Iranians crossing the English Channel in dinghies

Since 3 November, 101 migrants – including four children – have attempted the 21-mile journey across the English Channel, which one policeman likened to “trying to cross the M25 at rush-hour on foot”. All claimed to be Iranian.

Why? The answer to the last question could lie 1,200 miles away in the Serbian capital of Belgrade.

Miodrag Ćakić, chief executive of Refugee Aid Serbia, which monitors migration through the Balkans, believes migrants arriving in the UK are among the thousands who flew into Serbia after the country began offering visa-free access to Iranians in August last year. The move was ostensibly intended to increase tourism and trade between Iran, the world’s 25th largest economy, and Serbia, the 90th. The visa scheme ended on 17 October, by which time some 40,000 Iranians were said to have flown to the Balkan nation. Serbian police estimate the number of Iranians who failed to return at 12,000.

Kaveh Kalantri, of the Iranian Association which supports refugees in the UK, said a lack of freedom and human rights violations were driving some Iranians out of their country. “People get arrested if they have liberal or left-wing views, or if they are from religious minorities. A lot of people experience violence on a daily basis.”

In the past two years, Iranian citizens have made more UK asylum applications than any other nationality, according to Home Office figures. In 2017, they accounted for 9% of the 26,350 applications. “Iranians coming to the UK is not unusual, but the way they are coming is,” Mr Kalantri said.

One theory as to why Iranians are choosing to risk their lives on boats stems from their comparative wealth to other refugees – simply put, they can afford to pay smuggling gangs to get them onboard a vessel.

[BBC]

Charities tell US ‘act now over Yemen’ or share blame for mass famine

The United States will bear shared responsibility for what may be the largest famine in decades if it does not cease its military support for the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen, the heads of five major humanitarian organizations have warned.

In an unusually stark joint statement, the leaders of the International Rescue Committee, Oxfam America, CARE US, Save the Children USA and the Norwegian Refugee Council USA together urged the US government to act to save Yemeni lives.

“14 million people are at risk of starving to death in Yemen if the parties to the conflict and their supporters do not change course immediately,” their statement says.

“If the government of Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Ansar Allah, and other parties to the conflict fail to take steps, and if the United States does not use all levers of pressure to compel them to do so, responsibility for the deaths of many more Yemeni civilians will lie not only with the parties to the conflict, but with the United States as well,” the statement says.

Yemen’s war of three-and-a-half years has killed at least 10,000 people and pushed the nation to the brink of the world’s worst famine in 100 years, leaving 14 million people — about half the country’s population — at risk of starvation, according to the United Nations.

Save the Children said Wednesday that an estimated 85,000 children under the age of 5 may have died from extreme hunger or disease since the war began.

The five humanitarian organizations acknowledge that the US is one of the most generous humanitarian donors in Yemen. But, they say, “these contributions pale in comparison to the harm caused by US military support and diplomatic cover to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.”

[CNN]

US authorities fire tear gas to disperse migrants at border

A major US-Mexico border crossing in San Diego, one of the world’s busiest international crossings, was closed for hours on Sunday after a group of migrants on the Mexican side rushed the border area, leading US Border Patrol agents to fire tear gas at the group.

About 500 migrants on the Mexican side of the border overwhelmed police blockades near the San Ysidro Port of Entry Sunday afternoon. As the migrants tried to cross the border, authorities on the US side used tear gas to disperse them. Video of the scene showed a cloud of tear gas that sent people running and screaming, including families with young children.

US Customs and Border Protection said the migrants threw projectiles that struck several agents. “Border Patrol agents deployed tear gas to dispel the group because of the risk to agents’ safety,” the agency said on Twitter.

The incident marked an escalation of tensions that have been mounting since groups of Central American migrants began arriving in Tijuana a few weeks ago on their journey to attempt to gain entry to the United States.

The migrants’ presence has drawn demonstrators — for and against them — and threats from President Donald Trump to close the US-Mexico border. Meanwhile, Tijuana’s mayor has called on the Mexican government and the international community for help.

