency, there are more than 4,400 unaccompanied children on the islands, out of at least 30,000 people seeking shelter in total.
Of that number, 500 youngsters have also been housed with unrelated adults in a large warehouse-style tent, UNHCR says, describing the situation on Lesvos, Samos and Kos as “critical”.
Highlighting the need for “urgent steps” from the Greek authorities, Ms. Throssell appealed to them to “fast-track” the transfer of more than 5,000 asylum-seekers who already have permission to continue their asylum procedure on the mainland.
On Lesvos, the official reception centre in Moria is at five times capacity, with 12,600 people, the agency said, while at a nearby informal settlement, more than 100 people share a single toilet.
On Samos, the Vathy facility houses 5,500 people – eight times over capacity – and on Kos, some 3,000 people live in a space meant for just 700.
Most of those seeking shelter are from Afghanistan and Syria, along with Iraq and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, UNHCR said.
Previous comments by the Greek Government about wanting to alleviate pressure on the islands and protect unaccompanied children were welcome, the agency said in a statement.
According to UNHCR, Greece has received 45,600 of the 77,400 people crossing the Mediterranean Sea this year – more than Spain, Italy, Malta and Cyprus combined.
Mediterranean Sea crossing deaths top 1,000 for sixth year in a row
Meanwhile, for the sixth year in a row, 1,000 people are believed to have drowned in Mediterranean Sea crossings, the UN migration agency, IOM, said on Tuesday.
Citing a recent spate of shipwrecks along the main migratory routes to Europe which have contributed to the toll, the agency highlighted an incident off the Moroccan coast at the weekend in which as many as 40 migrants are feared drowned.
Over the past six years, at least 15,000 men, women and children have lost their lives trying to reach Europe by boat – a situation that the UN agency likened to “carnage at sea”.
According to IOM data, the deadliest sea crossing is the central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Italy, with 659 migrant or refugee lives lost so far this year.
Nearly 270 others perished trying to reach Spain from North Africa, while 66 victims were recorded in the waters between Turkey, Syria and Greece.
FT: CIA chief made secret visit to China
CIA director Bill Burns travelled to China last month, a clandestine visit by one of President Joe Biden’s most trusted officials that signals how concerned the White House had become about deteriorating relations between Beijing and Washington. Bill Burns’ trip last month was most senior to Beijing by Biden administration official, writes “The Financial Times”.
Five people familiar with the situation said Burns, a former top diplomat who is frequently entrusted with delicate overseas missions, travelled to China for talks with officials.
The visit, the most senior to China by a Biden administration official, comes as Washington pushes for high-level engagements with Beijing to try to stabilise the relationship. The White House and CIA declined to comment. But one US official said Burns met Chinese intelligence officials during the trip.
“Last month, director Burns travelled to Beijing where he met with Chinese counterparts and emphasised the importance of maintaining open lines of communications in intelligence channels,” said the US official.
Burns’ mission took place in the same month US national security adviser Jake Sullivan met Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official, in Vienna. The White House did not announce that meeting until it had concluded. Burns’ trip was also the highest-level visit to China by a US official since deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman went to Tianjin in July 2021.
Biden has on several occasions asked the CIA director to conduct delicate missions, at home and overseas. Burns travelled to Moscow in November 2021 to warn Russian officials not to invade Ukraine.
Several people familiar with the situation said Biden last year sent Burns to Capitol Hill in an effort to persuade then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi not to travel to Taiwan. The White House has been trying to kick-start exchanges with China after a particularly turbulent period that started in February when a suspected Chinese spy balloon flew over North America.
The incident derailed an effort to set “a floor” under the relationship that Biden and Chinese president Xi Jinping had agreed was necessary when they met at the G20 in Bali in November. Biden last month said he expected an imminent “thaw” in relations without providing any detail.
Burns travelled to China before Biden made the comment at a G7 summit in Hiroshima. “As both an experienced diplomat and senior intelligence official, Burns is uniquely placed to engage in a dialogue that can potentially contribute to the Biden administration’s objective of stabilising ties and putting a floor under the relationship,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund.
Paul Haenle, a former top White House China official, said one advantage of sending Burns was that he was respected by Democrats and Republicans and also well known to Chinese officials. “They know him as a trusted interlocutor. They would welcome the opportunity to engage him quietly behind the scenes,” said Haenle, now director of the Carnegie China think-tank. “They will see a quiet discreet engagement with Burns as a perfect opportunity.”
While Burns is widely viewed as one of the most trusted figures in the US government, his trip continues a tradition of CIA directors being used for sensitive missions. “CIA directors have a long history of secret diplomacy. They are able to travel in complete secrecy and often have strong relationships with the host intelligence services built over time,” said Dennis Wilder, a former CIA China expert who also served as the top White House Asia official during the George W Bush administration.
The US has been trying to resurrect a trip to China that secretary of state Antony Blinken abruptly cancelled over the balloon incident, but Beijing has so far refused to give it a green light. Chinese defence minister Li Shangfu has also refused to meet US defence secretary Lloyd Austin in Singapore this weekend because Washington has refused to lift sanctions on him. The two men are attending the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference where they are slated to give speeches.
While the two ministers were not expected to have a formal meeting, the Pentagon said they “spoke briefly” at the opening dinner of the forum, which is held by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The two leaders shook hands, but did not have a substantive exchange,” the Pentagon said.
