LONDON: For two years, the global refugee crisis has been overshadowed by the battle against COVID-19. But in 2021 there was a worrying uptick in the number of people fleeing poverty and conflict, and there is every indication that the situation will get even worse in 2022.
Anyone who followed media coverage in November of the unseemly squabbling between Britain and the EU after the tragic deaths of 27 migrants in the English Channel could be forgiven for thinking the economic and social burden of the global refugee crisis in 2021 fell mainly on northern Europe.
Nothing could be further from the truth. As the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, frequently points out, 85 percent of the world’s 20 million or more refugees are hosted either in neighboring countries or elsewhere in developing regions.
Turkey, for example, has more refugees within its borders than any other country — more than 3.5 million (or 43 for every 1,000 of its own citizens). Jordan has almost 3 million, while tiny Lebanon hosts 1.5 million — more than 13 refugees for every 100 Lebanese.
Germany, home to a million former refugees, has been the most generous of the European states. In the UK, which receives far fewer applications than either Germany or France, but where politicians whip up animosity towards migrants by suggesting, falsely, that the country is being overrun, there is only one tenth of that number.
Iranians made up the largest proportion of those claiming asylum in the UK in the year ending September 2021.
By the end of November, 23,500 migrants had successfully crossed the Channel over the course of 2021 — double the number that did so in 2020 — while France had prevented 18,000 more from attempting the crossing.
But it is clear that the treacherous Mediterranean Sea remains the focus of the great exodus of people from Africa and the Middle East in search of a better life. Figures from UNHCR show that between January and October 2021, a total of 81,647 people risked it all in a bid to set foot in Spain, Italy, Malta, Greece or Cyprus.
It goes without saying that the deaths of the 27 people, including three children, when their flimsy rubber craft foundered off the coast of France on Nov. 25, is a tragedy that has touched the hearts of many.
But what the coverage has largely overlooked is that during the year up to that date no fewer than 2,543 people had already drowned in the Mediterranean or the eastern Atlantic while seeking refuge in Europe.
The majority, some 1,422 individuals, perished on the infamous central Mediterranean route, bound for Italy or Malta. Overall, the Missing Migrants Project reports, deaths in the Mediterranean “drastically increased in the first nine months of 2021, compared to the same period in 2020,” a phenomenon it attributed in part to the relaxation of mobility restrictions imposed in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another 959 people lost their lives in 2021 attempting the increasingly popular, but deceptively hazardous, crossing from West Africa to the Spanish Canary Islands, 100 kilometers offshore at their closest point to Morocco or the Western Sahara.
One of the most recent lives lost on this route was that of a baby, found dead in one of five inflatable dinghies, carrying nearly 300 people from sub-Saharan Africa, that were intercepted off the islands at the beginning of December.
Yet despite such tragedies, compassion fatigue appears to have set in.
Such catastrophes would once have made front-page news around the world, as in 2015 when the body of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi washed ashore near Bodrum in Turkey.
For a while, the uproar created by the harrowing photographs of the child’s body face-down in the surf a few hundred meters from a popular tourist spot, seemed like it might tip attitudes in favor of the world’s refugees.
Since then, however, the drownings have continued, and a world now preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic has largely lost interest.
In the five years that followed Kurdi’s death in 2015, no fewer than 17,000 people lost their lives attempting the sea crossing to Europe. Exactly how many of them were children is unclear. But given that one in five migrants are children, it is plausible that Kurdi has been followed to his untimely death by approximately 3,400 of his young peers.
In the flood of statistics that has been generated since the refugee crisis exploded in 2015, it is easy to lose sight of the reality of the myriad human tragedies that lie behind the numbers — the countless families and communities devastated by the loss of mothers, fathers and children. And it seems there is no end in sight.
With a total of 109,726 refugee arrivals in Europe as of the end of November, 2021 has not been a particularly bad year — certainly when compared to 2015 when over a million people sought sanctuary on the northern shores of the Mediterranean.
Indeed, the numbers have declined year on year since 2015 — dramatically so in 2016, to 380,300, and again in 2017, when “only” 178,700 came to Europe. Over the next three years the numbers dropped steadily, from 141,400 in 2018 to 95,700 in 2020.
