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Voice of America’s immigration news - May 25, 2024 - 09:00
Give us 5 minutes, and we'll give you the world. Around the clock, Voice of America keeps you in touch with the latest news. We bring you reports from our correspondents and interviews with newsmakers from across the world.

India holds the penultimate phase of mammoth election

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 25, 2024 - 08:32
New Delhi — Millions of Indians lined up Saturday at polling booths to cast their votes in the penultimate phase of the country’s multistage election in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking a third term in office. The polling was held in 58 constituencies across eight states and federal territories amid a scorching heat wave that has seen temperatures in parts of north India soar to 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) in the past week. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, which is pitted against an opposition alliance of the Congress Party and regional parties, is widely expected to win the elections. Among the most closely watched contests are seven parliamentary seats in the capital, Delhi, where the BJP faces a joint fight mounted by the Aam Aadmi Party headed by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and the Congress Party. Kejriwal, who was arrested in March in connection with corruption allegations, was released on bail by the Supreme Court earlier this month to allow him to campaign. In fiery speeches, Kejriwal has accused Modi of sending opposition leaders to jail to cripple his political rivals. “People are voting in large numbers against dictatorship, inflation and unemployment,” he said after casting his vote. Political analyst Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay said, “I think Kejriwal’s release and his campaign [have] given a huge momentum to the opposition. Many people do see the allegations against him as politically motivated and believe he was arrested to prevent him from campaigning.” The BJP’s optimism about returning to power relies largely on Modi’s popularity, especially in populous northern states. The party had won 45 of the 58 seats where polling was conducted on Saturday. In a message on social media platform X, Modi called on people, especially women and youth, to vote in large numbers. "Democracy thrives when its people are engaged and active in the electoral process." Among those who cast their vote early was Sanjay Jha, a fruit seller in New Delhi. “Modi is a very good leader for the country. There is nobody like him,” said Jha, folding his hands as a mark of respect for the Indian leader. Jha cites Modi’s inauguration of a grand Hindu temple earlier this year on the site of a mosque destroyed three decades ago among the reasons for his support. In the Hindu majority country, the BJP’s Hindu nationalist policies have won Modi wide support, but critics call him a polarizing leader. During the campaign, he has been accused of using divisive rhetoric — at rallies he and other top leaders of the BJP have said the Congress Party plans to favor Muslims at the expense of Hindus if voted to power. Modi has said he is not against Islam or Muslims. In a country where the opposition has been weakened over the last decade by the rise of the BJP, lawyer Vartika Sharma, a New Delhi resident, said she wants to see both a strong government and a strong opposition. “I am happy that the BJP government took some strong decisions that were good for the country, but somewhere the radicalization that is happening, I am not able to agree to it,” said Sharma after casting her vote. “Whichever government comes should uphold the constitution principles and weed out corruption.” Before elections began, Modi had set a goal of attaining a supermajority by winning, along with his party’s allies, 400 of the 543 elected seats in the lower house of parliament. While the BJP is expected to emerge ahead of other parties, the opposition is hoping to make gains amid disaffection on the ground over joblessness and rising prices. The Congress party has flagged the need to address rising unemployment and alleviate rural distress and has focused its campaign on the need for social justice. “The BJP appeared to be supremely confident when the election got underway. But Modi has failed to construct an overarching national narrative, as a result of which the election is now focused on local constituency level issues. There is no one single issue binding the campaign,” according to analyst Mukhopadhyay. As the heat wave raised fears for voters who often have to wait in long lines at polling stations, the Election Commission put up tents and mist fans and deployed paramedics at polling stations in Delhi. The blistering weather did not deter 90-year-old K.C. Gupta in New Delhi from casting his vote. “I think something must be done to improve the lives of people in this country, especially the lower strata. They should be helped as much as possible,” he said. The final round of voting will be held on June 1, and votes will be counted on June 4. The results are expected the same day.

VOA Newscasts

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 25, 2024 - 08:00
Give us 5 minutes, and we'll give you the world. Around the clock, Voice of America keeps you in touch with the latest news. We bring you reports from our correspondents and interviews with newsmakers from across the world.

VOA Newscasts

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 25, 2024 - 07:00
Give us 5 minutes, and we'll give you the world. Around the clock, Voice of America keeps you in touch with the latest news. We bring you reports from our correspondents and interviews with newsmakers from across the world.

G7 ministers move closer to Russian assets deal to help Ukraine

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 25, 2024 - 06:34
Stresa, Italy — Finance ministers representing the G7 are expected Saturday to agree a broad plan to use interest from frozen Russian assets for Ukraine, paving the way for a potential agreement among leaders next month. The challenge of finding more funds for Ukraine as it battles fresh territorial advances by Russia after more than two years of war has dominated a meeting of finance ministers from the world's richest democracies in the northern Italian city of Stresa. The meeting comes as Kyiv said it had "stopped" the Russian advance in the Kharkiv region. But Ukraine's General Staff acknowledged Saturday "the enemy has partial success" and "the situation is tense" as fighting continued. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has increased appeals for help as his army has struggled. Washington on Friday announced a new $275 million package of military aid for Kyiv. Ukrainian Finance Minister Sergii Marchenko was to attend Saturday's G7 meeting in Stresa seeking to tap interest from frozen Russian assets. Any detailed agreement would require the approval of G7 leaders, who meet next month in Puglia, but observers have suggested that a deal "in principle" could be agreed on Saturday. "We need to reach a declaration of principle that marks the overall agreement of the G7 countries to use revenues from Russian assets to finance Ukraine," French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said. He said ministers aim to "reach a political agreement in principle, not a turnkey solution." The European Union's economy commissioner, Paolo Gentiloni, also expressed cautious optimism, saying there was "a positive convergence" at the talks toward the concept of tapping profits from frozen Russian assets. Calls have mounted this year in the West to set up a fund for Ukraine using billions of dollars in bank accounts, investments and other assets frozen since Russia's 2022 invasion. Many questions Noting there remained "many details yet to be clarified," Gentiloni said the discussions "may lead to an agreement" at the G7 summit in Puglia June 13-15. Italian Finance Minister Giancarlo Giorgetti, too, said he and his counterparts were eyeing "the basis for a solution for the mid-June summit." The EU this week formally approved a plan to use interest from Russian assets frozen by the bloc in what it estimates could generate up to three billion euros a year for Ukraine. But the United States has maintained that G7 countries can go further, with U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen urging ministers to consider "more ambitious options." The U.S. idea would involve the creation of a $50 billion loan facility for Ukraine backed by future interest generated by the frozen Russian assets. While it would provide a bigger boost to Ukraine, the proposal has raised questions, including who would issue the debt, how risk would be shared between the United States and other G7 nations, and how interest rates could evolve. "We're not going to talk about amounts," Le Maire said. "I think we need to talk about method first." In February, the United States argued that G7 nations should seize the frozen assets outright, an idea it later backed away from due to the concern of allies that it could be a dangerous legal precedent and that Russia could retaliate. 

