Trump administration seeks emergency court order to continue asylum policy

FILE PHOTO: Central American asylum seekers exit the Chaparral border crossing gate after being sent back to Mexico by the U.S. in Tijuana, Mexico, January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo

By Tom Hals

WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) – The Trump administration rushed to save its program of sending asylum seekers back to Mexico by filing an emergency motion with a U.S. Court of Appeals, asking it to block an injunction that is set to shut down the policy on Friday afternoon.

The government told the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco the United States faced “a humanitarian and security crisis” at the southern border and needed immediate intervention to deal with the surging number of refugees.

On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Seeborg ruled the policy was contrary to U.S. immigration law. He issued a nationwide injunction blocking the program and ordered it to take effect at 8 p.m. EDT (midnight GMT).

Melissa Crow, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the groups that brought the case, said the stay should be denied to prevent irreparable harm to asylum seekers who could be unlawfully forced to return to Mexico.

Since January, the administration has sent more than 1,000 asylum seekers, mostly from Central America, back to Mexico to wait the months or years it can take to process claims through an overloaded immigration system.

Seeborg’s ruling also ordered the 11 plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit to be brought back to the United States.

Although it is appealing and the lower court order had yet to take effect, Reuters reporters confirmed that the Trump administration was allowing some asylum seekers from Mexico to return to the United States.

President Donald Trump has bristled at limits on his administration’s ability to detain asylum seekers while they fight deportation, and the administration was in the midst of expanding the program when Seeborg blocked it.

The government’s filing on Thursday night with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals asked for two stays: a brief administrative stay, which would remain in place until the parties had argued the issue of a longer stay that would block the injunction during the months-long appeals process.

Judy Rabinovitz, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who worked on the case, said there did not appear to be any justification for the request for the administrative stay since asylum seekers were already returning to the United States.

“There’s no urgency,” she said. “They are already complying with the court order.”

The 9th Circuit Court has been a frequent target for Trump’s criticisms of the judicial system, which has blocked his immigration policies on numerous occasions.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Tom Brown)

U.N. seeks $738 million to help Venezuela’s neighbors handle migrant flood

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations said on Tuesday it was seeking $738 million in 2019 to help neighboring countries cope with the inflow of millions of Venezuelan refugees and migrants, who have “no prospect for return in the short to medium term”.

It was the first time that the crisis was included in the U.N. annual global humanitarian appeal which is $21.9 billion for 2019 without Syria.

Three million Venezuelans have fled the political and economic crisis in the Andean country, most since 2015, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.

“There is one crisis for which we for the first time have a response plan, which is to help the countries neighboring Venezuela deal with the consequences of large numbers of Venezuelans leaving the country,” U.N. emergency relief coordinator Mark Lowcock told a Geneva news briefing.

In Caracas, Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

The majority of Venezuelans who have left have gone to 16 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, led by Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

“In 2019, an estimated 3.6 million people will be in need of assistance and protection, with no prospects for return in the short to medium term,” the U.N. appeal said.

Colombia, which has taken in one million Venezuelans, is “bearing the biggest burden of all”, Lowcock said.

President Nicolas Maduro blames the country’s economic problems on U.S. financial sanctions and an “economic war” led by political adversaries.

The Kremlin said on Tuesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Maduro would discuss financial help for Caracas when the two leaders meet in Moscow on Wednesday.

The exodus, driven by violence, hyperinflation and major shortages of food and medicine, led to a U.N. emergency appeal of $9 million announced last week for health and nutrition projects inside Venezuela.

Lowcock, asked about Venezuelan government acceptance of aid inside the country, said:

“I think there is a shared agreement that more U.N. help in those sorts of areas would be a very helpful thing in reducing the suffering of people inside Venezuela.

“What we have agreed with the government of Venezuela is that we should strengthen our collaborative work and support for example in the area of health services and nutrition,” he said.