But in 2021, for the first time in five years, the downward trend began to reverse. In the 11 months to November, some 14,000 people had already come to Europe — more than in the whole of 2020.
Experts are divided on the cause of the recent flurry. Certainly, the movements of people serve as a barometer of global affairs. That the largest proportion of refugees in 2021 — some 25 percent of the total — came from Tunisia reflects that country’s ongoing socio-economic problems.
But second to Tunisia, and accounting for more than 11 percent of all refugees in 2021, was Bangladesh, which in the past year made a surprise appearance in a top 10 of source nations, a list previously dominated by countries in Africa and the Middle East.
Between January and the end of October this year, 6,455 refugees whose journey began in Bangladesh arrived in Europe. An unknown number died trying. In May 2021, 50 would-be migrants drowned when their boat sank off Tunisia. Rescuers were surprised to find that all 33 of the survivors, found clinging to an oil platform, were from Bangladesh.
It is, however, unclear whether they were in fact Bangladeshis. One ominous explanation for the sudden appearance of Bangladesh in the statistics may be the plight of the Rohingya, the persecuted Muslim minority in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar’s Rakhine State, about a million of whom have been driven to seek sanctuary across the border in Bangladesh.
Life in the overcrowded, under-resourced Bangladeshi refugee camps is becoming intolerable, and there are fears for the wellbeing of large numbers of Rohingya who have recently been resettled on a remote island about 50 kilometers offshore in the Bay of Bengal.
As UNHCR reported in August, between January 2020 and June 2021, some 3,046 Rohingya, two thirds of whom were women and children, attempted to cross the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal to seek refuge in Indonesia or Malaysia, departing either from Rakhine State or from Bangladesh. More than 200 perished in the attempt.
It remains to be seen exactly how the composition of the world’s refugee population will change in 2022. Events in Eritrea and Ethiopia will doubtless contribute to the mix in the coming year, while there is every indication that countries such as Egypt, Iran and Syria, whose citizens together accounted for more than 20 percent of Mediterranean crossings in 2021, will continue to contribute more than their fair share to the global refugee crisis.
“Despite the pandemic, wars and conflict continue to rage across the world, displacing millions and barring many from returning home,” said Gillian Triggs, UNHCR’s chief of international protection, at the launch of the Projected Global Resettlement Needs 2022 report.
“With rising humanitarian needs far outpacing solutions, we appeal to countries to make more resettlement places available for the refugees whose lives are in danger or who are otherwise at risk,” Triggs continued.
UNHCR is in the business of resettlement, persuading countries to take a share of the growing army of refugees. It is a task seemingly as hopeless as it is noble.
Last year, of the 20.7 million known refugees in the world, just 35,000 were resettled. The UN refugee agency predicts that an additional 1.47 million refugees will be in need of resettlement in 2022.
HONG KONG: Hong Kong health authorities said on Tuesday the city would tighten quarantine rules for air cargo crew to tackle the growing threat of the omicron coronavirus variant.
The global financial hub has identified several dozen omicron infections via regular testing during quarantine but neither omicron, nor other variants, have spread into the community in recent months.
But some of the new infections with omicron were detected among air crew, who had only been required to quarantine at home, unlike most other people returning to the city, who have to quarantine in hotels.
The new measures require that returning air cargo crew spend three days in hotel quarantine before a period of home isolation. Most recent infections of air crew staff have been discovered in the first three days.
“We expect most cases in the future to be of the new omicron variant,” said Edwin Tsui, controller of the Center for Health Protection. “We have a very high community outbreak risk. A single spark can start a fifth wave.”
Vaccination rates in Hong Kong are lagging those in many similar cities with less than 70 percent of the eligible population having received two doses of either China’s Sinovac or Germany’s BioNTech vaccines.
This month, authorities demanded that all government workplaces ensure that all eligible staff are vaccinated by mid-February.
The South China Morning Post newspaper reported on Tuesday, citing unidentified sources, that the measure may soon be extended to schools.
Hong Kong has followed Beijing’s lead and implemented some of the world’s strictest travel restrictions, hoping China, its main source of economic growth, would allow some cross-border movement.
Most non-residents are banned from traveling to the city and authorities demand mandatory hotel quarantine of up to 21 days for arrivals from most countries at the expense of the travelers.
