Two million more Venezuelans could flee next year: U.N.

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – An estimated two million Venezuelans could join the ranks of migrants and refugees next year, swelling the total to 5.3 million as the country’s meltdown continues, the United Nations said on Friday.

About 5,000 Venezuelans flee their homeland daily, down from a peak of 13,000 in August, said Eduardo Stein, a joint special representative for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Stein described the two million figure as a planning estimate for migrants and refugees leaving for neighboring countries in the next 14 months who will need aid.

“The region had to respond to an emergency that in some areas of concern was almost similar to a massive earthquake. We are indeed facing a humanitarian earthquake,” he told a news briefing.

The U.N. appealed last week for $738 million in 2019 to help Venezuela’s neighbors cope with the inflow of millions of refugees and migrants who have “no prospect for return in the short- to medium-term”.

About 3.3 million Venezuelans have fled the political and economic crisis in their homeland, most since 2015, the UNHCR said.

About 365,000 of them have sought asylum, U.N. refugee boss Filippo Grandi said.

“The reasons these people left are ranging from pure hunger to violence and lack of security … We at UNHCR believe many have valid reasons to seek international protection,” he said.

Colombia has taken in one million Venezuelan nationals, with most others going to Brazil, Ecuador and Peru.

A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators proposed on Thursday giving temporary protected status to Venezuelan migrants to the United States.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro blames its economic problems on U.S. financial sanctions and an “economic war” led by political adversaries.

The U.N. aid plan, presented to donors on Friday, aims to help Venezuelans to become productive contributors in host countries, said Antonio Vitorio, director-general of the IOM.

“This means focusing on access to the labor market, recognition of qualifications and also guaranteeing that the provision of social services in those countries – especially housing, health, and education – are up to the stress that derives from the newcomers,” he said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by David Stamp)

ICE arrests of immigrants in U.S. illegally highest since 2014

FILE PHOTO: Border Patrol agents arrest migrants who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in the desert near Ajo, Arizona, U.S., September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Yeganeh Torbati

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials arrested more immigrants who were in the United States illegally in the fiscal year through Sept. 30, 2018, than in any year since 2014, the agency said on Friday.

The 158,851 people arrested in the 2018 fiscal year by ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations division, the branch that carries out immigration arrests and deportations, represented an 11 percent increase over 2017, according to agency data.

ICE arrests of immigrants with no criminal history but who are in the country illegally increased by nearly one-third compared to 2017, to reach 20,464. Such arrests made up 13 percent of all ICE immigration arrests last year, compared to 11 percent the previous year.

Other immigrants arrested by ICE last year were either convicted criminals or had “pending criminal charges” at the time of their arrest, according to ICE data – though the latter category can include people who have been arrested by police but are not yet or ever charged with an actual crime. The number of people with pending charges arrested by ICE was 48 percent higher in 2018 than in 2017, while arrests of those with criminal convictions dropped slightly.

Those with criminal convictions made up 66 percent of all those arrested last year, while those with “pending” charges made up 21 percent.

Under President Donald Trump, U.S. immigration enforcement officers have expanded the arrest, detention and deportation of people in the United States illegally, including those with little or no criminal history or with deep roots in their communities.

The most common criminal charges or convictions for those arrested by ICE last year, according to its data, were driving under the influence, “dangerous drugs,” “traffic offenses,” and “immigration,” which includes crimes such as entering the country illegally, entering illegally more than once, falsely claiming U.S. citizenship, or “alien smuggling.”

(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Phil Berlowit

Dutch church holding non-stop service to block deportations hopes for Christmas miracle

A protestant church holds round-the-clock sermons in an attempt to prevent the extradition of an Armenian family of political refugees, in The Hague, the Netherlands December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Eva Plevier

By Stephanie van den Berg

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – Worshippers at a church in the Netherlands that have been holding round-the-clock prayer services for more than six weeks to prevent an Armenian family from being deported are hoping for a Christmas miracle.

