Man deported six times charged with murder in California bludgeonings

Ramon Escobar, 47, appears in a booking photo provided by the Harris County Sheriff's Office in Houston, Texas, U.S., September 27, 2018. Harris County Sheriff's Office/Handout via REUTERS

By Steve Gorman and Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A man who police said fled to California from Texas after being questioned in the disappearance of two relatives was charged on Wednesday in Los Angeles with bludgeoning eight men, three fatally, in a string of attacks aimed mostly at homeless victims.

Ramon Alberto Escobar, 47, an El Salvador native and convicted burglar who has been repeatedly deported from the United States, was arrested on Monday after he allegedly clubbed a sleeping man in the head with bolt-cutters in the ocean-front city of Santa Monica, authorities said.

Seven other men were similarly attacked in Santa Monica and Los Angeles earlier this month, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

Police have said one victim was sleeping under a pier after a night of fishing and that most of the rest of the victims were homeless, including three men battered with a baseball bat in downtown Los Angeles on Sept. 16.

Two of those victims and the man attacked beneath the pier died of their injuries. Some survivors were left in a coma.

On Wednesday, the district attorney’s office formally charged Escobar with three counts of murder, five counts of attempted murder and four counts of robbery. If convicted of murder, he faces a minimum sentence of life without parole.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials said Tuesday that Escobar had been deported back to El Salvador six times between 1977 and 2011 and has six felony convictions for burglary and illegal re-entry. Police have said he spent five years in a Texas prison for burglary from 1995 to 2000.

Escobar in 2016 filed an appeal of his immigration case, which U.S. courts granted in December of that year, and he was released from ICE custody on an “order of supervision” in January 2017, ICE spokesperson Paige Hughes said by email.

Escobar, now jailed without bond, briefly appeared in Los Angeles Superior Court on Wednesday, but the arraignment was postponed until Nov. 8. No plea was entered.

Judge Gustavo Sztraicher granted a defense motion barring public dissemination of the defendant’s image, including by photograph or courtroom sketch drawing, so as not to prejudice potential witnesses who might identify him for prosecutors.

Escobar appeared expressionless and said nothing except to answer, “Yes, sir,” when asked if he agreed to the postponement.

Defense lawyers declined to speak to reporters.

Meanwhile, police in Houston said Escobar was a “person of interest” in the investigation into the disappearance of an aunt and uncle with whom Escobar lived before they were reported missing in late August by other relatives.

The aunt’s van was later found burned and abandoned in Galveston, Texas, according to Houston police spokesman Kese Smith.

Escobar was questioned by Houston homicide detectives on Aug. 30, but they lacked probable cause to detain him at the time, Smith told Reuters on Wednesday, adding that Houston detectives would seek to “re-interview” Escobar in California.

Hayes said Escobar “fled” Texas by car soon after he was questioned in Houston, arriving in Los Angeles on Sept. 5. The first attack police linked to him occurred three days later.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman and Alex Dobuzinskis; Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Lisa Shumaker)

Israel abandons plan to forcibly deport African migrants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’M THRILLED”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amnesty will closely monitor the deportations, it said.

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

Migrant ‘caravan’ that angers Trump nears U.S.-Mexico border

Central American migrants, moving in a caravan through Mexico, rest at a temporary shelter, in Hermosillo, Sonora state, Mexico April 23, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

By Edgard Garrido

HERMOSILLO, Mexico (Reuters) – Hundreds of Central American migrants traveling in a “caravan” were in limbo in the northern Mexican city of Hermosillo on Monday on the final stretch of a journey to the United States where President Donald Trump ordered officials to repel them.

About 600 men, women and children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras had been waiting on Monday in Hermosillo, Sonora to board a train or take buses for the remaining 432 miles miles to the border with California.

Traveling together for safety, their numbers were down from a peak of about 1,500 people since they began their journey on Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala almost a month ago, as smaller groups broke away.

Many women and children in the group were planning to seek asylum in the United States after they reach Tijuana, said Rodrigo Abeja, a coordinator from immigrant rights group Pueblo Sin Fronteras that has been organizing similar caravans for several years.

Central American migrants, moving in a caravan through Mexico, receive shoes at a temporary shelter, in Hermosillo, Sonora state, Mexico April 23, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Central American migrants, moving in a caravan through Mexico, receive shoes at a temporary shelter, in Hermosillo, Sonora state, Mexico April 23, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Moving from town to town, the impoverished and bedraggled travelers became a lightning rod for U.S.-Mexico relations after Trump launched a succession of tweets in early April, telling Mexican authorities to stop them.

