News compilation on New Cold War.org, April 17, 2016
Five news articles are enclosed, describing different fronts of the ongoing refugee crisis in Syria and more broadly in the region.
1. Greece: “As a doctor, I feel outraged”
Everything has now changed on the Greek island of Lesbos which last year saw well over half a million refugees and migrants take their first steps on European soil. During the chaos of last summer, 15,000 people were stranded on the island after the authorities stopped running ferries to the mainland. Now everything is clean and tidy, ready for the upcoming tourist season. The camps set up by volunteers and NGOs to provide temporary shelter to families arriving on the island are completely empty.
The thousands of orange lifejackets that once lined the shores have been cleared away. The beaches are back to normal. But make no mistake: Lesbos is not quiet and tidy because people have stopped fleeing war. Instead, the men, women and children who risked everything on rubber boats are now detained behind fences, far from European eyes or on the other side of the coast, in a black hole.
Europe has decided to sweep migrants and asylum seekers under the carpet, like so much dust. Like a lazy housekeeper neglecting to do a proper job, the EU is attempting to hide the problem and put it out of sight. But these are people, not dust. These are men of all ages as well as women and children who took a gamble on an uncertain route in order to leave behind conflict, instability and poverty, as the risks of the journey outweigh the constant threat they lived under in their countries of origin.
As the ink dried on the shameful EU/Turkey deal, the “hotspot” of Moria was transformed into a detention centre. The organisation I work for, MSF, suspended all activities inside the centre after the conditions no longer existed in which to deliver impartial and independent humanitarian aid. It was a difficult and controversial choice.
I’m afraid that European citizens do not know what kind of outrageous deal their states have signed on their behalf.
A few days ago I visited the centre and what I saw was shocking to me: children kept in detention, deprived of their childhood. Today, Moria is dangerously overcrowded and many people are sleeping in the open, with nothing more than plastic sheeting or cardboard for protection from the elements.
I met a man desperately asking where he could find a sheltered place for his family to sleep. They had arrived the day before and spent one night already lying on the asphalt. I met several people who said they had received no food. I met a mother looking for nappies for her child and having her requests refused time after time. I met a father with a heart condition and diabetes, he showed me the scar of a surgical intervention on his chest and ulcers on his leg. One of his children, around two years old, was affected by paralysis. The entire family had spent the night outside.
No one was around to take care of them, nobody was trying to explain to them their rights or find them more decent accommodation. There were two people in wheelchairs, and an old woman slowly walking up the steep road inside the compound. There were young women and old men.
The most outrageous thing I saw however was many, many children kept in detention, left in miserable and indecent conditions, without proper food, education or even the chance to play, like children normally do. They were everywhere, running, sleeping, being pushed in their strollers. I could have never imagined that children, pregnant women, the elderly, most fleeing war, would have been fenced in by razor wire with the gates closed, on European soil. And I cannot find an acceptable explanation for why Europe is allowing this to happen.
Europe, that failed to implement the relocation scheme from the hotspots to European countries – showing that there was no real consensus on strategy from European member states, is now trying to hide the problem by casting away the refugees and subcontracting its responsibilities to Turkey. I’m afraid that European citizens do not know what kind of outrageous deal their states have signed on their behalf. If they knew, they would feel ashamed, sick, angry and betrayed, just like I do.
Since July 2015, MSF has provided medical consultations, mental health support, distributed relief items and conducted water and sanitation activities in Moria camp in Lesbos. MSF carried out 24,314 consultations in the island of Lesbos, of which 12,526 were in Moria. Teams were also providing transportation between the north and the registration centers of Moria. As of 13 March, MSF transported 12,952 new arrivals.
After the implementation of the EU/Turkey deal, which converted the Moria “hotspot” into a detention center, MSF decided to suspend all its activities in order to not participate in a system that has as primary objective to stem the flows of migrants and refugees without adequate consideration for humanitarian and protection needs. Currently, minimum humanitarian standards are not being met and security is a concern in Moria. In addition, the lack of information and clarity of the refugee/migrants status and procedures is adding frustration and not offering sufficient guarantees.
