‘Global ring’ involved in smuggling 39 found dead in UK truck, court told

‘Global ring’ involved in smuggling 39 found dead in UK truck, court told
By Michael Holden

CHELMSFORD, England (Reuters) – A court heard on Monday that a global ring had been involved in smuggling the 39 people whose bodies were found in a truck near London, as the driver faced charges of manslaughter and people-trafficking.

The discovery of the bodies last week in a refrigerated truck on an industrial estate near London has shone a spotlight on the illicit trade that sends the poor of Asia, Africa and the Middle East on perilous journeys to the West.

The truck’s driver, Maurice Robinson, appeared in Chelmsford Magistrates’ Court via video link. The 25-year-old, wearing a gray sweatshirt, spoke only to confirm his name, address and British nationality.

Robinson faces 43 charges in all – 39 counts of manslaughter as well as accusations of conspiracy to traffic people, conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration, and money laundering.

“This involves a global ring facilitating the movement of a large number of immigrants into the UK,” prosecution lawyer Ogheneruona Mercy Iguyovwe told the court. She said other suspects were still being sought.

Robinson did not apply for bail. He was remanded in custody until Nov. 25, when the case will continue at the Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court, and he will enter a plea.

He was arrested shortly after the bodies were found near the English port of Purfleet. The shipping container they were in had traveled from Zeebrugge in Belgium.

‘HOPING FOR A BETTER LIFE’

“The whole nation and indeed the world has been shocked by this tragedy, and the cruelty of the fate that has been suffered by innocent people who were hoping for a better life in this country,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote in a book of condolences.

Interior minister Priti Patel told parliament the investigation would unravel “criminality that could stretch half way across the world”.

Many of the dead appear to have come from Vietnam’s northern rice-growing areas of Nghe An and Ha Tinh, two of its poorest provinces.

“If I could travel back in time, I wouldn’t have let him go this way,” said Hoang Thi Ai, mother of Hoang Van Tiep, 18, who is feared to be among the dead. “I clean his room every day with the hope that he wasn’t in that deadly truck.”

Police have said few of the victims were carrying official identification, and that they are resorting to fingerprints, dental records, DNA and photographs from friends and relatives.

Vietnam said Britain had sent dossiers seeking help in identifying four of the bodies.

Deputy Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son said Vietnam was still unable to confirm the nationality of any of the victims.

‘MY CHILD WAS SCAMMED’

Bui Thi Nhung, 19, is believed by her family to be one of the dead.

They said she had left Nghe An in August, making her way from China to Germany, then Belgium, where they believe she entered the container.

About 70 percent of Vietnamese trafficking cases in Britain between 2009 and 2016 were for labor exploitation, including cannabis production and work in nail salons, Britain said last year.

A report last March by the Pacific Links Foundation, a U.S.-based anti-trafficking organization, identified Nghe An as home to many victims of human trafficking who end up in Europe.

The other province, Ha Tinh, was ravaged in 2016 by one of Vietnam’s worst environmental disasters when a steel mill owned by Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics contaminated coastal waters, devastating fishing and tourism.

Tiep’s mother said she believed her son had been tricked into traveling to Britain, since he had made it to France when he was 16 and settled down.

“One day he hastily asked us to raise 100 million dong ($4,300) for his trip,” Ai said, sitting with family members in their house in Dien Chau district of Nghe An province.

“My child was scammed. The guy who helped him organize the journey to the UK said the ‘VIP’ service was very safe, commuting in four-seat car – not that container.”

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge in London and James Pearson in Hanoi; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

After Cyclone Idai, thousands still cut off, many more in need: aid agencies

FILE PHOTO: Women wait to receive aid at a camp for the people displaced in the aftermath of Cyclone Idai in John Segredo near Beira, Mozambique March 31, 2019. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – One month after Cyclone Idai tore through southern Africa bringing devastating floods, aid agencies say the situation remains critical with some communities in worst-hit Mozambique only just being reached with aid.

The storm made landfall in Mozambique on March 14, flattening the port city of Beira before moving inland to batter Malawi and Zimbabwe.

It heaped rain on the region’s highlands that then flowed back into Mozambique, leaving an area the size of Luxembourg under water. More than 1,000 people died across the three countries, and the World Bank has estimated more than $2 billion will be needed for them to recover.