On Monday he again lashed out, threatening that failure to stop the caravan could stall the already tense renegotiation of NAFTA.

“I have instructed the Secretary of Homeland Security not to let these large Caravans of people into our Country,” Trump tweeted Monday morning. “It’s a disgrace. We are the only Country in the World so Naive! WALL”

Following Trump’s Tweets, the group was considering applying for asylum status in Mexico, a Reuters witness traveling with them said.

Trump’s concern with the caravan coincides with recent U.S. border patrol data showing a sharp rise in the number of immigrants found illegally crossing the border, a setback after immigration from Central America evaporated in the months following his election.

While it is not clear what will happen when the group arrives at the border, or if it will disperse before it gets there, there are signs the U.S. is preparing legal defenses. Following Trump’s messages, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he had ordered officials to ensure that sufficient prosecutors and immigration judges were available at the border “to adjudicate any cases that may arise from this ‘caravan.'”

Some migrants told Reuters they would stay in Mexico. Others said they would find other ways to cross. At least 200 were likely to claim asylum if they made it over the border, according to migrants and caravan organizers.

Marie Vincent, a U.S.-based immigration attorney who met the caravan on a stop along the way, said many of the immigrants had a strong case for U.S. asylum either because they faced political persecution, lethal threats from gangs, or violence because of gender or sexual identity.

Central American migrants, moving in a caravan through Mexico, gesture during a demonstration against the U.S President Donald Trump's immigration policies, in Hermosillo, Sonora state, Mexico April 23, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Central American migrants, moving in a caravan through Mexico, gesture during a demonstration against the U.S President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, in Hermosillo, Sonora state, Mexico April 23, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Vincent said one of those with a persuasive case was the survivor of a flawed witness protection program in Honduras who had been “stabbed and shot at more times than he could count.”

Faced with another death threat, he escaped to Guatemala and then to Mexico from a hospital bed with the tubes still stuck in his body — one of them hanging from his stomach, she said.

Some of the group had been dissuaded from seeking asylum by warnings about detention conditions they might endure in the United States, she said.

Although Honduras and El Salvador rank among countries with the highest homicide rates in the world, rejection rates for asylum claims from those countries are very steep.

(Additional reporting and writing by Delphine Schrank in Mexico City; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Scott Malone)

Venezuela police enter home of imprisoned opposition leader Lopez: wife

Lilian Tintori, wife of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, makes declarations to the media after casting her vote during a nationwide election for new governors in Caracas, Venezuela, October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan intelligence agents have entered the home of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who is under house arrest for leading protests against President Nicolas Maduro, Lopez’s wife said on Twitter on Thursday.

The arrival of agents of the Sebin came hours after the New York Times published a story in which Lopez described how security forces have sought to prevent him from speaking with reporters.

“Sebin has entered our house and they remain here,” Lilian Tintori tweeted. “It is illegal and inhumane for Sebin to be inside our home with weapons, in the presence of our three children.”

The office of the vice presidency, which oversees Sebin, did not answer calls seeking confirmation and the Information Ministry did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Lopez is the best-known of dozens of imprisoned opposition activists and leaders accused by Maduro of seeking to overthrow his government through street protests in 2014 and 2017.

He was arrested in 2014 and convicted of having incited protests against Maduro, who describes Lopez as “monster” responsible for dozens of deaths in demonstrations.

Lopez was granted house arrest in July. After calling on citizens to continue protests against Maduro in an internet video, he was taken back to jail in August but returned several days later to house arrest.

Opposition leaders and critics around the world have slammed the case against him as a sham and described the trial as a mockery of justice.

In 2015, one of the prosecutors who led the case said the conviction had been unfair and that he had been under constant pressure from superiors.

Former Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega, who was sacked last year, said in February she had been pressured about the case by high-ranking Socialist Party officials.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Bill Trott)

Special Report: In Puerto Rico, a housing crisis U.S. storm aid won’t solve

Faded U.S. flag and Puerto Rican flag are stuck into a mound of earth near the remains of Angel Colon's house after it was destroyed during Hurricane Maria in September 2017, in Comerio, Puerto Rico

By Nick Brown

CANOVANAS, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Among the countless Puerto Rico neighborhoods battered by Hurricane Maria is one named after another storm: Villa Hugo. The illegal shantytown emerged on a public wetland after 1989’s Hurricane Hugo left thousands homeless.