David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme (WFP), told a separate briefing: “This is a story unfolding, we have yet to be allowed access inside Venezuela.”

The WFP has urged the United States and other donors to help it reach Venezuelans in surrounding countries with rations, he said, “because many of the people, if they can just get food, they will at least stay in their home area, in that region.”

(Reporting and writing by Stephanie Nebehay; additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Peter Graff)

Israel asks Cyprus to consider shipping route for Gaza: Cypriot official

FILE PHOTO: Palestinian fishermen ride their boats as they return from fishing at the seaport of Gaza City early morning September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem/File Photo

ATHENS/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel has asked Cyprus to examine the possibility of establishing a shipping point on the island for sending goods to the Gaza Strip, a Cypriot government spokesman said on Tuesday.

Goods shipped by sea usually come to an Israeli port and are transferred to Gaza over land. Israel enforces a maritime blockade on Gaza, which it says is meant to prevent weapons from reaching the territory ruled by the Islamist militant group Hamas.

Both Egypt and Israel restrict movement across Gaza’s land borders as well. The United Nations has called for a freer flow of goods into Gaza, where most Palestinians live in poverty.

The idea of setting up a facility in Cyprus has been floated for years, and Israel recently made a request to explore the issue, according to Cypriot government spokesman Prodromos Prodromou.

“It is an old issue which is now being re-discussed,” Prodromou told Reuters.

“There will be contacts between the government and all interested parties in the region and, possibly, a decision will be taken. At the moment no decision has been taken. The request is being examined, it hasn’t been rejected,” he said.

Prodromou did not say when the request was made, but Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited Nicosia last week.

An Israeli news report late on Monday said Lieberman had reached an understanding with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades to pursue the port plan.

Lieberman’s office, in response to the report, said that Israel is working internationally in a number of ways to try to “change the reality in Gaza”, but that any move to improve the humanitarian situation depends on the return of Israelis who are missing or being held prisoner in Gaza.

“Beyond that we cannot relate to the details,” it said in a statement.

Israel has demanded the return of two Israeli civilians who it says crossed into Gaza and are being held by Hamas, as well as the bodies of two soldiers who were killed in a 2014 war. Hamas says it is holding them but does not give any details.

Hamas officials declined to comment on the port plan.

At least one Israeli cabinet minister, Yuval Steinitz, has been promoting the Cyprus port idea as a way to create a conduit into Gaza that does not go through Israel. Another Israeli cabinet minister has raised the idea of building an artificial island off the Gaza coast, a much larger project.

“I think that we can combine our security on one hand and open Gaza to the outer world on the other hand,” Steinitz said of the port idea in an interview in Washington.

A port would be a faster solution than an artificial island. Opening a port in Cyprus could take only a few months after getting international approval and could be shut down quickly if somebody abuses it, Steinitz said. Building an artificial island could take 10 years, he said.

Security checks at the piers, however, would have to be handled by Israel together with an international group such as the United Nations, Steinitz said earlier this month.

(Reporting by Michele Kambas, Ari Rabinovitch, Dan Williams, Nidal al-Mughrabi; Timothy Gardner in Washington; Editing by Alexandra Hudson and Grant McCool)

Sick and injured start leaving Syria’s Ghouta

Children look through a bus window during evacuation from the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

By Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Sick and injured civilians left a rebel enclave in Syria’s eastern Ghouta on Tuesday under the first medical evacuation since a massive assault began nearly a month ago.

Women carrying infants, men hobbling on crutches and an old man in a wheelchair waited at a school nearby, along with dozens who exited through the al-Wafideen crossing, a witness said.

During the army’s offensive, more than 1,100 civilians have died in the last big rebel bastion near the capital, the U.N. office of humanitarian affairs says.

Syrian government forces have captured swathes of eastern Ghouta, a pocket of satellite towns and farmland, splintering it into three separate zones in recent days.

Yasser Delwan, a political official with the Jaish al-Islam rebel faction, said the patients who left the town of Douma were the first of several batches.

