Australia considering resettlement for fleeing Saudi woman
By KAWEEWIT KAEWJINDA and TREVOR MARSHALLSEA
Wednesday, January 9
BANGKOK (AP) — A Saudi woman who fled her family, alleging abuse, moved a step closer Wednesday to her goal of gaining asylum in Australia after a U.N. agency granted her refugee status.
The Australian government said it was considering Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun for refugee resettlement, in a case that has advanced rapidly since the weekend when the 18-year-old barricaded herself in an airport hotel in Thailand and publicized her case on social media.
Alqunun arrived in Bangkok on a flight from Kuwait on Saturday, and planned to continue to Australia, where she held a tourist visa. But after being detained by Thai authorities, she refused to board a flight back to Kuwait.
After grabbing worldwide attention with dramatic posts on social media in which she said she feared for her safety if made to return home to her family, Alqunun eventually was placed in the care of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees as her bid for refugee status was considered.
Alqunun’s father denied physically abusing her or trying to force her into an arranged marriage, among the reasons she gave for her flight, Thailand’s Immigration Police chief said after meeting him Wednesday.
The father, whose name was not released and who was not seen by reporters, said he wants his daughter back but respects her decision, police Lt. Gen. Surachate Hakparn said. He described the man as being a governor in Saudi Arabia.
“He has 10 children. He said the daughter might feel neglected sometimes,” Surachate said. “But he didn’t go into detail.”
Alqunun refused to meet with her father, who arrived in the Thai capital on Tuesday. She had said in her online postings that she was afraid of such an encounter.
Alqunun arrived in Bangkok from Kuwait late Saturday, but was stopped from proceeding to her planned destination of Australia. After mounting a campaign for assistance on Twitter, she was allowed to temporarily stay in Thailand under the care of the U.N.’s refugee agency, which ruled her claim for asylum valid.
Australia’s Home Affairs Department said it would “consider this referral in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals.”
Indications from Canberra suggest Alqunun may receive a sympathetic hearing.
“If she is found to be a refugee, then we will give very, very, very serious consideration to a humanitarian visa,” Health Minister Greg Hunt told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. before the UNHCR’s referral.
The case has highlighted the cause of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Several female Saudis fleeing abuse by their families have been caught trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years and returned home. Human rights activists say many more similar cases will have gone unreported.
The influence of the Internet on Alqunun’s case was noted by several human rights advocates.
The representative in Australia of Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, said it was encouraging that Alqunun was able to highlight her situation using social media, and she hoped more Saudi women might act similarly.
“The unique thing about this case is that she had access to social media, and was able to report on it and bring the world’s attention to her plight,” said Pearson. “I think there are many cases like this that go unreported.”
A similar point was made by UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch, who said that what was different in Alqunun’s case was that “the wave of all of the voices of solidarity and support came together, joined up in terms of caring for this individual.”
Surachate discussed Alqunun’s situation on Tuesday with Saudi Charge d’Affaires in Thailand Abdalelah Mohammed A. Alsheaiby. In a video clip of the meeting released by Thai immigration police, Alsheaiby is heard telling Thai officials: “From the moment she arrived, she opened a new account and her followers reached almost 45,000 in a day . and I would have preferred it better if her phone was taken instead of her passport.”
The comments sparked anger on social media. Surachate said that police could not confiscate her phone because she was not being detained and said that the Saudi diplomat’s remark was “just an opinion” and “nothing to be taken seriously.”
A Tuesday statement from the Saudi Embassy in Thailand denied interfering in Alqunun’s case, and said it was only monitoring her situation. Describing her case as a “family affair,” it said Saudi officials had neither seized her passport — as Alqunun had claimed several times — nor demanded her deportation back home.
The embassy and Thai officials earlier said that Alqunun was stopped by Thai authorities because she did not have a return ticket, a hotel reservation or itinerary to show she was a tourist, which appeared to have raised a red flag about the reasons for her trip.
Saudi Arabia’s wider human rights record has come under intense scrutiny since the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi in October. Khashoggi, who wrote critically of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in columns for The Washington Post, had been living in self-imposed exile before Saudi agents killed and dismembered him inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
The kingdom offered various shifting accounts of the circumstances of his death before eventually settling on the explanation that he died in a botched operation to forcibly bring him back to Saudi Arabia.
Marshallsea reported from Sydney. Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten contributed to this report from Geneva.
