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Thousands of Refugees Displaced After Fire Blazes Through Europe’s Largest Migrant Camp

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  • A fire raged through Europe’s largest migrant camp on Wednesday, displacing around 12,000 refugees in a camp meant for 3,000.
  • The fire reportedly began overnight on the Greek island of Lesbos, but its cause remains unknown.
  • The fire follows reported clashes within the camp after 35 refugees, who recently tested positive for COVID-19, refused to isolate themselves and their families. It is still unconfirmed if those families actually refused to isolate or if this is what led to the fire.
  • Following evacuations, police blocked off roads leading to nearby towns, and locals attacked and prevented migrants from passing through a nearby village.

Fire Breaks Out 

A massive fire almost completely destroyed Europe’s largest migrant camp, leaving 12,000 migrants without shelter. 

The fire began overnight Tuesday. It originally started off as a series of small fires that broke out at the Moria Refugee Camp, located on the Greek island of Lesbos. Those fires became so large and destructive that within a matter of hours, they had reportedly left the entire camp unusable. 

Outside the scope of the fire, the situation has exposed a host of other serious issues faced by the Moria camp migrants. While an estimated 12,000 migrants had been sent to the camp to await updates on their asylum applications, it was only built to accommodate between 2,000 to 3,000 people. 

Human rights groups have criticized poor conditions at the site for years. In April, the Human Rights Watch even said that Greek authorities hadn’t done enough to tackle overcrowding, warning that the camp was not prepared to handle a potential coronavirus outbreak. 

The situation has also seemed to only widen the divide between migrants and locals in the area. For example, as migrants fled the scene, police blocked off roads leading from the camp in order to prevent them from entering nearby towns as authorities scramble to find them housing.

According to reports, some locals have even attacked migrants and prevented them from passing through one nearby village.

Because of that, the United Nations Human Rights Council has attempted to address the tension by urging people to “exercise restraint,” asking anyone who had been at the camp “to restrict their movements and stay near [the site], as a temporary solution is being found to shelter [migrants].”

What Led to the Fire?

It is unclear what directly led to the fires, but they came after a series of confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Last week, authorities placed the camp under quarantine after a Somali migrant tested positive. By Tuesday, the number of cases had jumped up to 35. 

The Greek news agency ANA reported that the fires broke out after some of the 35 refused to isolate themselves and their families. According to CNN, some migrants on the ground said the fires were started by refugee protesters when a demonstration erupted over lockdown measures; however, both accounts have yet to be officially confirmed, and there are actually other fires also burning on the island because of strong winds.

Michalis Fratzeskos, deputy mayor for civil protection, told Greek state television that the fire was “premeditated,” and that migrant tents had been empty, with arsonists “[taking] advantage of strong winds.”

A local fire chief said that when firefighters rushed onto the scene, their efforts were hampered by protesting migrants,

However, many migrants have lodged much different claims. Some told a reporter for the BBC Persian that the fire had broken out after scuffles between migrants and Greek forces at the camp. Several even blamed “far-right Greeks” for setting the fire after those coronavirus cases were announced. Those migrants also provided photos of what they claimed to be canisters that were used to set the fire.

“It’s a time bomb that finally exploded,” Marco Sandrone, the Lesbos project coordinator for Doctors Without Borders told the BBC, adding that the migrants had been kept in “inhumane conditions” for years.

Axel Steier, co-founder of aid group Mission Lifeline, also told CNN that “the people in Moria are exposed to extreme psychological stress.”

“The lockdown of the camp has now been the final straw,” he added. “The refugees in Moria are not treated as humans.”

A government spokesperson has confirmed that reports of arson are under investigation. The government itself has also declared a four-month state of emergency.

International Response

Internationally, the European Union has offered help, with EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson saying on Twitter that she has “agreed to finance the immediate transfer and accommodation” of “400 unaccompanied children and teenagers.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has also expressed interest in transporting refugees onto mainland Europe.

“In cooperation with the EU Commission and other EU member states willing to help, we need to sort out as quickly as possible how we can support Greece,” he said. “This includes the distribution of refugees among those in the EU that are willing to take them.”