The melee closed San Ysidro Port of Entry to vehicle and pedestrian traffic, with all northbound and southbound traffic halted for several hours. Every day more than 100,000 people enter the U.S. there.

President Trump later tweeted: “Mexico should move the flag waving Migrants, many of whom are stone cold criminals, back to their countries. Do it by plane, do it by bus, do it anyway you want, but they are NOT coming into the U.S.A. We will close the Border permanently if need be. Congress, fund the WALL!”

[CNN/Fox]

Trump administration climate report says damage is ‘intensifying across the country’

The federal government on Friday released a long-awaited report with an unmistakable message: The effects of climate change, including deadly wildfires, increasingly debilitating hurricanes and heat waves, are already battering the United States, and the danger of more such catastrophes is worsening.

The report’s authors, who represent numerous federal agencies, say they are more certain than ever that climate change poses a severe threat to Americans’ health and pocketbooks, as well as to the country’s infrastructure and natural resources. The congressionally mandated document is the first of its kind issued during the Trump administration.

Already, western mountain ranges are retaining much less snow throughout the year, threatening water supplies below them. Coral reefs in the Caribbean, Hawaii, Florida and the United States’ Pacific territories are experiencing severe bleaching events. Wildfires are devouring ever-larger areas during longer fire seasons. And the country’s sole Arctic state, Alaska, is seeing a staggering rate of warming that has upended its ecosystems, from once ice-clogged coastlines to increasingly thawing permafrost tundras.

The authors argue that global warming “is transforming where and how we live and presents growing challenges to human health and quality of life, the economy, and the natural systems that support us.” And they conclude that humans must act aggressively to adapt to current impacts and mitigate future catastrophes “to avoid substantial damages to the U.S. economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decades.”

“The impacts we’ve seen the last 15 years have continued to get stronger, and that will only continue,” said Gary Yohe, a professor of economics and environmental studies at Wesleyan University who served on a National Academy of Sciences panel that reviewed the report. “We have wasted 15 years of response time. If we waste another five years of response time, the story gets worse. The longer you wait, the faster you have to respond and the more expensive it will be.”

That urgency is at odds with the stance of the Trump administration, which has rolled back several Obama-era environmental regulations and incentivized the production of fossil fuels. Trump also has said he plans to withdraw the nation from the Paris climate accord and questioned the science of climate change just last month, saying on CBS’s “60 Minutes” that “I don’t know that it’s man-made” and that the warming trend “could very well go back.”

Some of the hundreds of scientists and federal officials who spent months working on the detailed document were frustrated, but not surprised, that the administration chose to release it on the day after Thanksgiving — typically one of the slowest news days of the year.

[Washington Post]

Death toll spikes as new European policies push migrants towards more dangerous sea routes

Desperate migrants are choosing ever more dangerous sea routes to Europe and using smaller and less seaworthy boats, causing a sharp increase in drowning deaths, warns the International Organization for Migration.

So far this year, at least 631 African migrants have died while attempting to reach Spain, a threefold increase from all of 2017. In one of the deadliest incidents, earlier this month at least two dozen North African migrants drowned in stormy seas near Cadiz, within sight of the Spanish shore.

The European Union’s success in cutting deals to close off the sea routes from Turkey to Greece, and from Libya to Italy, has resulted in an overall drop in the number of migrants arriving on the continent — 128,265 so far this year, compared to almost 187,000 in 2017, and 390,000 in 2016.

But it appears to have had a knock-on effect, pushing the migrants further and further west. Some are now even arriving in the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago 100 kilometres off the Moroccan coast. Migrants are also now being plucked from the sea off the British coast, with at least 76 people rescued from nine boats off Dover over the past two weeks, although it appears that they are making the crossing from France.

Yet despite the concerns over the rising death toll, many European nations seem focused on enacting even tougher anti-migrant policies.

