Britain Appoints Minister of Loneliness

FILE - A man sits by himself at a bus stop in London, Oct. 18, 2013. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said at the time that there were hundreds of thousands of people in England who were chronically lonely. A "minister of loneliness" has now been appointed to combat social isolation.

A man sits by himself at a bus stop in London, Oct. 18, 2013. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said at the time that there were hundreds of thousands of people in England who were chronically lonely. A "minister of loneliness" has now been appointed to combat social isolation.

 

Britain has appointed a minister of loneliness to combat social isolation experienced by one in 10 Britons.

Sports Minister Tracey Crouch will add the job to her existing portfolio to advance the work of slain lawmaker Jo Cox, who set up the Commission on Loneliness in 2016.

"For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life," Prime Minister Theresa May said Wednesday. "I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones — people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with."

The British Red Cross says more than 9 million Britons describe themselves as being always or often lonely, out of a population of 65.6 million.

Most people over age 75 in Britain live alone, and about 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month, government data show.

"We know that there is a real impact of social isolation and loneliness on people, on their physical and mental well-being but also on other aspects in society, and we want to tackle this challenge," Crouch told the BBC.

Openness or Protection? Czechs' Choice Echoes EU, US Votes

Election committee members are seen as they count votes after polling stations closed for the country's direct presidential election, in Prague, the Czech Republic, Jan. 13, 2018.

Election committee members are seen as they count votes after polling stations closed for the country's direct presidential election, in Prague, the Czech Republic, Jan. 13, 2018.

 

Czechs, like fellow voters from Europe to the United States, must weigh promises of a more outward-looking society against protection from the uncertainties of the global economy and immigration when they elect their president later this month.

In the run-off on Jan. 26-27, academic Jiri Drahos will face incumbent political veteran Milos Zeman in a contest that echoes a string of elections in the past two years across the European Union as well as Donald Trump's battle with Hillary Clinton for the White House.

Zeman - a 73-year-old who has courted the far-right in rejecting migrants from Muslim countries while pursuing warmer relations with Russia and China - won the first round with 38.6 percent of the vote, results showed on Saturday.

However, Drahos finished a solid second on 26.6 percent with support from liberal voters attracted by his policies favoring EU integration. The 68-year-old has also won endorsement from most of the other candidates eliminated in the first round.

Czech presidential candidate Jiri Drahos delivers a speech at his headquarters, after polling stations closed for the country's direct presidential election, in Prague, the Czech Republic, Jan. 13, 2018.
Czech presidential candidate Jiri Drahos delivers a speech at his headquarters, after polling stations closed for the country's direct presidential election, in Prague, the Czech Republic, Jan. 13, 2018.

Czech presidents wield limited executive powers but from their office in Prague Castle they appoint prime ministers and represent the nation abroad.

They can also influence public opinion at a time when Czech political, economic and social debate shows similarities to that in the United States, France and Austria as well as in fellow post-Communist neighbors Poland, Hungary and Slovakia.

Czech voters, like others, are split between those who have benefited from European integration and those who fear the impact of globalization and cultural change.

A woman casts her ballot during the first round of the presidential election at a polling station in Prague, Jan. 12, 2018.
A woman casts her ballot during the first round of the presidential election at a polling station in Prague, Jan. 12, 2018.

Tomas Klvana, a professor at NYU in Prague, draws parallels between Zeman's voter appeal and the U.S. president's.

"The pattern is affected by domestic issues but this is similar to Trump, turning to the same voters," he told Reuters.

"On one side there are more successful, better educated, younger people not afraid of opening up, integrating economically... and (on the other) are people who are less successful, less educated, have lower income and live in smaller towns."

Klvana also saw similarities between Zeman and two other central European leaders, right-wing Polish party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who have both picked fights with EU partners.

Political Novice

Drahos won the first round in the capital Prague, which has grown prosperous since the return to a free-market economy.

Zeman won in all other regions, and performed particularly strongly in areas that have struggled since the fall of Communism in 1989.