The evacuees come from a list of nearly 1,000 people which U.N. officials have said need emergency treatment outside, he added. Jaish al-Islam said on Monday it had reached a medical evacuation deal with the Syrian government’s key ally, Russia, after indirect talks.

For months, the United Nations has pleaded with authorities to allow the evacuation of hundreds of patients, including children with cancer. The Ghouta enclave is home to nearly 400,000 people, under army siege since 2013 without enough food, water, or medicine, the world body says.

The government assault on eastern Ghouta has become one of the bloodiest offensives of the war, and is on course to deal rebels their biggest defeat since the battle of Aleppo in 2016.

Russia has offered rebels safe passage out with their families if they surrender the territory, echoing deals that saw Damascus take control of major cities across western Syria.

The two main Ghouta factions have vowed to stay and fight, and have denied government allegations that they have blocked residents from leaving.

CIVILIAN EVACUEES

Hamza Birqdar, Jaish al-Islam’s military spokesman, said in a video online that the fighters would continue to defend their territory until the end.

With the Ghouta now split into different parts, Delwan said his rebel faction was in charge only of evacuations from Douma, and not from other towns. If the deal proceeds, hundreds “will all be evacuated in batches for treatment, some in Damascus and some outside of Syria,” he told Reuters.

State media said others followed the first group which included about 35 people. They would go to a shelter nearby on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus.

State TV accompanied some of the evacuees and broadcast interviews in which they said insurgents had prevented them from leaving. “We weren’t able to come out,” one man said. “They are not allowing anyone at all, they attack them and sent them back.”

Moscow and Damascus say their forces only target armed militants and seek to stop mortar salvoes by Islamist insurgents that killed dozens of people in the capital. They accuse the rebels of using civilians as human shields, which the fighters deny.

Troops pressed on with the assault on Tuesday and took some farmland around the town of Jisreen, said a military media unit run by Iran-backed Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah, which fights alongside the Syrian army.

The Civil Defence in Ghouta, a rescue service in rebel territory, said air strikes pounded Jisreen, Zamalka, and Irbeen – part of a zone further south separated from Douma.

Families are sleeping in the open in the streets in Douma, with no more room in the basements to shelter from the bombs, local authorities have said.

(Writing by Ellen Francis; Editing by Paul Tait, Raissa Kasolowsky and Peter Graff)

In besieged Syrian enclave, locals say unsafe even to bury the dead

FILE PHOTO: A boy is seen in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh/File Photo

AMMAN/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Thousands of families are sleeping in the open in the streets of the biggest town of Syria’s rebel-held eastern Ghouta enclave, where there is no longer any room in packed cellars to shelter from government bombardment, local authorities said.

The army’s onslaught in eastern Ghouta, backed by air and artillery strikes, has killed about 1,160 people since Feb. 18, a war monitor said, as President Bashar al-Assad seeks to crush the last big rebel stronghold near the capital Damascus.

Thousands of families have fled from the front lines to Douma, hoping to escape bombing. The town’s opposition-controlled authorities said on Monday the situation there had become “catastrophic”, with no more room below ground for civilians to hide.

At least 70 people had been buried in a park because air strikes made it unsafe to reach the cemetery on the outskirts.

Government forces have now captured more than half the rebel enclave, entirely besieging Douma and the large town of Harasta, cutting them off from each other and neighbouring areas with advances on Saturday and Sunday.

“After more than 20 days of the barbaric campaign and mass annihilation of eastern Ghouta.. this has led to a deterioration of the humanitarian and food situation to a catastrophic level,” Douma’s town council said in a statement.

In video filmed inside the town, one man cowering in a heavily damaged shelter in Douma said: “It is completely uninhabitable. It is not even safe to put chickens in. There is no bathroom, just one toilet, and there are 300 people.”

He declined to give his name for fear of reprisals if the army retakes the area.

