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Qatar economic outlook downgraded hours before crunch Gulf meeting

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Ratings agency Moody’s has downgraded Qatar’s economic outlook as political uncertainty swirled ahead of a crunch meeting between Arab nations on Wednesday in Cairo.

A quartet of Arab nations said early on Wednesday it had received Qatar’s response to its demands for ending a diplomatic crisis gripping the Persian Gulf. Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates said only that they would respond “in a timely manner”.
Ratings agency Moody’s changed Qatar’s outlook to negative, saying this was largely due to the ongoing diplomatic dispute engulfing the tiny, energy-rich nation. Early on Wednesday it said “the likelihood of a prolonged period of uncertainty extending into 2018 has increased and a quick resolution of the dispute is unlikely over the next few months”. The turmoil “carries the risk that Qatar’s sovereign credit fundamentals could be negatively affected”, it added.

So far, Qatar’s exports of natural gas have yet to be affected, the agency said. Those exports make the small country’s citizens have the biggest per capita incomes in the world.

The quartet cut ties to the FIFA 2022 World Cup host early last month over its alleged support for extremist groups and ties with Iran. Qatar denies supporting extremists and has defended its warm relations with Iran; the two countries share a massive undersea natural gas field.

The nations issued a 13-point list of demands on 22 June, giving Qatar 10 days to comply. They later extended the deadline by another 48 hours at the request of Kuwait, which has acted as a mediator to resolve the crisis. That deadline expired early Wednesday.

Later on Wednesday, foreign ministers from the four Arab countries will meet in Cairo to discuss their next move. Late Tuesday, Egypt’s state-run Mena news agency reported intelligence agency chiefs from those countries had met in Cairo, likely discussing the crisis.
What Qatar said in response to the demands remains unclear. It already had called the demands, which include shutting down its al-Jazeera satellite news network, expelling Turkish military forces based in the country and paying restitution, as an affront to its sovereignty.

The crisis has become a global concern because neither side appears to be backing down. Qatar, the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas, hosts some 10,000 American troops at its sprawling al-Udeid air base. US secretary of state Rex Tillerson has been trying to ease tensions, while President Donald Trump’s comments on Qatar funding extremist groups back the Saudi-led countries’ position.

The nations could impose financial sanctions or force Qatar out of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a regional body known as the GCC that serves as a counterbalance to Iran.

Some Arab media outlets have suggested a military confrontation or a change of leadership in Qatar could be in the offing, but officials have said those options are not on the table.

On Tuesday, German foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, visited officials in both the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. He said Germany supported the UAE’s efforts at confronting those who funded extremists.

“We now have this opportunity to reach good results for the benefit of the whole region. The matter is not related only to the sovereignty of Qatar,” Gabriel said. “We have to come back to common work at the GCC and for the Europeans this is a very important matter. For us, the GCC is the guarantor of stability and security in the region.”

Emirati foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan kept up the pressure on Qatar in his own remarks to journalists. “To defeat terrorism, we must confront extremism, we must confront hate speech, we must confront the harbouring and sheltering of extremists and terrorists, and funding them,” he said. “Unfortunately, we in this region see that our sister nation of Qatar has allowed and harboured and encouraged all of this.”

“Enough is enough,” he added.

Qatar’s foreign minister meanwhile criticised the four Arab nations for trying to isolate Qatar “under the banner of fighting terrorism”.

“When measures are clothed in this context, it is because they think they will be met with international sympathy because they are ‘anti-terrorism’ measures,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said.

Though Qatar Airways’ routes over its neighbours have been cut, along with the country’s sole land border with Saudi Arabia, the country has been able to source food from other countries. Its economy, fuelled by its natural gas exports, continues to hum along though there has been pressure on its stock market and currency.

Somali News

Bangkok’s Somali refugees persecuted and living in fear

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Bangkok, Thailand – “I’ve never experienced cold like this,” says RK, a 19-year-old Somali refugee, as he sits in a downtown Bangkok alley one December morning.

