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Armed Conflict Has Forced 661,000 People to Flee Their Homes During the Coronavirus Pandemic

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Armed conflict has forced at least 661,000 people around the world to flee their homes during the last two months of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new report, as experts say world leaders are failing to protect displaced communities and leaving them more exposed to the impact of the virus.

The Norwegian Refugee Council said Friday that between March 23 and May 15, armed conflict in 19 countries has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, despite a call from the United Nations’ Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for a global ceasefire. Chad and Niger, Afghanistan, Syria, and Myanmar were among the countries that saw more than 10,000 people displaced, according to the report. The highest number by far was in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), where more than 480,000 people have been forced to leave their homes due to clashes between armed groups and the country’s military, accounting for 75% of the total number of people displaced worldwide.

While these countries are currently towards the lower end of the global rankings for coronavirus cases and deaths, experts are warning that outbreaks could have potentially catastrophic effects in already unstable states. In Bangladesh’s densely populated Cox’s Bazar, where around 1 million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are currently living, aid organisations have warned that the coronavirus “could spread like wildfire” after the first positive case was confirmed on May 14.

So far, there have been less than 2,000 confirmed cases and 61 deaths due to COVID-19 in DR Congo. And although there are few official cases of the coronavirus outside of the capital Kinshasa, Maureen Philippon, Country Director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, says it’s difficult for people in DR Congo not to feel worried when faced with the double crisis of the pandemic and ongoing armed conflict. As several countries around the world have enacted quarantine, lockdown and social distancing measures, the logistics on the ground make in DR Congo have made it near impossible to implement due to lack of shelter, overcrowding and lack of clean water in displacement sites. “People say they are hit twice in a row: first by the conflict making them lose everything, and now by the living conditions that are increasing their risk to the virus,” Philippon tells TIME.

“One of the men we spoke to [in Ituri province] had to flee his village on May 11. He left with $11 in his pocket and nothing else,” Philippon says. Another woman told Philippon that she had left her house for fear of an attack on May 12, and was separated from her husband and two sons in their escape — she has not seen them since. “What she wants is peace. And we are hearing this from many people: they want peace, they want to be able to make a living on their own.”

DR Congo has been the site of ongoing multiple, complex conflicts and human rights abuses since the end of its civil war in 2003, with tensions rising in the central Kasai region since 2016. “Almost each small set of conflicts has its own dynamic, making it difficult to tackle,” says Philippon. The number of challenges, the expanse of Africa’s second largest country and its challenging geographical settings, and a state that struggles to impose its governance have all contributed to the situation today. Over the course of 2019, 1.7 million people in DR Congo were displaced, the second highest country figure behind Syria.

Congolese people are already dealing with multiple public health crises including malaria, cholera and the world’s worst measles epidemic. In April, 6 new cases of the Ebola virus were reported in the country, after an outbreak was declared in August 2018 which has resulted in 2,279 deaths. “The outlook is grim,” says Philippon, emphasizing that DR Congo is home to the second-largest hunger crisis in the world after Yemen.

Hassan Al-Homaidi—NRCAl-Swaidah displacement camp in Yemen, though there is nothing to mark it as such: no running water, no toilets, no electricity. It is home for around 500 displaced families from Marib and Nihm.

More broadly, the coronavirus pandemic has hit the humanitarian sector hard: on Wednesday, Oxfam announced that it would withdraw its operations in 18 countries and lay off nearly a third of staff due to financial pressures. The Norwegian Refugee Council says that the crisis has also reduced access for aid organizations to areas on the ground, making data collection more difficult and therefore the figure of 661,000 displaced people is likely to be an underestimate.

The organizations’s new report comes with an appeal to the United Nations Security Council for stronger leadership, and to issue a clear call to halt hostilities and conflict around the world in order to focus on the pandemic response. “While people are being displaced and killed, powerful members of the UN Security Council squabble like children in a sandbox,” NRC’s Secretary General Jan Egeland said in a statement. “World leaders must rise to the occasion and jointly push parties to cease their fire and unite in protecting all communities from COVID-19. Now is not the time for kindergarten politics.”