About 6,000 squatters landed here, near the El Yunque National Forest, and built makeshift homes on 40 acres that span a low-lying valley and its adjacent mountainside. Wood and concrete dwellings, their facades scrawled with invented addresses, sit on cinder blocks. After Maria, many are missing roofs; some have collapsed altogether.

Amid the rubble, 59-year-old Joe Quirindongo sat in the sun one recent day on a wooden platform – the only remaining piece of his home. Soft-spoken with weathered skin and a buzzcut, Quirindongo pondered his limited options.

“I know this isn’t a good place for a house,” said Quirindongo, who survives on U.S. government assistance. “Sometimes I would like to go to another place, but I can’t afford anything.”

Villa Hugo reflects a much larger crisis in this impoverished U.S. territory, where so-called “informal” homes are estimated to house about half the population of 3.4 million. Some residents built on land they never owned. Others illegally subdivided properties, often so family members could build on their lots.

Most have no title to their homes, which are constructed without permits and usually not up to building codes. The houses range in quality and size, from one-room shacks to sizable family homes. Many have plumbing and power, though not always through official means.

The concentration of illegal housing presents a vexing dilemma for local and federal authorities already overwhelmed by the task of rebuilding an economically depressed island after its worst natural disaster in nine decades.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló has stressed the need to “build back better,” a sentiment echoed by U.S. disaster relief and housing officials. But rebuilding to modern standards or relocating squatters to new homes would take an investment far beyond reimbursing residents for lost property value. It’s an outlay Puerto Rico’s government says it can’t afford, and which U.S. officials say is beyond the scope of their funding and mission.

Yet the alternative – as Villa Hugo shows – is to encourage rebuilding of the kind of substandard housing that made the island so vulnerable to Maria in the first place.

“It’s definitely a housing crisis,” said Fernando Gil, Puerto Rico’s housing secretary. “It was already out there before, and the hurricane exacerbates it.”

In Puerto Rico, housing is by far the largest category of storm destruction, estimated by the island government at about $37 billion, with only a small portion covered by insurance. That’s more than twice the government’s estimate for catastrophic electric grid damage, which was made far worse by the shoddy state of utility infrastructure before the storm.

Puerto Rico officials did not respond to questions about how the territory estimated the damage to illegally built homes.

Maria destroyed or significantly damaged more than a third of about 1.2 million occupied homes on the island, the government estimates. Most of those victims had no hazard insurance – which is only required for mortgage-holders in Puerto Rico – and no flood insurance. Just 344,000 homes on the island have mortgages, according U.S. Census Bureau data.

Officials at the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA) acknowledged the unique challenges of delivering critical housing aid to Puerto Rico. Among them: calculating the damage to illegal, often substandard homes; persuading storm victims to follow through on application processes that have frustrated many into giving up; and allocating billions in disaster aid that still won’t be nearly enough solve the island’s housing crisis.

By far the most money for Puerto Rico housing aid is expected to come from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

HUD spokeswoman Caitlin Thompson declined to comment on how the agency would spend billions of dollars in disaster relief funds to rebuild housing, or how it planned to help owners of informally built homes. Two HUD officials overseeing the agency’s Puerto Rico relief efforts, Todd Richardson and Stan Gimont, also declined to comment.

But the disaster aid package currently under consideration by the U.S. Congress would provide far less housing aid than Puerto Rico officials say they need. Governor Rosselló is seeking $46 billion in aid from HUD, an amount that dwarfs previous allocations for even the most destructive U.S. storms.

That’s nearly half the island’s total relief request of $94 billion.

The U.S. House of Representatives instead passed a package of $81 billion, with $26 billion for HUD, that still needs Senate and White House approval. The money would be divided between regions struck by several 2017 hurricanes – including Maria, Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida – as well as the recent California wildfires. Congress could also decide to approve additional aid later.

A house destroyed during Hurricane Maria in September 2017 is seen in Utuado, Puerto Rico February 1, 2018.

FILE PHOTO – A house destroyed during Hurricane Maria in September 2017 is seen in Utuado, Puerto Rico February 1, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

‘MY MOTHER IS SCARED’

A generation ago, Maria Vega Lastra, now 61, was among the estimated 28,000 people displaced by Hurricane Hugo. Neighbors helped her build a new home in what would become Villa Hugo, in the town of Canóvanas.

Her daughter, 34-year-old Amadaliz Diaz, still recalls her older brother grinning as he sawed wood for the frame of their self-built, one-floor house, with a porch and three bedrooms.

