On U.S. border, fence meant as barrier becomes lure for migrants

A group of Central American migrants surrenders to U.S. Border Patrol Agent Jose Martinez south of the U.S.-Mexico border fence in El Paso, Texas, U.S., March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Andrew Hay, Lucy Nicholson and Jane Ross

EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) – Huddled against a border fence on a bitterly cold morning in El Paso, Texas, a group of 60 Guatemalan migrants, around half toddlers and children, shouted for help: “We’re cold, we’re hungry, we need shelter.”

The group was trying to surrender to U.S. Border Patrol agents and claim asylum, but the agents were too busy herding other groups along the fence that stands about 100 yards (91 m) inside U.S. territory.

The 18-foot-high (5.5 meters) steel barrier is meant to deter illegal immigration. But its position inside the border has turned it into a destination for human smugglers trafficking large groups of asylum seekers fleeing poverty and violence.

The smugglers in recent weeks have shifted routes to El Paso from the remote Antelope Wells area of New Mexico, Border Patrol supervisory agent Joe Romero said.

A group of Central American migrants surrenders to U.S. Border Patrol Agents south of the U.S.-Mexico border fence in El Paso, Texas, U.S., March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Once undocumented migrants are on U.S. soil, the Border Patrol is obliged to arrest them for entering illegally. But migrants can claim fear of returning to their countries, allowing them to remain in the United States legally until an asylum hearing, which can take months or years.

The smugglers’ strategy exploits a weakness in the very border wall President Donald Trump has touted as a means to protect the United States from undocumented immigrants and illicit drugs.

The crowds in El Paso illustrate changing immigration patterns. As recently as 2015, the majority of undocumented border crossers were adult men from Mexico looking to disappear into the country and find work. Now the Border Patrol says about 85 percent of migrants arriving in the El Paso sector are Central American families and children seeking asylum.

Gaspar Isom, 38, who was with his 16-year-old son Sebastian, said he chose El Paso for the relative safety of its sister Mexican border city, Ciudad Juarez.

“We were told other places were more dangerous to cross, they were controlled by the Zetas,” Isom said, referring to the Mexican cartel.

The pair were among close to 1,000 mostly Central American migrants who crossed into El Paso on Wednesday in the kind of surge the U.S. border has not seen in over a decade, Border Patrol data show.

El Paso is not alone in seeing an uptick. Over 268,000 undocumented migrants were arrested at the Southwest border from October through February, a near doubling over the same period a year earlier, to a 12-year high, according to government data released this week. Annual apprehensions remain well below the peak of 1.6 million in 2000.

A group of Central American migrants is questioned about their children's health after surrendering to U.S. Border Patrol Agents south of the U.S.-Mexico border fence in El Paso, Texas, U.S., March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

A group of Central American migrants is questioned about their children’s health after surrendering to U.S. Border Patrol Agents south of the U.S.-Mexico border fence in El Paso, Texas, U.S., March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Border Patrol officials say the El Paso fence, one of multiple sections of barrier built inside the border due to quirks of local topography, is successful in stopping migrants from scattering into El Paso.

But they acknowledge having a hard time keeping up with the numbers. El Paso sector Border Patrol stations reached capacity on Wednesday, and the group of 60 was finally picked up at 5 a.m. Thursday, after spending two nights sleeping by the fence, according to Dylan Corbett, who helps run a migrant shelter operated by El Paso’s Roman Catholic diocese.

Romero said the agency ran out of space to safely and securely transport migrants: “We have manpower shortages, our facilities are at capacity if not more.”

(Reporting by Andrew Hay, Lucy Nicholson and Jane Ross; Editing by Scott Malone and Leslie Adler)

Exclusive: For migrant youths claiming abuse, U.S. protection can be elusive

An unidentified Honduran immigrant is photographed in his apartment in New York, U.S., March 1, 2019. REUTERS/Zachary Goelman

By Mica Rosenberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Growing up in eastern Honduras, Jose said his father would get drunk and beat him with a horse whip and the flat side of a machete. He said he watched his father, a coffee farmer whose crops succumbed to plague, hit his mother on the head with a pistol, sending her to the hospital for three days from the abuse.

