The other migrant crisis

A year after President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced with great fanfare their plans to normalize relations, an old source of tension has stubbornly returned, with a rush of Cubans trying to get to the United States.

The number of unauthorized Cubans arriving in the United States nearly doubled in fiscal 2015, rising to 43,159 from 24,278 the previous year, according to U.S. border officials, and the surge appears to be accelerating. Combined with the more than 20,000 who are issued immigration visas annually under existing accords, it amounts to the largest influx of Cubans into the United States in decades. Not since the Mariel boatlift of 1980, when 125,000 landed in South Florida, have so many Cubans headed north.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) say American generosity is being abused by Cuban migrants who obtain U.S. residency and then begin traveling back to the island to ferry merchandise, run small businesses or get cheap dental work.

Cubans have been streaming north by land, sea and air all year. The U.S. Coast Guard picked up 4,462 at sea during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 and has retrieved more than 900 since then. Several thousand asylum-seeking Cubans have landed in Miami, flying via the Bahamas or Cayman Islands with European passports issued in recent years to the descendants of Spanish immigrants. The largest number have come overland from Ecuador, traveling by bus and taxi through Colombia, Central America and Mexico to reach the United States.

The flood of migrants is creating–on a far smaller scale–the kinds of scenes that Europe has experienced as Middle Eastern and South Asian migrants have poured over the borders.

[Washington Post]

Germany approaches 1 million asylum seekers in 2015

Germany has registered 964,574 new asylum-seekers in the first 11 months of the year, putting it on course for more than a million in 2015. The number of migrants arriving has not slowed despite the winter cold.

Germany has registered more asylum-seekers than any other nation in Europe, although at about 1% of its population, less per capita than several smaller nations.

The number of arrivals in Germany so far this year is four times the total for all of 2014. Syrians, for whom Germany has adopted an open-door policy, have been the largest group at around a third.

Germany’s interior ministry said the time taken to process applications had been brought down from an average of around seven months in 2014 to five months this year – in part by speeding applications from Syria and from what it defines as “safe countries of origin” – such as West Balkan states.

Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Europe fell by more than a third in November, due to poor weather and a Turkish crackdown on people smugglers.


Initiatives and commitments from Climate Conference

Initiatives and commitments to help protect the most vulnerable from climate change were announced at the Paris climate change conference, having the potential to mitigate the impact of climate change on older people, who often bear the brunt of its effects.

“Today, there are 901 million people over 60, predicted to reach 1.4 billion by 2030, with nearly three-quarters living in developing countries,” said Clodagh Byrne, Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience Adviser at HelpAge International. “Older people are among those who suffer the most from the impacts of climate change due to the prevalence of health conditions, social isolation and limited mobility.”

Water insecurity is particularly hard on older people. They’re more susceptible to dehydration, infection and disease. Climate change is expected to reduce water quality through increased temperatures, pollution and disruption of treatment facilities, and the resulting health effects will be worse for older people.

Poorer older people suffer due to a combination of factors including distance to or difficult-to-access water distribution points, the costs involved and non-age friendly latrines.

Resilience initiatives were also announced, amounting to $1 billion dollars pledged to protect the most vulnerable from climate change. Commitments include: early warning systems for over 50 of the least developed countries and small island states, access to insurance to 400 million vulnerable people in five years, and a UN initiative to protect 634 million people living in risk-prone coastal areas and those living in areas at risk from droughts and floods.

[HelpAge International]

British aid to India ends this month

After decades of giving millions of pounds to India for various projects, Britain’s traditional aid program to India will end this month and move to a new relationship that focuses on pro-poor private sector projects and technical assistance.

Ending aid to India in 2015 was announced by the secretary for International Development in November 2012 amidst growing demands that an economically-challenged Britain should stop giving aid to a country that had its own space and nuclear programs.

Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) has stopped approving new financial grant aid to India. All new programs will be either technical assistance or private sector initiatives financed using returnable capital; and working together on global development issues.

After 2015, DFID said its technical assistance and returnable capital program will focus on three thematic areas: urbanization, economic development and empowering women and girls, which reflect the Government of India’s priorities.

Britain spends 0.7% of its gross national income on international aid.

[Hindustan Times]

Syrian refugee makes good on hand up

Abdul Halim al-Attar, a refugee from Syria who was photographed selling pens in the streets of Beirut, is now running three businesses in the city after an online crowdfunding campaign in his name collected $191,000. The 33-year-old father of two opened a bakery two months ago and has since added a kebab shop and a small restaurant to his business venture. He employs 16 Syrian refugees.

One of those moved by al-Attar’s plight was an online journalist and web developer in Norway, Gissur Simonarson, who created a Twitter account and an Indiegogo campaign to raise $5,000 for al-Attar and his family. When it closed three months later, the campaign had collected almost forty times more: $188,685. Another $2,324 in donations has trickled in since then.

“Not only did my life change, but also the lives of my children and the lives of people in Syria whom I helped,” he said. Al-Attar said he gave away about $25,000 to friends and relatives in Syria.

For al-Attar, it’s a long way from Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp on the southern edge of Damascus where he was employed at a chocolate factory. The camp is now devastated by fighting.

