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AFP and Tribune Wires

Presevo — At the crack of dawn hundreds of refugees, most of them Syrians, stream into Serbia’s southern valley of Presevo after a perilous journey they hope will lead to a new life in the European Union.
“It’s a dangerous road, we’ve been walking for days,” says Mahmoud Rashid, a 25-year-old Kurd from northern Syria’s devastated city of Aleppo.
For several weeks the men and women, some carrying babies, had mostly walked — crossing through minefields on the Syrian-Turkish border, camping in forests, and hiding from mafia gangs as they passed through Greece and Macedonia.
At Presevo, they are met by local officials who usher them into a temporary reception centre to receive medical aid, food and shelter.
The majority hope the stay in Presevo, a mostly-ethnic Albanian town of some 30,000, will last only a few hours — the time it takes to apply for asylum in order to get a document legalizing their stay in Serbia for 72 hours.
Once the precious piece of paper is in hand, the plan is to board a train or bus to the northern town of Subotica on the Hungarian border.
But many have discovered that making that crossing is not as easy as thought, given Hungary is building a four-meter high fence to keep migrants out.
The number of people apprehended crossing the Serbia-Hungary border alone has risen by more than 2,500 percent since 2010 — from 2,370 to 60,602, Amnesty International said in a report in early July.
Those caught are stuck in Serbia, resulting in a sharp jump in the number of asylum seekers there.
Since the beginning of the year, more than 37,000 asylum seekers have been registered in the ex-Yugoslavia republic, the interior ministry said.
And with between 800 and 1,000 refugees arriving every day in the Presevo valley in recent weeks, according to official estimates, fears are growing of a looming crisis in Serbia.
“It’s just the beginning of the refugee crisis in Serbia. Wait until autumn,” said an international relief worker who did not want to be named.
“I have a feeling the country will not be able to cope without strong foreign backup.”
Underlining the pressing demand, local Red Cross official Ahmet Alimi said: “Since we established the center a week ago some 5,000 people have passed through, twice more than the number registered by the authorities since early June.”
No turning back. In a visit to Serbia this month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged that the EU would help Hungary and western Balkan countries deal with the sudden influx of migrants.
At the time, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic stressed that the “immigrants are a joint problem and we will need Europe’s help to resolve it.”
Visiting Presevo in July to assess the impact of the refugee influx, he asked migrants: “Are people here friendly? Do you have enough to eat?”
For many Syrian refugees, Greece is typically the first EU port of call but most try to slip through unnoticed to avoid seeking asylum in a country mired in a debt crisis where they expect little material support.
So instead they head through the Balkans, many hoping to wind up in affluent Germany or Sweden.
Residents in Presevo are generally sympathetic to the refugees as they themselves are accustomed to conflict due to the inter-ethnic tensions near neighboring Kosovo.
“It’s a shame what was done to those poor people,” said Stojadin Ilic as he handed bottles of water to refugees passing in front of his house.
For the migrants, there’s no turning back despite the risks.
Rashid sees no alternative. “Aleppo is devastated and very dangerous. There are no more schools, no hospitals. I want to start a new life in Europe because the old one is finished. ISIS razed it to the ground,” said the unshaven young man.
Hysein Ahmed, a maths professor also from Aleppo, fled with his wife and their three children.
“Just look at this,” he said, showing a scar on the head of his 10-year-old son Lemandar from a shrapnel wound. 