At 17, Jose said, he hired a coyote to ferry him to the United States, seeking to escape his home life and violent feuding among his relatives, as well as seek better opportunities for himself and his siblings. He was picked up by border agents, then released pending deportation proceedings.

After struggling to get a good lawyer, Jose applied at 19 for special protection under a program for young immigrants subjected to childhood mistreatment including abuse, neglect or abandonment.

But like a growing number of applicants, his petition hit a series of hurdles, then was denied. Now he is appealing.

“It’s like being stuck not going forward or backwards,” said Jose, now 22 and living in New York. He spoke on condition his last name not be used because he is working without a permit and does not want to jeopardize his appeal. “You can’t advance in life,” he said.

As President Donald Trump vociferously pushes for a physical barrier across the country’s southern border, young people claiming to be eligible for protection under the Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) program increasingly face a less publicized barrier: heightened demands for paperwork.

Data obtained by Reuters under the Freedom of Information Act show that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has recently ramped up demands for additional documents through “Requests for Evidence” and “Notices of Intent to Deny,” which can tie up cases for months.

The program allows immigrants under 21 to apply for permanent residency in the United States if a state court determines that they need protection and that returning to their home countries would be unsafe. Since 2010, about 54,000 applications have been approved.

In fiscal year 2016, before Trump took office, USCIS issued 347 “Requests for Evidence,” the data show. A year later, the agency issued 4,153, while the overall number of new applications rose only slightly.

“Notices of Intent to Deny,” one of the last opportunities to submit additional information before a petition is rejected, doubled in fiscal year to 767 in 2017 compared to fiscal 2016.

Meanwhile, approvals of special immigrant juvenile status petitions dropped by nearly 60 percent in the 2018 fiscal year compared to a year earlier, to 4,712, while denials increased more than 88 percent, according to federal data.

USCIS Spokesman Michael Bars said in a statement that the agency evaluates every petition case by case and that requesting additional evidence “cut down on frivolous petitions and applications, reduce waste, and help to improve the integrity and efficiency of the immigration petition process.”

Immigrant advocates and attorneys have turned to the special protection program as one avenue to offer young migrants who had come from violent pasts a path to legal residency in the United States. Some apply for asylum at the same time.

But for years critics have seen the youth program and other forms of legal relief for Central Americans, including some asylum protections, as “loopholes” that are too permissive and end up encouraging more migration.

It’s “shockingly easy for any minor that is represented by a lawyer to meet the requirements of the law regardless of whether they have been abused, neglected and abandoned,” said Jessica Vaughan from the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports increased immigration restrictions.

‘LOW-HANGING FRUIT’

Migrant attorneys say the administration is using an administrative back door to curb the program. They say many of the requests for additional evidence are technical – requiring proof, for instance, that a state court’s order was issued according to that state’s law.

These advocates say a large chunk of cases being challenged by the Trump administration are those like Jose’s, in which applicants applied between the ages of 18 and 21, and in which the government has challenged the jurisdiction of state family courts in the proceedings.

Immigration rights groups have sued the government in California, New York and Washington state over what they say are blanket denials of petitions from that older group. In the California suit, a judge in February issued a preliminary ruling against the administration, saying state courts do have jurisdiction. A ruling is expected soon in New York, and the Washington suit was just filed Tuesday.

“These post-18 cases are the low-hanging fruit,” said Maria Odom, the former independent ombudsman for USCIS under President Barack Obama. “This is just one piece of (the administration’s) overall plan to destroy protections for unaccompanied minors to try to stop the flow.”

Rich Leimsider, Executive Director of Safe Passage Project speaks during an interview with Reuters at his office in New York, U.S., February 21, 2019. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Rich Leimsider, Executive Director of Safe Passage Project speaks during an interview with Reuters at his office in New York, U.S., February 21, 2019. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

MISSION CREEP?

Underlying these disputes is a conflict over the purpose of the 1990 law authorizing the youth protection program.

The law was passed in response to growing concerns about foreign children becoming homeless or orphaned in the United States because of abandonment or abusive family situations. Eligibility was expanded in 2008 under a U.S. anti-human trafficking law to include kids abandoned by just one parent even if they were being cared for by the other.

Applications ballooned during the Obama administration following a surge in unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, many from violent countries in Central America.