This week, prosecutors in Sicily moved to seize a migrant rescue vessel operated by Medecins Sans Frontières and another aid organization. And soon, Italy’s parliament will vote on a new immigration law proposed by the populist government that will remove humanitarian protections for migrants and block asylum seekers from accessing services. These are moves that UN human rights experts have said will “certainly” violate international law.

Meanwhile in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is ratcheting up his attacks on the European Union, calling it a “transport agency” for migrants that hands out funds and “anonymous bank cards” to “terrorists and criminals.”

[CBC]

Tijuana declares ‘humanitarian crisis,’ seeks help from UN

The mayor of Tijuana has declared a humanitarian crisis in his border city and said Friday he was asking the United Nations for aid to deal with the approximately 5,000 Central American migrants who have arrived.

The comments by Mayor Juan Manuel Gastelum came as city officials and volunteers worked together to assist the 4,976 men, women and children, most of whom were camped out at a makeshift shelter at a sports complex after spending more than a month on the road. The Trump administration has spent weeks lambasting the caravan, which it said was filled with criminals, gang members and even — it insinuated at one point without any proof — terrorists.

Mayor Gastelum issued a statement saying that it was requesting help from the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The mayor also criticized the Mexican federal government for not taking more seriously President Donald Trump’s threat Thursday to shut down the border if his administration determined Mexico had lost “control” of the situation in Tijuana.

Many of the migrants who are fleeing violence and poverty are seeking asylum in the United States and face the prospect of spending months in the border city before they have the opportunity to speak with a U.S. official.

[AP]

Creative solutions for refugees, filling a country’s labor gaps

Nagham Abu Issa was working as an executive assistant in a cement factory in Damascus when the civil war started in Syria. Her family fled to Lebanon. She is a refugee, but she is also a valuable employee, with a degree from Damascus University in English literature and has studied human resources. Now she hopes to take that savvy to Canada, not through resettlement but to fill the country’s labor gaps.

She has interviewed with Talent Beyond Boundaries (TBB), an international NGO that has started pilots in Canada and Australia to match a small number of refugees based in Lebanon and Jordan with employment opportunities abroad. The experiment is aiming high: to forge a new pathway for refugees to be recognized for what they can bring to a country, not for the state of the countries they were forced to leave. In so doing, TBB hopes to shift attitudes about refugees among Western nations and their immigration systems, some of which are under assault by the rise of populism and nativism. Bruce Cohen, co-founder of TBB and former chief counsel and staff director for the US Senate Judiciary Committee, created a searchable database for displaced jobseekers in Lebanon and Jordan that today holds more than 11,000 resumes. “It is really getting rid of this image of refugees as unskilled, poor, pitiful.”

In Canada jobs are plentiful. The government recently announced it will take in 350,000 immigrants in 2021, or 40,000 more than it expects to admit this year. Canadian employers have also expressed interest in hiring refugees. The TBB program works with federal and provincial governments in Canada on visas and connects employers to refugee talent. It helps businesses overcome legal barriers refugees face that traditional economic migrants would not, such as a lack of passports or access to education records.

Heather Segal, founder of Segal Immigration Law in Toronto, is working pro-bono with TBB because she says too many skilled refugees stagnate while nations like Canada face labor shortages. “Why are we obviating a group of educated, skilled people because their country fell apart?” she says. “There is a gap here that needs to be addressed…. We need creative solutions for the refugee system in the 21st century.”

In the United States, the Tent Partnership for Refugees works with businesses to facilitate refugee hires, both in countries to which they first flee and where they are ultimately resettled. Tent Partnership’s leaders argue that it is not just the right thing to do, it makes both strategic and business sense. A report released by Tent and the Fiscal Policy Institute in May, for example, showed higher retention rates and resilience among the refugee workforce in the US market.

[Christian Science Monitor]

Italy wants remaining rescue ship seized

Authorities in Italy have demanded the seizure of a humanitarian ship used to rescue migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, alleging that the ship improperly dumped contaminated and medical waste at port — a charge strongly rejected by the nonprofit groups that operate the ship.