On his Mideast trip, Pompeo makes unannounced Iraq stop
By PHILIP ISSA
Wednesday, January 9
BAGHDAD (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Iraq on Wednesday in an unannounced stop on his Mideast tour meant to promote the White House’s hard-line position on Iran.
The trip comes amid confusion over conflicting statements by President Donald Trump and senior U.S. officials about a planned U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria, where Iran is backing President Bashar Assad in that country’s lengthy civil war.
Pompeo, addressing reporters, said he told Iraqi officials that “the fight to counter Iran is real and important.”
Pompeo and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi discussed efforts to ensure the “lasting defeat throughout the region” of the Islamic State group, said Deputy State Department spokesman Robert Palladino.
Pompeo also promoted the U.S. push to move Iraq toward energy independence, said Palladino. Iraq imports electricity and natural gas from Iran to meet its energy needs.
Iran has cultivated close ties with Iraqi politicians and religious and business leaders since the 2003 U.S. invasion toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein and destabilized the country. Neutralizing those relations will be a difficult — and possibly dangerous — task. Iran has the ear of several powerful Iraqi militias that rival the might of the country’s U.S.-funded security forces.
Abdul-Mahdi and Parliament Speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi, who met with Pompeo separately, both said they told the American diplomat that Iraq values good relations with its neighbors.
In Jordan on Tuesday, Pompeo said the Syria withdrawal would not detract from U.S. efforts to contain Iran’s considerable clout in the region. The White House reinstated sanctions against Iran last year for allegedly violating the 2015 nuclear deal championed by former President Barack Obama. International nuclear inspectors had said there was no evidence that Iran was violating the deal.
Pompeo on Wednesday also met with Iraqi President Barham Salih, Foreign Minister Mohamed Alhakim. He stressed the U.S.’s support for strong, bi-lateral relations based on the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement between the two countries, five years after the U.S. invasion that deposed former dictator Saddam Hussein and plunged Iraq into civil war.
He later traveled to Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish Regional Government in the north to meet with officials in Irbil.
Pompeo’s visit is the third high-profile visit by an American official to Iraq in the last month. Iraqi politicians were incensed when Trump last month made an unscheduled visit to a U.S. base in western Iraq without also meeting Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, as his predecessors Obama and George W. Bush had done.
Trump said on his Dec. 26 visit that the United States could use its bases in Iraq as a platform for continued operations against the Islamic State group in Syria.
The visit left lawmakers smarting and prompted calls to annul a 2014 agreement that brought U.S. forces back to Iraq. Some 5,200 U.S. troops are now stationed in the country.
Earlier in December, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry urged Iraq to sever its energy dependence on Iran and open its energy sector to American investment. He was in Baghdad with a trade delegation arranged by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Pompeo was expected in Cairo later on Wednesday.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Cairo contributed to this report.
Market bubbles and sonic attacks: Mass hysterias will never go away
Updated January 8, 2019
Were U.S. diplomats at the embassy in Cuba stricken by a mass delusion?
Author: Barry Markovsky, Professor of Sociology, University of South Carolina
Disclosure statement: Barry Markovsky does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: University of South Carolina provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
Ancient and quaint seem the days of witch crazes, demon scares and tulip manias. Instances of mass hysteria may strike you as rare events in modern advanced societies. But such outbreaks are products of their times. They’re still around today, just in different guises.
Aided and abetted by its status as an internet meme, the myth of an evil, supernatural Slenderman has been panicking adolescents since 2009, even culminating in an attempted murder by proxy. If it’s easy to brush this off as a case of impressionable teens with too much internet access, then what of otherwise rational late 20th-century American adults participating in suicide cults, Puerto Rico’s mythical cattle-killing Chupacabra monster, the “irrational exuberance” of the dot-com bubble in the 1990s, or the seemingly insane rush to make bad real estate investments in the latter 2000s?
A diplomatic dustup between the U.S. and Cuba may be the latest well-publicized case of collective delusion. In 2017, the U.S. State Department claimed its diplomats in Havana were subjected to “sonic attacks” that produced a range of physical symptoms including hearing loss, headaches and dizziness. Consequently, the federal government pulled out most of its embassy staff and sent packing most Cuban diplomats stationed in the U.S.