VOA Newscasts

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 25, 2024 - 06:00
Give us 5 minutes, and we'll give you the world. Around the clock, Voice of America keeps you in touch with the latest news. We bring you reports from our correspondents and interviews with newsmakers from across the world.

VOA Newscasts

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 25, 2024 - 05:00
Give us 5 minutes, and we'll give you the world. Around the clock, Voice of America keeps you in touch with the latest news. We bring you reports from our correspondents and interviews with newsmakers from across the world.

US, Chinese defense chiefs to meet following Taiwan tension

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 25, 2024 - 04:49
Washington — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will meet his Chinese counterpart, the Pentagon announced Friday, after Beijing carried out war games around Taiwan in a sign to the U.S.-backed democracy's new leader. The Pentagon said that Austin would meet Chinese Admiral Dong Jun when they attend the May 31-June 2 Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual gathering of defense officials around the world. China this week encircled Taiwan with warships and fighter jets in a test of its ability to seize the island, which it claims. The drills followed the inauguration of President Lai Ching-te, who has vowed to safeguard self-ruling Taiwan's democracy. Austin's meeting with Dong had been widely expected since they spoke by telephone in April, in what were the first substantive talks between the two powers' defense chiefs in nearly 18 months. President Joe Biden's administration and China have been stepping up communication to ease friction, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken visiting Beijing and Shanghai last month. But defense talks had lagged behind until Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to a resumption of military dialogue during a summit with Biden in California in November. Austin will also travel next week to Cambodia for talks with defense ministers of the Southeast Asian bloc ASEAN and end his trip in France, where he will join President Joe Biden in commemorations of the 80th anniversary of D-Day. The trip was announced even though Austin late Friday handed over duties for about two-and-a-half hours to his deputy, Kathleen Hicks, due to his latest medical procedure. Austin is a key figure in Western efforts to support Ukraine against a Russian offensive. He "underwent a successful, elective, and minimally invasive follow-up non-surgical procedure" related to a previously reported bladder issue at the Walter Reed military hospital in Washington, Pentagon spokesman Major General Pat Ryder said. During the procedure, Hicks served as acting secretary of defense, and Austin "resumed his functions and duties" as defense secretary later Friday evening and returned home, Ryder said. The transparency comes after a furor when Austin vanished from public view for cancer treatment in December and again in January when he suffered complications. A spotlight-shunning retired general, Austin, 70, said later that he was a "pretty private guy" and did not want to burden others with his problems. But Biden's Republican rivals went on the attack after it was revealed that Austin did not inform the chain of command. Austin widely informed the government and public when he returned to the hospital in February for the bladder issue connected with Friday's procedure.