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Russia Declares Emergency Following Spill of 20,000 Tons of Oil in the Arctic Circle

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Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a state of emergency in the city of Norilsk after a massive oil spill in the Arctic region. An estimated 20,000 tons of fuel from a power plant spilled onto a road, and a large part made its way into an river on May 29.

A “considerable amount” of the oil seeped into the Ambarnaya River in Siberia, Putin said Wednesday during an official meeting about response to the fuel leak. The President appeared shocked to learn that local authorities were first flagged to the incident by social media—two days after it happened and criticized the region’s governor Alexander Uss during the televised meeting, Reuters reported. “What — are we to learn about emergency situations from social networks? Are you alright healthwise over there?” Putin said.

The leak was caused by “accidental damage to a diesel fuel storage tank” at a plant operated by a subsidiary of Norilsk Nickel and a cleanup effort is underway. The company, which is a major producer of palladium, high-grade metal nickel, platinum and copper, said it would “do its maximum” to resolve the issue Tuesday on Twitter.

The government’s environmental agency is assisting the company with “joint aerial inspections” of the river to “search for possible diesel contamination occurrences” Norilsk Nickel said in a statement Wednesday.

They said in a statement Thursday that the “incident could have been caused by soil thawing” and ruled out “negligence in operating the tank” after inspecting the scene. “The tank is inspected every other year. There is a whole list of criteria for the inspection, which normally results in the tank tagged as serviceable,” he explained,” said Sergey Dyachenko, Nornickel’s First Vice President and Chief Operating Officer.

It remains unclear what the cause of the spill may be. Dmitry Streletskiy, a professor at George Washington University, told Bloomberg, “The cause is yet to be determined and is likely a combination of both climate change and infrastructure-related factors.”

The Arctic region is particularly fragile and the overall damage could be immense. Oleg Mitvol, former deputy head of Russia’s environmental watchdog Rosprirodnadzor, said there had “never been such an accident in the Arctic zone,” the BBC reported. Mitvol said the clean-up could take between five and 10 years and cost 100 billion roubles ($1.5 billion).





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Brazil overtakes Italy as country with third-highest coronavirus deaths

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Brazil records 1,349 deaths in day, with Mexico also registering over 1,000, as Latin American countries seek to reopen * Coronavirus – latest updates * See all our coronavirus coverageBrazil has overtaken Italy as the country with the third-highest Covid-19 death toll after another 1,233 fatalities took its total tally to 33,781.The figure was published by Brazil’s health ministry on Thursday night and means only the United States and the United Kingdom have registered more deaths because of the pandemic. In an online broadcast shortly before the numbers were released, Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro made almost no mention of the victims but continued to publicly attack efforts to slow the advance of coronavirus with quarantine measures and social distancing. “We can’t go on like this. Nobody can take it anymore,” Bolsonaro said of the shutdown efforts being implemented by state governors and mayors across Brazil. “The collateral impact will be far greater than those people who unfortunately lost their lives because of these last three months here,” Bolsonaro said.The numbers – which came after Mexico reported a record daily tally of more than 1,000 deaths on Wednesday – reinforced fears that Latin America’s two biggest economies, and other countries in the region, were facing a bleak few months.Mexico’s death toll now stands at nearly 12,000 with the number of infections rising above 100,000 on Wednesday. Chile is also grappling with a growing crisis, this week extending a quarantine of the capital, Santiago, as the country’s total number of fatalities rose to nearly 1,300.Despite the worsening situation, many parts of the region are moving towards reopening, against the advice of most medical experts.Miguel Lago, the director of Brazil’s Institute for Health Policy Studies, said reopening was a mistake that was likely to cause an explosion of infections and pile further pressure on hospitals that were already struggling to cope with the pandemic.“I am very worried … We are going to witness hospitals collapsing in almost every state,” Lago warned. “I think the worst is still to come.”Coronavirus cases have now been detected in more than 70% of Brazilian cities, with the south-eastern states of Rio and São Paulo particularly badly hit.Lago said Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, bore particular responsibility for the dire situation: both for the incompetence of his government’s response and for the political self-interest he believed had driven Bolsonaro to deliberately undermine social distancing in order to protect the economy – and his chances of re-election in 2022.“He doesn’t care about the lives of the Brazilians who will die because of his absolutely irresponsible behaviour,” said Lago.Lago described the rightwing populist’s reaction as even more lacking than those of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, the leaders of the two countries with the highest Covid-19 death tolls.José Manoel Ferreira Gonçalves, a civil society activist who recently denounced Bolsonaro at the United Nations for alleged crimes against humanity, said the president’s “shameful” response had condemned Brazil to “carnage”.“We are adrift,” said Gonçalves, a member of the group Engineers For Democracy.On Thursday Mexico’s president, the leftwing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, urged his 129 million citizens not to allow the rising numbers of deaths and infections to condemn them to “psychosis, apprehension or fear”.“I think our strategy has been the right one,” he reportedly told reporters in the southern state of Chiapas which he is visiting after restarting his travels this week as part of what he calls Mexico’s “new normal”. “We were lucky enough the pandemic didn’t arrive here first, which gave us time to get ready.”López Obrador attacked media reports about Mexico’s record day of recorded deaths – the world’s second highest on Wednesday, after Brazil – as “alarmist and irresponsible”.Chile also suffered its worst day of confirmed deaths on Wednesday, with 87 reported fatalities.Despite their ideological differences, Bolsonaro and López Obrador, who swept to power in 2018 amid a wave of anti-establishment voter rage, have both positioned themselves as champions of the poor, determined to get their countries back to work in order to protect jobs and livelihoods.But their countries look set to suffer some of the world’s highest Covid-19 death tolls, with Mexico’s coronavirus tsar, Hugo López-Gatell Ramírez, this week admitting another 20,000 lives could be lost.“We are still a long way from the end of this epidemic,” he told the El Universal newspaper.



