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IRC warns 650,000 civilians may be forced to flee if escalation in north-west Syria continues

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New York, NY, January 16, 2020 — The humanitarian situation in northwest Syria is reaching catastrophic levels, and with the attacks yesterday on a marketplace and an industrial zone that reportedly killed at least 15 people, and warnings to civilians in central Idlib and Western Aleppo to evacuate the area, 650,000 people could be impacted and at risk of displacement.

International Rescue Committee Middle East Policy Director, Misty Buswell, said, “The situation in northwest Syria was already at breaking point, and the events of the last few days mark a dangerous and deadly turning point in the conflict. An additional 650,000 people, the majority of them women and children, could be forced to flee their homes if the violence continues. This is on top of nearly 350,000 in Idlib who have been displaced since December, bringing the total number who have fled in the last 9 months to nearly three-quarters of a million.

Many of the displaced people are living in tents in the open in freezing winter conditions and urgently need shelter and food, with the ongoing risk of flooding further compounding the misery. Ahmad, a displaced person in Idlib, told the IRC that he lost his home to an airstrike and he and his family have been forced to flee three times in the past six months. The conflict has taken a psychological toll on his children, the youngest of whom was only 4 meters from the house when it was hit. An IRC assessment in Idlib last year found that half of parents reported their children showing signs of severe emotional distress, and the current violence will add to the psychological terror they are experiencing.

Hospitals and health facilities in Idlib were already full, and medical supplies stretched, even before this wave of violence. Doctors have told the IRC that they are seeing a worrying increase in malnutrition cases, particularly among babies, due to displacement, poor food security and increased poverty as a result of the conflict. Increasing insecurity has forced the suspension of three IRC supported health facilities in central Idlib since December, further limiting the lifesaving response, and an IRC partner in Western Aleppo had to stop its protection programs for women and girls yesterday, leaving the most vulnerable without essential protection services. Since the end of April, 1,460 civilians, including 417 children, have been killed as a result of the military escalation, according to the UN.

Yet again, it is innocent women and children who are bearing the brunt of the conflict, and who will suffer the most if this violence escalates further. All parties to the conflict need to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law and spare civilians from the worst effects of the fighting. It is critical for the ceasefire that was agreed in northwest Syria to be implemented fully and without further delay. And it is time, once and for all, for the parties to the conflict to come back to the negotiating table and find a peaceful resolution. The very lives of 3 million civilians in northwest Syria depend on it.”

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Delta Airlines: Unvaccinated Workers Must Pay Extra for Health Care

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Delta Airlines warned its unvaccinated employees they will have to pay an additional $200 per month for their company-sponsored health care plan if they don’t get vaccinated for COVID-19.

Ed Bastian, chief executive officer of the U.S. air carrier, notified workers of the surcharge in a memo Wednesday and said it would take effect November 1.

Bastian said the surcharge was necessary because the average hospital stay to treat COVID-19 costs the airline $50,000, exposing the company to more financial risk.

Bastian said 75% of the company’s workers have been vaccinated, an increase from 72% in mid-July. He said all Delta workers who have been hospitalized for COVID-19 in recent weeks were not fully vaccinated.

Delta also said Wednesday it would stop providing paid leave starting September 30 to workers who become infected. The airline said it will also require unvaccinated workers to undergo weekly testing beginning September 12 and to wear masks in all indoor settings.

U.S. President Joe Biden has called on companies and local governments to get their employees vaccinated. A number of companies have complied, including United Airlines, which requires employees to get vaccinated by September 27 or face termination.

American and Southwest airlines are among the other large major U.S. airlines that say they are urging workers to get vaccinated but have not required it.

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Pentagon: 19,000 More Evacuated from Afghanistan

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With less than a week remaining before it pulls its last troops out of Afghanistan, the United States in the last 24 hours evacuated another 19,000 Americans and Afghans who want to leave their homeland, the Defense Department said Wednesday.