It is 20 degrees, and opposite is the Suan Phlu Immigration Detention Center, an office building concealing thousands of undocumented migrants.

It is a stone’s throw from Bangkok’s gregarious tourist district, and RK’s wife and nine-month-old daughter are being held inside.

“They kicked my door down and took my family when I was away,” RK says, referring to an immigration raid at his home three months earlier, as part of a crackdown on undocumented migrants.

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, told Al Jazeera that Bangkok is home to a growing community of approximately 4,500 refugees and 2,000 asylum-seekers from more than 50 countries.

Regarded as “illegal aliens” under Thai law, RK’s wife and daughter face a period of indefinite detention. They will only be released by relocation to a third country, a lengthy process.

An undocumented migrant and former detainee himself, RK relies upon volunteers to relay messages of hope on his behalf.

An exact breakdown of the origins of refugee communities in Thailand is not available.

But compared with Europe, Thailand is in seen as being in easier reach and more hospitable among Pakistani, Somali, Iraqi, Palestinian and Syrian migrants and refugees – all of whom flock to the Asian country.

These were among the considerations that drew RK to the city. Three years earlier, when he was 16 years old, he fled Mogadishu, the Somali capital, after his father was killed in an al-Shabab car bomb attack.

Fearing for his life, RK’s family paid smugglers $2,000 to escort him on a flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, one of the few countries where Somali citizens do not require visas.

From there, he was transported 1,500km in the back of a truck on a three-day journey up the Malay Peninsula to Bangkok – home to UNHCR’s Regional Office for Southeast Asia, and a city from where he could apply for asylum.

“They told me it would be safe to live and work here until I got accepted into another country,” says RK, talking of his smugglers.

But misinformation and false hope are the currencies that sustain the smuggling industry, with the reality on the ground remaining far bleaker.

Thailand is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and Thailand’s Immigration Act does not distinguish between refugees, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants.

Consequently, all undocumented migrants remain at the mercy of immigration officials who regularly arrest and incarcerate anyone unable to produce valid visas.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), this approach is central to the Thai government’s immigration policy informed by the magnet effect; a belief that making conditions as inhospitable as possible for refugees and asylum seekers will deter future arrivals.

As a result, they face crippling government-imposed restrictions on access to healthcare and education. Most debilitating is the inability to earn money legally.

UNHCR in Bangkok told Al Jazeera that due to financial shortfalls, the agency uses panels to assess the needs of refugees and “target assistance on the most vulnerable”.

Most are employed illegally and exploited.

“I received 1,500 thai baht ($47) for working 60 hours a week in a kitchen,” RK explains. “But my boss even took this away after three months because he was scared of getting caught.”

With the threat of arrest and detention constantly looming, avoiding unwanted attention from authorities is the foremost daily consideration.

With the vast majority of migrants confined to poorer Thai communities on the city’s outskirts, keeping a low profile is a must. Most spend long days confined to crowded and squalid apartments.

“Immigration [officials] bang on the doors almost every week shouting ‘Somalis come out!’. Sometimes they come inside and take people,” says 18-year-old Abdirahim, a member of a minority clan threatened with violence in his home city of Mogadishu. He arrived in Bangkok alone at the age 15.

He shares a single-room apartment with four other Somali men, none of whom are older than 20 and all are also members of minority clans in Somalia at risk of violence. The men estimate that there are seven other apartments in the building housing people of African and Middle Eastern origin living in similar circumstances.

This consigns them to a life subsisting on irregular handouts from increasingly stretched refugee support networks

Despite having had their claims of asylum verified through extensive interviews and background checks as part of UNCHR’s Refugee Status Determination – with all carrying identity cards stating as much – Abdirahim and his roommates remain too frightened to leave their home unless absolutely essential.

“I’m scared to go out or I will be arrested and locked up again … I’m powerless to do anything to help myself so I just sleep,” he says.

Life inside immigration prisons offers a different kind of misery.