2. Greece: MSF ends activities inside the Lesbos ‘hotspot’
… “We took the extremely difficult decision to end our activities in Moria because continuing to work inside would make us complicit in a system we consider to be both unfair and inhumane,” said Marie Elisabeth Ingres, MSF Head of Mission in Greece.
“We will not allow our assistance to be instrumentalized for a mass expulsion operation and we refuse to be part of a system that has no regard for the humanitarian or protection needs of asylum seekers and migrants”…
3. Syria’s civil war: At least 30,000 flee ISIL attacks
At least 30,000 civilians have fled camps for displaced people in northern Syria after they were overrun by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), according to Human Rights Watch.
The U.S.-based rights group urged Turkey to open its border to the civilians fleeing fighting between ISIL, also known and ISIS, and opposition rebels.
Human Rights Watch also accused Turkish border guards of shooting at some of those displaced in Aleppo province as they approached the frontier. Turkey has denied the accusation.
“Civilians were trying to flee but some were met with gunfire or told they would not be able to enter,” Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa division, told Al Jazeera from Beirut in neighbouring Lebanon on Friday.
“Those people need to be allowed with safety. The whole world is talking about fighting ISIS, and yet people who are escaping them are not welcomed anywhere.”
Turkey allows Syrians who are in urgent need of medical care to enter the country.
A senior Turkish official denied the claims of border guards opening fire at refugees. The official told Al Jazeera that sometimes smugglers and armed men infiltrate groups of refugees, so they are firing at them, not refugees.
Aid workers told Human Rights Watch that three camps – Ikdah, Harameen and al-Sham – near the town of Azaz were completely empty after attacks by ISIL.
The head of Ikdah camp, on the Turkish border, said ISIL had taken over the camp early on Thursday, firing shots in the air and telling residents to leave.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it was “extremely worried” about the security of those displaced and access to healthcare.
The surge in violence came as representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime arrived in Geneva on Friday for the latest round of talks aimed at ending the war.
Syria’s UN ambassador Bashar Jaafari said he had “constructive and fruitful” discussions with Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura and said his delegation proposed “amendments” to the de Mistura’s blueprint for negotiations.
Jaafari’s brief comments to reporters suggested the government is still focusing on the basic principles towards a political solution in Syria, and not yet willing to consider what de Mistura calls the “mother of all issues” – political transition away from President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
Outlining its bargaining position, the opposition bloc High Negotiating Committee (HNC) said it would be willing to share equally in a transitional council with the government, but repeated its rejection of a role for Assad.
Salim al-Muslet, spokesperson for the HNC, told Al Jazeera there was “no place for Assad” in the new set-up.
“I believe we’re doing the right thing for our people,” Muslet said from Geneva. “The other side, the government, was forced to come here. They don’t care about our people. We don’t want to see any more fighting and killing. It’s important that we find a solution here in Geneva.
“But there’s no place for Assad or people around him who committed crimes in Syria. For us, it’s important to have people who care about their own people who deserve to see an end to this nightmare.”
On the ground in northern Syria, escalating fighting between Russian-backed regime forces and rebels around Aleppo city threatens a nearly seven-week ceasefire that had largely been holding.
ISIL and the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front are excluded from the truce. The five-year conflict in Syria has killed more than 270,000 people and displaced more than 11 million people.
4. Thousands of refugees flee for Turkish border after surprise ISIS attack
Martin Chulov and Ian Black, The Guardian, Thursday, April 14, 2016 (full text)
Syrian refugees flee after camps are overrun by ISIS but find themselves being shot at by Turkish border troops
A new wave of refugees has fled northern Syria for the Turkish border after Islamic State opened fire on communities that had sheltered them, killing at least three people and uprooting thousands more.
The killings came as the terror group pushed back Syrian opposition forces who had edged to within five miles of Dabiq, a highly symbolic village that the group’s leaders believe is the pre-ordained epicentre of a clash that will herald an apocalyptic showdown.
The ISIS advance appeared to catch the opposition off guard after 12 days of gains in the same area, which had seen it move closer to Dabiq than at any time in the past three years.
