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UK plan to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda draws criticism

Britain’s Conservative government has struck a deal with Rwanda to send some asylum-seekers thousands of miles away to the East African country, a move that opposition politicians and refugee groups condemned as inhumane, unworkable and a waste of public money.

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Home Secretary Priti Patel visited the Rwandan capital, Kigali, on Thursday to sign what the two countries call an “economic development partnership.” The plan will see some people who arrive in Britain in small boats across the English Channel picked up by the UK government and flown 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) to Rwanda, apparently for good.

Migrants have long used northern France as a launching point to reach Britain, either by stowing away in trucks or on ferries, or — increasingly since the coronavirus pandemic shut down other routes in 2020 — in dinghies and other small boats organized by smugglers.

More than 28,000 people entered the UK on small boats last year, up from 8,500 in 2020. Dozens have died, including 27 people in November when a single boat capsized.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday that action was needed to stop “vile people smugglers (who) are abusing the vulnerable and turning the Channel into a watery graveyard.”

In a speech near the Channel coast, Johnson said “those who try to jump the queue or abuse our system” would be “swiftly and humanely removed to a safe third country or their country of origin.”

He said “anyone entering the UK illegally … may now be relocated to Rwanda.”

Rwanda confirmed the deal in a statement, but neither government provided full details of how it would work. The Rwandan government said the migrants would be given “a range of opportunities for building a better life in a country which has been consistently ranked as one of the world’s safest.”

Johnson denied that the move was “lacking in compassion” but acknowledged it would inevitably face legal challenges and would not take effect immediately.

Rwanda is the most densely populated nation in Africa, and competition for land and resources there has already fueled decades of ethnic and political tensions that culminated in the 1994 genocide in which more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsi and Hutus who tried to protect them were killed. Human rights groups have repeatedly criticized President Paul Kagame’s current government for being repressive.

Johnson, however, insisted that Rwanda had “totally transformed” in the last two decades.

Previous policies of sending refugee applicants abroad have been highly controversial. In 2013, Australia began sending asylum-seekers attempting to reach the country by boat to Papua New Guinea and the tiny atoll of Nauru, vowing that none would be allowed to settle in Australia.

The policy all but ended the people-smuggling route from Southeast Asia, but was widely criticized as a cruel abrogation of Australia’s international obligations.

British government minister Simon Hart said the arrangement with Rwanda will cost Britain about 120 million pounds ($158 million) to start. He said the goal was to “break up” the business model of criminal people-smuggling gangs.

Advocates for refugees said the plan was so extreme it was unfathomable.

Steve Valdez-Symonds, refugee director at Amnesty International UK, said the British government’s “shockingly ill-conceived idea will go far further in inflicting suffering while wasting huge amounts of public money.” He said Rwanda’s “dismal” human rights record made the idea even worse.

The chief executive of the UK-based Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, called it a “cruel and nasty decision” and predicted it would not stop people-smuggling gangs.

The British and French governments have worked for years to stop the cross-Channel journeys, without much success, often swapping accusations about who is to blame for the failure. Last year, the UK agreed to give France 54 million pounds ($74 million) to help fund a doubling of police patrolling French beaches

Britain’s Conservative government has floated other proposals, including building a wave machine in the Channel to drive boats back and sending migrants to third countries. Several earlier proposed locations for migrants to be sent to — including the remote Ascension Island, Albania and Gibraltar — were rejected, at times angrily, by the nations themselves.

The Rwanda plan faces hurdles both in Britain’s Parliament and in the courts. Johnson’s Conservative government has introduced a tough new immigration bill that would make it more difficult for people who enter the country by unauthorized routes to claim asylum and would allow asylum-seekers to be screened abroad. It has not yet been approved by Parliament, with the House of Lords seeking to dilute some of its most draconian provisions.

Opposition politicians accused the government of trying to distract attention from a scandal over government parties that breached pandemic lockdown rules. Johnson this week was among dozens of people fined by police over the parties, making him the first British leader ever found to have broken the law while in office.

He is resisting calls from opponents, and from some lawmakers in his own party, to resign.

Labour Party lawmaker Lucy Powell said the Rwanda plan might please some Conservative supporters and grab headlines, but was “unworkable, expensive, and unethical.”

“I think this is less about dealing with small boats and more about dealing with the prime minister’s own sinking boat,” Powell told the BBC.

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Taliban hold gathering of 3,000 Islamic clerics, seek advise on running Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers held a gathering Thursday of some 3,000 Islamic clerics and tribal elders for the first time since seizing power in August, urging those at the meeting to advise them on running the country.

Women were not allowed to attend.

At one point, gunfire was heard near the heavily guarded assembly venue.

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Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid later told reporters that security forces fired on someone suspected to have a hand grenade, but that “there is nothing of concern.”

The Taliban, who have kept a complete lock on decision-making since taking over the country, touted the gathering in the capital of Kabul as a forum to hear a range of voices on issues facing Afghanistan.

But all those who addressed the assembly – and, it appeared, the overwhelming majority of attendees – were Taliban officials and supporters, mostly Islamic clerics.

Women were not allowed to attend, although media reports suggested that the reopening of the girls’ schools would be discussed.

The Taliban’s supreme leader earlier this year banned girls after sixth grade from attending school and issued a decree requiring women in public to cover themselves completely, except for their eyes.

“The girls’ (school girls) issue is a challenge and needs to be solved by the government, and the government has the responsibility to listen to the people’s demand,” Mujahid said.

The United States and most of the international community have shunned the Taliban government, demanding it be more inclusive and respect women’s rights.