The government received 1,646 applications for the status in fiscal year 2010; in 2018, the number of applications jumped more than thirteenfold.

“This is not what the original law anticipated,” said Vaughan from the Center for Immigration Studies. “It was meant for kids who were trafficked.”

By statute, USCIS is supposed to process applications in six months, but Randi Mandelbaum, who runs a legal clinic at Rutgers Law School that serves immigrant foster kids, said she is handling a dozen cases that have been pending longer than a year. The delays can be painful, she said.

Young people “are already very vulnerable and now they can’t move on,” Mandelbaum said. “Their lives are on hold.”

(This story has been refiled to correct the spelling of USCIS spokesman’s name in 13th paragraph)

(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Julie Marquis and Marla Dickerson)

‘I was like a prisoner’: Saudi sisters trapped in Hong Kong recall beatings

Sisters from Saudi Arabia, who go by aliases Reem and Rawan, are pictured at an office in Hong Kong, China February 23, 2019. REUTERS/Aleksander Solum

By Anne Marie Roantree

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Two sisters from Saudi Arabia who fled the conservative kingdom and have been hiding out in Hong Kong for nearly six months said they did so to escape beatings at the hands of their brothers and father.

The pair, who say they have renounced their Muslim faith, arrived in the Chinese territory from Sri Lanka in September. They say they were prevented from boarding a connecting flight to Australia and were intercepted at the airport by diplomats from Saudi Arabia.

Reuters could not independently verify their story.

Asked about the case, Hong Kong police said they had received a report from “two expatriate women” in September and were investigating, but did not elaborate.

The Saudi consulate in Hong Kong has not responded to repeated requests from Reuters for comment.

The case is the second high-profile example this year of Saudi women seeking to escape their country and spotlights the kingdom’s strict social rules, including a requirement that females seek permission from a male “guardian” to travel.

The sisters, aged 18 and 20, managed to leave Hong Kong airport but consular officials have since revoked their passports, leaving them stranded in the city for nearly six months, their lawyer, Michael Vidler, said.

Vidler, one of the leading activist lawyers in the territory, also confirmed the authenticity of a Twitter account written by the two women describing their plight.

On Saturday, dressed in jeans and wearing sneakers, the softly spoken women described what they said was a repressive and unhappy life at their home in the Saudi capital Riyadh. They said they had adopted the aliases Reem and Rawan, because they fear using their real names could lead to their being traced if granted asylum in a third country.

They posed for pictures but asked their features not be revealed.

Every decision had to be approved by the men in their house, from the clothes they wore to the hairstyle they chose – even the times when they woke and went to sleep, the sisters told Reuters.

“They were like my jailer, like my prison officer. I was like a prisoner,” said the younger sister, Rawan, referring to two brothers aged 24 and 25 as well as her father.

“It was basically modern day slavery. You can’t go out of the house unless someone is with us. Sometimes we will stay for months without even seeing the sun,” the elder sister, Reem, said.

In January, a Saudi woman made global headlines by barricading herself in a Bangkok airport hotel to avoid being sent home to her family. She was later granted asylum in Canada.

“BROTHER BRAINWASHED”

Reem and Rawan said their 10-year-old brother was also encouraged to beat them.

“They brainwashed him,” Rawan said, referring to her older brothers. Although he was only a child, she said she feared her younger brother would become like her older siblings.

The family includes two other sisters, aged five and 12. Reem said she and her sister feel terrible about leaving them, although they “hope their family will get a lesson from this and it might help to change their lives for the better.”

Reem and Rawan decided to escape while on a family holiday in Sri Lanka in September. They had secretly saved around $5,000 since 2016, some of it accumulated by scrimping on items they were given money to buy.

The timing of their escape was carefully planned to coincide with Rawan’s 18th birthday so she could apply for a visitor’s visa to Australia without her parents’ approval.

But what was supposed to be a two-hour stopover in Hong Kong has turned into nearly six months and the sisters are now living in fear that they will be forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia.

They have said they have renounced Islam – a crime punishable by death under the Saudi system of sharia, or Islamic law, although the punishment has not been carried out in recent memory.

