Defying court order, Malaysia deports more than 1,000 Myanmar nationals

By A. Ananthalakshmi and Rozanna Latiff

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (Reuters) – Malaysia sent more than 1,000 Myanmar nationals back to their strife-torn homeland on Tuesday despite a court order to halt the deportation, a move rights groups said could endanger the deportees’ lives.

The 1,086 Myanmar citizens were sent back on three navy ships sent by Myanmar’s military, which seized power in a Feb. 1 coup, sparking weeks of protests from pro-democracy activists. Malaysia had initially said it would deport 1,200.

Malaysia vowed not to deport Rohingya Muslims or refugees registered with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

But the agency has said at least six people registered with it were among the deportees. Refugee groups also say asylum seekers from the minority Chin, Kachin and non-Rohingya communities fleeing conflict and persecution at home are among those being deported.

Malaysia’s Immigration Department director-general said the repatriated Myanmar citizens did not include Rohingya refugees or asylum-seekers.

“All of those returned had agreed to be sent back voluntarily without being forced by any party,” Khairul Dzaimee Daud said in a statement.

He did not respond to queries on why the repatriation was carried out despite the court-ordered halt.

The Kuala Lumpur High Court had granted a stay until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, when it was scheduled to hear an application by rights groups for a judicial review to suspend the deportation.

Just before the ruling, the migrants were bussed in from across the country to the naval base at Lumut in western Malaysia where the Myanmar ships were docked.

Myanmar’s military-backed news outlet Myawaddy reported that the ships were bringing back Myanmar nationals who were not granted permission to come back under the former ruling civilian government.

An immigration official quoted by the outlet said: “We scrutinized that all of them are the citizens of our country, not Bengali,” using a derogatory term for Rohingya, members of a persecuted Muslim minority, that implies they are foreigners.

‘INHUMANE AND DEVASTATING’

Those deported had been detained for immigration offences. Malaysia does not formally recognize refugees, treating them as undocumented migrants.

Amnesty International, one of the groups which requested the judicial review, called the decision to deport without a proper assessment of the returnees “inhumane and devastating”.

“Using indirect means to push people back to face grave human rights violations is essentially constructive refoulement,” Katrina Maliamauv, Amnesty Malaysia director, said in a statement.

“There are still huge, deeply concerning question marks over the status of those sent back today.”

The rights groups in their court filing had said among the deportees were three people registered with the UNHCR and 17 minors who have at least one parent in Malaysia.

Concerns over deportation of unregistered asylum-seekers have persisted, as UNHCR has not been allowed to interview detainees for more than a year to verify their status. The Southeast Asian nation is home to more than 154,000 asylum-seekers from Myanmar.

The UNHCR had not been allowed access to those deported on Tuesday.

The United States and other Western missions have been trying to dissuade Malaysia from proceeding with the deportation and urged the government to allow UNHCR to interview the detainees. They also say Malaysia is legitimizing the Myanmar military government by cooperating with the junta.

(Additional reporting by Joseph Sipalan in Kuala Lumpur and Lim Huey Teng in Lumut; Editing by Ed Davies, Simon Cameron-Moore, Jacqueline Wong, William Maclean and Philippa Fletcher)

Exclusive: Canada deporting thousands even as pandemic rages

By Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada deported thousands of people even as COVID-19 raged last year, data seen by Reuters shows, and lawyers say deportations are ramping up, putting people needlessly at risk in the midst of a global health emergency.

Like many other countries, Canada is struggling to stop a second wave from spiraling out of control, and its political leaders are begging residents to stay home to prevent the spread.

Lawyers and human rights advocates are decrying Canada’s November decision to resume deportations. Until now, the extent of the country’s pandemic deportations was not known, but recent interviews with immigration lawyers and scrutiny of government numbers has shed light on the situation.

Canada counted 12,122 people as removed in 2020 – 875 more than the previous year and the highest number since at least 2015, according to Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) data seen by Reuters. The government says this was necessary and done safely.