DENVER: A lone gunman shot four people to death and wounded three, including a police officer, on Monday in a Denver-area shooting spree that unfolded at several locations and ended with police killing the suspect, authorities said.
Investigators have yet to determine a motive for the rampage, which began around 5 p.m. when the gunman shot and killed two women and wounded a man near downtown Denver, Police Chief Paul Pazen said a news briefing.
The suspect then fled in a car and fatally shot a man in east Denver’s Cheesman Park neighborhood, before opening fire again in a west Denver community where no one was hit, Pazen said. According to Pazen, the suspect twice exchanged gunfire from his vehicle with Denver officers pursuing him, disabling a police cruiser.
From there, the gunman drove into the neighboring city of Lakewood, where he shot and killed a fourth person inside an unspecified business, according to Lakewood Police spokesman John Romero.
The gunman fled from Lakewood police when they attempted to pull him over and engaged in a running gunbattle with officers before fleeing on foot and entering a hotel, where he shot and wounded a clerk, Romero said.
He then shot at police officers again, wounding one of them, before police shot him dead, Romero told reporters. Authorities did not publicly identify the suspect, and said circumstances leading to the shooting remained under investigation.
The conditions of the wounded officer and civilians were not immediately known, Romero said.
Anne Wilson, a shopper who was inside a cellular phone store in Lakewood when gunfire erupted nearby, told a Denver-based NBC-affiliate TV station she heard “seven or eight gunshots, and then like another set of maybe five more.”
Wilson said she and other customers were quickly ushered by store employees into a back room behind security gates until the danger had passed. “It is scary, scary times we live in,” she said.
NEW YORK: US health officials on Monday cut isolation restrictions for asymptomatic Americans who catch the coronavirus from 10 to five days, and similarly shortened the time that close contacts need to quarantine.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials said the guidance is in keeping with growing evidence that people with the coronavirus are most infectious in the two days before and three days after symptoms develop.
The decision also was driven by a recent surge in COVID-19 cases, propelled by the omicron variant.
Early research suggests omicron may cause milder illnesses than earlier versions of the coronavirus. But the sheer number of people becoming infected – and therefore having to isolate or quarantine – threatens to crush the ability of hospitals, airlines and other businesses to stay open, experts say.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the country is about to see a lot of omicron cases.
“Not all of those cases are going to be severe. In fact many are going to be asymptomatic,” she told The Associated Press on Monday. “We want to make sure there is a mechanism by which we can safely continue to keep society functioning while following the science.”
Last week, the agency loosened rules that previously called on health care workers to stay out of work for 10 days if they test positive. The new recommendations said workers could go back to work after seven days if they test negative and don’t have symptoms. And the agency said isolation time could be cut to five days, or even fewer, if there are severe staffing shortages.
Now, the CDC is changing the isolation and quarantine guidance for the general public to be even less stringent.
The change is aimed at people who are not experiencing symptoms. People with symptoms during isolation, or who develop symptoms during quarantine, are encouraged to stay home.
The CDC’s isolation and quarantine guidance has confused the public, and the new recommendations are “happening at a time when more people are testing positive for the first time and looking for guidance,” said Lindsay Wiley, an American University public health law expert.
Nevertheless, the guidance continues to be complex.
The isolation rules are for people who are infected. They are the same for people who are unvaccinated, partly vaccinated, fully vaccinated or boosted.
– The clock starts the day you test positive.
– An infected person should go into isolation for five days, instead of the previously recommended 10.
– At the end of five days, if you have no symptoms, you can return to normal activities but must wear a mask everywhere – even at home around others – for at least five more days.
– If you still have symptoms after isolating for five days, stay home until you feel better and then start your five days of wearing a mask at all times.
The quarantine rules are for people who were in close contact with an infected person but not infected themselves.
For quarantine, the clock starts the day someone is alerted they may have been exposed to the virus.
Previously, the CDC said people who were not fully vaccinated and who came in close contact with an infected person should stay home for at least 10 days.
Now the agency is saying only people who got booster shots can skip quarantine if they wear masks in all settings for at least 10 days.
That’s a change. Previously, people who were fully vaccinated – which the CDC has defined as having two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine – could be exempt from quarantine.