China ends military drills around Taiwan

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 25, 2024 - 04:15
Beijing — China has ended two days of military drills around Taiwan that saw jets loaded with live munitions and warships practice seizing and isolating the self-ruled island. The exercises simulated strikes targeting Taiwan's leaders as well as its ports and airports to "cut off the island's 'blood vessels,'" Chinese military analysts told state media. Beijing considers the democratic island part of its territory and has not ruled out using force to bring it under its control. The war games kicked off Thursday morning, as aircraft and naval vessels surrounded Taiwan to conduct mock attacks against "important targets," state broadcaster CCTV said. Codenamed "Joint Sword-2024A," the exercises were launched three days after Taiwan's new President Lai Ching-te took office and made an inauguration speech that China denounced as a "confession of independence." Beijing's defense ministry spokesperson Wu Qian said Friday that Lai was pushing Taiwan "into a perilous situation of war and danger." "Every time 'Taiwan independence' provokes us, we will push our countermeasures one step further, until the complete reunification of the motherland is achieved," he said. Taiwan has been self-governed since 1949, when nationalists fled to the island following their defeat by the Chinese Communist Party in a civil war on the mainland. The drills are part of an escalating campaign of intimidation by China that has seen it carry out a series of large-scale military exercises around Taiwan in recent years. Beijing has also amped up its rhetoric, with its foreign ministry Thursday using language more typical of China's propaganda outlets. "Taiwan independence forces will be left with their heads broken and blood flowing after colliding against the great... trend of China achieving complete unification," spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters. On Saturday, Taiwan's presidency said the public could be assured it had "a full grasp of the situation and appropriate responses to ensure national security." "China's recent unilateral provocation not only undermines the status quo of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait but it is also a blatant provocation to the international order," Presidential Office spokesperson Karen Kuo said. 'Closer than ever' A total of 111 Chinese aircraft and dozens of naval vessels took part in the drills over two days, according to Taiwan's defense ministry. On Friday evening, China's army published images of the drills' "highlights," featuring missile-launching trucks ready to fire, fighter jets taking off and naval officers looking through binoculars at Taiwanese ships. Meng Xiangqing, a professor from Beijing-based National Defense University, told state news agency Xinhua that People's Liberation Army vessels "were getting closer to the island than ever before." Beijing launched similar exercises in August and April last year after Taiwanese leaders visited the United States. China also launched major military exercises in 2022 after Nancy Pelosi, then the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, visited Taiwan. The scale of the most recent drills was "significant, but is nowhere near as big, it seems, as last August's," Wen-Ti Sung, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Global China Hub, told AFP. Sung and other analysts told AFP that the geographic scope of the exercises had increased, with a new focus on isolating Taiwan's outlying islands. The drills took place in the Taiwan Strait and to the north, south and east of the island, as well as areas around the Taipei-administered islands of Kinmen, Matsu, Wuqiu and Dongyin. Tong Zhen, an expert from the Academy of Military Sciences, told Xinhua the drills "mainly targeted the ringleaders and political center of 'Taiwan independence,' and involved simulated precision strikes on key political and military targets." Calls for restraint The dispute has long made the Taiwan Strait one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints. The United Nations called for all sides to avoid escalation. The United States, Taiwan's strongest partner and military backer, on Thursday "strongly" urged China to act with restraint. The Pentagon announced Friday that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin would meet his Chinese counterpart Dong Jun at the end of the month at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual gathering of defense officials from around the world. "Beijing is trying to use this very high-profile show of force to not only show displeasure against Taiwan, but also... to deter and dissuade other countries and partners from contemplating further cooperation or engagement of Taiwan," said the Atlantic Council's Sung. "That furthers isolation of Taiwan, which allows Beijing to negotiate with Taiwan going forward from a position of strength." Chinese military analyst Meng noted that the drills to the east -- considered by the PLA the most likely direction from which external intervention could come -- was designed to reinforce that message. “’Taiwan independence' separatists have long considered the island's eastern direction to be their backyard and 'shelter,' but the drills have shown that we can control that eastern area," Meng told Xinhua.

VOA Newscasts

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 25, 2024 - 04:00
Give us 5 minutes, and we'll give you the world. Around the clock, Voice of America keeps you in touch with the latest news. We bring you reports from our correspondents and interviews with newsmakers from across the world.

Israel strikes Rafah after top UN court orders it to halt offensive

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 25, 2024 - 03:21
Rafah, Gaza Strip — Israel bombed the Gaza Strip, including Rafah, on Saturday, a day after the top U.N. court ordered it to halt military operations in the southern city as efforts get under way in Paris to seek a cease-fire in the war sparked by Hamas's October 7 attack. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) also demanded the immediate release of all hostages still held by Palestinian militants, hours after the Israeli military announced troops had recovered the bodies of three more of the captives from northern Gaza. The Hague-based court, whose orders are legally binding but lack direct enforcement mechanisms, also ordered Israel to keep open the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza, which it closed earlier this month at the start of its assault on the city. Israel gave no indication it was preparing to change course in Rafah, insisting that the court had got it wrong. "Israel has not and will not carry out military operations in the Rafah area that create living conditions that could cause the destruction of the Palestinian civilian population, in whole or in part," National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said in a joint statement with Israel's foreign ministry spokesperson. The Palestinian militant group Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, welcomed the ICJ ruling on Rafah but criticized its decision to exclude the rest of war-torn Gaza from the order. 'Nothing left here' Hours after the ICJ ruling, Israel carried out strikes on the Gaza Strip early Saturday while clashes between the Israeli army and the armed wing of Hamas continued. Palestinian witnesses and AFP teams reported Israeli strikes in Rafah and the central city of Deir al-Balah. "We hope that the court's decision will put pressure on Israel to end this war of extermination, because there is nothing left here," said Oum Mohammad Al-Ashqa, a Palestinian woman from Gaza City displaced to Deir al-Balah by the war. "But Israel is a state that considers itself above the law. Therefore, I do not believe that the shooting or the war will stop other than by force," said Mohammed Saleh, also met by AFP in the central Gaza Strip city. In its keenly awaited ruling, the ICJ said Israel must "immediately halt its military offensive, and any other action in the Rafah Governorate, which may inflict on the Palestinian group in Gaza conditions of life that could bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part." It ordered Israel to open the Rafah crossing for humanitarian aid and also called for the "immediate and unconditional release" of the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. The Gaza war broke out after Hamas's October 7 attack resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures. Militants also took 252 hostages, 121 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the army says are dead. Israel's retaliatory offensive has killed at least 35,800 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry. The Israeli military said the three hostages whose bodies were recovered in north Gaza on Friday -- Israeli hostage Chanan Yablonka, Brazilian-Israeli Michel Nisenbaum and French-Mexican Orion Hernandez Radoux -- were "murdered" during the October 7 attack and their bodies taken to Gaza. Paris meetings The court order comes ahead of separate meetings on the Gaza conflict in Paris between the CIA chief and Israeli representatives on one side and French President Emmanuel Macron and the foreign ministers of four key Arab states on the other. Cease-fire talks involving U.S., Egyptian and Qatari mediators ended shortly after Israel launched the Rafah operation, though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office this week said the war cabinet had asked the Israeli delegation "to continue negotiations for the return of the hostages." CIA chief Bill Burns was expected to meet Israeli representatives in Paris in a bid to relaunch negotiations, a Western source close to the issue said. Separately, French President Emmanuel Macron received the prime minister of Qatar and the Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers on Friday "to press for a cease-fire," according to Cairo. The French presidency said they held talks on the Gaza war and ways to set up a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The five countries discussed "the effective implementation of the two-state solution," it added. Top U.S. diplomat Antony Blinken also spoke with Israeli war Cabinet minister Benny Gantz about new efforts to achieve a cease-fire and reopening of the Rafah border crossing as soon as possible, Washington said. 'End this nightmare' Israeli ground troops started moving into Rafah in early May, defying global opposition. Troops took over the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, further slowing sporadic deliveries of aid for Gaza's 2.4 million people. But on Friday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi agreed in a call with his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden to allow U.N. aid through the other entry point into southern Gaza, the Kerem Shalom crossing from Israel, the White House said. The U.S. military has also installed a temporary jetty on the Gaza coast to receive aid by sea that a U.N. spokesman said had delivered 97 trucks of aid after "a rocky start" a week ago. The security and humanitarian situation in the territory remains alarming, with a risk of famine, hospitals out of service, and around 800,000 people, according to the United Nations, having fled Rafah in the last two weeks. U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said the situation had reached "a moment of clarity." "Aid workers and U.N. staff must be able to carry out their jobs in safety," he posted on social media site X late Friday. "At a time when the people of Gaza are staring down famine... it is more critical than ever to heed the calls made over the last seven months: Release the hostages. Agree a cease-fire. End this nightmare."