FILE PHOTO: Survivors of cyclone Idai arrive at Coppa business centre to receive aid in Chipinge, Zimbabwe, March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo/File Photo

Over the weekend, aid agencies said thousands of people were still completely cut off and warned of the potential for a catastrophic hunger crisis to take hold, especially as aid appeals went largely underfunded.

Dorothy Sang, Oxfam’s humanitarian advocacy manager, said an aid drop was being planned for an isolated area where just last week 2,000 people were found for the first time since the storm. They had been surviving on coconuts, dates and small fish they could catch.

Oxfam estimates there are 4,000 people still cut off. Sang added that while often these weren’t the worst-hit by the disaster, they were already living in chronic poverty and now face huge challenges to survive.

“They risk becoming utterly forgotten,” she said.

On Sunday, Care International said the destruction of crops would compound existing food security problems across the region, and called on donors to find additional funds for the response.

Mozambique’s $337 million humanitarian response plan, largely made up of an appeal for $281 million after the cyclone hit, remained only 23 percent funded on Monday.

The United Nations has also requested $294 million for Zimbabwe, an appeal currently 11 percent funded. The government has separately asked for $613 million to help with the humanitarian crisis.

Meanwhile, U.N. children’s agency Unicef warned at least 1.6 million children need some kind of urgent assistance, from healthcare to education, across all three countries. Save the Children also said many are traumatized after witnessing the death and destruction wrought by the storm.

Machiel Pouw, Save the Children’s response team leader, said children and their families needed long-term help to recover.

“After a disaster of this scale, the world must not look away.”

(Reporting by Emma Rumney; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Nearly 2 million Mozambicans in need after cyclone: U.N.

School children and a man carrying food aid cross a river after Cyclone Idai at Coppa business centre in Chipinge, Zimbabwe, March 26,2019. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

By Emma Rumney and Stephen Eisenhammer

BEIRA, Mozambique (Reuters) – Cyclone Idai’s deadly hit has left some 1.85 million people in need of assistance in Mozambique, the U.N. humanitarian agency said on Tuesday, as relief workers assess the scale of the disaster and determine what help is most urgently needed.

“Some will be in critical, life threatening situations,” Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, coordinator in the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian affairs, said of the affected people.

“We’re now going out on the ground, dropping people off from helicopters to determine what the critical needs are.”

Idai flattened homes and provoked widespread flooding after slamming into Mozambique near the port of Beira on March 14. It then ripped through neighboring Zimbabwe and Malawi, killing at least 686 people across the three southern African countries.

Survivors of cyclone Idai cross a temporary bridge as they arrive at Coppa business centre to receive aid in Chipinge, Zimbabwe, March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

Survivors of cyclone Idai cross a temporary bridge as they arrive at Coppa business centre to receive aid in Chipinge, Zimbabwe, March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

Mozambique – which has a population of around 30 million – was hit hardest, with tens of thousands of homes destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people displaced across an area of some 3,000 square km (1,200 square miles) – roughly the size of Luxembourg.

Receding flood waters have allowed greater access and a greater sense of how much people have lost. Thousands of people, stranded for more than a week by the flooding, are now being moved to safer shelters.

Increasingly, the relief focus has turned to preventing or containing what many believe will be inevitable outbreaks of malaria and cholera.

Though no cholera cases have yet been confirmed, health workers on the ground have reported an upsurge in cases of diarrhea – a symptom of the disease.

“We are testing as we go,” said Rob Holden, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) incident manager in the capital Maputo. “But nonetheless we are treating acute watery diarrhea, it’s the same as treating cholera. That’s just the diagnosis.”

BIG, DENSE POPULATION

Dozens of people queued in front of a clinic in Beira’s Munhava district on Tuesday, as nurses wearing surgical masks out a chlorine solution to prevent the spread of diseases like cholera.

“There is a big population, dense population in Beira,” said Gert Verdonck, emergency coordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). “Of course any spread of any kind of epidemic will be a lot quicker here.”

The WHO is dispatching 900,000 doses of oral cholera vaccine from a global stockpile. The shipment is expected to arrive within 10 days, and a first round of vaccinations will target 100,000 people.