Even so, officials said another 10,000 people have crammed into the international airport in Kabul hoping to escape the country controlled by Taliban insurgents.

A total of 90 U.S. military and international flights flew from Kabul in the last day, one every 39 minutes during some periods. In all, about 88,000 people have been evacuated since the operation began a few weeks ago.

The scene at Hamid Karzai International Airport remains tense and chaotic, but Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said it “will not be an American responsibility” to control airport security there after August 31, the date U.S. President Joe Biden set for ending U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.

Officials said they know there “are a lot of desperate people who want to leave.”

The Pentagon said that all Afghans who supported U.S. operations over the last two decades and secured visas to enter the U.S. and have reached the airport will be evacuated. That could leave many others behind, unable to reach the airport past Taliban checkpoints.

The U.S. military said it plans to continue its evacuation effort from the airport until the Tuesday deadline if needed, but toward the end will prioritize the removal of U.S. troops and military equipment. Kirby said there are currently 5,400 U.S. troops at the Kabul airport.

Pentagon officials urged U.S. lawmakers to not travel to Kabul to witness the evacuation after Representatives Seth Moulton, a Democrat, and Peter Meijer, a Republican — both of whom served military tours of duty in the Mideast — made an unannounced trip to the Afghan capital this week to assess the situation.

“We conducted this visit in secret, speaking about it only after our departure, to minimize the risk and disruption to the people on the ground, and because we were there to gather information, not to grandstand,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement.

The lawmakers released their statement after flying out of Kabul on a chartered plane. They said that in their view, after seeing the situation firsthand and speaking to commanders on the ground, “we won’t get everyone out” before Biden’s Tuesday deadline.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement Tuesday saying travel to the region by members of the House of Representatives would divert resources from the evacuation operation.

“Given the urgency of this situation, the desire of some (lawmakers) to travel to Afghanistan and the surrounding areas is understandable and reflective of the high priority that we place on the lives of those on the ground,” Pelosi said.

“However, I write to reiterate that the Departments of Defense and State have requested that (lawmakers) not travel to Afghanistan and the region during this time of danger. Ensuring the safe and timely evacuation of individuals at risk requires the full focus and attention of the U.S. military and diplomatic teams on the ground in Afghanistan.”

The Associated Press cited a senior U.S. official saying the Biden administration viewed the visit by Moulton and Meijer as unhelpful, and other officials said it was seen as a distraction to the troops who have been tasked with securing the airport to facilitate evacuation flights.

South Korea announced Wednesday it planned to evacuate around 380 people who supported the country’s official activities in Afghanistan.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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Think Tank: UAE remains key Middle East money laundering hub

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A report by Tactics Institiute For Security and Counter Terrorism criticised the continued money laundering activities in United Arab Emirates and called for strict rules to be implemented to end the phenomenon. The report claimed that UAE has failed in dealing with the crisis and which was exploited by Terrorist organisations and mafia groups who launder their money in real estate investment and other forms of business.

 

Previously, the world’s main anti-money laundering (AML) watchdog, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), has said the United Arab Emirates needs to make “fundamental and major improvements” to ensure its systems are more effective.

 

In its latest assessment of the country, published today, the Paris-based organisation says the UAE has made “significant improvements” to its AML and countering the financing of terrorism (CFT) system in recent years and that “in many respects, the elements of an effective AML/CFT system are in place”.

 

“Fundamental and major improvements are needed across the UAE in order to demonstrate that the system cannot be used for [money laundering / terrorist financing] and the financing of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” the report says.

 

The report points out that the fragmented structure of the UAE’s economy – the seven emirates that make up the country between them operate two financial free zones, 29 commercial free zones and 39 company registries – leaves it vulnerable to regulatory arbitrage and it adds that the risk of criminals being able to conceal beneficial ownership remains high.