The pair say they have changed locations 13 times in Hong Kong, living in hotels, shelters and with individuals who are helping, sometimes staying just one night in a place before moving on to ensure their safety.

Vidler said the Hong Kong Immigration Department told the women their Saudi passports had been invalidated and they could only stay in the city until February 28.

The department has said it does not comment on individual cases.

The sisters have applied for asylum in a third country which they declined to name in a bid keep the information from Saudi authorities and their family.

“We believe that we have the right to live like any other human being,” said Reem, who said she studied English literature in Riyadh and dreams of becoming a writer one day.

Asked what would happen on Feb 28, after which they can no longer legally stay in Hong Kong, the sisters said they had no idea.

“I hope this doesn’t last any longer,” Rawan said.

(Reporting By Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

I did it for my daughter, says woman arrested for headscarf protest in Iran

Azam Jangravi poses during an interview with Reuters, at the unknown location, February 7, 2019. REUTERS

By Emily Wither

(Reuters) – Azam Jangravi’s heart was pounding when she climbed atop an electricity transformer box on Tehran’s busy Revolution Street a year ago. She raised her headscarf in the air and waved it above her head.

A crowd formed. People shouted at her to come down. She knew all along she was going to be arrested. But she did it anyway, she says, to change the country for her eight-year-old daughter.

“I was telling myself: ‘Viana should not grow up in the same conditions in this country that you grew up in’,” Jangavi recalled this week in an interview in an apartment in an undisclosed location outside Iran, where she now awaits news on an application for asylum.

Azam Jangravi holds hands with her daughter in a park, at the unknown location, February 7, 2019. REUTERS

Azam Jangravi holds hands with her daughter in a park, at the unknown location, February 7, 2019. REUTERS

“I kept telling myself: ‘You can do this, you can do this’,” she said. “I was feeling a very special kind of power. It was as if I was not the secondary gender anymore.”

After her protest, she was arrested, fired from her job at a research institute and sentenced to three years in prison for promoting indecency and wilfully breaking Islamic law.

The court threatened to take her daughter away, but she managed to escape Iran – with Viana – before her jail term began: “I found a human smuggler with a lot of difficulty. It all happened very quickly, I left my life, my house, my car behind,” she said.

As she spoke, Viana sketched pictures. They showed her mother waving the white hijab in the air.

Since Iran’s Islamic Revolution 40 years ago this week, women have been ordered to cover their hair for the sake of modesty. Violators are publicly admonished, fined or arrested.

Jangravi was one of at least 39 women arrested last year in connection with hijab protests, according to Amnesty International, which says another 55 people were detained for their work on women’s rights, including women who tried to enter football stadiums illegally and lawyers advocating for women.

Authorities go to “extreme and absurd lengths to stop their campaign”, said Amnesty’s Iran researcher Mansoureh Mills. “Like searching people’s homes for pin badges that have ‘I am against forced hijab’ written on them.”

The badges are part of continued efforts to highlight the hijab issue, along with a campaign for women to wear white headscarves on Wednesdays.

Jangravi recalls stories her mother told her about life before the revolution: “She told me that the revolution caused a great deal of sexism and they separated men and women.”

She was inspired to act after two other women were arrested for similar protests on the same street.

“Of course we don’t expect everyone to climb up the platform in Revolution Street,” she said. “But this made our voices heard by the entire world. What we girls did made this movement into something that continues.”

(Editing by Peter Graff)

Saudi-backed organization denounces countries for ‘inciting’ women to flee

FILE PHOTO: Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun (C) accompanied by Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland (R) and Saba Abbas, general counsellor of COSTI refugee service agency, arrives at Toronto Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Ontario, Canada January 12, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Osorio/File Photo

RIYADH (Reuters) – An organization backed by Saudi Arabia accused several foreign countries of inciting young women to reject their families, the first public comments from Riyadh since a woman claiming domestic abuse was granted asylum in Canada over the weekend.

The National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) did not name 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, who grabbed international attention after barricading herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room and appealing for help on Twitter to resist being sent back to her family, which denies any abuse.

But in a statement late on Sunday NSHR head Mufleh al-Qahtani accused unspecified countries and international organizations of pursuing political agendas and “pushing (women) ultimately to be lost and maybe to fall into the arms of brokers and human traffickers”.

