Race for space to house vulnerable in coronavirus

By Zoe Tabary

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – “Stay home” – that’s the message stretching from Italy to Iran as the world tries to contain coronavirus. But what if you’ve got no place to call home, or your house is out of bounds in the pandemic?

Some 1.8 billion people worldwide are homeless or live in inadequate housing, experts say, calling for urgent measures to ensure the most vulnerable get sanctuary in the outbreak.

Thousands more need a temporary place to live, either to stay close to crisis centres at the core of the coronavirus fightback or to keep housemates infection-free during weeks of lockdown.

Worldwide, the respiratory disease – which emerged last year in China – has infected more than 490,000 people and the death toll tops 22,000, according to Johns Hopkins University.

“Housing has become the front line defence against the coronavirus, said Leilani Farha, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing. “Home has rarely been more of a life or death situation.”

To that end, officials are scouring cities for vacant spaces or disused buildings to turn into makeshift homes.

From empty motels to festival halls, conference centres to cottages – buildings are being repurposed at breakneck speed, with the homeless a top priority.

“Housing, not handcuffs or forced congregate sheltering, for those experiencing homelessness, is the way to best ensure we all remain safer,” Eric Tars, of the U.S. National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, said in a statement.

SHELTER

In Italy, which has registered more than 7,500 deaths from the virus – it is the world’s worst hit country – some rail stations are doubling up as centres offering shelter and wash rooms.

Alessandro Radicchi, who runs the Binario 95 shelter in Rome’s central train station, said police were now routinely stopping homeless people, saying they could pay a fine for wandering the streets without proof of residence.

“You can imagine how a homeless person who feels alone during an ordinary time, now really feels there is no one,” Radicchi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

The centre supports about 70 people daily but can only sleep 12, Radicchi said, adding that the Italian capital has more than 40,000 people living without adequate housing but only 1,000 beds in homeless shelters.

“We cannot host all of them. But we tell them, ‘when you go in the street, remember these things like keep the mask and don’t touch anything if you don’t have to’,” he explained.

Officials expect the crisis to have an outsized impact on the homeless, who often make do without sanitation or food, bed down in close quarters and suffer more underlying illnesses.

For the millions of poor and daily wage workers in India, the threat of hunger and a lack of shelter looms larger than that of the deadly coronavirus, which has prompted the government to lock down the country until mid-April.

Since the shutdown began on Wednesday night, homeless shelters have filled with migrant workers and labourers who have lost their livelihoods and so cannot afford food or a bed.

ISOLATION

In the Canadian city of Montreal, a former hospital is this week being transformed into an isolation facility for homeless people exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus.

Patients will be kept in individual rooms in a building that sits at the top of a hill, tested for the virus and quarantined should they test positive, said a spokesman for the regional health agency, with capacity that can go up to 150 beds.

In London, the government will open a temporary hospital at the cavernous ExCel exhibition centre in east London, installing ventilators and beds in what was once an Olympic sporting venue.

U.S. communities have taken things into their own hands.

In California, a collective of homeless people and others whose housing is insecure have occupied six vacant, state-owned homes in the Los Angeles area.

“Letting hundreds of homes sit empty during a pandemic poses a health hazard to those like us — those who lack stable housing,” the Reclaiming Our Homes collective wrote on Facebook.

JUST A BED

Cities are also scrambling to help hard-pressed healthcare staff – working flat out and often without transport networks – with well-placed home owners opening up their flats for free.

As the virus decimates tourism, hotels and holiday lets are also sitting empty, prompting rental company Airbnb to open pages in Italy and France to connect medics with hosts.

“Doctors and nurses were requested to move from one city to another to support hospitals with exploding intensive care units. It was our desire to support … these heroes,” said Airbnb’s general manager in Italy, Giacomo Trovato.

He said the firm would pay hosts a minimum rate of about 10 euros a night and cover cleaning and fees for up to two months.

More than 2,000 homeowners and 180 doctors and nurses signed up within days of the launch, he said by phone.

Europe’s largest hotel group Accor said on Tuesday it had created a platform to offer housing to medical staff, and would offer up to 2,000 beds in 40 hotels for the homeless.

Such measures will be even more pressing as the virus digs into poorer countries where densely populated slum neighbourhoods create ideal conditions for disease transmission.