Although medical exams have identified unusual physical conditions in some diplomats, those exams lacked proper experimental controls and fall well short of providing evidence for any sort of sonic attack. There remains no demonstrably valid evidence that diplomats were subjected to sonic attacks at the American embassy in Havana – and a good deal of evidence has now been amassed suggestive of the contrary. The latest culprit to be fingered is the chirping of crickets or cicadas – in conjunction with mass hysteria.
So how do otherwise logical and informed 21st-century people fall under the spell of these mass delusions? Over the past several decades, psychologists and sociologists have used examples like these to dig into when and how this kind of false belief gains traction.
A recipe for collective delusion
Collective delusions are the culprits behind mass hysterias and related phenomena. As traditionally defined, they’re characterized by a rapid, spontaneous and temporary spread of false beliefs within a circumscribed population.
Nowadays that circumscribed population can be a virtual one, bounded only by cyber-connections to a shared source of misinformation. The recent upsurge in vocal flat-Earth proponents, for example, is not the result of geographical neighbors whipping each other into a near frenzy. Social media makes it easy to find like-minded others, serve distorted information to the curious, and stir up excitement about events such as the 2017 eclipse, celebrity endorsements, and a proposed rocket launch by a flat-Earth proponent intended to prove once and for all that we are all living on a disc.
Collective delusions emerge under a combination of several conditions. Each of these precursors is straightforward enough, but it’s harder to foresee when they might occur in concert. In turn, this makes predicting delusional outbreaks a very inexact science.
The most obvious precursor is the presence of multiple people who are sufficiently connected so as to share information or experiences.
Second, just as an isolated individual may develop some beliefs and behaviors that depart from prevailing norms, collective delusions and responses are more likely to occur in relatively insular groups or networks.
Third, a collective delusion is more likely to take hold if the group is undergoing some kind of distress. This could be rising unemployment, political destabilization or an enemy’s threats of warfare. On a smaller scale, a town may lose a crucial employer, or a fire-and-brimstone minister can instigate a satanic panic with rumors of baby-killing cults.
And fourth, the stressors are potent enough to trigger, in at least some individuals, either a psychosomatic response or scapegoating behavior. Psychosomatic reactions – physical symptoms with psychological causes – may be as mild as itching or as severe as blindness. Scapegoating involves blaming a group of innocent (or possibly nonexistent) others for causing problems – psychosomatic or otherwise.
When conditions are ripe, this catalyzing subset of group members sets off a chain reaction. They begin to seek and identify external causes for their distress, or sources for its relief. Psychosomatic responses spread; contempt for the scapegoats grows. People become hypervigilant and toss critical thinking out the window, looking for and finding imagined threats. Conspiracy theories are spawned, angels and demons invoked, fears stoked, panic induced. The supernatural may start to seem natural.
As more and more group members become ensnared in a positive feedback loop, the perceived threat is legitimized, only broadening and deepening social distress further. Because they are inherently newsworthy, mass delusions are picked up by mass media, which fan the flames even more.
In these ways, a nonexistent threat can set off a self-sustaining cascade of irrationality that lasts until the perceived threat recedes.
Delusion everywhere, to different degrees?
While descriptions of mass hysterias make great reading, they represent only the far end of a continuum of what sociologists like me call social diffusion processes. For the most part, these are quite mundane – you might recognize a few from your own daily life. While around the world stock market bubbles and bank runs make news, less frenetic responses to perceived threats and conspiracies abound: the 9/11 “truthers,” the recent uptick in flat-Earth beliefs, fears of gluten and genetically modified foods, climate change deniers, wars on science on some liberal college campuses, and more. Even the desire to be fashionable can be seen as a response to the fear of being excluded.
Simple mathematical equations can quite elegantly describe the speed, duration and extensiveness of the spread of beliefs and behaviors. A typical “diffusion model” shows how the penetration through a population of such things as beliefs, behaviors, illnesses, innovations or products is determined by just a few parameters. These typically include the group’s size, the density of its members’ interconnections and the inherent contagiousness of the thing being spread.
Irrational beliefs, and the often ill-considered responses they engender, can spread like an infection across groups as large as nations or as small as nuclear families. Sunshine, as they say, is the best disinfectant. Social impact theory would suggest that the best approach to administering social disinfectant is via large numbers of geographically nearby, authoritative nonbelievers.
In the case of the supposed sonic attacks in Cuba, one approach to stemming the scare would have been a rapidly deployed on-site investigation by acoustic experts, neurologists, psychiatrists and military strategists. A folklorist as well wouldn’t hurt. Short of such a full-frontal counterattack, disseminating easy-to-digest skeptical information as early as possible in the process should help to slow the diffusion process and quell a mass delusion.