Czech President Milos Zeman, with his wife Ivana, attends a news conference, after polling stations closed for the country's presidential election, in Prague, Czech Republic, Jan. 13, 2018.
Czech President Milos Zeman, with his wife Ivana, attends a news conference, after polling stations closed for the country's presidential election, in Prague, Czech Republic, Jan. 13, 2018.

Drahos, a soft-spoken political novice and professor of chemistry, offers a direct contrast to Zeman, who has used expletives in live debates, relishes drinking and smokes heavily. In politics since the fall of Communism, Zeman also suffers from diabetes and has difficulty walking.

The clash is similar to Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen's fight against a far-right opponent in a 2016 presidential vote, Klvana said.

Beyond the region, French President Emmanuel Macron also offered a liberal vision when he beat far-right candidate Marine Le Pen last year.

Migration

Zeman has won votes with a tough stance on migration. The ethnically homogenous country of 10.6 million is united against accepting large number of refugees, even though few came in 2015 while hundreds of thousands arrived in neighboring Germany.

Like Zeman, Drahos opposes EU quotas that would force member states to share asylum seekers but he would accept a limited number seeking shelter if they met certain criteria.

While Drahos lacks Zeman's charisma among some voters, opinion polls show fewer view the father of two daughters in a negative light than the incumbent.

Drahos, who comes from a small town on the Slovak border, joined the Czech Academy of Sciences in 1976 but missed out on promotion until the 1989 Velvet Revolution as he refused offers to join the ruling Communist Party.

The physical chemist, who plays the piano and has sung in a chamber choir for four decades, eventually chaired the academy from 2009-2017.

Second Round Math

While Drahos trailed Zeman in the first round by 12 percentage points, he immediately won endorsements from five other candidates who collectively won 32.6 percent - making him a slight favorite at betting firms.

"The aim of Zeman's team will be to discourage those voters who are not rock-solid from voting for Drahos," said Marek Vocel, a former campaign leader for Karel Schwarzenberg who lost to Zeman in the last election in 2013. "Migration is a theme that moves almost everybody. I would expect that to feature in the debates."

Zeman has the backing of the Communists as well as the far-right anti-EU and anti-NATO SPD party.

On social media and websites that often carry pro-Russian content, Drahos was accused on Monday of being a weakling who would threaten the country and give in to foreign interests.

Drahos brushed off allegations that he had informed for the Communist secret police, or worse.

"My adversaries are hoping that if they ram down people's throats that I was an StB collaborator or a paedophile, it will stick with someone. I know Milos Zeman will come with blows below the belt," he told daily Mlada fronta Dnes in an interview published on Monday.

A woman walks past a presidential election campaign poster of incumbent Milos Zeman in Prague, Czech Republic, Jan. 11, 2018. The poster reads: "Zeman again 2018".
A woman walks past a presidential election campaign poster of incumbent Milos Zeman in Prague, Czech Republic, Jan. 11, 2018. The poster reads: "Zeman again 2018".

Zeman has insisted since declaring his candidacy last March that he was not actively campaigning. But he has had a weekly show on a sympathetic TV channel and traveled the country to meet voters, while posters proclaiming "Zeman Again" hang around the country.

He refused to face his first round rivals on TV, but has agreed to a debate with Drahos for the run-off.

Drahos's biggest declared campaign donations are from self-made businessmen, electronics firm founder Dalibor Dedek and real estate developer Ludek Sekyra, and asset management office BPD Partners. Zeman's donations include 2 million Czech crowns ($96,000) from a firm owned by arms industry entrepreneur Jaroslav Strnad.

Former President Vaclav Klaus, who also holds pro-Russian and anti-EU views, has backed Zeman. After the first round, he thanked Zeman voters for "not bowing to foreign interests," migration and the related "threat of liquidation of European and Czech culture, traditions and values."

($1 = 20.7890 Czech crowns)

Across the Mideast, Palestinians Brace for Trump Aid Cuts

Palestinians receive food aid at a U.N. warehouse in the Shati refugee camp, Gaza City, Jan. 14, 2018.

Palestinians receive food aid at a U.N. warehouse in the Shati refugee camp, Gaza City, Jan. 14, 2018.

 

Mahmoud al-Qouqa can't imagine life without the three sacks of flour, cooking oil and other staples he receives from the United Nations every three months.