The CBSA says the high number last year is because it includes people who decided to leave on their own, termed “administrative removals.” In 2019 there were 1,657 administrative removals, compared with 8,215 last year.

Even subtracting those numbers, that leaves thousands of people deported as the pandemic raged and governments cautioned against travel of any kind for safety reasons.

Even as Canada continues to deport non-citizens during a health crisis, U.S. President Joe Biden paused deportations for 100 days within hours of being sworn in on Wednesday.

Canada officially imposed a moratorium on deportations in March that it lifted at the end of November.

“As much as a human rights concern it’s a common sense concern,” said Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Rights Program.

Countries’ deportation practices have varied over the course of the pandemic. Several, including the United Kingdom, suspended deportations before resuming them. Others, like Ireland, have kept suspensions in place.

The CBSA said it has been prioritizing deportations for reasons of “serious admissibility,” including criminality.

The vast majority of people deported in 2020 were for reasons of “noncompliance.” Even taking into account administrative removals, more than 1,000 people were deported during the suspension, the data shows.

‘IT’S UNBELIEVABLE’

Public health experts have warned that travel of any kind can spread COVID-19 from one place to another, a risk that grows with the advent of more highly transmissible COVID variants.

Many of the deportation trips involve transfers at multiple airports and flights during which people are placed in enclosed space in close quarters with other people for hours at a time, a situation ripe for transmission.

Since August Canada has been conducting deportations with CBSA escorts, so Canadians are also making thousands of these round-trip flights for deportation purposes.

Organizations including the Canadian Bar Association and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers spoke out against Canada’s decision to resume deportations.

“As everybody is putting in place more restrictions in an effort to flatten the curve … CBSA made a shocking decision to simply go back to business as usual,” said Maureen Silcoff, president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers.

“Canada has taken the position that nonessential travel is barred yet people are now being removed and there’s no indication that those removals are essential.”

The CBSA said in a statement it lifted the moratorium on deportations because foreign government offices and borders had reopened, airlines restarted their routes and public-health protocols “have contributed to a high degree of safety for persons being removed by air.”

“Canada continues to uphold both its human rights and public safety obligations in relation to the removal of inadmissible foreign nationals,” the statement said. “The removal process includes many checks and balances to ensure that the removal is conducted in a fair and just manner.”

But these deportations are endangering not only the people being deported but the government officers tasked with accompanying them to their destination, lawyers say.

Immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman’s Toronto office went from getting no removal cases to getting three or four in the space of a week, he said. He is now fighting for a failed refugee claimant with two young Canadian children who faces deportation to Egypt Monday.

“They’re ramping it up as if there was no pandemic,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto; Editing by Denny Thomas and Matthew Lewis)

U.S. judge blocks expulsions of unaccompanied children under Trump’s pandemic-related border rules

By Ted Hesson and Mica Rosenberg

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. district court judge on Wednesday blocked expulsions of unaccompanied children caught crossing into the United States, a setback for the outgoing Trump administration, which said the policy was aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in the District of Columbia ruled that the minors were likely to suffer irreparable harm because they could be subject to sexual abuse and other violence, as well as face the possibility of torture and death if summarily returned to their home countries.

President Donald Trump has made immigration curbs a central part of his four-year term in office and enacted a series of sweeping immigration restrictions during the pandemic.

President-elect Joe Biden, has vowed to reverse many of the Republican president’s hardline immigration policies.

Biden has not yet commented on how he would handle the emergency border rules that allow for rapid deportations. A Biden campaign official told Reuters that he would defer to health experts on such restrictions.

A U.S. Border Patrol official said in a September court filing that 8,800 unaccompanied minors were expelled under the border rules between their enactment on March 20 and Sept. 9.

Overall, the United States has expelled roughly 197,000 migrants caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border from March through the end of September, though those figures include migrants who may have crossed multiple times.

Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which represented plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the policy was a “pretext” for Trump to close the border to children and asylum seekers from Central America.

The U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Nick Macfie)

Die in detention or at home? U.S. pandemic forces cruel choice on asylum seekers

By Laura Gottesdiener

MONTERREY, Mexico (Reuters) – In early June, asylum seeker Jose Munoz decided it was time to flee for his life – by getting deported from a Texas immigration detention center where coronavirus was sweeping through the population and going home to El Salvador.

As the number of COVID-19 cases rose in the Houston Contract Detention Facility – it has had at least 105, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) data – Munoz said he had few ways to protect himself from exposure except for a cloth face mask. On June 1, there were 375 detainees housed in the facility, according ICE data.

Although at 19 he would not normally be at risk from complications from the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, Munoz worried his high cholesterol, a comorbidity found in some patients who died, made him vulnerable.

Months earlier, the Salvadoran student had sought asylum in the United States after he says he was attacked for refusing to transport drugs for a gang, which he declined to name, citing concerns for his safety. His lawyer and an affidavit signed by Munoz and reviewed by Reuters were consistent with his account. But by June, he feared his life was hanging in the balance, knowing that the next ruling in his asylum case would be months away if he chose to keep fighting.

“I felt like it was more dangerous than back in my country,” he said in a telephone interview last month from El Salvador.

Reuters spoke to more than 30 lawyers, immigration advocates, detainees and their family members who said the risks of contracting COVID-19 inside detention facilities have driven people to seek deportation.

Fifteen immigration lawyers and advocates, who together say they have received hundreds of requests from detainees seeking to leave facilities in eight U.S. states for health reasons, told Reuters they are seeing increases in the number of people considering abandoning their cases. Reuters found 12 cases of detainees who stopped fighting their cases and instead agreed to deportation or voluntary departure due to the pandemic.

An ICE spokeswoman told Reuters the agency respects migrants’ rights to make decisions regarding whether to pursue or forego their cases.

Reuters couldn’t determine if the total number of people voluntarily seeking deportation is on the rise.

Samuel Cole, a U.S. immigration judge who spoke to Reuters as communications director for the National Association of Immigration Judges, said he saw an increase in migrants seeking to leave detention in the early months of the pandemic – even if it meant abandoning their cases.

“There were definitely respondents who expressed fear of getting sick in detention and wanted to get out as fear of COVID was sweeping the country,” Cole said.

ACCESS TO MASKS, HAND SANITIZER

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has dialed back arrests and released some immigrants on parole, but has come under fire for shifting detainees between facilities during the pandemic, which ICE has said is part of its effort to stem the spread of the virus and to promote social distancing. The agency has also been criticized for deporting more than a hundred infected people to their home countries.

ICE data shows 2,742 people in ICE detention centers, and 45 ICE employees, have tested positive for COVID-19. Two migrants with the disease have died. Thousands of others who could be more vulnerable if they get infected remain in custody, according to ICE data included in a June 24 court filing as part of a class-action lawsuit over medical care in ICE facilities.

The ICE spokeswoman said the agency weighs a person’s criminal record, potential threat to public safety and flight risk, as well as any national security concerns, when evaluating whether to grant discretionary release.

One migrant interviewed for this story tested positive for COVID-19 while in detention at the Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico, according to ICE. A second migrant tested positive on May 14, according to El Rio Health in Arizona, the same day U.S. documents show he was released from ICE custody.

Many of the 14 current and former detainees interviewed by Reuters said they did not have access to hygiene products such as hand soap and disinfectants. Six detainees said they were exposed to other detainees who had fevers, persistent coughs, or body aches, which can be symptoms of the virus.

One current detainee said those who voiced health concerns were punished with solitary confinement, a claim echoed by lawyers and advocates working in detention centers in four different states.

“ICE fully respects the rights of detainees to voice their concerns without interference and does not retaliate in any way,” the ICE spokeswoman told Reuters.