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Navy Veteran Freed After Being ‘Held Hostage’ In Iran, Returning to U.S.

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(Bloomberg) — Michael White, a U.S. citizen and Navy veteran imprisoned in Iran since 2018, was released on Thursday and is en route home, a family spokesman said in a message that thanked President Donald Trump’s administration and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.

“For the past 683 days my son, Michael, has been held hostage in Iran by the IRGC and I have been living a nightmare,” according to a statement from Joanne White that was posted on Twitter by spokesman Jonathan Franks. “I am blessed to announce that the nightmare is over, and my son is safely on his way home.”

The move comes days after Sirous Asgari, an Iranian scientist imprisoned in the U.S., was deported from the U.S. on June 2 after being accused by federal prosecutors of trying to steal research secrets from Case Western Reserve University, according to the Associated Press.

White left Iran aboard a Swiss goverment aircraft, AP said. The apparent prisoner trade represents a rare sign of diplomacy between Washington and Tehran as the U.S. continues to ramp up sanctions on the Islamic Republic over its nuclear program.

In March, Iran released White on medical furlough, partly answering a call from the U.S. to free prisoners as a goodwill gesture amid the coronavirus outbreak. White, who has been suffering from cancer, was detained in July 2018, just before leaving Iran, for reasons that remain unclear.

The navy veteran from Imperial Beach, California, spent 13 years in the U.S. military before retiring for medical reasons, according to Franks. He was deployed during Operation Desert Storm on the USS Abraham Lincoln, where he served as a data clerk, he said.

“I am incredibly grateful to the administration, especially the team at the State Department for their work on Michael’s case and I owe the Swiss diplomats who have worked so hard to keep Michael safe a debt I can never repay,” White’s mother wrote.

The Trump administration has made freeing American prisoners abroad a key foreign policy priority. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in April warned that any country “wrongfully” detaining Americans will be held “strictly responsible” if they become infected and died of the coronavirus.

After White had left Iranian airspace, Trump tweeted that he “will never stop working to secure the release of all Americans held hostage overseas!”

Iran’s often competing intelligence agencies have a long record of targeting Iranians with dual nationality as well as foreign nationals, detaining them on vague security charges and then using them to gain leverage in negotiations with Western countries, often over financial and political disputes.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ intelligence arm continues to arrest Iranian dual and foreign nationals on vague charges such as “cooperating with a hostile state,” according to the World Report 2020 by Human Rights Watch. At least a dozen of these individuals remain behind bars, deprived of due process, and are routinely subjected to pro-government media smear campaigns, it said.





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