Under Dutch law, police are barred from entering a place of worship while a ceremony is in progress. So hundreds of supporters from the Netherlands and abroad have held non-stop services at the Bethel church in The Hague to block the deportation of the Tamrazyan family.

They are “from all over the world, and that means a lot to our family. …It gives us the strength to keep going,” said daughter Hayarpi, 21. “I really don’t know what the outcome will be, but we hope we can stay here because this is our home.”

The congregation hopes to convince Dutch authorities to make an exception to immigration rules on humanitarian grounds.

“We will continue for as long as we believe it is necessary and possible,” Bethel Minister Derk Stegeman said. “We hope at Christmas our minister will make a great gesture” and grant clemency to the family, he said.

The family came to the Netherlands in 2010 and say they cannot safely return home because they are considered dissidents by the Armenian authorities, although the nationalist Republican Party government that dominated Armenia since independence from the Soviet Union was toppled this year after peaceful protests.

The Netherlands took in hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in the 1960s and 1970s but now has one of the EU’s toughest immigration policies. The conservative government under Prime Minister Mark Rutte says “economic” immigrants cannot stay, though refugees fleeing violence have a right to asylum.

The Tamrazyans lived legally in the Netherlands for nine years while their asylum application made its way through the courts. But a final rejection came this year, and they have been refused an exemption under a program for minors living there for more than five years.

“They’ve been told numerous times they have to leave the Netherlands,” the deputy minister for asylum and migration affairs, Mark Harbers, said on Dutch television last week. “This (vigil) seems pretty hopeless to me.”

Hayarpi Tamrazyan (oldest daughter of the family) is pictured at the protestant Bethel Church in The Hague, the Netherlands December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Eva Plevier

Hayarpi Tamrazyan (oldest daughter of the family) is pictured at the protestant Bethel Church in The Hague, the Netherlands December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Eva Plevier

Hayarpi and her sister, 19-year-old Warduhi, have been studying at a Dutch university, while their younger brother, 15-year-old Seyran, plays on a local soccer team.

“My brother, sister and I grew up in the Netherlands,” she told journalists. “All our friends are here, and my sister and I are studying here. This is just where we belong.”

(Writing by Toby Sterling, Editing by Anthony Deutsch)

French police prepare for fifth wave of yellow vest protests

A protester wearing a yellow vest holds a French flag as the authorities dismantle their shelter at a traffic island near the A2 Paris-Brussels motorway in Fontaine-Notre-Dame, France, December 14, 2018. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

PARIS (Reuters) – France will deploy tens of thousands of police nationwide and around 8,000 in Paris on Saturday to handle a fifth weekend of ‘yellow vest’ protests, although the movement appears to be losing steam after concessions by President Emmanuel Macron.

The chief of police in Paris said concerns remained about violent groups infiltrating the protests. Anti-riot officers will protect landmarks such as the Arc de Triomphe and prevent people from getting close to the presidential palace.

“We need to be prepared for worst-case scenarios,” police chief Michel Delpuech told RTL radio.

He expected businesses in the capital to be less affected this weekend after heavy disruption over the past three weeks when major stores shut, hotels suffered cancellations and tourists stayed away during the usually busy run-up to Christmas.

Nicknamed “Acte V” of the protests, the yellow vest demonstrators will take to the streets this weekend as France recovers from an unrelated attack on a Christmas market in the eastern city of Strasbourg on Tuesday when a gunman shot and killed three people and wounded several others.

Hundreds of police officers were redeployed to Strasbourg to search for the gunman, who was shot dead in an exchange of fire on Thursday evening.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said it was time for the yellow vests to scale down their protests and accept they had achieved their aims. Police officers also deserved a break, he added.

“I’d rather have the police force doing their real job, chasing criminals and combating the terrorism threat, instead of securing roundabouts where a few thousand people keep a lot of police busy,” he said.