A second ICE spokeswoman said the agency provided soap in washing areas and sanitizer throughout the centers “whenever possible,” adding that ICE had taken steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and to “safeguard the health and well-being of detainees, staff, and others at our detention facilities.”

Several lawyers told Reuters they see the agency’s handling of the pandemic inside its detention centers as part of the U.S. government’s broader effort to limit immigration.

“I’ve come to think it’s a strategy to get people to say: ‘I’m scared to death, I can’t stand it anymore, just deport me,'” said Margo Cowan, supervisor at the Pima County Public Defender’s Office in Arizona, who has practiced immigration law for more than three decades.

The first ICE spokeswoman told Reuters the agency fully respects immigrants’ rights to due process.

“Any alien who has a claim to relief, protection under the law, or basis to remain in the United States is allowed to remain in the U.S. legally,” she said.

A DHS internal watchdog report based on a survey of 188 ICE detention centers shows that about 90% of ICE detention centers said they had enough masks and liquid soap for detainees. More than a third reported not having enough hand sanitizer for detainees. Twelve percent of facilities said they did not have the capacity to isolate or quarantine a detainee who tested positive for COVID-19. A number of facilities said social distancing was a challenge given space restrictions.

‘JUST SIGN’

Patricia Jimenez, a Mexican asylum seeker who said she fled to the United States after being kidnapped by unknown gunmen, decided to drop her case and seek deportation as the coronavirus swept through the Eloy Federal Contract Facility in Arizona, which has reported 222 COVID-19 cases, the second-largest outbreak in an ICE detention center. Her account was confirmed by her lawyer and her aunt.

“I’m really scared that I might get sick and never see my son again,” she told Reuters in a call in late June from the center, where she’s awaiting deportation.

Jimenez said she fears returning to Mexico.

“But at this moment, I’m more afraid of being here,” she said, citing the death of a guard who she says she had contact within the facility’s kitchen, where she had worked. CoreCivic, the company that operates the center, said the death was from “potential COVID-19-related issues.”

In a statement, a representative of CoreCivic said the company is committed to the safety of its detainees and employees, adding that Jimenez’s claims “do not reflect the affirmative, proactive measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 our facility has been taking for months.”

Lucas Castro, a Mexican asylum seeker with diabetes, which makes people vulnerable to complications from the virus, said he also requested deportation after fearing for his life more in detention than back home, where he said he was brutally beaten by a drug gang last year. His account was supported by his wife and the transcript of his “credible-fear” interview, which is part of the asylum process and was reviewed by Reuters.

Eight migrants, including Castro, told Reuters that officials tried to use detainees’ health concerns to push them into agreeing to their deportation.

At Arizona’s La Palma Correctional Facility, where Castro was held, he said detainees frequently requested information about the pandemic and whether they could be granted humanitarian parole or other forms of release.

“Instead, a deportation officer always arrived and told us that if we were genuinely afraid then we should just sign for our deportation,” Castro said. Two other former detainees in the same facility echoed Castro’s account. Castro said his fear of the virus prompted him to ask a judge for deportation, which U.S. records show was ordered in late May.

The second ICE spokeswoman said the agency does not have a policy of encouraging detainees who raise health concerns related to COVID-19 to sign for deportation. She added that La Palma Correctional Facility does not have a record of a complaint lodged by Castro regarding the alleged staff comments.

Pandemic-related logjams within the immigration system have also delayed the repatriation of some migrants.

Guatemalan asylum-seeker Timoteo Vicente said he chose not to appeal a negative ruling in his case in March in part because he deemed the medical care inside the Tacoma ICE Processing Center in Washington State inadequate, leading him to worry about its ability to respond to the pandemic.

In a statement, a representative for GEO Group, the company that contracts with ICE to run the facility, said: “We take our responsibility to ensure the health and safety of all those in our care and our employees with the utmost seriousness.”

Three months later, Vicente is still stranded in detention, awaiting his deportation.