Living with 25 relatives in a crowded home in this teeming Gaza Strip slum, the meager rations provided by UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugee families, are the last thing keeping his family afloat in the territory hard hit by years of poverty and conflict. But that could be in danger as the U.S., UNRWA's biggest donor, threatens to curtail funding.

"It will be like a disaster and no one can predict what the reaction will be," al-Qouqa said.

Across the Middle East, millions of people who depend on UNRWA are bracing for the worst. The expected cut could also add instability to struggling host countries already coping with spillover from other regional crises.

Palestinians receive food aid at a U.N. Relief and Works Agency warehouse in the Shati refugee camp, Gaza City, Jan. 14, 2018.
Palestinians receive food aid at a U.N. Relief and Works Agency warehouse in the Shati refugee camp, Gaza City, Jan. 14, 2018.

UNRWA was established in the wake of the 1948 Mideast war surrounding Israel's creation. An estimated 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes in the fighting.

In the absence of a solution for these refugees, the U.N. General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA's mandate, the original refugee camps have turned into concrete slums and more than 5 million refugees and their descendants now rely on the agency for services including education, health care and food. The largest populations are in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon.

Seen by the Palestinians and most of the international community as providing a valuable safety net, UNRWA is viewed far differently by Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accuses the agency of perpetuating the conflict by helping promote an unrealistic dream that these people have the "right of return" to long-lost properties in what is now Israel.

"UNRWA is part of the problem, not part of the solution," he told foreign journalists last week. Noting that the Palestinians are the only group served by a specific refugee agency, he said UNRWA should be abolished and its responsibilities taken over by the main U.N. refugee agency.

Some in Israel have even tougher criticism, accusing UNRWA of teaching hatred of Israel in its classrooms and tolerating or assisting Hamas militants in Gaza.

Blaming the Palestinians for lack of progress in Mideast peace efforts, President Donald Trump has threatened to cut American assistance to the Palestinians. UNRWA would be the first to be affected.

The U.S. provides about $355 million a year to UNRWA, roughly one-third of its budget.

U.S. officials in Washington said this week the administration is preparing to withhold tens of millions of dollars from the year's first contribution, cutting a planned $125 million installment by half or perhaps entirely. The decision could come as early as Tuesday.

Matthias Schmale, UNRWA's director in Gaza, said Washington has not informed the agency of any changes. However, "we are worried because of the statements ... in the media and the fact that the money hasn't arrived yet," he said.

Schmale dismissed the Israeli criticisms, saying that individuals who spread incitement or aid militants are isolated cases and promptly punished. And he said Netanyahu's criticism should be directed at the U.N. General Assembly, which sets UNRWA's mandate, not the agency itself.

Any cut in U.S. aid could ripple across the region with potentially unintended consequences.

A Palestinian woman has her child checked at an UNRWA-run clinic in the Shati refugee camp, Gaza City, Jan. 14, 2018.
A Palestinian woman has her child checked at an UNRWA-run clinic in the Shati refugee camp, Gaza City, Jan. 14, 2018.

Gaza may be the most challenging of all of UNRWA's operating areas. Two-thirds of Gaza's 2 million people qualify for services, and its role is amplified given the poor state of the economy, which has been hit hard by three wars with Israel and an ongoing Israeli-Egyptian blockade since the Hamas militant group seized power over a decade ago. Unemployment is 43 percent and the poverty rate is 38 percent, according to the official Palestinian statistics office.

"Nowhere else are we the biggest service provider for the population of the entire territory," Schmale said. He said UNRWA provides food assistance to 1 million Gazans, calling it "an expression of collective shame for the international community."

With more than 12,500 teachers, nurses and other staff, UNRWA is Gaza's largest non-governmental employer. It is also involved in postwar reconstruction projects.

The dire situation in Gaza is evident inside al-Qouqa's home, which is so cramped the family has made sleeping spaces with wood boards and fabric. Two male family members are unemployed. Two others are Hamas civil servants and get paid only intermittently by the cash-strapped movement.

At 72, al-Qouqa is worried about his grandchildren.