TOLL ON THE ECONOMY

Attractions such as the Louvre museum and Opera Garnier will be open this weekend, as will luxury department stores like Galeries Lafayette and Printemps. Last Saturday they were closed as thousands of sometimes violent protesters tore through the city. The previous weekend the Arc de Triomphe was vandalized, cars were overturned and torched and businesses smashed up.

The protests have taken a toll on the economy, with output in the last quarter of the year set to be half initial projections, while Macron’s concessions are likely to push the budget deficit above an EU agreed limit.

The yellow vest movement, which began as a protest against fuel taxes and then grew into an anti-Macron alliance, appears to have calmed since the president announced a series of measures to help the working poor.

However, many people wearing the high-visibility motorists’ safety jackets which are the symbol of the protests were manning barricades outside cities on Friday.

After heavy criticism for not being seen to respond to the protesters’ complaints, Macron made a TV address this week during which he said he understood their concerns and acknowledged the need for a different approach.

As well as canceling fuel tax increases that were due to kick in next month, Macron said he would increase the minimum wage by 100 euros a month from January and reduce taxes for poorer pensioners, among other measures.

Since the first yellow vest protests on Nov. 17, supporters have kept up a steady stream of dissent, although the numbers joining marches have steadily fallen.

(Reporting by Inti Landauro; editing by Luke Baker and David Stamp)

Strasbourg reopens Christmas market after attacker shot dead

A man dressed as Father Christmas poses with a tourist outside the Cathedral in Strasbourg, France, December 14, 2018. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

By Gilbert Reilhac

STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) – Strasbourg reopened its traditional Christmas market under heavy security on Friday, the morning after French police shot dead a gunman suspected of killing four people in the heart of the historic city.

Cherif Chekatt, 29, was killed in the Neudorf neighborhood of Strasbourg after firing on police, ending a two-day manhunt that involved more than 700 members of the security forces.

The attack on Strasbourg’s cherished Christmas market, a target full of religious symbolism, evoked France’s difficulties in integrating western Europe’s largest Muslim minority and dealing with homegrown militants inspired by Islamic State.

“It’s reopening just in time,” said stall-holder Bernard Kuntz, preparing his scarves and stoles imported from India ahead of the expected arrival of French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, who was expected to speak.

“We were getting worried. Some of the guys have taken out loans to be here, and we’ve already lost two days.”

On Friday, a fourth victim died as a result of the wounds they received in what Strasbourg Mayor Roland Ries said was indisputably an act of terrorism.

Ries expressed relief that Chekatt had been killed and said everyone in Strasbourg, on eastern France’s Rhine river border with Germany, felt the same.

French troops, who have been used to bolster national security since a wave of Islamic State-inspired attacks began in France in 2015, stood guard at the open-air market.

“I think it will help to get back to a life that I would describe as normal,” Ries told reporters after the news that Chekatt had been killed. “With the death of this terrorist … citizens, like me, are relieved.”

EXTRA 1,800 TROOPS ON MARKET PATROLS

Islamic State (IS) claimed Chekatt as one of its soldiers, saying he “carried out the operation in response to calls for citizens of coalition countries” fighting the militant group.

IS provided no evidence for the claim and Castaner called it “opportunistic”.

“Nothing indicates that (Chekatt) was part of a network. There is nothing to suggest that he was being protected by such, but the investigation is not yet over,” Castaner told Europe 1.

He described Chekatt as a long-time delinquent whose Islamic beliefs were radicalized during previous periods in prison. Police were still interrogating seven associates on Friday, including his parents, to determine whether he had accomplices.

France ramped up its security threat to its highest level after Chekatt struck late on Tuesday. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe promised an extra 1,800 troops would be put on patrols with a special focus on Christmas markets.

The outdoor market in Strasbourg, centered around a towering Christmas Tree in Place Kleber, draws more than 2 million visitors each year. Christmas markets have been a feature of the Alsatian city since the early 15th century.