“I’m in an abyss,” Vicente told Reuters in a call from the detention center. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

(Reporting by Laura Gottesdiener; Additional reporting by Reade Levinson; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Paul Simao)

Exclusive: Brazil facilitates deportation of its nationals after U.S. pressure

FILE PHOTO: Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro and U.S. President Donald Trump shake hands during a bilateral meeting at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Lisandra Paraguassu

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil is making it easier for the United States to deport undocumented Brazilians by asking U.S. airlines to board deportees even when they have no valid passports, following pressure from the Trump administration, three Brazilian government sources said.

The Federal Police sent airlines a memo in June allowing them to board Brazilian deportees with just a certificate of nationality issued by a consulate if they lack a valid passport, previously needed to travel to Brazil, the sources said.

The move by right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro’s government aims to facilitate repatriation of deportees by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and efforts by the Trump administration to speed the removal of undocumented immigrants.

The officials, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said Brazil has come under increasing pressure from the Trump administration to facilitate deportations of its detained nationals, to the point of risking sanctions.

They did not detail what kind of sanctions.

“When Donald Trump became U.S. president, illegal immigration became a central political issue. Pressure increased a lot and Brazil was even threatened with sanctions,” one of the sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

Brazil was labeled as “at risk of non-compliance” with the repatriation of deportees in a U.S. Department of Homeland Security report in March on the barriers ICE faces to timely removal of detained immigrants.

Trump has been cracking down on recalcitrant countries that do not accept immigrants ordered deported, under an executive order issued immediately after he took office.

The deportation of undocumented Brazilians has risen from 1,413 in fiscal year 2017 to 1,691 in fiscal 2018, with Brazilians the sixth-largest group of nationals being removed from the United States, according to ICE data.

This fiscal year there have been 1,117 removals of Brazilians through June 10, ICE said. The U.S. fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30.

Brazil’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that certificates of nationality are issued by its consulates in the United States when detained deportees have exhausted their appeals process and have no passport. Brazilian passports are issued only to nationals who apply for them.

Many countries have arrangements with the U.S. government and foreign countries that allow for a document – other than a passport – issued by an embassy or consulate to serve as an authorization to travel.

Delta Airlines and American Airlines did not respond to requests for comment.

As of December, there were 334 Brazilians in ICE detention awaiting trial or deportation, the ministry said.

Since he took office in January, Bolsonaro has established close ties with Trump and the two are looking to negotiate a trade agreement.

Bolsonaro has made disparaging statements about immigrants. In March, speaking on Fox News during a visit to Washington, he praised Trump’s plan for a wall on the Mexican border, adding that “most immigrants do not have good intentions.”

His son Eduardo Bolsonaro, whom he has nominated to be Brazil’s ambassador in Washington, told reporters during that visit that illegal Brazilian immigrants were “a problem for Brazil, an embarrassment to us.”

(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassú; additional reporting and writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Dan Grebler)

U.S. judge blocks Trump’s latest sweeping asylum rule

Migrants wait to apply for asylum in the United States outside the El Chaparral border, in Tijuana, Mexico July 24, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Daniel Trotta and Kristina Cooke

(Reuters) – A federal judge in San Francisco on Wednesday blocked the Trump administration from enforcing a new rule that aimed to bar almost all asylum applications at the U.S.-Mexico border.

U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar in the Northern District of California issued a preliminary injunction blocking the rule, which would require asylum-seekers to first pursue safe haven in a third country they had traveled through on their way to the United States.

The decision makes inconsequential a ruling by Washington D.C. District Judge Timothy Kelly earlier in the day that declined to block the rule in a different lawsuit brought by immigration advocacy groups, lawyers said.

The Trump administration had been quick to celebrate that decision, saying it would discourage abuse of the asylum process.

Following the action by the San Francisco court, the rule will now be suspended pending further proceedings.

“Today’s ruling is an important victory for incredibly vulnerable individuals and families,” said Melissa Crow, an attorney from the Southern Poverty Law Center – one of the groups challenging the ban – in a statement.