With access heavily restricted, accounts of abysmal conditions are known only from the testimonies of former detainees released on a now-defunct bail system that was operated at the discretion of immigration officials until mid-2016.

“I was in a cell with 120 men, only three times as big as this room,” Abdirahim explains, gesturing to his cramped apartment of 350 square feet. “Food was rice and soup twice a day. I would sleep on the concrete floor and only saw the sun every three days.”

Despite several attempts, representatives of the Thai Immigration Bureau for comment did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

Immigration detention of refugee and asylum-seeking children in Thailand violates the rights of children under international law.

Although he was a minor, Abdirahim spent two years in these conditions between the ages of 15 and 17 before being bailed out by a refugee support charity.

This practice of indefinitely detaining children among adults concerns rights groups. HRW says it violates Thailand’s obligations under international law and puts children at risk of sexual and physical abuse..

When Al Jazeera visited a detention centre, this reporter witnessed at least five children aged up to 10.

The Thai government has publicly affirmed its commitment to ending some immigration practices. In September 2016, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha pledged to end the detention of refugee children during a speech at the US-hosted Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis.

But UNHCR said it was unable to access figures for the exact number of minors in immigration prisons in Thailand and was unaware of a definitive end date for this practice.

In practice, the future for Bangkok’s refugees and asylum seekers remains precarious.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW’s Asia division, told Al Jazeera that the Thai government has “dragged its feet for decades” on the issue of immigration reforms.

Some officials simply believe that “migrants and refugees do not deserve any better”, he said.

With returning home tantamount to a death sentence for most, receiving asylum in a third country remains perhaps the best hope.

“I wish I never came here,” says Abdirahim, standing on his balcony overlooking a bustling Bangkok street below. “I will go anywhere now. Anywhere where I will be safe and can start living my life.”

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Somali News

Fighting Alshabaab Somali government enlists help from paramilitary group

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Somalia has secured a landmark agreement with a para-military group several thousand fighters strong. It opens a new chapter in the fight against al-Shabaab. The Sunni sect is the first Somali group to go it alone against al-Shabaab — and win. CGTN’s Abdulaziz Billow reports from the central Somali town of Dhusamareeb.

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Briefing Room

UPDATE: Somali authorities say troops rescue 32 children from “terrorist school”

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MOGADISHU, Jan 19 (Reuters) – Somali authorities said troops stormed a school run by al Shabaab on Thursday night and rescued 32 children who had been taken as recruits by the Islamist militant group.

“The 32 children are safe and the government is looking after them. It is unfortunate that terrorists are recruiting children to their twisted ideology,” Abdirahman Omar Osman, information minister for the Somali federal government, told Reuters on Friday.

“It showed how desperate the terrorists are, as they are losing the war and people are rejecting terror.”

Al Shabaab said government forces, accompanied by drones, had attacked the school in Middle Shabelle region. It said four children and a teacher were killed.

The Somali government said no children were killed in the rescue.

“They kidnapped the rest of the students,” said Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shabaab’s military spokesman.

“Human Rights Watch is responsible for the deaths of the students and their teacher because it pointed fingers at them,” he added.

In a report this week, the New York-based rights group said that since September 2017, al Shabaab had ordered village elders, teachers in Islamic religious schools, and rural communities to hand over hundreds of children as young as eight.

The U.S. Africa Command said it had carried out an air strike on Thursday against al Shabaab targets 50 km (30 miles) northwest of Somalia’s port city of Kismayo, killing four militants. U.S. forces regularly launch such aerial assaults.

The al Shabaab militia, linked to al Qaeda, is fighting to topple the U.N.-backed Somali government and establish its own rule based on a strict interpretation of Islam’s sharia law.

Somalia has been plagued by conflict since the early 1990s, when clan-based warlords overthrew authoritarian ruler Mohamed Siad Barre then turned on each other.

In recent years, regional administrations headed by the Mogadishu-based federal government have emerged, and African Union peacekeepers supporting Somali troops have gradually clawed back territory from the Islamist insurgents.

(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh; Writing by Clement Uwiringiyimana; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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