Doctors Without Borders (also known as Médecins Sans Frontières or MSF) and SOS Mediterranee describe the seizure order as an attempt to criminalize humanitarian aid, saying the ship has always followed standard procedure for disposing waste.  Italian authorities demanded that the ship, operated by Doctors without Borders and SOS Mediterranee, be seized on Tuesday.

The officials alleged that the migrants were carrying diseases* that could be transmitted through their discarded clothing, Reuters writes.

In a press conference, Gabriele Eminente, MSF‘s general director in Italy, expressed astonishment at the charges. He said that since 2015, his group has made more than 200 landings in Italy. “These are among the most controlled and closely watched moments by Italian police. We would have had to set up illegal activities right under the eyes of the authorities,” Eminente said. “We are absolutely surprised and indignant.”

The BBC notes that Italy’s populist government, which campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform, has had an antagonistic relationship with aid groups rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean.

[NPR]

* Alleging that migrants or outsiders are bearing disease has a very long history, as a Stanford study notes, and Europeans in particular have long depicted Africa as dirty and diseased. Here in the U.S., Fox News recently claimed without evidence that a caravan of Central American migrants and asylum-seekers was bringing infectious diseases toward the U.S.

Pope Francis criticizes migrant treatment and rising wealth inequality

Pope Francis criticized rising wealth inequality and the treatment of migrants, saying the world should not ignore those “tossed by the waves of life”.

“Injustice is the perverse root of poverty,” Francis said. “The cry of the poor daily becomes stronger but heard less, drowned out by the din of the rich few, who grow ever fewer and more rich.”

Francis also reiterated his support for migrants saying that people must pay attention to “all those forced to flee their homes and native land for an uncertain future”.

A report this year by Oxfam said 3.7 billion people, or half of the global population, saw no increase in their wealth in 2017, while 82 percent of the wealth generated last year went to the richest one percent of the global population.

[Reuters]

Federal Court blocks Trump Administration’s asylum ban

A federal court in San Francisco has temporarily blocked the Trump administration’s new asylum ban, saying it violates existing law and would cause irreparable harm to immigrants.

Earlier this month, President Trump issued a proclamation saying anyone crossing the U.S. southern border without doing so through an official port would be ineligible for asylum. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Center for Constitutional Rights and others quickly filed lawsuits seeking to block the order. The plaintiffs’ complaint alleged the administration violated the Immigration and Nationality Act, or INA, which maintains that if a person makes it to U.S. soil — even if they’ve crossed the border illegally — they are eligible to apply for asylum.

U.S. District Judge Jon S. Tigar agreed with the complaint in his ruling, issuing a temporary restraining order on the proclamation. “Whatever the scope of the President’s authority, he may not rewrite the immigration laws to impose a condition that Congress has expressly forbidden,” he wrote. It “strains credulity” that an asylum-seeker’s manner of entry into the U.S. can be the sole factor in declaring them ineligible for asylum, he wrote.

“This ban is illegal, will put people’s lives in danger, and raises the alarm about President Trump’s disregard for separation of powers,” ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt, who argued the case, wrote in a statement. “There is no justifiable reason to flatly deny people the right to apply for asylum, and we cannot send them back to danger based on the manner of their entry. Congress has been clear on this point for decades,” his statement continued.

Southern Poverty Law Center lawyer Mary Bauer said she’d “talked to a dozen kids and they’ve all been there any number of weeks,” she said, “and they’ve all been told that if they try to get on the list [to get into the US for an asylum claim], they’ll be taken into custody.”

The allegations from Tijuana make it clear that the asylum ban actually affected unaccompanied children more than anyone — and made asylum literally unavailable to them. And even now, with the ban on hold, these children will have to find a way to cross into the US illegally — over newly mounted concertina wire — if they want a shot at asylum.

The Trump administration intends to keep fighting the asylum ban in hopes of getting the newly ensconced conservative majority on the Supreme Court to uphold it.

[NPR/Vox]