The Trump administration has sought to curtail the increasing numbers of mostly Central American migrants arriving at the U.S. -Mexico border after fleeing violence and poverty in countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. It has characterized the vast majority of their asylum claims as bogus.

After the White House announced the rule on July 15, the American Civil Liberties Union and other rights groups sued in California on the grounds it violates U.S. law that welcomes those who come to the United States fleeing persecution at home.

Immigration is shaping up to be a focus of the presidential campaign again in 2020. In the 2016 election, voters rewarded then-candidate Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, sending him to the White House after he promised to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States.

DANGERS IN MEXICO

Opponents of the new rule contend the United States cannot force migrants to first apply for asylum in another country, such as Mexico or Guatemala, unless Washington first has a “safe third country” agreement with that government. Both Mexico and Guatemala have resisted Trump administration efforts to reach such a deal.

In an hour-long hearing in California, Tigar said he was struck by the dangers faced by people passing through Mexico, which was significant because the Trump administration argued that country was a safe haven.

“The administrative record about the dangers faced by persons transiting through Mexico and the inadequacy of the asylum system there … is stunning,” Tigar said from the bench.

Tigar in November struck down a different asylum ban that attempted to block all migrants crossing illegally from asking for refuge in the United States.

The Trump administration has issued a rapid-fire series of anti-immigration edicts recently.

Last week, the administration issued another rule to expedite deportations for immigrants who have crossed illegally within the last two years and are caught anywhere in the United States. The rule eliminated a level of judicial review and expanded a program typically applied only along the southern border with Mexico.

Democrats have blasted the policies as cruel, faulting the Trump administration for warehousing migrants in crowded detention facilities along the border and separating immigrant children from the adults they have traveled with.

(This story corrects date rule was announced to July 15 in paragraph 8).

(Reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco, Mica Rosenberg and Daniel Trotta in New York, and Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Sonya Hepinstall)

U.S. immigration raids that targeted 2,100 people snared 35: NY Times

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees watch from a window as activists hold the "Shutdown ICE" rally in Washington, U.S., July 16, 2019. REUTERS/Michael A. McCoy

(Reuters) – A scant 35 people were taken into custody during a long-threatened U.S. series of raids that targeted more than 2,100 immigrants who had been ordered deported, the New York Times reported on Tuesday, citing federal figures.

President Donald Trump described the raids over the July 13 weekend, dubbed “Operation Border Resolve,” as “very successful” even though much of the activity was not visible to the public.

The raids, originally scheduled for June for a dozen major U.S. cities, were highly publicized, likely prompting many who believed they were targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to leave their homes or hide, the Times reported.

As word spread about the possible ICE raids, immigration rights groups circulated “know your rights” materials in immigrant communities and on social media while local activists advised people not to answer the door to agents without a warrant and not to talk or sign any documents without a lawyer present.

Trump signaled the impending enforcement in a June tweet, saying officials would soon “begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States.”

Facing a re-election battle next year, Trump has wanted to show his supporters that he is delivering on campaign promises to crack down on illegal immigration, a signature policy objective of his administration.

He has pushed Guatemala, Mexico and other countries in the region to act as buffer zones and take in asylum seekers who would otherwise go to the United States.

Trump said on Twitter on Tuesday that he is now considering a “ban,” tariffs and remittance fees after Guatemala decided to not move forward with a safe-third-country agreement that would have required the Central American nation to take in more asylum seekers.

It was not immediately clear what policies he was referring to. The White House and the Guatemalan government did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Scott Malone and Steve Orlofsky)

Marathon church session ends as Dutch let Armenian family stay

FILE PHOTO: 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/File Photo

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – A round-the-clock prayer service to stop an Armenian family being deported from the Netherlands was ended after 96 days on Wednesday after the government agreed to make an exception to immigration rules.