Cholera is spread by feces in sewage-contaminated water or food, and outbreaks can develop quickly in a humanitarian crisis where sanitation systems are disrupted. It can kill within hours if left untreated.

Survivors of cyclone Idai arrive at Coppa business centre to receive aid in Chipinge, Zimbabwe, March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

Survivors of cyclone Idai arrive at Coppa business centre to receive aid in Chipinge, Zimbabwe, March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) has designated Mozambique a level three emergency, placing it on a par with Syria, Yemen and South Sudan. The agency is preparing to feed 1.7 million people in Mozambique.

The U.N. is appealing for $282 million to fund the first three months of the disaster response in Mozambique, and a total of $337 million. So far, only 2 percent of that amount has been funded.

SEARCHING THROUGH RUBBLE

In Zimbabwe, where 179 people have died, another 329 people were still unaccounted for on Monday.

In hard-hit Chimanimani district, villagers used hoes and shovels to dig through debris on Tuesday and search for missing relatives believed buried by the mudslides unleashed by the cyclone.

One family has spent a week digging day and night for four relatives, in what was once a settlement of 500 people but has been reduced to rubble.

Large rocks, some more than two meters (six feet) high, which rolled from a nearby mountain at high speed are what remains after the storm swept away a police camp, houses and an open market.

“I am an orphan now and I am so much in pain because I lost my brother who looked after me. He was more of a father to me,” said Sarah Sithole, 32, whose policeman brother was washed away while on night duty at the police station.

“We will continue searching until we find him and bury him. We will not rest,” she said, her hands and feet covered with red soil.

Around 95 percent of roads in affected districts have been damaged, impeding access to rescuers with earth moving equipment. Zimbabwe has requested for search dogs from South Africa to help look for those missing, a local government official said.

The WFP said it will aim to distribute food assistance to 732,000 people in Malawi and 270,000 in Zimbabwe.

(Additional reporting by Gift Sukhala in Chimanimani, Zimbabwe, MacDonald Dzirutwe in Harare and Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by William Maclean and Frances Kerry)

Rescuers hope to reach more cyclone victims as roads reopen in Mozambique

Aid workers offload maize meal for victims of Cyclone Idai at Siverstream Estates in Chipinge, Zimbabwe, March 24, 2019. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

By Emma Rumney

BEIRA, Mozambique (Reuters) – Rescuers said they would reach hundreds of people on Monday still stranded more than a week after a powerful cyclone struck Mozambique and swathes of southeast Africa, as roads started to reopen.

Cyclone Idai lashed Mozambique’s port city of Beira with winds of up to 170 kph (105 mph) around midnight on March 14, then moved inland to Zimbabwe and Malawi, flattening buildings and killing at least 657 people across the three countries.

An evacuee from Buzi village carries her belongings as she arrives at a displacement center near the airport, after Cyclone Idai, in Beira, Mozambique, March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

An evacuee from Buzi village carries her belongings as she arrives at a displacement center near the airport, after Cyclone Idai, in Beira, Mozambique, March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

“We are more organized now, after the chaos that we’ve had, so we’re delivering food and shelter to more people today,” Mozambique’s Land and Environment Minister Celso Correia told reporters.

Correia said the number of people in makeshift camps had risen by 18,000 to 128,000 since Sunday, most of them in the Beira area.

Communities near Nhamatanda, around 100 km northwest of Beira and where some people haven’t received aid for days, would receive assistance on Monday, he added.

The cyclone and the heavy rains that followed hampered aid efforts and blocked deliveries of food and other essentials from Beira, which is an important gateway to landlocked countries in the region.

The water covering vast tracts of land west of the port has been receding, but the size of the disaster zone makes getting aid to the neediest difficult.

Aid workers distributed maize meal in the Chipinge district of eastern Zimbabwe – one of the areas where the cyclone wrought major destruction – while residents struggled without access to power or piped water.

“We lost all our perishables after Cyclone Idai,” Chipinge resident Kudakwashe Mapungwana said. “Since then we have no electricity at all and women are busy buying charcoal which is very expensive.”

Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said cases of diarrhea in Mozambique were increasing and they were keeping a close watch out for any outbreak of cholera.