The Strasbourg shooting was the latest in a succession of attacks linked to Islamist militancy in France going back to 2012. Since January 2015, more than 240 people have been killed in attacks on French soil, most of them in 2015-16.

(Reporting by Gilbert Reilhac in Strasbourg and Emmanuel Jarry and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Facebook discovers bug that may have affected up to 6.8 million users

FILE PHOTO: The entrance sign to Facebook headquarters is seen in Menlo Park, California, on Wednesday, October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage/File Photo

(Reuters) – Facebook Inc said on Friday it has discovered a bug that may have affected up to 6.8 million people who used Facebook login to grant permission to third-party apps to access photos.

The company said in a blog that the problem has been fixed but that it may have affected up to 1,500 apps built by 876 developers.

Facebook said some third-party apps may have gained access to a broader set of photos than usual for 12 days between Sept. 13 to Sept. 25.

The bug is the latest in a string of privacy problems the tech giant disclosed this year, including the massive Cambridge Analytica data scandal in April and a data breach of nearly 30 million accounts in October.

Facebook shares were down 1.3 percent at $143.07 in early trading on Friday. The Nasdaq composite index <.IXIC> fell 0.9 percent.

(Reporting by Angela Moon in New York Arjun Panchadar in Bengaluru; Editing by Arun Koyyur and Bill Trott)

No Trump-Putin meeting while Russia holds Ukraine ships: Bolton

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the meeting to discuss preparation to mark the anniversary of the allied victory in the World War II at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia December 12, 2018. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – There will be no meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin while Russia still holds Ukrainian ships and sailors seized near Crimea, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said on Thursday.

“I don’t see circumstances in the foreseeable future where such a meeting could take place until the ships and the crews are released,” Bolton told reporters at a Washington think tank.

Russia seized three Ukrainian navy vessels and their combined crew of 24 last month off the coast of Russian-annexed Crimea and accused them of illegally entering Russian waters.

Ukraine has said Russia captured the two small gunboats and one tugboat illegally and accused Moscow of military aggression.

Two Ukrainian navy captains being held in a Russian jail have refused to provide testimony because they consider themselves prisoners of war, their lawyers said.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

A higher Social Security retirement age comes with risks for many workers

FILE PHOTO: An elderly couple looks out at the ocean as they sit on a park bench in La Jolla, California November 13, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Mark Miller

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Is it time to raise the Social Security retirement age? The idea crops up often as a partial fix for the long-term financial challenges facing the program.

A higher retirement age would reduce the number of years on average that people receive benefits, as a way to cut program costs. But according to an economist at the Urban Institute who specializes in employment and retirement decisions made by older Americans, raising the retirement age would inflict serious harm on roughly one-quarter of Social Security beneficiaries.

In a report issued by the Urban Institute last month, Richard W. Johnson examines the arguments in favor and against a higher retirement age, considering trends and disparities in American workers life expectancy, health status and the labor market conditions that older workers face.

When Social Security was created in 1935, benefits began at age 65. Starting in 1956 for women, and in 1961 for men, retirees could claim benefits as soon as age 62, but monthly benefits were reduced permanently depending on how early they filed. Meanwhile, the age when 100 percent of earned benefits are paid – the full retirement age (FRA) – began to rise gradually under reforms legislated in 1983. The FRA is gradually increasing to age 67 for workers born in 1960 or later; for example, workers born between 1943 and 1954 reach their FRA at age 66; for people born in 1955 the FRA will be 66 and two months.

Social Security faces a long-run financial imbalance – the program is now spending more than it takes in annually in payroll taxes. The Social Security trustees project that the program will be unable to pay full benefits beginning in 2034; unless Congress takes action, benefits would be slashed across-the-board by about 25 percent.

