Red Cross urges respect as aid workers held

The Red Cross Saturday called on all sides in the Ukraine crisis to respect the neutrality of its members after nine aid workers were held for hours in the eastern city of Donetsk.

Red Cross urges respect as aid workers held
An armed man guards a voting booth in Donetsk, Ukraine. Photo: AFP

The International Committee of the Red Cross "is a neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian organisation," Michel Masson, the head of the ICRC delegation in Ukraine, said in a statement.

"We call on everyone involved to respect the Red Cross emblem," he said, stressing that the Geneva-based organisation "depends on the full cooperation
and understanding of everyone involved in the clashes."

"Without that, it becomes very difficult for us to do our job, to respond adequately to the needs of all those affected by the violence," Masson said.

His comments came after one Swiss ICRC member and eight volunteers from the Ukrainian Red Cross were detained for several hours late Friday in Donetsk by a group of armed men.

"One volunteer was roughed up during the incident and had to be taken to hospital," ICRC said in the statement, adding that the man had since been treated and quickly released.

Scores of people have been killed and many others injured during clashes in Ukraine's restive Russian-speaking east after pro-European protestors ousted Kiev's Moscow-backed leader several months ago.

The team was in the town to evaluate the needs of the population, the ICRC spokesman for Europe and Central Asia, David Pierre Marquet, told AFP.

"That is probably why they were freed so quickly, their mandate was very clear," he said.

The ICRC expressed gratitude to "all those responsible for resolving this incident speedily", but did not identify who had detained its members.

Earlier Saturday, however, the self-proclaimed "People's Republic of Donetsk" said its rebels had held them on suspicion they were spies.

The brief detention underscored jitters on the eve of an independence referendum in the two eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk.

The Red Cross, which earlier this week said it had donated medical supplies for people injured during violent clashes in Donetsk, stressed that it remained committed to "addressing the humanitarian needs arising from the situation in eastern Ukraine".

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Spain’s basic income scheme hits backlog dead-end

Three months after Spain rushed to launch a minimum basic income scheme to fight a spike in poverty due to the coronavirus pandemic, the programme is at a dead-end because of an avalanche of applications.

Spain's basic income scheme hits backlog dead-end
Red Cross volunteers bring food packages to elderly and low income people. Photo: Cesar Manso/AFP
The measure was a pledge made by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's leftwing coalition government, which took office in January, bringing together his Socialist party with far-left Podemos as the junior partner.
The scheme — approved in late May — aims to guarantee an income of 462 euros ($546) per month for an adult living alone, while for families, there would be an additional 139 euros per person, whether adult or child, up to a monthly maximum of 1,015 euros per home. It is expected to cost state coffers three billion euros ($3.5 billion) a year.
The government decided to bring forward the launch of the programme because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has hit Spain hard and devastated its economy, causing queues at food banks to swell.
Of the 750,000 applications which were filed since June 15 when the government started accepting requests, 143,000 — or 19 percent — have been analysed and 80,000 were approved, according to a social security statement issued on August 20.
'Months of waiting'
But Spain main civil servant's union, CSIF, paints a darker picture. “Nearly 99 percent of requests have not been processed,” a union spokesman, Jose Manuel Molina, told AFP.
The social security ministry has only really analysed 6,000 applications while 74,000 households that already receive financial aid were awarded the basic income automatically, he added.
For hundreds of thousands of other households, the wait is stressful. Marta Sanchez, a 42-year-old mother of two from the southern city of Seville, said she applied for the scheme on June 26 but has heard nothing since.
“That is two months of waiting already, when in theory this was a measure that was taken so no one ends up in the streets,” she added.
Sanchez lost her call centre job during Spain's virus lockdown while her husband lost his job as a driver. The couple has had to turn to the Red Cross for the first time for food.
“Thank God my mother and sister pay our water and electricity bills,” she said, adding their landlord, a relative, has turned a blind eye to the unpaid rent.
'Rushed everything'
A spokeswoman for the ministry acknowledged that the rhythm “was perhaps a bit slower than expected” but she said the government was working to “automate many procedures” so processing times should become faster from now on.
“The launch of a benefit is always difficult … and this situation is not an exception,” she added.
But Molina said this was a new situation, that was made worse by years of budget cuts to the public service which has lost 25 percent of its staff over the past decade.
“The problem is that they rushed everything, did it without training and a huge lack of staff,” he added.
The social security branch charged with the basic income scheme has only 1,500 civil servants, who also process most pension applications, Molina said.
These officials are facing an “avalanche” of requests, which already match the number of pension requests received in an entire year, he added.
About 500 temporary workers have been recruited as reinforcements but their assistance is limited because they do not have the status of civil servant, so they cannot officially approve requests for financial aid.
Demand is expected to increase. The government has said the measure was expected to benefit some 850,000 homes, affecting a total of 2.3 million people — 30 percent of whom were minors.
When the scheme was launched the government said all it would take is a simple online form, but this is a problem for many low-income families without computers and internet access, especially since the waiting time for an in-person meeting to apply is about two months, according to the CSIF union