However, the conference seemed less a nod to that pressure than an attempt by the Taliban to bolster their legitimacy as rulers, at a time when the former insurgents are struggling to deal with Afghanistan’s humanitarian catastrophe and are cut off from international financing.

A powerful earthquake earlier this month that killed more than 1,000 people in eastern Afghanistan only further underscored the Taliban’s limited capabilities and isolation.

The gathering was held in the Loya Jirga Hall of Kabul’s Polytechnic University.

A Loya Jirga is a gathering of tribal leaders and prominent figures, a traditional Afghan way for local leaders to have their grievances heard by rulers.

However, the Taliban notably did not call the gathering a Loya Jirga, instead titling it “the Great Conference of Ulema,” the term in Islam for religious scholars and clerics.

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Germany looks to buy Israeli or US missile defense system

Berlin is considering buying a missile defense system from Israel or the United States to defend against threats including Russian Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, German weekly Welt am Sonntag reported on Saturday.

The Iskander missiles can reach almost all of western Europe and there is no missile shield in place to protect against this threat, Germany’s chief of defense Eberhard Zorn told Welt am Sonntag in an interview published on Saturday.

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“The Israelis and the Americans possess such systems. Which one do we prefer? Will we manage to establish an overall (missile defense) system in NATO? These are the questions we need to answer now,” Zorn said.

He did not specify the names of the systems but was most likely referring to Arrow 3 built by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and the US system THAAD produced by Lockheed Martin.

Russia said in 2018 it had deployed Iskander missiles to its Kaliningrad exclave, a slice of Russia wedged between Poland and Lithuania. A mobile ballistic missile system, the Iskander replaced the Soviet Scud missile and its two guided missiles can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads.

In a landmark speech days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Berlin would hike its defense spending to more than 2 percent of its economic output by injecting 100 billion euros ($110 billion) into the military.

Zorn belongs to a group of high-ranking officials consulting with Scholz on how to spend this money.

“So far, only one thing is clear: We have neither the time nor the money to develop these (missile defense) systems on our own because the missile threat is known to already be there,” Zorn said.

Referring to Germany’s lack of a short-range missile defense, which can be used to protect troops on the move or under threat while deployed, he said Berlin had started looking into the purchase of such systems and it now had to make a decision.

Beyond this, the Bundeswehr will have to invest 20 billion euros by 2032 to replenish its ammunition storages, Zorn added.

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Turkey’s Erdogan threatens to block Sweden, Finland NATO deal if expectations not met

Just two days after agreeing to lift deal-breaking objections to Sweden and Finland’s NATO accession, Turkey’s leader threatened Thursday that Ankara could still block the process if the two countries fail to fully meet his expectations.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at the close of the alliance’s summit in Madrid that Tuesday night’s 10-article agreement with the Nordic pair was a victory for Ankara that addressed all its “sensitivities.”

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He especially stressed Turkey’s demand that Sweden and Finland extradite terror suspects with links to outlawed Kurdish groups or the network of an exiled cleric accused of a failed 2016 coup in Turkey.

But Erdogan added that if the two Nordic states renege on their promises, Turkey’s Parliament could still not ratify the deal. NATO accession must be formally approved by all 30 member states, which gives each a blocking right.

“This business will not work if we don’t pass this in our parliament,” Erdogan said. “First Sweden and Finland must fulfill their duties and those are already in the text … But if they don’t fulfill these, then of course there is no way we would send it to our parliament.”

Erdogan claimed that Sweden had promised to extradite 73 “terrorists” to Turkey and crack down on the financing and recruitment activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK — listed as a terrorist group by the US and the European Union — and linked groups.

Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, an extension of the PKK.

The text of the memorandum sets no specific number on extraditions. It says the Nordic countries will address Turkey’s “pending deportation or extradition requests of terror suspects expeditiously and thoroughly, taking into account information, evidence and intelligence provided” by Turkey in accordance with the European Convention on Extradition.

On Wednesday, Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said Sweden and Finland’s justice ministries have files from Turkey on 33 people with alleged links to PKK and the network of US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Journalists at Thursday’s news conference repeatedly pressed Erdogan about the extraditions and whether Sweden had actually promised the number he quoted.

“Of course what we understand is important from our meetings and talks,” Erdogan said. “Sweden promised to give us these 73 people with this text. They may or they may not, we will follow that through the text and we will make our decision.”

Erdogan also said the number of extraditions had been 60 but was updated to 73. There was no immediate response to requests for comments from the Swedish delegation at the summit in Madrid.

The Swedish government has sought to allay concerns that the deal would lead to extraditions to Turkey without due process.

“I know there are some people who are worried that we’re going to start to hunt people and extradite them and I think it’s important to say that we always follow Swedish laws and international conventions, and we never extradite Swedish citizens,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told public broadcaster SVT on Wednesday.

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto stressed that Helsinki pointed out that the memorandum does not list the names of individuals.

“In the case of extraditions, we will adhere to our own legislation and international agreements. Ultimately, extradition is a legal discretion which politicians have no right to influence,” Niinisto said.

With the joint memorandum signed, NATO moved ahead with inviting the Nordic countries to the military alliance that seeks to enlarge and strengthen in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The most time consuming part of gaining NATO membership is the ratification of the applicants’ accession protocols by the alliance’s 30 member countries. It’s a process that involves national parliaments — and could take months.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Thursday said that Germany will launch the process of ratifying the planned NATO membership of Sweden and Finland this week and will conclude it “very quickly.”

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