Congress has three options for avoiding this dire outcome. It could raise revenue by increasing the payroll tax and increasing the share of wages subject to the tax. A second option is to cut benefits by reducing cost-of-living adjustments or through other benefit formula changes. The third option is raising retirement ages – effectively reducing the number of years, on average, when benefits are received. That could close roughly 27 percent of the long-term shortfall, Johnson calculates.

A LONGEVITY ARGUMENT

Rising longevity is one argument often made in favor of that last reform. Americans live several years longer, on average, than they did when the early retirement age was introduced, and longevity is forecast to rise 2.8 years by 2050, Johnson reports. The program’s costs will rise as people live longer, he told me in an interview. Is there a certain number of years of life we want to finance in retirement that we maintain by shifting that period later?

The retirement age debate usually focuses on the FRA, but Johnson focuses mainly on whether the early retirement age should be increased. If we want to raise the FRA, we also would want to raise the early age, he said. If the gap between the two gets too large, it would create inequities.

Here is what that means. Johnson calculates that filing at 62 currently translates into a 30 percent monthly benefit cut compared with filing at the FRA; if the FRA were increased to 69 without lifting the early age, that early-filing reduction would jump to a whopping 40 percent. That might be a wash in lifetime benefits, depending on how long you live, he said. But the larger point for most retirees is, you pay your bills on a monthly basis.

But increasing the early filing age would create hardships for many workers. If it were raised to age 65, Johnson estimates that 25 percent of workers aged 62 to 64 would face serious financial problems; that represents the share that is not working and has a health-related work limitation.

These workers are more likely to have health problems in their early sixties that limit their work ability, Johnson concludes, and many will not be able to pass the strict medical and functional screens of Social Security Disability Insurance. He also cites ongoing reluctance among employers to hire older workers, and the fact that the recent gains in life expectancy have gone mainly to people with more education and income.

We were seeing improvements in health status until 2000, but those have leveled off and we don’t know what will happen in the future, Johnson said. The most concerning part is we’re now seeing some indications that health status is declining for people in their sixties now, and for people in their forties and fifties, mainly due to rising obesity rates. All of that will make it much more difficult to raise retirement ages.

Rising income inequality also contributes to the problem, he finds. Lower-income workers are more likely to retire early – and that means they will have lower incomes throughout retirement. Conversely, median income for older households without any health-related work limits rose 34 percent from 1996 to 2014, adjusted for household size and inflation. This was due to their greater likelihood of staying employed and receiving wage income.

What kind of policy changes could be made to buffer the most vulnerable people from higher retirement ages? Johnson suggests exempting workers in physically demanding occupations; making the Social Security benefit formula more progressive than it already is to favor low-earners even more; expanding employment services and training and expanding unemployment insurance for older workers.

But he concedes all of these would be challenging policies to achieve from a political standpoint.  Most programs for desperate people don’t get a lot of funding, so the prospects are not great,  he said. There is a real risk that we could raise the early Social Security filing age and not offer enough protections to the people most at risk.

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters)

(Reporting and writing by Mark Miller in Chicago; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Republicans set resolution blaming Saudi prince for journalist’s death

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is pictured during his meeting with Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia and officials in Algiers, Algeria December 2, 2018. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee said he would introduce on Thursday legislation holding Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and insisting on accountability for those responsible for his death.

Despite President Donald Trump’s desire to maintain close relations with Saudi Arabia, the joint resolution is backed by at least nine of his fellow Republicans in the Senate: committee Chairman Bob Corker and co-sponsors including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The measure also warns that the kingdom’s purchases of military equipment from, and cooperation with, the governments of Russia and China challenge the integrity of the U.S.-Saudi military relationship.

The measure is expected to come up for a vote in the Senate, but must also pass the House of Representatives and be signed by Trump, or win enough votes to overcome a veto, to take effect.

House Republican leaders declined to say whether they planned to vote on any Saudi-related legislation before Congress wraps up for the year later this month.