Using a law that bars police from entering a place of worship while a service is in progress, hundreds of supporters of the Tamrazyan family have held rites non-stop at the Bethel church in The Hague since Oct. 26 to block their deportation.

Late on Tuesday, the cabinet decided to allow the Tamrazyans and other families rejected for permanent residence after living for years in the Netherlands to stay in the country after all.

The families, which together have around 700 children, did not qualify for an exemption granted to minors living in the Netherlands for more than five years.

To avoid other families with no other prospect of qualifying for permanent residence taking root in the Netherlands, the government will also try to speed up asylum procedures.

“We are incredibly grateful that hundreds of refugee families will have a safe future in the Netherlands,” a spokesman for Bethel Church, Theo Hettema, said on Wednesday.

But he said the church was worried about the consequences for future immigration policy.

The fight over the “children’s pardon” put pressure on Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s centre-right government, which has only a one-seat majority in parliament’s Lower House, and looks set to lose its Senate majority in a March 20 election.

Rutte’s Liberal party is trying to present a tough stance on immigration, to avoid losing ground to opposition parties such as the anti-Islam party of Geert Wilders.

Although Tuesday’s decision was good news for the Tamrazyans, it came days too late for another family, the Grigoryans. That family of five, with children aged three to eight, was deported to Armenia early last week, just as the cabinet began deliberating on the issue.

“This is unfair and very painful,” their lawyer told Dutch news agency ANP on Wednesday.

“If their deportation had been postponed a few days, the family would have been allowed to stay.”

(Reporting by Bart Meijer; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Mexico prepares for arrival of next Central American migrant caravan

FILE PHOTO: Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, leave a temporary shelter voluntarily, which is to be closed by Mexican authorities for sanitary reasons, in Tijuana Mexico January 5, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

By Diego Oré

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican authorities will meet with Central American officials to prepare for the arrival of a planned new caravan of migrants headed to the United States next week.

The head of Mexico’s immigration office, Tonatiuh Guillen, left on Wednesday on a trip to El Salvador and Honduras to meet with his counterparts and other authorities, said Interior Ministry spokesman Hector Gandini.

Mexico hopes to discourage a mass exodus from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and wants Central Americans who decide to migrate north to do so in an orderly way and through legal ports of entry.

“The doors to Mexico are open to anyone who wants to enter in an orderly fashion,” Gandini told Reuters in a telephone interview. “But whoever wants to come in illegally will be deported.”

Previous Central American caravans became a flashpoint in the debate over U.S. immigration policy.

That was intensified by the recent deaths of two migrant children in American custody and a partial U.S. government shutdown over U.S. President Donald Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion in funding for a wall along the border with Mexico.

There are 12 legal ports of entry for Central Americans on Mexico’s southern border, but Mexican authorities have identified an additional 370 illegal points of entry on that frontier, Interior Minister Olga Sanchez said this week.

Mexico borders in the south with Guatemala and Belize.

The illegal entry points will be “monitored and controlled to avoid undocumented access of people to our territory,” Sanchez said.

Guatemala’s deputy foreign minister, Pablo Cesar Garcia, met with Mexican authorities on Tuesday to discuss the caravan and to “provide all the necessary support to the migrants,” said Guatemalan Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marta Larra.

“In Honduras, they kill us,” read an appeal circulating on social media for people to assemble in the violent Honduran city of San Pedro Sula next Tuesday to start the long trek north to the United States.

While other social media posts invite people to leave from nearby Santa Barbara on Jan. 20, U.S. authorities hoped to dissuade Central Americans from making the journey.

“The risks of illegal immigration are serious. Don’t waste your time and money on a trip destined to fail. The road is long and very dangerous. Thousands of Hondurans who participated in the caravan came back sorry,” Heide Fulton, the U.S chargé d’affaires to Honduras, said on Twitter on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Diego Ore; Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City, Nelson Renteria in San Salvador and Lizbeth Diaz in Tijuana, Mexico; Writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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)