According to The New York Times, Armin Laschet, a governor in western Germany, has also said he’s willing to admit up to a thousand refugees from the camp.

See what others are saying: (BBC) (CNN) (ANA)

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Biden Vows to Defend Taiwan if Attacked by China

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Some praised the remarks for clarifying U.S. foreign policy, while others feared they could escalate tensions with China.


Biden’s Remarks Create Confusion

During a Monday press conference in Tokyo, U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would intervene to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.

The remark caught many off guard because it contradicted decades of traditional U.S. foreign policy toward China.

A reporter said, “You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons. Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”

“Yes,” Biden answered. “That’s a commitment we made. We are not — look, here’s the situation. We agree with a One China policy. We signed onto it and all the attendant agreements made from there.”

“But the idea that it can be taken by force — just taken by force — is just not appropriate,” he continued. “It will dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine.”

Beijing considers the Taiwanese island to be a breakaway province, but Taiwan, officially the Republic of China, has claimed to represent the real historical lineage of China.

Since 1972, the U.S. has officially recognized only one China, with its capital in Beijing. However, Washington maintains extensive informal diplomatic ties with Taipei and provides military assistance through weapons and training.

Successive U.S. presidents have also committed to a policy of “strategic ambiguity,” refusing to promise or rule out a direct military intervention in case China attacks Taiwan.

The strategy is meant to deter China while avoiding a hard commitment to any action.

Biden Sparks Controversy

The White House quickly sent a statement to reporters appearing to walk back Biden’s remark.

“As the president said, our policy has not changed,” the statement said. “He reiterated our One China Policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. He also reiterated our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself.”

Monday was not the first time Biden made similar remarks regarding China and Taiwan.

Last August, he promised that “we would respond” if there was an attack against a fellow member of NATO and then added, “same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan.”

In October, he again told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that the U.S. would defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack, prompting the White House to hurriedly walk back his statement.

Monday’s remark was received with support as well as criticism.

“Strategic ambiguity is over. Strategic clarity is here,” Tweeted Matthew Kroenig, professor of government at Georgetown University. “This is the third time Biden has said this. Good. China should welcome this. Washington is helping Beijing to not miscalculate.”

“It is truly dangerous for the president to keep misstating U.S. policy toward Taiwan,” historian Stephen Wertheim wrote in a tweet. “How many more times will this happen?”

“The West’s robust response to Russian aggression in Ukraine could serve to deter China from invading Taiwan, but Biden’s statement risks undoing the potential benefit and instead helping to bring about a Taiwan conflict,” he added. “Self-injurious and entirely unforced.”

Biden also unveiled the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), a trade agreement signed by the U.S. and 12 Asian nations.

The agreement appeared to many like another move to cut off China from regional trade pacts and supply chains in Washington’s strategic competition with Beijing.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (The New York Times) (The South China Morning Post)

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Russia Takes Over 900 Azovstal Fighters Prisoner as Mariupol Surrenders

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Ukraine said the soldiers successfully completed their mission, but the fall of Mariupol represents a strategic win for Putin.


Azovstal Waves the White Flag

Russia’s foreign ministry announced on Wednesday that it had captured 959 Ukrainians from the Azovstal steelworks, where besieged soldiers have maintained the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol for weeks.

A ministry spokesperson said in a statement that 51 were being treated for injuries, and the rest were sent to a former prison colony in the town of Olenivka in a Russian-controlled area of Donetsk.

The defense ministry released videos of what it claimed were Ukrainian fighters receiving care at a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk. In one, a soldier tells the camera he is being treated “normally” and that he is not being psychologically pressured, though it is unclear whether he is speaking freely.

It was unclear if any Ukrainians remained in Azovstal, but Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, said in a statement Wednesday that the “commanders of the highest level” were still hiding in the plant.

Previously, estimates put the number of soldiers inside Azovstal around 1,000.

Ukraine officially gave up Mariupol on Monday, when the first Azovstal fighters began surrendering.