BRICS meet with ‘friends’ seeking closer ties amid push to expand bloc
Senior officials from over a dozen countries including Saudi Arabia and Iran were in talks on closer links with the BRICS bloc of major emerging economies as it met to deepen ties and position itself as a counterweight to the West, informs Reuters.
BRICS, which now consists of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, is considering expanding its membership, and a growing number of countries, mostly from the global South, have expressed interest in joining.
Once viewed as a loose association of disparate emerging economies, BRICS has in recent years taken more concrete shape, driven initially by China and, since the start of the Ukraine war in February 2022, with added impetus from Russia.
In remarks opening Friday’s discussions, host South Africa’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor spoke of the bloc as a champion of the developing world, which she said was abandoned by wealthy states and global institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The world has faltered in cooperation. Developed countries have never met their commitments to the developing world and are trying to shift all responsibility to the global South,” Pandor said.
Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Cuba, Democratic Republic of Congo, Comoros, Gabon, and Kazakhstan all sent representatives to Cape Town for so-called “Friends of BRICS” talks, an official programme showed.
Egypt, Argentina, Bangladesh, Guinea-Bissau and Indonesia were participating virtually.
BRICS heavyweight China said last year it wanted the bloc to launch a process to admit new members. And other members have pointed to countries they would like to see join the club.
“BRICS is a history of success,” Brazilian Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira said. “The group is also a brand and an asset, so we have to take care of it.”
Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said talks had included deliberations on the guiding principles, standards, criteria and procedures of what an expanded BRICS bloc would look like.
South Africa’s Pandor said the foreign ministers were aiming to complete work on a framework for admitting new members before BRICS leaders meet at a summit in Johannesburg in August.
U.S. seeks to add India in NATO plus
There was a message received a few days ago: “In a significant development ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States, a powerful Congressional ‘Committee has recommended strengthening NATO Plus by including India.
NATO Plus, currently NATO Plus 5, is a security arrangement that brings together NATO and five aligned nations — Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Israel and South Korea – to boost global defence cooperation. Bringing India on board would facilitate ‘seamless intelligence sharing between these countries and India would access the latest military technology without much of a time lag.
The House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), led by Chairman Mike Gallagher and Ranking Member Raja Krishnamoorthi, overwhelmingly adopted a policy proposal to enhance Taiwan’s deterrence, including through strengthening NATO Plus to include India.
“Winning the strategic competition with the Chinese Communist Party and ensuring the security of Taiwan demands the United States strengthen ties to our allies and security partners, including India. Including India in NATO Plus security arrangements ‘would build upon the US and India’s close partnership to strengthen global security and deter the aggression of the CCP across the Indo-Pacific region,” the Select Committee recommended.”
The news is commented by M.K. Bhadrakumar, Indian Ambassador and prominent international observer:
“Indian lobbyists daydreaming about a military alliance with the United States are excited over the breaking news that the US House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the US has adopted a policy proposal to enhance the deterrence of Taiwan, which inter alia included strengthening of NATO Plus by the inclusion of India. Indeed, NATO Plus is a privileged group under the alliance umbrella comprising AUKUS members, plus Japan.
The breaking news on the Hill may have something to do with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming State Visit to the US — call it kite-flying or pressure tactic (or both). More likely, it undercuts India’s newfound enthusiasm for leading the Global South at world forums, which is posing headaches for Washington.
What has India got to do with ‘deterrence of Taiwan’, an entity we don’t even recognise?
Where’s the beef in NATO Plus which has neither an Article 5 nor can be an asset for Modi’s vision? Perhaps, the United Kingdom’s experience as the US’ closest ally provides some clues. Considering the word limit, let me quote just a few lines from a UK House of Commons Committee report dated March with recommendations to the Rishi Sunak government:
“The UK-US relationship in defence, security and intelligence is strong and enduring. Our Armed Forces have fought alongside in many campaigns post-1945 and continue to work together on development of both equipment and doctrine. Both countries benefit from the relationship: the UK benefits from US resources and economies of scale; the US from British niche capabilities, the UK’s global reach and its willingness to defend its values. However, defence industrial co-operation is often limited as a result of US defence export controls. Any failure to consult Allies before taking action can also have negative consequences, as was demonstrated by the Afghanistan withdrawal. Nevertheless, the joint approach in response to Russian actions in February 2022 demonstrates the value of the UK-US relationship.”
The analogy is patently insufficient since the UK lives and survives as world power thanks to the US, which is not the case with India.
Nonetheless, realism is needed. There is nothing like a free lunch in the US way of life and ‘interoperability’ within any NATO format will inevitably translate as living off US military hardware and dittoing US global strategy. Europe has learnt the bitter truth that nothing grows under a banyan tree. European defence remains a chimera, occasional captivating speeches by Emmanuel Macron notwithstanding.
Conceivably, the House Select Committee is a doormat for the US arms manufacturers. The paradox is, this move comes only a fortnight after the Indian Navy successfully test-fired the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile from its frontline stealth guided-missile destroyer INS Mormugao — that is, within 18 weeks of BrahMos air version being successfully test fired from the supersonic fighter aircraft Sukhoi 30 MK-I and within 15 weeks of India sealing a $375 million deal with the Philippines for supplying three batteries of BrahMos missile in what is by far the single most prestigious export order India’s defence industry ever secured.
NATO Plus will mean sudden death for India-Russia defence cooperation, notes M.K. Bhadrakumar.
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