Douma residents said dozens of people were trapped alive under rubble, with rescuers unable to reach them due to the intensity of the raids. They also said the loss of remaining farmland to Assad forces would worsen the plight of civilians.

State television broadcasts from the government-controlled side of the battlefront showed dark grey clouds of smoke billowing from several places across a landscape of shattered buildings. A minaret had lost a chunk from one side of its slender tower. In the background, heavy vehicles could be heard rumbling past and the deep crump of explosions echoed around.

EVACUATION DEAL

Jaish al-Islam, one of eastern Ghouta’s main rebel groups, said on Monday it had reached an agreement with the government’s ally Russia to evacuate wounded people, after communicating with Moscow through the United Nations.

The assault is one of the heaviest in the war, which enters its eighth year this week. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said on Monday for the first time that the death toll had passed half a million people.

It has confirmed the deaths of 511,000 people, it said, and has the names of more than 350,000 of them. About 85 percent were killed by government forces and their allies, it said.

Eastern Ghouta has been besieged for years after many of its residents joined the initial protests against Assad’s rule in 2011 that triggered the slide into civil war. The United Nations says 400,000 people live in the enclave, already suffering shortages of food and medicine even before the massive assault began in mid-February.

Assad and his ally Russia say the assault on eastern Ghouta is needed to end the rule of Islamist insurgents over the civilian population and to stop mortar fire on nearby Damascus.

The ferocity of the assault has prompted condemnation from Western countries and calls from U.N. agencies for a ceasefire. Russia and Damascus say a ceasefire ordered by the U.N. Security Council does not protect the fighters in eastern Ghouta, arguing that they are members of banned terrorist groups.

The United Nations has warned of dire shortages of food and medicine, where international deliveries have long been erratic and often obstructed before they could reach the enclave. A convoy of relief trucks crossed front lines into eastern Ghouta on Friday and unloaded all its food despite the fighting.

The expulsion of the rebels from eastern Ghouta would represent their biggest defeat since they lost their enclave in Aleppo in December 2016. They still control large areas in the northwest and southwest and a few scattered pockets elsewhere but have been driven from most major population centres.

Across eastern Ghouta heavy aerial strikes continued on the towns of Irbeen, Harasta and other residential areas on Monday, state media said. [L8N1QT07W]

(Reporting by a reporter in eastern Ghouta, Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman, Angus McDowall and Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Tom Perry, Gareth Jones and Peter Graff)

Canadian pastor escaped execution due to foreign citizenship

Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim speaks at the Light Presbyterian Church in Mississauga.

TORONTO (Reuters) – A Canadian pastor whom North Korea released this month after two years of imprisonment escaped execution and torture during his captivity because of his nationality, he told CBC News in his first interview since his return.

Hyeon Soo Lim, the pastor from Toronto, said in an interview broadcast on Saturday that he was never harmed and that he would not hesitate to go back to North Korea if the country allowed him. A transcript of the interview was posted on the Canadian public broadcaster’s website.

“If I’m just Korean, maybe they kill me,” Lim said. “I’m Canadian so they cannot, because they cannot kill the foreigners.”

Lim, formerly the senior pastor at one of Canada’s largest churches, had disappeared on a mission to North Korea in early 2015. He was sentenced to hard labor for life in December 2015 on charges of attempting to overthrow the Pyongyang regime.

He said North Korea treated him well despite forcing him to dig holes and break coal by hand all day in a labor camp.

Lim told CBC News that he was “coached and coerced” into confessing that he traveled under the guise of humanitarian work as part of a “subversive plot” to overthrow the government and set up a religious state.

North Korea let him go on humanitarian grounds. The announcement came during heightened tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, although authorities have not said there was any connection between his release and efforts to defuse the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear program.

Lim said he felt no anger at the Kim Jong Un regime for sentencing him to prison.

“No, I thanked North Korea,” he said. “I forgive them.”

 

(Reporting by Denny Thomas; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)