While NSHR says it is independent, the U.S. State Department describes it as “government-funded”.

Riyadh’s human rights record has been in the spotlight since the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its Istanbul consulate in October. There has also been growing international criticism of the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes in Yemen that have caused heavy civilian casualties including children.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in Riyadh on Monday, said he spoke with Saudi leaders about Yemen, Khashoggi and other human rights issues.

NSHR “was surprised by some countries’ incitement of some Saudi female delinquents to rebel against the values of their families and push them out of the country and seek to receive them under the pretext of granting them asylum,” Qahtani said.

He did not name Canada or Australia, which also considered offering Qunun asylum, or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which granted her refugee status.

Qunun arrived in Toronto on Saturday, wearing a hoodie emblazoned with the word Canada, and a cap bearing the UNHCR logo. Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland welcomed her at the airport, calling her “a very brave new Canadian.”

Canada’s move comes amid tension with Riyadh after Ottawa demanded the immediate release of jailed rights activists last year, prompting Saudi Arabia to expel its ambassador to Canada, recall Saudis living there and freeze new trade.

The case has also drawn attention to Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system, which requires women to have the permission of a male relative to travel, sometimes trapping them as prisoners of abusive families.

Qahtani said Saudi laws forbid mistreatment and allow women to report it, but international rights groups say in practice many Saudi women fear that going to the police would only further endanger their lives.

(Reporting By Stephen Kalin, Editing by William Maclean)

Saudi teen to depart Thailand for Canada asylum-Thai immigration chief

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who claims to be fleeing her country and family, is seen in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. TWITTER/ @rahaf84427714/via REUTERS

By Patpicha Tanakasempipat

BANGKOK (Reuters) – A Saudi woman who fled to Thailand saying she feared her family would kill her has been granted asylum in Canada and is traveling there on Friday, the Thai immigration chief told Reuters.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, will board a Korean Air flight from Bangkok to Seoul on Friday night, immigration chief Surachate Hakpark said, before boarding a connecting flight to Canada.

“Canada has granted her asylum,” Surachate told Reuters. “She’ll leave tonight at 11.15 p.m.

Canadian authorities said they could not confirm that Qunun had been granted asylum in Canada.

“We have nothing new to add on this right now,” a spokesman for Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said.

Qunun arrived in Bangkok on Saturday and was initially denied entry but after a tense 48-hour stand-off at Bangkok airport, some of it barricaded in a transit lounge hotel room, she was allowed to enter the country and has been processed as a refugee by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Qunun has accused her family of abuse and has refused to meet her father and brother who arrived in Bangkok to try to take her back to Saudi Arabia.

Her case has drawn global attention to Saudi Arabia’s strict social rules, including a requirement that women have the permission of a male “guardian” to travel, which rights groups say can trap women and girls as prisoners of abusive families.

Qunun’s plight has emerged at a time when Riyadh is facing unusually intense scrutiny from its Western allies over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Instanbul in October and over the humanitarian consequences of its war in Yemen.

Australia had said on Wednesday that it was considering taking in Qunun.

(Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in OTTAWA, Editing by William Maclean)

North Korea diplomat in Italy missing, South Korean MP says, after asylum report

An entrance of the North Korean embassy is pictured in Rome, Italy, January 3, 2019. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

By Hyonhee Shin and Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) – A North Korean diplomat who was until recently acting ambassador to Italy has gone missing, a South Korean member of parliament said on Thursday, after a South Korean newspaper reported he was seeking asylum in the West.

The diplomat, Jo Song Gil, disappeared with his wife after leaving the embassy without notice in early November, according to Kim Min-ki, a South Korean lawmaker who was briefed by the National Intelligence Service.

Earlier on Thursday, the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper, citing an unidentified diplomatic source, said Jo, 48, had applied for asylum to an unspecified Western country and was in a “safe place” with his family under the protection of the Italian government.

A senior diplomatic source in Rome said Italy’s foreign ministry knew nothing about the reports. A second diplomatic source said the ministry had no record of Jo seeking asylum in Italy. The source added that North Korea had announced in late 2018 that it was sending a new envoy to Rome.

“It was a perfectly normal procedure,” the source said.