"If UNRWA provides them with bread, they can remain patient. But if it was cut, what will they become? They will become thieves, criminals and a burden on society," he said. Many believe Hamas, which administers schools and social services in Gaza, will step in to fill the void.

Jordan, a crucial ally in the U.S.-led battle against Islamic militants, is home to the largest number of Palestinian refugees and their descendants — with nearly 2.2 million people eligible for UNRWA services. This has turned the U.N. agency into a major contributor to social welfare services in the country, which also hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrians displaced by war.

U.S. aid cuts could heighten the threat of instability in Jordan, which is grappling with a worsening economy hurt by the spillover from conflict in neighboring Syria and Iraq. More than one-third of Jordan's young people are without jobs, turning them into potential targets for recruitment by extremists.

Most of the Palestinians eligible for UNRWA services in Jordan hold Jordanian citizenship, and some argue that this has ended their refugee status. But most maintain that UNRWA services are vital to propping up an important ally.

UNRWA's services are also vital in Lebanon, where Palestinians are prohibited from working in skilled professions and owning property.

Lebanon is the least-welcoming Arab country to Palestinian refugees, because it does not want Palestinians to settle and because it does not want the refugees to upset the country's delicate sectarian balance. Camps in several cities are ringed by concrete barriers and Lebanese security forces use checkpoints to control who enters and leaves. A recent census found 175,000 Palestinian refugees or their descendants living in the country.

Palestinians receive food aid at a U.N. warehouse in the Shati refugee camp, Gaza City, Jan. 14, 2018.
Palestinians receive food aid at a U.N. warehouse in the Shati refugee camp, Gaza City, Jan. 14, 2018.

The civil war in Syria has made many Palestinians refugees twice over. Some 32,000 Palestinians who were living in Syria fled to Lebanon, according to UNRWA. In Syria, Palestinians enjoyed the right to own property and to work in all professions. They are not entitled to the same in Lebanon.

Balkees Hameed, 33, arrived in 2013 with her husband, two children and in-laws from Damascus, where their apartment was damaged by rocket fire. The family depends on UNRWA assistance to rent a one-bedroom apartment in a ramshackle building in Bourj al-Barajneh, a Beirut camp. Her husband wipes tables at a restaurant outside the camp. Hameed, like all Palestinians, was painfully aware of the rumors coming out of Washington.

"We are already defeated and now they want to oppress us some more?" she asked.

While more than 5 million Syrian refugees worldwide are entitled to assistance from the U.N.'s general refugee relief agency, Palestinians are barred from it under the logic that UNRWA serves them. But UNRWA in Lebanon is chronically underfunded, and the wave of Palestinians arriving from Syria has strained its finances even further.

"What UNRWA provides is not even a quarter of what a Palestinian refugee needs," said Ramy Mansour, 34, who fled to Lebanon from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus in 2013. "Take everything and return us to our homes. We don't want any assistance or anything, just return us to our country."

New Demonstrations in Tunisia as it Marks 7th Anniversary of Arab Spring Uprising

People wave national flags during demonstrations on the seventh anniversary of the toppling of president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, in Tunis, Jan. 14, 2018.

People wave national flags during demonstrations on the seventh anniversary of the toppling of president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, in Tunis, Jan. 14, 2018.

 

Hundreds of people took the streets of Tunisia's capital for a new demonstration Sunday, and in one district police fired tear gas to disperse dozens of stone-throwing youths on the seventh anniversary of the ousting of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Fueled by rising frustrations with the country's social and economic issues, protesters have been demonstrating, at times violently, in Tunis and across the North African country this past week.

A witness told Reuters they saw youths around 20 years old throwing stones at police cars and setting fire to tires before security forces drove them back with tear gas.

"Work, Freedom and Dignity," the slogan chanted seven years ago has been invoked again.

"The revolution brought nothing concrete to our daily lives, which only get worse and worse," said Fatma Ben Hassine. "The politicians, whose only concern is their comfort, leave us in despair."

On Saturday, Tunisia announced plans to increase aid for poor families by $70.3 million, after days of protests over austerity measures.

"This will concern about 250,000 families," Mohamed Trabelsi, minister of social affairs, said. "It will help the poor and middle class."