5 things to know about the US Memorial Day holiday

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 25, 2024 - 03:00
NORFOLK, Virginia — Memorial Day is supposed to be about mourning the nation's fallen service members, but it's come to anchor the unofficial start of summer and a long weekend of discounts on anything from mattresses to lawn mowers.  But for people such as Manuel Castaneda Jr., the day is very personal. He lost his father, a U.S. Marine who served in Vietnam, in an accident in 1966 in California while his father was training other Marines.  "It isn't just the specials. It isn't just the barbecue," Castaneda told The Associated Press in a discussion about Memorial Day last year.  Castaneda also served in the Marines and Army National Guard, from which he knew men who died in combat. But he tries not to judge others who spend the holiday differently: "How can I expect them to understand the depth of what I feel when they haven't experienced anything like that?"  1. Why is Memorial Day celebrated?  It's a day of reflection and remembrance of those who died while serving in the U.S. military, according to the Congressional Research Service. The holiday is observed in part by the National Moment of Remembrance, which encourages all Americans to pause at 3 p.m. for a moment of silence.  2. What are the origins of Memorial Day?  The holiday stems from the American Civil War, which killed more than 600,000 service members — both Union and Confederate — between 1861 and 1865.  There's little controversy over the first national observance of what was then called Decoration Day. It occurred May 30, 1868, after an organization of Union veterans called for decorating war graves with flowers, which were in bloom.  The practice was already widespread on a local level. Waterloo, New York, began a formal observance on May 5, 1866, and was later proclaimed to be the holiday's birthplace.  Yet Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, traced its first observance to October 1864, according to the Library of Congress. And women in some Confederate states were decorating graves before the war's end.  David Blight, a Yale history professor, points to May 1, 1865, when as many as 10,000 people, many of them Black, held a parade, heard speeches and dedicated the graves of Union dead in Charleston, South Carolina.  A total of 267 Union troops had died at a Confederate prison and were buried in a mass grave. After the war, members of Black churches buried them in individual graves.  "What happened in Charleston does have the right to claim to be first, if that matters," Blight told The Associated Press in 2011.  In 2021, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel cited the story in a Memorial Day speech in Hudson, Ohio. The ceremony's organizers turned off his microphone because they said it wasn't relevant to honoring the city's veterans. The event's organizers later resigned.  3. Has Memorial Day always been a source of contention?  Someone has always lamented the holiday's drift from its original meaning.  As early as 1869, The New York Times wrote that the holiday could become "sacrilegious" and no longer "sacred" if it focuses more on pomp, dinners and oratory.  In 1871, abolitionist Frederick Douglass feared Americans were forgetting the Civil War's impetus — enslavement — when he gave a Decoration Day speech at Arlington National Cemetery.  "We must never forget that the loyal soldiers who rest beneath this sod flung themselves between the nation and the nation's destroyers," Douglass said.  His concerns were well-founded, said Ben Railton, a professor of English and American studies at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. Even though roughly 180,000 Black men served in the Union Army, the holiday in many communities would essentially become "white Memorial Day," especially after the rise of the Jim Crow South, Railton told the AP in 2023.  Meanwhile, how the day was spent — at least by the nation's elected officials — could draw scrutiny for years after the Civil War. In the 1880s, then-President Grover Cleveland was said to have gone fishing — and "people were appalled," Matthew Dennis, an emeritus history professor at the University of Oregon, told the AP last year.  By 1911, the Indianapolis 500 held its inaugural race on May 30, drawing 85,000 spectators. A report from The Associated Press made no mention of the holiday — or any controversy.  4. How has Memorial Day changed?  Dennis said Memorial Day's potency diminished somewhat with the addition of Armistice Day, which marked World War I's end on Nov. 11, 1918. Armistice Day became a national holiday by 1938 and was renamed Veterans Day in 1954.  An act of Congress changed Memorial Day from every May 30th to the last Monday in May in 1971. Dennis said the creation of the three-day weekend recognized that Memorial Day had long been transformed into a more generic remembrance of the dead, as well as a day of leisure.  In 1972, Time magazine said the holiday had become "a three-day nationwide hootenanny that seems to have lost much of its original purpose."  5. Why is Memorial Day tied to sales and travel?  Even in the 19th century, grave ceremonies were followed by leisure activities such as picnicking and foot races, Dennis said.  The holiday also evolved alongside baseball and the automobile, the five-day work week and summer vacation, according to the 2002 book "A History of Memorial Day: Unity, Discord and the Pursuit of Happiness."  In the mid-20th century, a small number of businesses began to open defiantly on the holiday.  Once the holiday moved to Monday, "the traditional barriers against doing business began to crumble," authors Richard Harmond and Thomas Curran wrote.  These days, Memorial Day sales and traveling are deeply woven into the nation's muscle memory.  Jason Redman, a retired Navy SEAL who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, told the AP last year that he honors the friends he's lost. Thirty names are tattooed on his arm "for every guy that I personally knew that died."  He wants Americans to remember the fallen — but also to enjoy themselves, knowing lives were sacrificed to forge the holiday.