Among other provisions, the joint resolution blames the crown prince for Khashoggi’s murder in Turkey, calls for the Saudi government to ensure “appropriate accountability” for all those responsible for his death, calls on Riyadh to release Saudi women’s rights activists and encourages the kingdom to increase efforts to enact economic and social reforms.

And it declares that there is no statutory authorization for U.S. involvement in hostilities in Yemen’s civil war and supports the end of air-to-air refueling of Saudi-led coalition aircraft operating in Yemen.

The Senate is due to vote later on Thursday on a separate Saudi Arabia measure, a war powers resolution that would end all U.S. involvement with the coalition involved in the Yemen War. That measure would need to pass the House and survive a threatened Trump veto to become law.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Congo fire destroys thousands of voting machines for presidential election

A motorcyclist rides near smoke billowing from fire at the independent national electoral commission's (CENI) warehouse in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Olivia Acland

By Giulia Paravicini

KINSHASA (Reuters) – A fire overnight at a warehouse in Congo’s capital destroyed thousands of voting machines and ballot boxes that were due to be used in the country’s long-delayed Dec. 23 presidential election, authorities said on Thursday.

Democratic Republic of Congo’s national electoral commission (CENI) said in a statement the blaze had destroyed 8,000 of 10,368 voting machines due to be used in the capital Kinshasa, but said the election would go ahead as scheduled.

CENI did not say who it believed to be responsible for the fire – which broke out about 2 a.m. (0100 GMT) in the Gombe riverside area of Kinshasa that is also home to President Joseph Kabila’s residence – but the ruling coalition and leading opposition candidates immediately traded accusations of blame.

Kabila’s Common Front for Congo (FCC), which is backing former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary in the presidential race, accused opposition candidate Martin Fayulu of inciting violence earlier this month.

“Over the course of this electoral campaign, (Fayulu) called on his supporters and sympathizers to destroy electoral materials,” the FCC said in a statement.

Fayulu rejected the charge and suggested that state security forces might have been behind the blaze.

“The fire erupted in a building guarded by the Republican Guard,” Fayulu told Reuters. “You understand today that the Kabila people do not want to organize elections.”

Felix Tshisekedi, the other leading opposition candidate, also suggested on local radio that the government was responsible. “How is it that what should be the best protected place in the republic at this time can burn so easily?” he said.

Barnabe Kikaya Bin Karubi, a Kabila adviser, said police guarding the warehouse had been arrested and that forensic police had launched an investigation.

Kabila, in power since his father’s assassination in 2001, is due to step down because of constitutional term limits. The vote has already been delayed by two years due to what authorities said were logistical challenges but the opposition said stemmed from Kabila’s reluctance to relinquish power.

This month’s highly anticipated vote could mark Congo’s first peaceful transition of power after decades marked by authoritarian rule, coups d’etat and civil wars in which around five million people are estimated to have died.

ELECTION DATE MAINTAINED

CENI president Corneille Nangaa told a news conference the destroyed equipment represented the materials for 19 of 24 voting districts in Kinshasa.

“Without minimizing the gravity of this damaging situation for the electoral process, CENI is working to pursue the process in conformity with its calendar,” Nangaa said.

Kikaya said voting machines from elsewhere in Congo would be recalled for use in Kinshasa, which is home to more than 15 percent of the Congolese population.

The introduction of the untested tablet-like voting machines for the election has been widely opposed by opposition candidates competing against Shadary.

They say the machines are more vulnerable to vote-rigging than paper and ink and could be compromised by the unreliability of Congos power supply.

The delay in the elections has coincided with a breakdown in security across much of the vast mineral-rich country. Militants fight over land and resources in the east near the border with Uganda and Rwanda.

Campaigning over the past three weeks has been mostly peaceful, though deadly clashes erupted between police and opposition supporters this week in the southeast.

(Additional reporting by Stanis Bujakera and Aaron Ross; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Aaron Ross and Gareth Jones)