“It’s a killer,” Rhodes Stampa said of cholera, naming the infection as one of his biggest concerns, alongside more flooding. But the weather for the next two weeks looked “pretty good” and dam releases were well-controlled, he added.

Correia said the death toll in Mozambique remained roughly unchanged at 447 on Monday. In Zimbabwe the tropical storm has killed at least 154 people, according to the government, while 56 died in Malawi.

(Additional reporting by Stephen Eisenhammer in Beira, and Philimon Bulawayo in Chipinge and MacDonald Dzirutwe in Harare; Writing by Alexander Winning; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Andrew Heavens)

Number of hungry children in Africa’s Sahel hits 10-year high

Rural women who have carried their malnourished children for days across the Sahel desert in search of [food] rush into an emergency feeding center in the town of Guidan Roumdji, southern Niger, July 1, 2005. [Niger's severe food crisis could have been prevented if the United Nations had a reserve fund to jump-start humanitarian aid while appeals for money were considered, a senior U.N. official said on July 19. Some 3.6 million people are in need of food, among them 800,000 malnourished children. About 150,000 may die unless food arrives quickly in the impoverished West African nation of 13 million.] Picture taken July 1, 2005. - PBEAHUNYKGE

By Umberto Bacchi

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The number of hungry children in West Africa’s Sahel region reached a 10-year high in 2018 due to poor rains, conflict and high food prices, the United Nations said on Friday.

More than 1.3 million children under the age of five suffered from severe malnutrition this year in the six worst hit countries in the semi-arid belt below the Sahara – a 50 percent increase on 2017, said the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF.

“When children suffer from severe acute malnutrition, they are more vulnerable to illnesses such as malaria and waterborne diseases,” Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF regional director for West and Central Africa said in a statement.

Hunger is a recurrent scourge in the region, whose growing population grapples with high poverty rates and periodic droughts, the agency said.

This year the problem was particularly acute across Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal, it added.

An estimated 6 million people did not have enough to eat across the region during the lean season, according to the U.N. food agency (FAO).

Pastoralist communities were among the worst hit because poor rains meant there was not enough vegetation for grazing, said Coumba Sow, the FAO’s regional coordinator for resilience.

The Sahel has only one growing season and if it goes poorly due to climate shocks or conflict people must survive on whatever they have until the next one.

Global warming exacerbates the problem by making rainfall more erratic, said Sow, adding the rains were late and suffered a prolonged break, causing many farmers to lose half their seeds.

U.N. agencies and local governments were currently evaluating production levels for the new season, she said.

“We still hope that we will be able to get some good results in harvest, but it is too early to say,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

U.S. first lady Melania Trump lays wreath at ’emotional’ slave castle in Ghana

U.S. first lady Melania Trump greets a child during her visit at Cape Coast castle, Ghana, October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

CAPE COAST, Ghana (Reuters) – U.S. First lady Melania Trump on Wednesday laid a wreath at a slave fortress on the coast of Ghana, vowing never to forget the place where Africans were held before being shipped away into further hardship, most across the Atlantic.

“It’s very emotional… I will never forget (the) incredible experience and the stories that I heard,” she said after seeing the dungeons and walking through the ‘door of no return’, the castle’s final exit toward the ocean.

U.S. first lady Melania Trump holds a child during a visit to a hospital in Accra, Ghana. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

U.S. first lady Melania Trump holds a child during a visit to a hospital in Accra, Ghana. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

She arrived in Ghana on the first stop of her first solo international trip as first lady, a tour of Africa, a continent her husband has been reported to have referred to derisively. She will also visit Malawi, Kenya and Egypt.

President Donald Trump has not visited Africa since taking office in 2017. In January U.S. media reported widely that he described African states as “shithole countries” during a discussion with lawmakers about immigration. He has denied making the remark.

The 17th century Cape Coast castle, now a monument, has attracted world dignitaries including America’s first black President Barack Obama and his family, who also shared their emotions at the site.

During her tour on Wednesday, Melania Trump walked slowly with a guide through various wings, asking questions. She passed a row of cannons and descended into a dungeon where male slaves were held in chains.