France’s secularism increasingly struggling with schools, integration

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 25, 2024 - 03:00
MARSEILLE, France — Brought into the international spotlight by the ban on hijabs for French athletes at the upcoming Paris Olympics, France's unique approach to "laïcité" — loosely translated as "secularism" — has been increasingly stirring controversy across the country. The struggle cuts to the core of how France approaches not only the place of religion in public life, but also the integration of its mostly immigrant-origin Muslim population, Western Europe's largest. Perhaps the most contested ground is public schools, where visible signs of faith are barred under policies seeking to foster national unity. That includes the headscarves some Muslim women want to wear for piety and modesty, even as others fight them as a symbol of oppression. "It has become a privilege to be allowed to practice our religion," said Majda Ould Ibbat, who was considering leaving Marseille, France's second-largest city, until she discovered a private Muslim school, Ibn Khaldoun, where her children could both freely live their faith and flourish academically. "We wanted them to have a great education, and with our principles and our values," added Ould Ibbat, who only started wearing a headscarf recently, while her teen daughter, Minane, hasn't felt ready to. For Minane, as for many French Muslim youth, navigating French culture and her spiritual identity is getting harder. The 19-year-old nursing student has heard people say even on the streets of multicultural Marseille that there's no place for Muslims. "I ask myself if Islam is accepted in France," she said. Minane also lives with the collective trauma that has scarred much of France in the aftermath of Islamist attacks, which have targeted schools and are seen by many as evidence that laïcité (pronounced lah-eee-see-tay) needs to be strictly enforced to prevent radicalization. Minane vividly remembers observing a moment of silence at Ibn Khaldoun in honor of Samuel Paty, a public school teacher beheaded by a radicalized Islamist in 2020. A memorial to Paty as a defender of France's values hangs in the entrance of the Education Ministry in Paris. For its officials and most educators, secularism is essential. They say it encourages a sense of belonging to a united French identity and prevents those who are less or not religiously observant from feeling pressured. For many French Muslims, however, laïcité is exerting precisely that kind of discriminatory pressure on already disadvantaged minorities. Amid the tension, there's broad agreement that polarization is skyrocketing, as crackdowns and challenges mount. "Laws on laïcité protect and allow for coexistence — which is less and less easy," said Isabelle Tretola, principal of the public primary school across from Ibn Khaldoun. She addresses challenges to secularism daily — like children in choir class who put their hands on their ears "because their families told them singing variety songs isn't good." "You can't force them to sing, but teachers tell them they can't cover their ears out of respect for the instructor and classmates," Tretola said. "In school, you come to learn the values of the republic." Secularism is a fundamental value in France's constitution. The state explicitly charges public schools with instilling those values in children, while allowing private schools to offer religious instruction as long as they also teach the general curriculum that the government establishes. Government officials argue the prohibition against showcasing a particular faith is necessary to avoid threats to democracy. The government has made fighting radical Islam a priority, and secularism is seen as a bulwark against the feared growth of religious influence on daily life, down to beachwear. "In a public school, the school for everyone, one behaves like everyone else, and should not make a display," said Alain Seksig, secretary general of the Education Ministry's council on secularism. For many teachers and principals, having strict government rules is helping confront multiplying challenges. Some 40% of teachers report self-censoring on subjects from evolution to sexual health after the attacks on Paty and another teacher, Dominique Bernard, slain last fall by a suspected Islamic extremist, said Didier Georges of SNPDEN-UNSA, a union representing more than half of France's principals. Like him, Laurent Le Drezen, a principal and a leader of another education workers union, SGEN-CFDT, sees a nefarious influence of social media in the growth of Muslim students challenging secularism at school. His classroom experience in Marseille's Quartiers Nord — often dilapidated suburbs with projects housing mostly families of North African origin — also taught him the importance of showing students that schools aren't coming after them for being Muslim. At Marseille's Cedres Mosque, next to the projects, Salah Bariki said youth are struggling with exactly that sense of rejection from France. "What do they want us to do, look at the Eiffel Tower instead of Mecca?" Bariki quipped. Nine of 10 young women in the neighborhood are now veiled, "for identity more than religion," he added. To avoid a vicious cycle, more — not less — discussion of religion should be happening in schools, argued Haïm Bendao, rabbi at a conservative synagogue in a nearby neighborhood. "To establish peace, it's a daily effort. It's crazy important to speak in schools," said Bendao, who has gone to both Ibn Khaldoun and the Catholic school across from it, Saint-Joseph, which also enrolls many Muslim students. Several families at Ibn Khaldoun said they chose it because it can support both identities instead of exacerbating all-too-public doubts over whether being Muslim is compatible with being French. "When I hear the debate over compatibility, that's when I turn off the TV. Fear has invaded the world," said Nancy Chihane, president of the parents' association at Ibn Khaldoun. At a recent spring recess where girls with hijabs, others with their hair flowing in the wind, and boys all mingled, one headscarf-wearing high-schooler said transferring to Ibn Khaldoun meant both freedom and community. "Here we all understand each other, we're not marginalized," said Asmaa Abdelah, 17. Nouali Yacine, her history and geography teacher, was born in Algeria — which was under French colonial rule until it won independence in 1962 after a violent struggle — and raised in France since he was 7 months old. "We are within the citizenry. We don't pose that question, but they pose it to us," Yacine says. The school's founding director, Mohsen Ngazou, is equally adamant about respecting religious and education obligations. He recalls once "making a scene" when he saw a student wearing an abaya over pajamas — the student code prohibits the latter alongside shorts and revealing necklines. "I told her she wasn't ready for class," Ngazou said. "The abaya doesn't make a woman religious. The important thing is to feel good about who you are."