“COVID-19 is likely to spread at an even faster rate in informal settlements than elsewhere and with more disastrous consequences,” Farha said via WhatsApp.

“A ‘stay at home’ policy fails to recognise the conditions in informal settlements that make staying at home just as deadly, if not more, than no policy at all,” she said.

(Reporting by Zoe Tabary @zoetabary in London, Thin Lei Win @thinkink in Rome, Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi in Tbilisi, Annie Banerji @anniebanerji in Delhi and Jillian Kestler-D’Amours @jkdamours in Montreal, editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Venezuela is terrorist sanctuary: Colombian president

FILE PHOTO: Colombia's President Ivan Duque gives a speech during the swearing-in ceremony of a new Congress in Bogota, Colombia, July 20, 2019. Courtesy of Colombian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has turned his country into a terrorist sanctuary and committed the grave error of protecting guerrilla groups and drug traffickers, Colombian President Ivan Duque said on Monday, as tensions between the neighboring countries escalated once again.

The comments came after Maduro said on Sunday that two missing former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) commanders sought by Colombian judicial authorities were “welcome in Venezuela.”

Tensions have worsened since Duque joined the United States and most Latin American countries in recognizing Juan Guaido, president of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly, as the country’s rightful leader, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

“What we are seeing is that not only has (Maduro) harbored Colombian terrorists for many years, but he ratifies more and more that Venezuela is a sanctuary for terrorists and drug traffickers,” Duque said in Shanghai, China, where he is on an official visit.

Maduro said over the weekend that Seuxis Paucias Hernandez and Luciano Marin, known respectively by their nom de guerres Jesus Santrich and Ivan Marquez, were “leaders of peace.”

Santrich and Marquez both joined the FARC’s political party after the leftist rebel group demobilized under a 2016 peace deal that ended decades of civil war. They were set to serve in congressional seats reserved for the group.

But Marquez went missing last year after his nephew was arrested and taken to the United States to cooperate with drug-trafficking investigators.

Earlier this month Colombia’s Supreme Court ordered Santrich’s arrest after he failed to appear for questioning about U.S. drug-trafficking charges.

“There is not one doubt that Santrich is protected by that dictatorial regime,” Duque said of Venezuela. “This is one more motivation to keep strengthening the diplomatic blockade.”

Duque has repeatedly said Santrich might have fled to Venezuela. Maduro said on Sunday he had learned of Santrich’s possible presence in Venezuela from Duque’s statement.

Colombian authorities believe dissident FARC rebels, who did not demobilize under the peace accord, and fighters for the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group hide in Venezuela and receive protection from Maduro. Maduro’s government has denied protecting rebels.

Maduro, who calls Guaido a U.S. puppet seeking to oust him in a coup, broke off diplomatic relations with Bogota in February after Guaido’s failed attempt to bring humanitarian aid into Venezuela via the Colombian border.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Australia says no timeframe to decide case of Saudi teen asylum seeker

Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne speaks during a news conference at Australian Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, January 10, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

By Panu Wongcha-um and Patpicha Tanakasempipat

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on Thursday there was no timeframe for the assessment of the case of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who fled to Thailand saying she feared her family would kill her.

The U.N. refugee agency has referred Qunun to Australia for consideration for refugee resettlement.

“Following the UNHCR referrals, Australia is now going through the steps we are required to do in relation to the assessment process and then when that is complete an announcement will be made,” Payne said in Bangkok, after arriving on a visit arranged before Qunun sought asylum.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who claims to be fleeing her country and family, is seen in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. TWITTER/ @rahaf84427714/via REUTERS

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who claims to be fleeing her country and family, is seen in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. TWITTER/ @rahaf84427714/via REUTERS

Qunun is staying in a Bangkok hotel under the care of the UNHCR.

She arrived in Thailand on Saturday and was initially denied entry. She had been intending to fly from there to Australia to seek asylum.

She soon started posting messages on Twitter from the transit area of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport saying she had “escaped Kuwait” and her life would be in danger if forced to return to Saudi Arabia.

Within hours, a campaign sprang up, spread by a loose network of online activists, and the world watched as she refused to board a flight to Saudi Arabia and barricade herself inside a transit lounge hotel room.