 

 

 

Tactics institute report added that, It is not just the property market which lies exposed. The UAE has now become one of the world’s major hubs of the trade in gold and diamonds. The majority of these refineries are based in Dubai. Indeed, by 2008 the UAE was fourth in the world (behind Switzerland, China and India) in the amount of gold, by weight, that it imported17. But whereas most gold importers import gold from just a few nations, the UAE sources its supply from a diverse range. Some of these, such as the Republic of Congo, can be deeply problematic, with armed groups profiting from the sale. As we will see in Chapter 4, organised crime groups have also exploited this route, washing their ill-gotten gains through Dubai’s gold markets.

 

Free Trade Areas are yet another aspect of the UAE’s economic landscape which are open to abuse. There are approximately 45 such areas and they are largely exempt from all regulation. About thirty of these are based in Dubai and account for 41% of the city state’s trade, a contribution of 31.9% of its GDP. Once again Dubai is out front of the UEA as a whole, Free Trade areas accounting for 19.5% of total exports. The reliance of the UAE, and in particular Dubai, on FTA’s, and their relative lack of oversight, increases the risk of Trade Based Money Laundering – TBML, whereby illicit flows of money are disguised are disguised by trade transactions18.

Finally, the Hawala finance system is of concern. Hawala, or havaleh in Persian, hundi in Hindi and xawala or xawilaad in Somali, is a way of transferring money overseas which avoids traditional banking or financial networks. Consequently, it is popular among migrant workers and other who don’t have a bank account or cannot access the regular financial system.

 

The report added, “To truly shed itself of its reputation as a global centre of money laundering, the UAE needs to urgently enact similar legislation. Tara Hanlon should never have been allowed to enter Dubai with £3.5 million without explaining, and proving, a legitimate source for the money. Similarly, all the individuals mentioned in this report with luxury properties who are either politically exposed people, or who have been accused of illicit activities, should be asked to prove the origin of their assets. If they can, they can keep them. If they can’t, they should be confiscated.

To be sure, the UEA authorities will need to be brave. Many of those accused of corruption in Afghanistan are influential and well-connected. But the international community needs to pressure them to do it. And once again, other countries have led the way.”

 

Zamira Hajiyeva is the wife of Jahangir Hajiyev, a banker currently in prison in Azerbaijan, and reports of her lavish spending, which included £16.3 million at Harrods over the course of a decade, including £2000 on cold meats in a single visit, are difficult to reconcile with her husband’s official salary, which ranged between $29’000 and $70’000 per annum71.

When Tara Hanlon can simply pass through Dubai International Airport with millions in her suitcase and not have to declare their source, it’s difficult to imagine the UAE authorities demanding to know how someone like Zamira Hajiyeva can afford her spending. But only when they do, will Dubai, and the UEA more widely, become an unwelcoming place for criminals, terrorists, and those who wish to strip their countries of their wealth.

US Envoy: Solution on Migration From Haiti Has to Be Led by US, Mexico

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A solution on a new wave of migration from Haiti has to be led by both the United States and Mexico, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, said Saturday.

“It is a very significant issue for both countries, it’s a significant issue for the Western Hemisphere,” he told a news conference.

Salazar’s comments come a day after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on a visit following a period of strained cooperation.

The Biden administration is increasingly reliant on its southern neighbor to stem migration not only from Central America, but also Haiti and Venezuela.

Guatemalan police said that on Friday night, 126 migrants, most of them Haitians, had been abandoned in a trailer.

 

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Green Card Lottery Reopens; Past Winners Still in Limbo

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As the U.S. government officially opens its diversity visa lottery program at the start of a new fiscal year, thousands of past winners from Afghanistan, Egypt, Peru, Iran and other nations continue to endure processing delays that are dimming hopes of a new life in America.

The Biden administration announced Wednesday that registration for the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program for 2023 — popularly known as green card lottery — had begun. Congress authorized 55,000 green cards per year for immigrants around the world to promote diversity in the U.S.

Registration starts well before any given fiscal year — in this case, 2023 — to allow time for processing applications. But delays have become chronic and spawned legal action.