“It’s really, really touching,” she said. “The dungeons that I saw, it’s really something that people should see and experience, and what happened so many years ago — it’s really a tragedy.”

U.S. first lady Melania Trump waves as she meets with Fante chiefs to gain permission to visit Cape Coast castle, Ghana, October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

U.S. first lady Melania Trump waves as she meets with Fante chiefs to gain permission to visit Cape Coast castle, Ghana, October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Before proceeding to the slave castle, she visited the palace of the head chief of the area and obtained royal approval to visit the fortress after presenting drinks to the chiefs.

The ceremony took place in Obama hall at the Emintsimadze Palace, a hall that was renamed in Obama’s honor after his visit to the area in 2009.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Writing by Kwasi Kpodo; Editing by Peter Graff)

Alphabet to deploy balloon Internet in Kenya with Telkom in 2019

FILE PHOTO: A Google Project Loon internet balloon is seen at the Google I/O 2016 developers conference in Mountain View, California May 19, 2016. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo

By Duncan Miriri

NAIROBI (Reuters) – Alphabet Inc’s Loon said on Thursday it would deploy its system of balloons to beam high-speed Internet access with Telkom Kenya from next year to cover rural and suburban populations, marking its first commercial deal in Africa.

Known as Project Loon, the technology was developed by Alphabet’s X, the company’s innovation lab. It has since become Loon, a subsidiary of Alphabet, which is the parent company of Google.

The technology was used by U.S. telecom operators to provide connectivity to more than 250,000 people in Puerto Rico after a hurricane last year. Kenya hopes the technology can help achieve full Internet coverage of its population.

“Loon’s mission is to connect people everywhere by inventing and integrating audacious technologies,” said Alastair Westgarth, the chief executive of Loon.

Telkom Kenya is the third biggest operator in the country behind market leader Safaricom and Bharti Airtel’s Kenyan unit.

“We will work very hard with Loon, to deliver the first commercial mobile service, as quickly as possible, using Loon’s balloon-powered Internet in Africa,” said Aldo Mareuse, the chief executive of Telkom.

The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

The Loon service uses balloons, which are powered by an on-board solar panel, to provide fourth generation (4G) coverage to areas with lower population densities.

They float at 60,000 feet above the sea level, well above air traffic, wildlife, and weather events, Loon said.

With more than 45 million people, Kenya’s major cities and towns are covered by operator networks, but vast swathes of rural Kenya are not covered.

A Microsoft-backed Kenyan start-up has been using under-utilized television frequencies to connect some of those rural communities.

(Reporting by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Gopakumar Warrier)

Israel abandons plan to forcibly deport African migrants

FILE PHOTO: A boy takes part in a protest against the Israeli government’s plan to deport African migrants, in Tel Aviv, Israel March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Corinna Kern/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Israeli government said on Tuesday it had abandoned a plan to forcibly deport African migrants who entered the country illegally after failing to find a willing country to take in the migrants.

The government had been working for months on an arrangement to expel thousands of mostly Eritrean and Sudanese men who crossed into Israel through Egypt’s Sinai desert.

“At this stage, the possibility of carrying out an unwilling deportation to a third country is not on the agenda,” the government wrote in a response to Israel’s Supreme Court, which has been examining the case.

The migrants will again be able to renew residency permits every 60 days, as they were before the deportation push, the government said.

The migrants and rights groups say they are seeking asylum and are fleeing war and persecution. The government says they are job seekers and that it has every right to protect its borders.

Despite Tuesday’s climbdown, the government said immigration authorities would still try to deport migrants voluntarily, drawing criticism from rights group Amnesty International.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later said that after failing to reach agreement with any country to take them in, he would try to draft legislation that would allow the reopening of detention centers in Israel for the migrants.

The Supreme Court has previously struck down legislation that permits such detention and ordered the facilities shut.

“I’M THRILLED”

The government’s U-turn was welcomed by those targeted for expulsion.

“I’m thrilled. I’m speechless. I was so scared every day. If I can stay here it will be good, I’ve lived here so long – I have a job, I have Israeli friends. I am used to the place,” said Ristom Haliesilase, a 34-year-old Eritrean who lives in Tel Aviv, working as a carer for the elderly.