Now, people who got their initial shots but not boosters are in the same situation as those who are partly vaccinated or are not vaccinated at all: They can stop quarantine after five days if they wear masks in all settings for five days afterward.
Suspending both isolation and quarantine after five days is not without risk.
A lot of people get tested when they first feel symptoms, but many Americans get tested for others reasons, like to see if they can visit family or for work. That means a positive test result may not reveal exactly when a person was infected or give a clear picture of when they are most contagious, experts say.
When people get infected, the risk of spread drops substantially after five days, but it does not disappear for everyone, said Dr. Aaron Glatt, a New York physician who is a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
“If you decrease it to five days, you’re still going to have a small but significant number of people who are contagious,” he said.
That’s why wearing masks is a critical part of the CDC guidance, Walensky said.
The new CDC guidance is not a mandate; it’s a recommendation to employers and state and local officials. Last week, New York state said it would expand on the CDC’s guidance for health care workers to include employees who have other critical jobs that are facing a severe staffing shortage.
It’s possible other states will seek to shorten their isolation and quarantine policies, and CDC is trying to get out ahead of the shift. “It would be helpful to have uniform CDC guidance” that others could draw from, rather than a mishmash of policies, Walensky said.
Given the timing with surging case counts, the update “is going to be perceived as coming in response to pressure from business interests,” Wiley said. But some experts have been calling for the change for months, because shorter isolation and quarantine periods appeared to be sufficient to slow the spread, she said.
The move by CDC follows a decision last week by UK officials to reduce the self-isolation period for vaccinated people who test positive for COVID-19.
SYDNEY: Australia recorded another record surge in COVID-19 infections on Tuesday as an outbreak of the highly infectious omicron variant disrupted reopening of the economy, while state leaders argued over domestic border controls.
The country reported 10,269 new cases of the coronavirus in the previous day, according to a Reuters calculation of state figures, once again surpassing its peak of a day earlier, as it grapples with a planned reopening while the new variant rages.
The state of South Australia, which has been experiencing a flare-up, was yet to report its latest numbers.
There were five COVID-19 deaths reported, taking the total fatalities to just over 2,200 since the start of the pandemic. Authorities did not specify whether any of the new deaths were related to the omicron variant.
The omicron variant, which medical experts say is more transmissible but less virulent than previous strains, began to spread in Australia just as the country got underway with plans to reopen for good after nearly two years of stop-start lockdowns.
With the resumption of rising case numbers – despite a vaccination rate of more than 90 percent for Australians aged over 16 – the country’s state leaders have brought back some containment measures like mandatory mask-wearing and QR code check-ins at public venues.
The rising case numbers have also led to mandatory self-isolation for thousands of workers in the hospitality, entertainment and airline sectors – the sectors worst hit by lockdowns – resulting in canceled theater shows, closed restaurants and postponed flights.
The outbreak has also fueled a resumption of fractious domestic politics which defined much of the pandemic as some states resist calls to remove internal border controls.
New South Wales (NSW), home to Sydney and a third of Australia’s 25 million population, called on neighboring Queensland to shift from mandatory clinical testing at the point of origin to on-the-spot rapid antigen testing for people traveling there.
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said a quarter of clinical tests in his state were “tourism tests” for asymptomatic people, bringing huge pressure of the health system, long testing queues and wait times of several days for results.
In one case, a Sydney testing clinic sent incorrect negative test results to 400 COVID-19-positive people, then prematurely sent 950 people negative results when 486 were actually positive. The bungle was the result of “human error, and when people are under pressure, human errors are more frequent,” said Hazzard.
He called on Queensland to scrap mandatory clinical tests immediately, rather than after Jan. 1 as planned, but the Queensland authorities said the policy was working.
Queensland Health Minister Yvette D’Ath instead said the state would remove another testing rule for interstate arrivals: people arriving in the state would no longer have to take a virus test five days after arriving.
Australia’s international border remains effectively closed, but Australian nationals may return without mandatory hotel quarantine and the country has said it would allow certain skilled workers and foreign students in.
BALI: In Bali’s highland village of Trunyan, corpses are laid out at the foot of a fragrant banyan tree and left to decompose in the open air. A villager who died almost two months ago is the latest member of the lakeside cemetery, where the centuries-old funeral tradition has remained alive despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“You can still see the face,” village resident and local guide Ketut Mawon told Arab News on a recent visit. He was pointing to a corpse that was dressed in traditional Balinese clothing and with a face that appeared to be intact.