Shamers on the prowl in social media jungle

Sunday, 02 August 2015 00:00 Published in Commentary

Washington — The killing of a Zimbabwean lion by an American dentist is a vivid reminder of how, in this era of social media, it’s a virtual jungle out there.
Big game hunter Walter Palmer joins a growing list of individuals — famous and not so famous — who have been publicly, even ruthlessly shamed on Twitter and Facebook, the village stocks of the 21st century.
“He needs to be extradited, charged and preferably hanged” for slaying game park lion Cecil, said animal rights group PETA in one particularly scathing tweet.
“I hope you burn in hell,” echoed several other Twitter users as #CecilTheLion became this past week’s hashtag du jour.
Stoning, torture, even being fed to the lions were further suggestions posted online as Palmer went to ground and Zimbabwe called for his extradition.
“Public shaming through social media is clearly a way that people in our society informally ‘punish’ those who violate the rules, even if the rules of our society aren’t law,” said Lori Brown, a sociology professor at Meredith College in North Carolina.
“It is similar to the public stocks and just like that kind of punishment, some are content with simply ridiculing the person, but others may want to throw things or even harm this person,” she told AFP.
“So there is the dangerous or potentially cruel edge to this kind of public shaming.”
Some have found themselves in the crosshairs of social media shaming by discovering the hard way that humor doesn’t travel well in a 144-character tweet.
“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” New York PR executive Justine Sacco famously quipped before flying off to Cape Town in 2013.
‘Troublemaker’. Many of her 174 Twitter followers were friends, and she clearly identified herself in her online profile as a “troublemaker on the side” with a “loud laugh.”
But Sacco instantly became a global laughing stock, awash in a tsunami of blistering tweets that only intensified when she got off her 11-hour flight, discovered what was happening and apologized.
Even businesses and charities jumped on the bandwagon. By one estimate Google made up to $468,000 off the Internet traffic it generated, according to British writer Jon Ronson.
“You can lead a good ethical life, but some bad phraseology in a tweet can overwhelm it all,” said Ronson, author of “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” in a TED talk in London in June. 

Ukraine eyes September debt repayment freeze

Saturday, 01 August 2015 00:00 Published in Commentary

Kiev, Ukraine — Ukraine’s finance ministry warned Thursday it could declare a technical default in two months should its lenders fail to accept less stringent repayment terms and a possible partial debt write-off.
The war-shattered country’s words of caution came on the eve of a crucial Washington meeting at which the International Monetary Fund is expected to back the release of a new payment that would keep Ukraine’s $40-billion (37-billion euro) global rescue package live.
But that money includes $15.3 billion in existing debt Ukraine must restructure over the course of the four-year deal.
Franklin Templeton and three other US financial titans who own about two-thirds of this sum have balked at Kiev’s request to accept a 40-percent cut to the value of their original investment in the former Soviet state.
Negotiations have been fraught with tensions and Kiev now faces a Sept. 23 deadline to return $500 million and make smaller interest payments on debt issued by a Russian-backed president who was ousted by street protests last year.
Deputy Finance Minister Artem Shevalev said Kiev would have a tough time explaining in negotiations why it was making the September principal payment but hoping to avoid covering others that mature by the end of the year.
“Making the coupon payment is one thing. It shows financial discipline,” news agencies quoted Shevalev as saying.
“But after paying the body of the bond, it will be very hard to talk to the other creditors — why we decide to pay someone in September and not someone else later on.”
Ukraine’s biggest worry is a $3-billion Eurobond that Russia purchased from the deposed government in the wake of its 2013 decision to bow to Kremlin pressure and reject an EU association pact.
Moscow has refused to join the debt negotiations and demands the full amount back by the Dec. 20 deadline.
Ukraine last week made a new debt restructuring offer that IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde urged the Western creditors to accept.
The IMF chief said Wednesday she hoped “bondholders are sensible about what can be achieved” and expressed optimism about recent “progress.”
The two sides have agreed to keep their talks private in order to avoid either Kiev or the investment houses putting pressure on each other through the press.
It remains unclear whether the new Kiev proposal includes the 40-percent write-off that the lenders have so furiously fought.
Ukrainian Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko had said Monday she expected direct talks to resume this week.
And her deputy Shevalev confirmed that discussions at various levels were becoming more frequent and involved.
“I cannot disclose the details, but at the very least, our dialog has reached a new stage of development,”
Lagarde has signaled repeatedly that the Fund’s payments to Kiev’s pro-Western government would continue even if no immediate debt agreement is struck.
Most of the $5.0 billion Ukraine has already received from the IMF this year is being used to pay off loans and help soften the blow of imploding living standards and shrinking social benefits.
Economists believe that Kiev’s debt to gross domestic product ratio has reached the red-alert level of 135 percent — more than double what it was at the start of the 15-month separatist crisis gripping the industrial east.
Ukraine’s growth is on course to shrink by 9.5 percent and rebound only marginally from its post-Soviet nadir next year.
And Kiev’s bid to drum up US investments during a Washington forum two weeks ago concluded with a stern lesson from US officials about the importance of wiping out the corruption still eroding Ukraine’s wealth.
“Now, they’ve got to put people in jail. They’ve got to actually do it,” US Vice President Joe Biden told his Ukrainian visitors. 

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