Protesters shout slogans against rising prices and tax increases in Tunis, Tunisia, Jan. 13, 2018.
Protesters shout slogans against rising prices and tax increases in Tunis, Tunisia, Jan. 13, 2018.

Several hundred protestors took to the streets Saturday in Sidi Bouzid, where the 2011 uprising first began. And on Friday, protesters in cities and towns across the country waved yellow cards — a warning sign to the government — and brandished loaves of bread, a symbol of the day-to-day struggle to afford basic goods.

Anger has been growing since price hikes were introduced by the government earlier this month.

Since Monday, security forces have been deployed in Tunis and across the country. Several hundred people have been arrested, including opposition politicians, while dozens have been injured in clashes with police. A 55-year-old man died earlier this week, though the circumstances of his death remain unclear.

The demonstrations have gained momentum as anger grows over government tax hikes on top of already soaring inflation.

Protests in Tunisia Spur Government to Pledge Aid to Poor

Protesters shout slogans against rising prices and tax increases in Tunis, Tunisia, Jan. 13, 2018.

Protesters shout slogans against rising prices and tax increases in Tunis, Tunisia, Jan. 13, 2018.

 

Tunisia plans to increase aid for poor families by $70.3 million, after nearly a week of protests over austerity measures, an official said Saturday.

"This will concern about 250,000 families," Mohamed Trabelsi, minister of social affairs, said. "It will help the poor and middle class."

President Beji Caid Essebsi was also scheduled to visit the poor district of Ettadhamen in the capital, Tunis, which was hit by protests.

Essebsi was set to give a speech and open a cultural center, Reuters reported. It was to be the president's first visit to the district.

Several hundred protesters took to the streets Saturday in Sidi Bouzid, where a 2011 uprising began, touching off the Arab Spring protests. And on Friday, protesters in cities and towns across the country waved yellow cards — a warning sign to the government — and brandished loaves of bread, a symbol of the day-to-day struggle to afford basic goods.

Anger has been growing since the government introduced price hikes earlier this month, which came atop already soaring inflation.

Since Monday, security forces have been deployed in Tunis and across the country. Several hundred people have been arrested, including opposition politicians, while dozens have been injured in clashes with police. A 55-year-old man died earlier this week, though the circumstances of his death remained unclear.

The scenes of protest are reminiscent of January 2011, when demonstrations swept across the country, eventually toppling dictator Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali before spreading across the region.

"Why did we do the revolution? For jobs, for freedom and for dignity. We obtained freedom, sure — but we're going hungry," unemployed protester Walid Bejaoui said Friday.

One of the main protest organizations is using the Arabic social media hashtag "Fesh Nestannew?" or "What Are We Waiting For?" The group is urging a return to the spirit of the 2011 revolt.

"We believe a dialogue is still possible and reforms are still possible. The yellow card is to say, 'Attention: Today we have the same demands that we have been having for years. It's time to tackle the real problems, the economic crisis, the high cost of living,' " said Henda Chennaoui, a Fesh Nestannew protester.

Tunisian protesters clash with riot police during demonstrations against rising prices and tax increases, in Tunis, Tunisia, Jan. 12, 2018.
Tunisian protesters clash with riot police during demonstrations against rising prices and tax increases, in Tunis, Tunisia, Jan. 12, 2018.

The government enacted a new law this month raising taxes to try to cut the deficit, a move largely driven by Tunisia's obligations to its international creditors, said analyst Max Gallien of the London School of Economics.

"I think that this government feels that its ability to make its own economic policy or its ability to roll back these austerity reforms is very much limited by the demands of international financial institutions," he said, "primarily the IMF," or International Monetary Fund.

The government has condemned the violence but pledged to listen to the protesters.

"No matter what the government undertakes, its top priority — even during tough decisions — is improving the economic and social conditions of the people," Prime Minister Youssef Chahed told reporters Thursday.

So could the region witness a repeat of 2011, with the protests gaining momentum?

"We're looking at a different region now. But at the same time, there are similarities: the issue of austerity, of socioeconomic nationalization, of corruption and predation by elites," analyst Gallien said.

The Tunisian government's task is to address those deep-rooted problems before the protests spin out of control.

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