While accepting new applications, U.S. officials acknowledge a severe backlog in processing existing ones, many of which were filed during the former Trump administration and have been slowed by the pandemic.

For people like Samar, a 35-year-old historian from Egypt and a 2021 diversity visa winner, the window for getting authorization to travel to the U.S. is closing. An outspoken critic of human rights violations in her home country, she asked VOA not to reveal her last name.

“My fiscal year (deadline) ended on September 30, 2021. (The U.S. government) has not replied to the majority of my inquiries about my (diversity visa) case,” Samar said. “This immigration opportunity is not a luxury for my family. … My family and I have experienced police harassment since 2016. … This immigration opportunity will help me and my family start a humane and safe life.”

Visa eligibility does not transfer to the following year. The entire process must be completed in a year. With time running out, the mother of three decided to join other diversity visa winners in a lawsuit against the U.S. government in hopes of getting travel documents.

In an email to VOA, a State Department spokesperson said, “Being randomly chosen as a selectee does not guarantee that you will receive a visa or a visa interview. Selection merely means that the person is eligible to participate in the DV program.”

The explanation is of little comfort to Samar.

“My husband and I have been applying for (diversity visas) since 2000. We have three kids. We followed all procedures and submitted all required forms and documents,” she said. “We even tried to leave for the EU but couldn’t get a visa.”

Turbulent years

The diversity visa program has had bumpy years of late.

In 2017, then-President Donald Trump announced a series of actions that blocked people from Muslim-majority countries from coming to the United States.

Then, in March 2020, Trump shut down consulates around the world amid the coronavirus pandemic. His administration subsequently announced a ban on certain immigrant visas, arguing it was needed to protect the American economy.

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Biden is First President to Mark Indigenous Peoples Day

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President Joe Biden on Friday issued the first-ever presidential proclamation of Indigenous Peoples Day, lending the most significant boost yet to efforts to refocus the federal holiday celebrating Christopher Columbus toward an appreciation of Native Americans.

The day will be observed Oct. 11, along with Columbus Day, which is established by Congress. While Native Americans have campaigned for years for local and national days in recognition of the country’s Indigenous peoples, Biden’s announcement appeared to catch many by surprise.

“This was completely unexpected. Even though we’ve been talking about it and wanting it for so long,” said Hillary Kempenich, an artist and member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. In 2019, she and other tribal members successfully campaigned for her town of Grand Forks, North Dakota, to replace Columbus Day with a day recognizing Indigenous peoples.

“I’m kind of overwhelmed with joy,” said Kempenich. She was waiting Friday afternoon to share the news with her eighth-grade daughter, who grew up challenging teachers’ depictions of Columbus.

“For generations, Federal policies systematically sought to assimilate and displace Native people and eradicate Native cultures,” Biden wrote in the Indigenous Peoples Day proclamation. “Today, we recognize Indigenous peoples’ resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society.”

In a separate proclamation on Columbus Day, Biden praised the role of Italian Americans in U.S. society but also referenced the violence and harm Columbus and other explorers of the age brought about on the Americas.

Making landfall in what is now the Bahamas on Oct. 12, 1492, Columbus, an Italian, was the first of a wave of European explorers who decimated Indigenous populations in the Americas in quests for gold and other wealth, including people to enslave.

“Today, we also acknowledge the painful history of wrongs and atrocities that many European explorers inflicted on Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities,” Biden wrote. “It is a measure of our greatness as a Nation that we do not seek to bury these shameful episodes of our past — that we face them honestly, we bring them to the light, and we do all we can to address them.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden “felt strongly” about recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day. Asked if Biden might seek to end marking Columbus Day as a federal holiday, she replied, “I don’t have any predictions at this point.”

John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, said the president’s decision to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day was an important step.

“Big changes happen from each small step, and we hope this administration intends to continue making positive steps towards shaping a brighter future for all citizens,” Echohawak said.

Biden’s acknowledgment of the suffering of Native Americans also marked a break from President Donald Trump’s ardent defense of “intrepid heroes” like Columbus in his 2020 proclamation of the holiday.