China's Digital Silk Road exports internet technology, controls

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 25, 2024 - 03:00
washington — China promotes its help to Southeast Asian countries in modernizing their digital landscapes through investments in infrastructure as part of its "Digital Silk Road." But rights groups say Beijing is also exporting its model of authoritarian governance of the internet through censorship, surveillance and controls. China's state media this week announced Chinese electrical appliance manufacturer Midea Group jointly built its first overseas 5G factory in Thailand with Thai mobile operator AIS, Chinese telecom service provider China Unicom and tech giant Huawei. The 208,000-square-meter smart factory will have its own 5G network, Xinhua news agency reported. Earlier this month, Beijing reached an agreement with Cambodia to establish a Digital Law Library of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Inter-Parliamentary Assembly. Cambodia's Khmer Times said the objective is to "expand all-round cooperation in line with the strategic partnership and building a common destiny community." But parallel to China's state media-promoted technology investments, rights groups say Beijing is also helping countries in the region to build what they call "digital authoritarian governance." Article 19, an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting freedom of expression globally and named after Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in an April report said the purpose of the Digital Silk Road is not solely to promote China's technology industry. The report, China: The rise of digital repression in the Indo-Pacific, says Beijing is also using its technology to reshape the region's standards of digital freedom and governance to increasingly match its own. VOA contacted the Chinese Embassy in the U.S. for a response but did not receive one by the time of publication. Model of digital governance Looking at case studies of Cambodia, Malaysia, Nepal and Thailand, the Article 19 report says Beijing is spreading China's model of digital governance along with Chinese technology and investments from companies such as Huawei, ZTE and Alibaba. Michael Caster, Asia digital program manager with Article 19, told VOA, "China has been successful at providing a needed service, in the delivery of digital development toward greater connectivity, but also in making digital development synonymous with the adoption of PRC [People's Republic of China]-style digital governance, which is at odds with international human rights and internet freedom principles, by instead promoting notions of total state control through censorship and surveillance, and digital sovereignty away from universal norms." The group says in Thailand, home to the world's largest overseas Chinese community, agreements with China bolstered internet controls imposed after Thailand's 2014 coup, and it notes that Bangkok has since been considering a China-style Great Firewall, the censorship mechanism Beijing uses to control online content. In Nepal, the report notes security and intelligence-sharing agreements with China and concerns that Chinese security camera technology is being used to surveil exiled Tibetans, the largest such group outside India. The group says Malaysia's approach to information infrastructure appears to increasingly resemble China's model, citing Kuala Lumpur's cybersecurity law passed in April and its partnering with Chinese companies whose technology has been used for repressing minorities inside China. Most significantly, Article 19 says China is involved at "all levels" of Cambodia's digital ecosystem. Huawei, which is facing increasing bans in Western nations over cybersecurity concerns, has a monopoly on cloud services in Cambodia. While Chinese companies say they would not hand over private data to Beijing, experts doubt they would have any choice because of national security laws. Internet gateway Phnom Penh announced a decree in 2021 to build a National Internet Gateway similar to China's Great Firewall, restricting the Cambodian people's access to Western media and social networking sites. "That we have seen the normalization of a China-style Great Firewall in some of the countries where China's influence is most pronounced or its digital development support strongest, such as with Cambodia, is no coincidence," Caster said. The Cambodian government says the portal will strengthen national security and help combat tax fraud and cybercrime. But the Internet Society, a U.S.- and Switzerland-based nonprofit internet freedom group, says it would allow the government to monitor individual internet use and transactions, and to trace identities and locations. Kian Vesteinsson, a senior researcher for technology and democracy with rights group Freedom House, told VOA, "The Chinese Communist Party and companies that are aligned with the Chinese state have led a charge internationally to push for internet fragmentation. And when I say internet fragmentation, I mean these efforts to carve out domestic internets that are isolated from global internet traffic." Despite Chinese support and investment, Vesteinsson notes that Cambodia has not yet implemented the plan for a government-controlled internet. "Building the Chinese model of digital authoritarianism into a country's internet infrastructure is extraordinarily difficult. It's expensive. It requires technical capacity. It requires state capacity, and all signs point to the Cambodian government struggling on those fronts." Vesteinsson says while civil society and foreign political pressure play a role, business concerns are also relevant as requirements to censor online speech or spy on users create costs for the private sector. "These governments that are trying to cultivate e-commerce should keep in mind that a legal environment that is free from these obligations to do censorship and surveillance will be more appealing to companies that are evaluating whether to start up domestic operations," he said. Article 19's Caster says countries concerned about China's authoritarian internet model spreading should do more to support connectivity and internet development worldwide. "This support should be based on human rights law and internet freedom principles," he said, "to prevent China from exploiting internet development needs to position its services – and often by extension its authoritarian model – as the most accessible option." China will hold its annual internet conference in Beijing July 9-11. China's Xinhua news agency reports this year's conference will discuss artificial intelligence, digital government, information technology application innovation, data security and international cooperation. Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

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Voice of America’s immigration news - May 25, 2024 - 03:00
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Italian museum recreates Tanzanian butterfly forest