To reach Trunyan, one must take a 15-minute boat ride from the main road to reach the other side of Batur crater lake.
In this northeastern side of Bali live the Bali Aga people, known for their unique and sacred funeral rite where the bodies of the deceased are left above ground under a banyan tree, which they believe absorbs the pungent smell of decaying bodies.
Even as the global COVID-19 pandemic has forced drastic changes to funeral rituals around the world, a solemn send-off as they’ve always known remains an option for Trunyan villagers.
The public health crisis meant corpses had to be wrapped in layers of plastic, before being placed inside a body bag, and then a casket. The transformed ritual often denied family members a chance to care for the bodies of their loved ones one last time, leaving instead a quick burial performed by undertakers clothed in full protective gear designed to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
However, the people of Trunyan still ride their canoe to reach the nearby cemetery, which is only accessible by boat and only permits men to take part in the ceremony.
“The pandemic has not changed any of the rituals, but we do wear face masks and maintain our social distancing from one another,” Mawon said.
In the secluded cemetery, each corpse is partially shielded by a small woven bamboo cage. Despite the visibly decaying bodies and bones, there was no putrid smell. Coins, bank notes, snack packaging and other daily necessities, as well as photos of the deceased, are left scattered around the site, placed there by family members for the dead to take to the afterlife.
While their skeletons are scattered on the ground, the skulls are stacked on top of a nearby stone altar. When there is no room left, the oldest of the corpses are removed to a nearby ossuary to allow space for new corpses.
“This cemetery is assigned only for 11 corpses. If there are less than that, it is fine, but it cannot be more than that. It is what our ancestors have told us,” Mawon said.
Village residents continue to maintain the centuries-old tradition, even as funeral rituals have drastically changed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To be granted a final resting place at the special cemetery, the deceased must fulfill certain conditions: They must either be village priests, or have died of a natural cause and be married. Of the 11 spots, four are assigned for the village priests, with the bamboo shacks marked by a white cloth cover.
A separate cemetery is located not too far away, and is especially assigned for babies and those who are unmarried. There is also another space for those who died of unnatural causes, or whose bodies are scarred.
“In the second cemetery, the corpses are left also in the open but there is no fragrant tree there so they smell, but in the third one, we bury them,” Mawon explained.
In October, two villagers died under a landslide following a 4.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Bali. They were among those buried in the third cemetery, according to Mawon.
Every five years, the villagers perform the last part of Balinese funeral ritual known as Ngaben, a final send-off for the souls on to the next life. However, the version carried out by Trunyan residents is a little different.
“Unlike the rest of the Balinese, we don’t cremate the effigies in our Ngaben ceremony, but we float them along with their belongings that are left scattered here to the lake,” Mawon said.
The Bali Aga people are Bali’s indigenous people, whose ancestors are believed to predate the 16th-century Majapahit empire.
Their unique funeral rites were quite the tourist attraction, especially among foreign visitors. Up to 20 boats each carrying eight passengers made their way to the cemetery every day, before the pandemic.
In 2019, more than 6 million international travelers visited Bali.
“After the pandemic hit, we only had local visitors,” Mawon said.
Though Bali’s international airport has been officially open for foreign visitors since mid-October, the island has yet to welcome an international direct flight. The relatively few foreigners visiting Bali have instead arrived in Jakarta with a special business visa, before continuing the trip on a domestic flight to the province.
The popular holiday destination has instead seen a surge of domestic tourists holidaying for Christmas and New Year, but calls for a change in the requirements for international arrivals are mounting still.
Bali Deputy Governor Tjokorda Oka Artha Ardhana Sukawati is among those urging the central government in Jakarta to reevaluate current requirements.
“We don’t mean to differentiate, but the market segment is different. Domestic tourists are concentrated in southern Bali,” Sukawati said during a panel discussion on Dec. 17, “while foreign tourists, their stay is more distributed (in other parts of Bali).”
‘This too shall pass away’ this famous Persian adage seems to be defeating us again and again in the case of COVID-19. Despite every effort