“Sadly, in recent years, radical activists have sought to undermine Christopher Columbus’ legacy,” Trump said at the time. “These extremists seek to replace discussion of his vast contributions with talk of failings, his discoveries with atrocities, and his achievements with transgressions.”

Biden made the announcement on the same day the White House was disclosing its plans to restore territory to two sprawling national monuments in Utah that Trump had stripped of protections. One, Bears Ears, is on land that Native American tribes consider sacred.

Biden’s campaign against Trump saw tribal activists mobilize to get out votes for the Democrat, in activism that tribal members credited with helping Biden win some Western states.

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Three refugees claim the UAE funded ISIS war crimes during Syrian civil war in landmark UK court case

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Three refugees are arguing the UAE funded war crimes by ISIS terrorists in the Syrian civil war in a landmark case in British legal history.

The men, who are from Syria but are now asylum seekers in the UK, claim Arab officials financed human rights abuses in the war-torn country in 2015.

They said they saw severe torture, vicious beatings and property destruction committed by jihadists they say were armed by the Gulf state.

One claimant testified ‘the smell of corpses and death spread in my beloved town, and there was no life left in it’.

The three are pursuing legal action against the UAE through the High Court in England.

The claim would be the first of its kind as they seek to blow apart the use of the sovereign immunity defence in cases involving human rights abuses, such as torture.

If successful, it would open the floodgates for people to hold foreign state sponsors of militant and terror groups to account through UK courts.

Biden: ‘Very Optimistic’ on Approval for Social Safety Net Spending Plan

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U.S. President Joe Biden said Monday he is “very optimistic” on completing a deal this week on his pared-down social safety net spending plan, an assessment echoed by one of the centrist Democratic lawmakers who has been holding back on his support.

Biden told reporters in Delaware that his Sunday meeting with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who has sought sharp cuts in Biden’s original $3.5 trillion package, “went well.”

They discussed final details in the package that could be trimmed to about half that amount, with Manchin insisting on a $1.5 trillion figure.

“A few more things to work out, but it went well,” Biden said.

Later, Manchin said that he believes there will be a “conceptual framework” on Biden’s package later in the week. Even with the spending cutbacks, it would amount to one of the largest expansions of the U.S. government’s social safety net for American families since the 1960s.

But it remained unclear where the other Democratic holdout, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, stands on the pared-back version. She has opposed Biden’s plan to raise taxes on corporations and individuals earning more than $400,000 a year.

Subsequently, Biden and key Democratic lawmakers are now proposing to ramp up enforcement against tax cheaters to increase government revenue and craft new tax increases that would target the estimated 700 U.S. billionaires.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told CNN on Sunday that the legislation would take aim at “exceptionally wealthy individuals” and likely tax their unrealized capital gains that now are only taxed when they sell assets.

The support of both Manchin and Sinema, the most politically moderate lawmakers in the Senate Democratic caucus, is essential if any Biden social safety net legislation is to win congressional approval.

With the 100-member Senate equally split between Republicans and Democrats, all 50 Democrats would need to support the legislation, added along with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. Currently, no Republicans support the legislation.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, told CNN on Sunday that even at half its original size the package is “still bigger than anything we have ever done in terms of addressing the needs of America’s working families,” with universal pre-kindergarten schooling and tax credits for all but the wealthiest parents.

She said 90% of the measure “is agreed to.”

As details of the social safety net plan are finalized, the House leader said her plan is for the chamber to vote later this week on a bipartisan trillion-dollar infrastructure measure already approved by the Senate to fix the country’s deteriorating roads and bridges and expand broadband internet service throughout the United States.

“I’m optimistic we can do that,” she said.

The infrastructure spending plan drew the support of 19 Republicans in the Senate, along with that of all 50 Democrats, but progressive Democrats in the House blocked its passage there until agreement could be reached on the social safety net legislation that they consider a bigger legislative priority.

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