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 25, 2024 - 02:55
TRENTO, Italy — In a lush greenhouse high in the Alps, butterflies of various species and colors flutter freely while butterfly pupae are suspended in a structure as they grow into adult insects. This is the Butterfly Forest in the tropical mountain greenhouse in Trento, Italy, a project by the Museo delle Scienze (MUSE), an Italian science museum. It's modeled on Udzungwa Mountains, a mountain range and rainforest area in south-central Tanzania that's one of the world's biodiversity hotspots. The Butterfly Forest features plant species endemic to the region, as well as birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates from different parts of the world, all inside 600 square meters of forest with cliffs, inclinations and a waterfall. The Butterfly Forest was created this spring to create public awareness on some of the research that MUSE is doing in Udzungwa Mountains to study and protect the world's biodiversity against threats such as deforestation and climate change. Deforestation leads to habitat loss, which causes declines in nectar sources for butterflies, changing the functioning of the ecosystem. It can also limit the movements of the insects causing a decline in biodiversity and potential extinction of vulnerable butterfly species. Changes to soil and air temperatures are altering the life cycles of the insects, impacting their development rates, mating behaviors, and migration patterns. Butterfly populations are declining in many areas, especially in places under intensive land use. "Our aim is that of being able to study better, to understand better what is happening," said Lisa Angelini, a botanist and director of the MUSE greenhouse. "Our work consists of monitoring and trying to develop projects in order to bring attention to biodiversity-related issues." Butterflies are pollinators that enable plants to reproduce and therefore facilitate food production and supply. They are also food for birds and other animals. Because of the multiple roles of butterflies in the ecosystem and their high sensitivity to environmental changes, scientists use them as indicators of biodiversity and a way to study the impact of habitat loss and other threats. "Insects in general play a fundamental role in the proper functioning of ecosystems," said Mauro Gobbi, an entomologist and researcher at MUSE. Through a partnership with the Tanzania National Parks Authority, MUSE established the Udzungwa Ecological Monitoring Center in 2006 to support research as well as in development of environmental education programs for schools. "Research on butterflies is essential for informing conservation efforts and ensuring the long-term survival of the insects," said Arafat Mtui, research coordinator at Udzungwa Ecological Monitoring Centre. Conservation efforts such as habitat restoration and good land management practices, which address climate change impacts, are essential for protecting butterfly populations, he added. With at least 2,500 plant species, more than 120 mammals, and thousands of invertebrate species, Udzungwa Mountains is rich in biological diversity. It's part of the Eastern Arc Mountains of Kenya and Tanzania that are a proposed UNESCO Heritage site. It has more than 40 endemic species of butterflies. MUSE's work here is vital because of this variety, said Sevgan Subramanian, principal scientist and head of environmental health at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi. "If you want to have a monitoring of the health of the ecosystem, monitoring such indigenous or endemic insect population diversity is very critical, so that we have an idea whether the ecosystem is still healthy or not," he said. Gobbi, the entomologist, said high-altitude environments like Udzungwa Mountains National Park are suitable for studying the effects of climate change because they usually have no direct human impact. He and other scientists have warned that failure to protect insects from climate change effects will drastically reduce the planet's ability to build a sustainable future. Scientists at MUSE said the main challenge in butterfly conservation is changing the current farming policies to increase the amount of low-intensity farmland, and promote diverse landscapes preserving the remaining patches of natural habitats. "Often our grandparents used to say 'there are no longer as many butterflies as there used to be,'" he said. This is "absolutely supported by scientific research, which confirms that butterflies, like other insects, are in crisis. We are losing species, we're losing them forever, and this is going to break the balance of ecosystems."