Kim told reporters he had some information about the case but could not discuss it.

“They left the diplomatic mission and vanished,” Kim said, referring to Jo and his family.

DEFECTIONS

If confirmed, Jo would join a slowly growing list of senior diplomats who have sought to flee the impoverished, oppressive North under the rule of Kim Jong Un.

Thae Yong Ho, the North’s then deputy ambassador to Britain, defected with his family to South Korea in August 2016, becoming the highest-ranking diplomat to do so.

Jo took up the acting envoy post in October 2017 after Italy expelled then-ambassador Mun Jong Nam in protest over North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile tests in defiance of U.N. Security Council sanctions.

Jo’s stint began in May 2015 and was due at the end of November, lawmaker Kim said.

A source familiar with the matter, who asked to remain unnamed in order to speak about a sensitive political issue, told Reuters that Jo was officially replaced as acting ambassador by Kim Chon in late November.

The source could not confirm the JoongAng Ilbo report or whether Jo was still based in Italy.

South Korea’s presidential Blue House said earlier on Thursday it had no knowledge of the matter.

Italy said in a report it submitted to a U.N. panel monitoring the enforcement of sanctions in November 2017 that four diplomats were stationed at the North Korean embassy there, listing the acting envoy as first secretary.

The JoongAng Ilbo said Jo was with his wife and children. Citing an unidentified expert, it said he was known to be the son or son-in-law of a top-ranking North Korean official.

North Korea forced diplomats stationed overseas to leave children at home after Kim took power in late 2011.

Thae, the former deputy ambassador to Britain, said in his 2018 memoir that was the main reason behind his defection, calling it a “hostage” scheme.

However, Thae also wrote there were some exceptions for those from the top echelons and who were seen as the most loyal to Kim.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Joyce Lee and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer in Rome; Editing by Robert Birsel and Gareth Jones)

Mexico says it won’t deport refugees as it seeks details on U.S. plan

FILE PHOTO: A group of Central Americans who are hoping to apply for asylum, wait at the border on an international bridge between Mexico and the U.S. in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico’s government said on Friday it wanted more details from the United States on its plan to send migrants to Mexico while their asylum claims are processed, and vowed not to deport people seeking refuge.

On Thursday, Mexico said it had agreed on humanitarian grounds to accept some non-Mexican migrants sent by the United States to wait in Mexico while their U.S. asylum requests were processed.

However, many questions remain about how the country would house what could be thousands of people from Central America.

The accord was widely viewed as a concession by Mexico’s new president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump, who has threatened to shut down the Mexico-U.S. border if the flow of migrants is not contained.

Questioned at a regular news conference about why Mexico appeared to be giving Trump what he wanted, foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard said Mexico would set out its position more clearly on Monday once it had more information.

“Today, I’m going to ask the U.S. authorities to give us many details,” Ebrard said, noting that the fate of migrants already inside the United States would depend on U.S. law.

To send people to Mexico, the Trump administration is invoking a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act that allows the government to return migrants to a foreign country bordering the United States pending their immigration process.

But some legal experts argue that rule also exempts anyone found inadmissible at the border due to a lack of documents. That could apply to many asylum-seekers.

Ebrard sought to defend the leftist Lopez Obrador administration’s stance as a humanitarian gesture rather than a political one.

“Mexico will not deport people looking for asylum,” he said. “That would go against Mexico’s tradition in favor of the right to asylum, it would go against migrants’ human rights.”

It is unclear how many migrants the new policy could end up returning to Mexico, and Ebrard said he did not believe the measure could be applied retroactively.

Speaking at the same conference, deputy interior minister Alejandro Encinas said the government anticipated that migrant flows to Mexico would increase “significantly” next year, though not necessarily due to more people seeking asylum.

Mexico has pledged to provide work visas to migrants and Encinas said that the government’s public works plans in the south of the country could attract laborers.

Ebrard reiterated that Mexico was not making a deal to become a “safe third country,” which would oblige those seeking asylum who arrive first in Mexico to apply for asylum there.

“We haven’t signed a deal, we’re not going to, nor is the whole asylum procedure going to happen inside Mexico,” he said.

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon and Dave Graham; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Rosalba O’Brien)

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)

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)