The fate of some 37,000 Africans in Israel has posed a moral dilemma for a state founded as a haven for Jews from persecution and a national home.

Around 4,000 migrants have left Israel for Rwanda and Uganda since 2013 under a voluntary program, but Netanyahu has come under pressure from his right-wing voter base to expel thousands more.

After pulling out of a U.N.-backed relocation plan a few weeks ago, Israel shifted efforts toward finalizing an arrangement to send the migrants against their will to Uganda.

A number of migrant rights groups then petitioned the Supreme Court to block any such policy.

Amnesty also welcomed Tuesday’s decision but criticized Israel’s plan to continue with voluntary deportations.

“… in reality there is nothing voluntary about them. Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers agree to them under pressure. Israel remains under the obligation not to transfer anyone to a country” where they would be unsafe, said Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Amnesty will closely monitor the deportations, it said.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell and Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Israel says to send 16,000 African migrants to Western countries

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel said on Monday it has scrapped a plan to deport African migrants to Africa and reached an agreement with the U.N. refugee agency to send more than 16,000 to Western countries instead.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu named Canada, Italy and Germany as some of the nations that will take in the migrants.

Other migrants, many of whom are seeking asylum, will be allowed to remain in Israel, which they entered illegally on foot through the border with Egypt, for at least the next five years.

The fate of some 37,000 Africans in Israel has posed a moral dilemma for a state founded as a haven for Jews from persecution and a national home. The right-wing government has been under pressure from its nationalist voter base to expel the migrants.

But the planned mass deportation led to legal challenges in Israel, drew criticism from the United Nations and rights groups and triggered an emotional public debate among Israelis.

In February, Israeli authorities started handing out notices to 20,000 male African migrants giving them two months to leave for a third country in Africa or risk being put in jail indefinitely.

Teklit Michael, who came to Israel from Eritrea a decade ago, said he was delighted by the new deal.

“I saw in the past few years a lot of people lose their hopes because of that deportation to an unsafe place,” said Michael, 29.

MONEY AND AN AIR TICKET

The Israeli government has offered migrants, most of them from Sudan and Eritrea, $3,500 and a plane ticket to what it says is a safe destination. At immigration hearings, migrants were told they could choose to go to Rwanda or Uganda.

But rights groups advocating on their behalf say that many fled abuse and war and that their expulsion, even to a different country in Africa, would endanger them further.

The groups had challenged the deportation plan in Israel’s High Court, which on March 15 issued a temporary order that froze its implementation.

Netanyahu said the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees had agreed to organize and fund the new plan that would take five years to implement.

“The joint commitment is that ‘You take out 16,250 and we will leave 16,250 as temporary residents’. That enables the departure of a very large number of people, 6,000 in the first 18 months,” Netanyahu said at a news conference in Jerusalem.

A UNHCR spokeswoman in Tel Aviv confirmed that an agreement had been reached but gave no details.

The U.N.’s refugee agency had urged Israel to reconsider its original plan, saying migrants who have relocated to sub-Saharan Africa in the past few years were unsafe and ended up on the perilous migrant trail to Europe, some suffering abuse, torture and even dying on the way.

The largest community of African migrants, about 15,000, lives in south Tel Aviv, in a poor neighborhood where shops are dotted with signs in Tigrinya and other African languages and abandoned warehouses have been converted into churches for the largely Christian Eritreans.

(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Cash or custody: Israel kicks off deportation of African migrants

African migrants wait in line for the opening of the Population and Immigration Authority office in Bnei Brak, Israel February 4, 2018. Picture taken February 4, 2018

By Maayan Lubell and Elana Ringler

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Israel has started handing out notices to 20,000 male African migrants giving them two months to leave the country or risk being thrown in jail.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is offering the migrants, most of whom are from Sudan and Eritrea, $3,500 and a plane ticket to what it says is a safe destination in another country in sub-Saharan Africa.

The fate of some 37,000 Africans in Israel is posing a moral dilemma for a state founded as haven for Jews from persecution and a national home. The right-wing government is under pressure from its nationalist voter base to expel the migrants, while others are calling for them to be taken in.