Reuters filmed dozens of wounded Ukrainians being driven away in buses marked with the Russian pro-war “Z” symbol.

Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said in a Tuesday statement that the Ukrainian prisoners would be swapped in an exchange for captured Russians. But numerous Russian officials have signaled that the Ukrainian soldiers should be tried.

Mariupol Falls into Russian Hands

After nearly three months of bombardment that left Mariupol in ruins, Russia’s combat mission in the city has ended.

The sprawling complex of underground tunnels, caverns, and bunkers beneath Azovstal provided a defensible position for the Ukrainians there, and they came to represent the country’s resolve in the face of Russian aggression for many spectators.

Earlier this month, women, children, and the elderly were evacuated from the plant.

The definitive capture of Mariupol, a strategic port city, is a loss for Ukraine and a boon for Russia, which can now establish a land bridge between Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists. The development could also free up Russian troops around Mariupol to advance on the East, while additional reinforcements near Kharkiv descend from the north, potentially cutting off Ukrainian forces from the rest of the country.

The Ukrainian military has framed events in Mariupol as at least a partial success, arguing that the defenders of Azovstal completed their mission by tying down Russian troops and resources in the city and giving Ukrainians elsewhere more breathing room.

It claimed that doing so prevented Russia from rapidly capturing the city of Zaporizhzhia further to the west.

See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (BBC) (BBC)

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Convoy of Up to 1,000 Vehicles Evacuates Refugees From Mariupol as Russian War Effort Stalls

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Russia may have lost a third of its ground invasion force since the war began, according to British military intelligence.


Hundreds Make It Out Alive

A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 vehicles evacuating refugees from the southern port city of Mariupol arrived safely in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday.

People have been trickling out of Mariupol for over two months, but the recent evacuation was the single biggest out of the city thus far. Russian troops, who control most of the city, did not allow the convoy to leave for days, but eventually, they relented.

The convoy first traveled to Berbyansky some 80 kilometers to the west, then stopped at other settlements before driving 200 kilometers northwest to Zaporizhzhia. Many refugees told reporters they took “secret detours” to avoid Russian checkpoints and feared every moment of the journey.

Nikolai Pavlov, a 74-year-old retiree, told Reuters he had lived in a basement for a month after his apartment was destroyed.

“We barely made it,” he said. “There were lots of elderly people among us… the trip was devastating. But it was worth it.”

63-year-old Iryna Petrenko also said she had stayed in Mariupol initially to take care of her 92-year-old mother, who subsequently died.

“We buried her next to her house, because there was nowhere to bury anyone,” she said.

Putin’s Plans Go Poorly

In Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters continue to hold the Azovstal steelworks, the only part of the city still under Ukrainian control.

On Sunday, a video emerged appearing to show a hail of projectiles bursting into white, brightly burning munitions over the factory.

The pro-Russian separatist who posted it on Telegram wrote, “If you didn’t know what it is and for what purpose – you could say that it’s even beautiful.”

Turkey is trying to negotiate an evacuation of wounded Ukrainians from the factory, but neither Russia nor Ukraine have agreed to any plan.

After nearly three months of war, Mariupol has been left in ruins, with thousands of civilians reportedly dead.

“In less than 3 month, Mariupol, one of Ukraine’s fastest developing & comfortable cities, was reduced into a heap of charred ruins smelling death, with thousands of people standing in long breadlines and selling their properties out to buy some food. Less than three months,” Illia Ponomarenko, a reporter for The Kyiv Independent, tweeted.

On Sunday, the United Kingdom’s defense ministry estimated that Russia has likely lost a third of its ground invasion forces since the war began.

Moscow is believed to have deployed as many as 150,000 troops in Ukraine.

The ministry added that Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine have “lost momentum” and are “significantly behind schedule.” Moreover, it said Russia failed to achieve substantial territorial gains over the last month while sustaining “consistently high levels of attrition.”

“Under the current conditions, Russia is unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days,” the ministry concluded.

Sweden also signaled on Sunday that it will join Finland in applying for NATO membership.

See what others are saying: (The Daily Beast) (U.S. News and World Report) (The Hill)

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