On Monday evening, Thai authorities allowed her to enter the country.

Her case has drawn attention to Saudi Arabia’s strict social rules, including a requirement that women have the permission of a male “guardian” to travel, which rights groups say can trap women and girls as prisoners of abusive families.

It comes at a time when Riyadh is facing unusually intense scrutiny from its Western allies over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October and over the humanitarian consequences of its war in Yemen.

‘AUSTRALIA’S CONCERN’

Payne’s visit has also thrown a spotlight on another refugee case, involving Bahrain footballer Hakeem AlAraibi, who has refugee status in Australia but was arrested at Bangkok airport last year after arriving for his honeymoon.

Bahrain made a request to have him extradited and he is in jail, waiting for a hearing to decide his case.

Payne withheld talks with Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prajin Juntong, who is also justice minister, and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai.

“I also appreciate the opportunity … to raise Australia’s concern about the detention of and possible return of Mr Hakeem AlAraibi to Bahrain,” Payne told reporters after the meeting.

“The Thai government is aware of the importance of this matter to Australia.”

AlAraibi was convicted for vandalizing a police station in Bahrain and sentenced to 10 years in prison in absentia.

“He has denied all wrongdoing as accused by the Bahrain government,” Nadthasiri Bergman, AlAraibi’s lawyer in Thailand told Reuters.

“He would be put in danger if he is sent back to Bahrain.”

World football governing body FIFA says AlAraibi should be freed and allowed to return to Australia where he plays for Melbourne football club Pascoe Vale in the second tier of the Australian League.

Activists have called on Thai authorities to “show humanity” to AlAraibi in the same way that they did to Qunun.

(This version of the story adds dropped word ‘agency’ in paragraph 2)

(Additional report by Panarat Thepgumpanat, Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Robert Birsel)

Catholic bishop gives shelter to migrants in rare voice of support in Hungary

Miklos Beer, the bishop of Vac, stands at the gates of the cathedral in Vac, Hungary March 9, 2017. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

By Krisztina Than

VAC, Hungary (Reuters) – Hungarians should overcome prejudice and help refugees to settle in the country, the Catholic bishop of Vac said trying to ease a hostile attitude towards migrants.

Miklos Beer, whose comments are a rare show of support for migrants among high clergy in Hungary, has backed up his stand by housing two asylum-seekers from Afghanistan and one from Cuba in his church quarters situated in the quaint town north of Budapest.

Now the 73-year old bishop is afraid that under a new law passed last week, they will be taken to container camps on Hungary’s border with Serbia, where all migrants will be detained until their asylum requests are processed. Migrants whose applications are not immediately approved will not be allowed to move freely around Hungary.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been a vocal opponent of the wave of migration into Europe, which he says threatens the socioeconomic makeup of the continent, and his government is now building a second barrier to keep migrants out.

“I still hope and I am convinced that even if we have a double fence (on the border), the door is still open,” Beer, who will soon celebrate his 14th Easter in Vac, told Reuters in an interview.

“It is up to us, and I have the entire Hungarian society in mind, that we should accept those who knock on the door, and should not humiliate them … but we should ensure that they feel at home here as soon as possible.”

Beer said he was following the teachings of Pope Francis.

The pontiff last month called for a radical change of attitude towards immigrants, saying they should be welcomed with dignity and denouncing the “populist rhetoric” he said was fuelling fear and selfishness in rich countries.

“When someone comes through the door, and based on the latest parliamentary decision … arrives in the transit zone (on the border) and asks for asylum, we should help those who get the refugee status,” Beer said.

“We should not have prejudices against them.”

He said parishes and local communities should offer empty homes in Hungary’s depopulated villages to refugee families.

Based on data from the immigration office, this year 51 migrants had been granted refugee or protected status.

A total of 1,920 asylum requests, some of them filed last year, had been rejected and 1,488 applications had to be terminated as asylum seekers had left Hungary. Last year Hungary received 29,432 asylum requests, but most people decided to move on to western Europe.

The office of the Catholic Church did not reply to emailed Reuters questions asking for an official statement on migrants.

Beer said he would continue to provide shelter and food for the three asylum seekers who he has put up for a month, but admitted he would not be able to prevent their transfer to a detention camp, if police came.

“I won’t have any means to stop that,” he said.

(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)