The government says the migrants are “infiltrators” looking for work rather than asylum, but there is a growing liberal backlash against the plan, including from rabbis, a small group of survivors of the Nazi Holocaust and ordinary people who say Israel should show greater compassion to the migrants.

The first eviction notices were handed out on Sunday and job advertisements for immigration inspectors to implement the deportation plan have been posted on government websites.

Rights groups advocating on behalf of the migrants say many fled abuse and war and their expulsion, even to a different country in Africa, would endanger them further.

“I don’t know what to do. Rwanda, Uganda are not my countries, what will a third country help me?” said Eritrean Berihu Ainom, after receiving an eviction notice on Sunday.

The deportation notices do not name the country migrants will be flown to but Netanyahu has said it will be a safe destination. Rights groups have named Uganda and Rwanda as possible host countries.

In a poor neighborhood in the south of Tel Aviv that has attracted thousands of African migrants, shops are dotted with signs in Tigrinya and other African languages while abandoned warehouses have been converted into churches.

“I came to Israel to save my life,” said Eritrean Afoworki Kidane, sitting on a street bench.

He said he would rather go to jail than take the cash and plane ticket on offer to leave the country that has been his home for nine years.

BACKLASH BUILDING

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said Israel’s first obligation was to its own citizens, rather than the migrants.

“They are not numbers, they are people, they are human and I am full of compassion and mercy,” Deri told Army Radio. “But the small state of Israel cannot contain such a vast number of illegal infiltrators.”

But opposition to the plan has been building and some Israelis are now offering to take migrants at risk of expulsion into their homes.

On Thursday, a group of 36 Holocaust survivors sent a letter to Netanyahu asking him not to deport the migrants. The U.S.-based Anti Defamation League has also urged Israel to reconsider the plan, citing “Jewish values and refugee heritage”.

Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and a Holocaust survivor, said in a statement the issue required “as much compassion, empathy and mercy that can possibly be marshalled. The experiences of the Jewish people over the ages underscore this commitment.”

Rabbi Susan Silverman has launched a campaign called Miklat Israel (Israel Shelter) for Israelis to take migrants into their homes.

“It’s unconscionable for the Jewish state to deport people to harrowing vulnerability,” she said.

Miklat Israel’s Rabbi Tamara Schagas said 600 Israeli families had already signed up and the organization would begin to connect migrants with potential hosts this week.

MORAL COMPASS

The Supreme Court ruled in August that Israeli authorities can hold illegal migrants for up to 60 days in custody.

Immigration officials have said women, children and men with families in Israel were allowed to stay for now, as was anyone with outstanding asylum requests.

Out of 6,800 requests reviewed so far, Israel has granted refugee status to 11 migrants. It has at least 8,000 more requests to process.

Israeli authorities have said Israeli officials will keep in touch with migrants accepted in a third country to oversee their progress. Rwanda has said it will only accept migrants who have left Israel of their own free will.

Nonetheless, the U.N.’s refugee agency has urged Israel to reconsider, saying migrants who have relocated to sub-Saharan Africa in the past few years were unsafe and ended up on the perilous migrant trail to Europe, some suffering abuse, torture and even perishing on the way.

Rights groups in Israel say the government is simply ridding itself of people it should be recognizing as refugees in Israel and that there was no real guarantee for their safety.

A fence Israel has built over the past few years along its border with Egypt has all but stopped African migrants from entering the country illegally. Beginning in the previous decade, when the border was porous, a total of 64,000 Africans made it to Israel though thousands have since left.

Emmanuel Asfaha from Eritrea crossed into Israel in 2011 with his wife and baby son. His second child was born in Israel.

A narrow grocery store stockroom stacked with bags of flour leads to their two-room apartment in Tel Aviv, a poster of Jesus hanging on the cracked walls above his son’s bed. Asfaha is concerned Israel will eventually deport families too.

“I am worried about the situation,” he said while cooking Shiro, a traditional stew. “Tomorrow it will be for me also.”

A few kilometers away, in a hip, upscale part of Tel Aviv, Ben Yefet, a 39-year-old stockbroker, said he had signed up with Miklat Israel to house two or three migrants in his two-room apartment.

“As Israelis and Jews we are obligated. We have a moral compass, we just have to do it,” he said.

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; editing by Jeffrey Heller and David Clarke)