It’s easy enough to be caught up in a mass delusion. Fads and fashions are great examples, though their most harmful consequence may be our embarrassment when we look back on some of our previous style choices. As long as people are stressed and living in groups, most of our mass delusions will remain invisible to us until they have already run their course.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on Dec. 18, 2017.
Malta takes stranded migrants off boats in EU deal
By STEPHEN CALLEJA and FRANCES D’EMILIO
Wednesday, January 9
VALLETTA, Malta (AP) — Racing an approaching storm, Maltese military vessels took to shore 49 migrants who were kept in limbo on private rescue ships until the island nation reached a deal Wednesday for the asylum-seekers to be distributed among eight other European Union members.
The deal ended an impasse that kept the migrants stuck on the rescue boats while European governments negotiated which countries would take them. A ship operated by German rescue group Sea-Watch picked up 32 people on Dec. 22. Another aid group, Sea-Eye, rescued 17 in waters off Libya on Dec. 29.
“After 19 days at sea, our guests finally have a safe haven,” a tweet from Sea-Watch’s account read. “It is a testament to state failure; politics should never be played at the cost of people in need.”
When the deal was announced, the aid boats were about 5 nautical miles off the coast of Malta, which denied them permission to port but let the vessels shelter in its territorial waters during the negotiations.
Under the deal announced by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, the vessels won’t be allowed into Maltese ports. Instead, the arrangement called for the 49 migrants to be taken aboard by military vessels and then brought to the island nation.
Muscat said the ad hoc deal illustrated anew that the EU needs a comprehensive policy on migrants who are rescued while trying to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea.
“I think it is obvious that we need something more structured and long-term,” he told reporters. “However, right now, I think it would be delusional to think that there is the political climate for this to happen.”
The deal also meets Malta’s demand for other countries to take many of the 249 migrants Maltese military vessels rescued in late December. The agreement calls for 131 to be relocated to other EU nations, 74 to remain in Malta and to have EU experts review the circumstances of 44 migrants from Bangladesh before their destinations are decided.
Germany agreed to take 60 migrants from Malta, some from the stranded rescue ships and some Maltese boats rescued in December. Italy was another of the eight countries that agreed to let in migrants from the Sea-Watch and Sea-Eye ships.
Like Malta, Italy has refused to let private aid vessels dock in its ports since last year. The latest standoff at sea sharply divided the partners in Italy’s populist government, the right-wing League party and the euroskeptic 5-Star Movement.
Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte had said Italy was willing to receive 15 children and their parents, stridently anti-migrant Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini reacted angrily to Malta’s announcement of a deal.
“I am and remain absolutely contrary to new arrivals in Italy,” he said.
At EU headquarters in Brussels, “they pretend to not understand and facilitate the work of (migrant) smugglers and NGOs,” said Salvini, who serves as interior minister.
“To give in to the pressures and the threats of Europe and NGOs is a signal of weakness that Italians don’t deserve,” he added in a possible jab at Conte and the leader of the 5-Star Movement.
Aggravating tensions within the coalition government, Salvini later declared that he would disregard Italy’s consent to the deal and refuse to let any of the 49 migrants into the country. It was unclear if he would follow through in defiance of Conte.
Salvini was in Warsaw on Wednesday for meetings with officials from Poland’s government, which refused to accept any of the 49 migrants. He has been pushing for far-right political parties and sovereignty-advocating movements like his League to join forces for European Parliament elections in May and the chance to steer EU policy on immigration.
The other countries in Wednesday deal are France, Portugal, Ireland, Romania, Luxembourg and Netherlands.
The migrants at the center of the EU-brokered deal are among the waves of people from Africa, Asia and the Middle East who fled poverty and armed conflicts and risked their lives aboard smugglers’ boats bound for Europe in recent years.
Police in Spain said Wednesday they broke up a gang that allegedly smuggled people and drugs on boats from Morocco and charged migrants up to 2,000 euros ($2,300) a trip.
The number of migrants reaching Spain by sea has surged amid Italy’s refusal to let private rescue vessels into its ports. European Union border agency Frontex says about 57,000 migrant crossings were detected last year in Spain, twice as many as during 2017.
Frances D’Emilio reported from Rome. AP writers David Rising and Geir Moulson in Berlin and Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal, contributed to this report.