Getting the funds to al-Attar has been a struggle. So far he has only received 40 percent of roughly $168,000, after Indiegogo and Paypal took out about $20,000 in processing and banking fees. PayPal does not operate in Lebanon, so at the moment the cash is brought over to Lebanon bit-by-bit by a friend of the campaign who can make withdrawals in Dubai.

Despite his frustration and the uncertainty about when and whether he’ll receive the rest of his money, al-Attar feels grateful. He sported a T-shirt reading “Stay positive,” and a large smile. “When God wants to grant you something, you’ll get it,” he said.

“Seeing that he opened a restaurant and his kids look well taken care of, I’m really happy,” Simonarson said in a phone interview from Oslo.


Mark Zuckerberg and wife to give $45 billion to charity

Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg pledged to give away his fortune to make the world a “better place” for his new baby daughter Maxima and others.

In a letter to Maxima posted on his Facebook page, Zuckerberg and his pediatrician wife Priscilla Chan said they were going to give away 99 percent of their company shares — estimated value $45 billion — during their lives in an effort to make a happy and healthy world.

Zuckerberg will “gift or otherwise direct” nearly all his shares of Facebook stock, or the after-tax proceeds of sales of shares, to further a mission of “advancing human potential and promoting equality” by means of activities for the public good, the California-based social network said in a filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

Zuckerberg early on added his name to those who have taken a Giving Pledge to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. Names on the pledge include Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison, and IAC/InterActiveCorp powerhouse Barry Diller.

“We believe all lives have equal value, and that includes the many more people who will live in future generations than live today,” Zuckerberg and Chan said. “Our society has an obligation to invest now to improve the lives of all those coming into this world, not just those already here.”


Syrian refugees grapple with perceptions

The Paris attacks are sparking fears in Europe that the Islamic State is hiding its operatives among the tens of thousands of refugees pouring into the European Union each month.

One Syrian refugee, Samar Alalaly, rejects those concerns. The 30-year-old Syrian mother of three, who arrived in Germany six weeks ago, says they don’t make sense. “We ran away from war,” she says. “We didn’t come to make war here.”

In a tent for newcomers, Kholoud Daadi, 39, says it’s frightening to know the terror group ISIS, one of the main reasons her family fled Syria, carried out attacks in Europe a week before she arrived in Germany.

God willing, she says, she and other refugees can convince German society that they are moral people who treasure peace and security as their hosts do.

Many Germans, including the authorities, aren’t convinced that’s true of everyone. And profiling has been very public. For instance, on Saturday night at Alexanderplatz in Berlin, police patted down a half-dozen young Middle Eastern men they had rounded up in front of passersby. The young men, one of whom carried a skateboard, looked upset as they held their hands up in the air.

Fauzi Nagdali, a 21-year-old from the Syrian city of Homs, says such tactics are unfair. He arrived in Germany and was recently approved for asylum. He says that Syrians have undertaken a life-threatening journey to find a safe haven, only to be arrested.


On Syrian refugees and friendly European passport holders entering the USA

The U.S. government routinely takes 18 to 24 months to screen would-be Syrian refugees before they are allowed to board flights to the United States.

Meanwhile, an estimated 20 million people fly to the United States each year from visa waiver countries such as France and Britain.

U.S. officials have quietly acknowledged that they are far more worried about the possibility that would-be attackers from the Islamic State or other militant groups could enter the United States as travelers from visa waiver countries rather than as Syrian refugees.

Officials have acknowledged that a European traveling to Syria to train with a group like Islamic State might be able to later enter the United States without significant scrutiny, if they are not already known to U.S. intelligence or partners such as Britain’s domestic intelligence agency MI5 or France’s DGSI.

Consequently, the White House have just announced changes to the U.S. visa waiver program so that security officials can more closely screen travelers from 38 countries allowed to enter the United States without obtaining visas before they travel.


UN humanitarian funding update

  • As of 30 November, the funding gap of the UN-coordinated inter-agency appeals is US$10.2 billion, which means that 51 per cent of the required funds remain unmet.
  • So far in 2015, $2.2 billion in pledges remain outstanding.
  • Since January, more than $421.1 million has been allocated for life-saving interventions in 42 emergencies worldwide: $252.2 million in rapid response grants to 31 emergencies and $169 million to sustain humanitarian operations in 20 underfunded and protracted crises.
  • Through the end of November, more than $400 million in support of people in some of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
  • Libya continues to experience ongoing violence, depriving the most vulnerable of their basic needs and triggering large-scale displacement, forcing Libyans to flee on multiple occasions.

[From UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs]

America designates new head of USAID

The US Senate signed off on a new administrator for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) amid a growing Syrian humanitarian crisis.

Despite the bipartisan consensus around her nomination, Gayle Smith was delayed over partisan fighting on unrelated issues for 7 months.

“At a time when continued U.S. leadership in addressing humanitarian crises around the globe is a matter of the greatest urgency, it is critically important that the U.S. Agency for International Development  be led by an Administrator of the best possible qualifications,” National Security Advisor Susan Rice said in a statement. “I am certain Gayle will build on her remarkable record to tackle global challenges and move us closer to a world where all people can reach their full potential.”

Oxfam America’s president Raymond C. Offenheiser remarked that Smith is “an unequivocal champion of those facing poverty and injustice.”