Units linked to the Free Syria Army, which led the offensive, said they never intended to seize the village, and were instead intending to push further across the north towards the town of Minbij, which lies roughly halfway between ISIS’s two largest hubs in the area, al-Bab and Raqqa.
“We knew they would fight for Dabiq like crazy, so why bother attacking them there,” said a leader of an opposition unit whose forces had earlier this week seized the adjoining village of al-Rai. After being beaten back by ISIS, he said: “It was never strategic for us. The east of their so-called caliphate is the target that matters.”
Up to 10 camps for internally displaced people were overrun by ISIS on Thursday. Camp residents told the Guardian that members of the group had first approached them with loud speakers, urging them to move towards areas they controlled.
Some tried instead to cross the Turkish border but were shot at by Turkish troops. The camps were then abandoned en masse, with up to 5,000 people heading towards the main border point in the area, near the town of Azaz.
That crossing has remained closed for most of the year, with Turkey resisting pressure to allow earlier exoduses fleeing a three-month Russian air bombardment of eastern Aleppo and the northern countryside, all of which are in opposition control.
“The border is supposed to be a refuge, but it is a barrier to push us back into hell, said Abdul Aziz Rizk, who had fled the Iqdah camp. “All we want to do is get out of here.”
Azaz is already home to up to 30,000 refugees from earlier in the year, and Turkish officials have insisted they will continue to refuse permission to cross to all but urgent medical cases and essential family visits.
The International Rescue Committee said it would provide aid to the new arrivals. “We are seeing thousands of people arrive at the border, and more than a thousand families supported by the IRC at a displacement camp in Aleppo province have fled to Azaz and nearby villages,” said Turkey country director Frank McManus. “The IRC will be responding by providing clean water to as many of the new arrivals as possible.”
The ISIS gains come as peace talks between the opposition and Syrian regime continue to grind on in Geneva. On the second day of the latest round of talks, the opposition said it was ready to share power in a transitional governing body with members of Assad’s government but not with the president himself or anyone else with blood on their hands.
The statement appeared designed to seize the initiative and emphasise a readiness for compromise after the Syrian government repeated that it would not go along with any transition – the central theme of the UN-brokered process.
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has made clear he want to see concrete steps towards transition, which he calls “the mother of all issues”.
De Mistura told reporters there was disappointment and frustration that efforts to improve humanitarian access to besieged areas had made so little progress since the start of the partial ceasefire six weeks ago. Douma, Daraya and Harasta – all near Damascus – remained inaccessible to aid workers.
Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that the only way to end the five-year war was for all parties to hold talks, adopt a new constitution and hold early elections.
5. Syria opposition urges attacks on gov’t forces amid peace talks
Telesur, April 17, 2016 (full text)
Syrian opposition chief negotiator Asaad Zoubi has urged rebels to strike back against the Syrian army, accusing it of using a cessation of hostilities to gain ground, a dangerous development that could bring an end to a month-long fragile truce as delegations prepare to hold talks in Geneva.
In an internet message to fighters on the ground, he also said he would halt negotiations in Geneva if government airstrikes continued and there was no progress on a key demand by the opposition for political transition in Syria without President Bashar Assad.
“We will not stay for long negotiating … In the event a missile targets them they have to retaliate with ten missiles and to exploit the truce as the regime has done,” said Zoubi, whose Saudi-backed opposition group has been accused by fighters of being divorced from developments on the ground.
The mainstream opposition includes both political and armed opposition to Assad. It includes rebel groups such as Jaysh al-Islam and a number of Free Syrian Army rebel factions deemed moderate by the West, some of which have received military support Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar who have been pushing for years for removing Assad from power.
The news comes as the Higher Judicial Committee for Elections in Syria announced that Assad’s National Union won the parliamentary elections, securing 200 out of 250 seats up for grabs. More than 5 million people were eligible to vote.
The turnout was at 57 percent according to Syrian state agency SANA. The elections took place in areas controlled by the Syrian government.
6. From Tunisia to Syria: Unfortunate failure of the Arab Spring
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