Attempts to regulate AI's hidden hand in Americans' lives flounder

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 25, 2024 - 02:55
DENVER — The first attempts to regulate artificial intelligence programs that play a hidden role in hiring, housing and medical decisions for millions of Americans are facing pressure from all sides and floundering in statehouses nationwide. Only one of seven bills aimed at preventing AI's penchant to discriminate when making consequential decisions — including who gets hired, money for a home or medical care — has passed. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis hesitantly signed the bill on Friday. Colorado's bill and those that faltered in Washington, Connecticut and elsewhere faced battles on many fronts, including between civil rights groups and the tech industry, and lawmakers wary of wading into a technology few yet understand and governors worried about being the odd-state-out and spooking AI startups. Polis signed Colorado's bill "with reservations," saying in an statement he was wary of regulations dousing AI innovation. The bill has a two-year runway and can be altered before it becomes law. "I encourage (lawmakers) to significantly improve on this before it takes effect," Polis wrote. Colorado's proposal, along with six sister bills, are complex, but will broadly require companies to assess the risk of discrimination from their AI and inform customers when AI was used to help make a consequential decision for them. The bills are separate from more than 400 AI-related bills that have been debated this year. Most are aimed at slices of AI, such as the use of deepfakes in elections or to make pornography. The seven bills are more ambitious, applying across major industries and targeting discrimination, one of the technology's most perverse and complex problems. "We actually have no visibility into the algorithms that are used, whether they work or they don't, or whether we're discriminated against," said Rumman Chowdhury, AI envoy for the U.S. Department of State who previously led Twitter's AI ethics team. While anti-discrimination laws are already on the books, those who study AI discrimination say it's a different beast, which the U.S. is already behind in regulating. "The computers are making biased decisions at scale," said Christine Webber, a civil rights attorney who has worked on class action lawsuits over discrimination including against Boeing and Tyson Foods. Now, Webber is nearing final approval on one of the first-in-the-nation settlements in a class action over AI discrimination. "Not, I should say, that the old systems were perfectly free from bias either," said Webber. But "any one person could only look at so many resumes in the day. So you could only make so many biased decisions in one day and the computer can do it rapidly across large numbers of people." When you apply for a job, an apartment or a home loan, there's a good chance AI is assessing your application: sending it up the line, assigning it a score or filtering it out. It's estimated as many as 83% of employers use algorithms to help in hiring, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. AI itself doesn't know what to look for in a job application, so it's taught based on past resumes. The historical data that is used to train algorithms can smuggle in bias. Amazon, for example, worked on a hiring algorithm that was trained on old resumes: largely male applicants. When assessing new applicants, it downgraded resumes with the word "women's" or that listed women's colleges because they were not represented in the historical data — the resumes — it had learned from. The project was scuttled. Webber's class action lawsuit alleges that an AI system that scores rental applications disproportionately assigned lower scores to Black or Hispanic applicants. A study found that an AI system built to assess medical needs passed over Black patients for special care. Studies and lawsuits have allowed a glimpse under the hood of AI systems, but most algorithms remain veiled. Americans are largely unaware that these tools are being used, polling from Pew Research shows. Companies generally aren't required to explicitly disclose that an AI was used. "Just pulling back the curtain so that we can see who's really doing the assessing and what tool is being used is a huge, huge first step," said Webber. "The existing laws don't work if we can't get at least some basic information." That's what Colorado's bill, along with another surviving bill in California, are trying to change. The bills, including a flagship proposal in Connecticut that was killed under opposition from the governor, are largely similar. Colorado's bill will require companies using AI to help make consequential decisions for Americans to annually assess their AI for potential bias; implement an oversight program within the company; tell the state attorney general if discrimination was found; and inform to customers when an AI was used to help make a decision for them, including an option to appeal. Labor unions and academics fear that a reliance on companies overseeing themselves means it'll be hard to proactively address discrimination in an AI system before it's done damage. Companies are fearful that forced transparency could reveal trade secrets, including in potential litigation, in this hyper-competitive new field. AI companies also pushed for, and generally received, a provision that only allows the attorney general, not citizens, to file lawsuits under the new law. Enforcement details have been left up to the attorney general. While larger AI companies have more or less been on board with these proposals, a group of smaller Colorado-based AI companies said the requirements might be manageable by behemoth AI companies, but not by budding startups. "We are in a brand new era of primordial soup," said Logan Cerkovnik, founder of Thumper.ai, referring to the field of AI. "Having overly restrictive legislation that forces us into definitions and restricts our use of technology while this is forming is just going to be detrimental to innovation." All agreed, along with many AI companies, that what's formally called "algorithmic discrimination" is critical to tackle. But they said the bill as written falls short of that goal. Instead, they proposed beefing up existing anti-discrimination laws. Chowdhury worries that lawsuits are too costly and time consuming to be an effective enforcement tool, and laws should instead go beyond what even Colorado is proposing. Instead, Chowdhury and academics have proposed accredited, independent organization that can explicitly test for potential bias in an AI algorithm. "You can understand and deal with a single person who is discriminatory or biased," said Chowdhury. "What do we do when it's embedded into the entire institution?"

Limits on climbing Mount Fuji are being set to fight crowds, littering

Voice of America’s immigration news - May 25, 2024 - 02:50
tokyo — Those who want to climb one of the most popular trails on Japan's iconic Mount Fuji will have to book a slot and pay a fee as crowds, littering and climbers who try to rush too fast to the summit cause safety and conservation concerns at the picturesque stratovolcano.  The new rules for the climbing season, July 1 to September 10, apply for those hiking the Yoshida Trail on the Yamanashi side of the 3,776-meter (12,300-foot) mountain that was designated a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 2013.  Only 4,000 climbers will be allowed to enter the trail per day for a hiking fee of 2,000 yen each (about $18). Of those slots, 3,000 will be available for online booking and the remaining 1,000 can be booked in person on the day of the climb, Yamanashi prefecture said in a statement via the Foreign Press Center of Japan on Monday. Hikers also have an option of donating an additional 1,000 yen (about $9) for conservation.  Climbers can book their slots via the Mount Fuji Climbing website, which is jointly run by the Environment Ministry and the mountain's two home prefectures, Yamanashi and Shizuoka.  Mount Fuji is divided into 10 stations, and there are four "5th stations" halfway up the mountain from where the Yoshida, Fujinomiya, Subashiri and Gotemba trails start to the top.  Under the new system, climbers must choose between a day hike or an overnight stay at the several available huts along the trail. The day of their climb, they are given a QR code to be scanned at the 5th station. Those who have not booked an overnight hut will be sent back down and not allowed to climb between 4 p.m. and 3 a.m., mainly to stop "bullet climbing," or rushing to the summit without adequate rest, which authorities are worried puts lives at risk.  A symbol of Japan, the mountain called "Fujisan" used to be a place of pilgrimage. Today, it especially attracts hikers who climb to the summit to see the sunrise. But the tons of trash left behind, including plastic bottles, food and even clothes, have become a major concern.  In a statement, Yamanashi Governor Kotaro Nagasaki thanked people for their understanding and cooperation in helping conserve Mount Fuji.  Shizuoka prefecture, southwest of Mount Fuji, where climbers can also access the mountain, has sought a voluntary 1,000-yen ($6.40) fee per climber since 2014 and is considering additional ways to balance tourism and environmental protection.  The number of Mount Fuji climbers during the season in 2023 totaled 221,322, according to the Environment Ministry. That is close to the pre-pandemic level and officials expect more visitors this year.  Just a few weeks ago, the town of Fujikawaguchiko in Yamanashi prefecture began setting up a huge black screen on a sidewalk to block a view of Mount Fuji because tourists were crowding into the area to take photos with the mountain as a backdrop to a convenience store, a social media phenomenon known as "Mount Fuji Lawson" that has disrupted business, traffic and local life.  Overtourism has also become a growing issue at other popular tourist destinations such as Kyoto and Kamakura as foreign visitors have flocked to Japan in droves since the coronavirus pandemic restrictions were lifted, in part due to the weaker yen.  Last year, Japan had more than 25 million visitors, and the figures in 2024 are expected to surpass nearly 32 million, a record from 2019, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.

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