Now, Vega Lastra’s roof has holes in it, and her waterlogged wooden floorboards buckle with each step.

Vega Lastra has been staying with her daughter, who lives in Tampa, as the family waits on applications for FEMA aid. The agency initially denied her application in December, saying it could not contact her by phone, Diaz said.

Vega Lastra is returning to her home this week, uncertain if its condition has gotten worse. Her daughter bought her an air mattress to take with her.

“My mother is scared,” Diaz said. “I hope the government helps her. I work, but I have three kids to take care of.”

The island’s housing crisis long predated the storm. According to Federal Housing Finance Agency data, Puerto Rico’s index of new home prices fell 25 percent over the last decade, amid a severe recession that culminated last May in the largest government bankruptcy filing in U.S. history.

Legal home construction, meanwhile, plummeted from nearly 16,000 new units in 2004 to less than 2,500 last year, according to consultancy Estudios Tecnicos, an economic data firm.

A 2007 study by environmental consultant Interviron Services Inc, commissioned by the Puerto Rico Builders Association, found that 55 percent of residential and commercial construction was informal. That would work out to nearly 700,000 homes.

That figure might be high, said David Carrasquillo, president of the Puerto Rico Planning Society, a trade group representing community planners. But even a “very conservative” estimate would yield at least 260,000 illegally built houses, he said.

Generations of Puerto Rican governments never made serious efforts to enforce building codes to stop new illegal housing, current and former island officials said in interviews. Past administrations had little political or economic incentive to force people out of neighborhoods like Villa Hugo.

Former Governor Rafael Hernandez Colon, in office during Hurricane Hugo, said he tried to help informal homeowners without policing them. “Our policy was not to relocate, but rather improve those places,” Hernandez Colon said in an interview.

Subsequent administrations advocated similar policies; none made meaningful headway, partly because of Puerto Rico’s constant political turnover.

Today, informal communities provide a stark contrast to San Juan’s glittering resorts and bustling business districts. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz pointed to poor barrios like those near the city’s Martín Peña Channel, hidden behind the skyscrapers of the financial hub known as the Golden Mile.

“It’s not something I’m proud of, but we hide our poverty here,” Cruz said in an interview.

RECOVERY DILEMMA

The task of rebuilding Puerto Rico’s housing stock ultimately falls to the territory government, which has no ability to pay for it after racking up $120 billion in bond and pension debt in the years before the storm.

That leaves the island dependent on U.S. relief from FEMA, the SBA and HUD.

The SBA offers low-interest home repair loans of up to $200,000. FEMA provides homeowners with emergency grants, relocation assistance and other help. HUD is focused on long-term rebuilding efforts, working directly with local agencies to subsidize reconstruction through grants.

FEMA’s cap for disaster aid to individuals is $33,300, and actual awards are often much lower. Normally, FEMA eligibility for housing aid requires proving property ownership, but the agency says it will help owners of informal homes if they can prove residency.

How exactly to help gets complicated. For example, someone who builds their own home with no permits on land they own is more likely to be treated as a homeowner, said Justo Hernandez, FEMA’s deputy federal coordinating officer. Squatters who built on land they didn’t own, however, would likely only be given money to cover lost items and relocate to a rental, he said.

Several Villa Hugo residents said they received money from FEMA, but many didn’t know what it was for and complained it wasn’t enough.

Lourdes Rios Romero, 59, plans to appeal the $6,000 grant she got for repairs to her flooded home, citing a much higher contractor’s quote. Neighbor Miguel Rosario Lopez, a 62-year-old retiree, showed a statement from FEMA saying he was eligible for $916.22, “to perform essential repairs that will allow you to live in your home.”

Without money for major changes, most homeowners said they planned to combine the aid they might get from FEMA with what little money they could raise to rebuild in the same spot.

FEMA does not police illegal building. Code enforcement is left to the same local authorities who have allowed illegal construction to persist for years.

Quirindongo is planning to buy materials to rebuild his Villa Hugo home himself with about $4,000 from FEMA. It will be the third time he has done so, having lost one home to a 2011 flood, another to a fire.

“I just want to have something that I can say, ‘This is mine,’” Quirindongo said.

GIVING UP

Many others appear to have given up on FEMA aid because the agency’s application process is entangled with a separate process for awarding SBA loans to rebuild homes.

FEMA is legally bound to assess whether applicants might qualify for SBA loans before awarding them FEMA grants. If an applicant passes FEMA’s cursory eligibility assessment, they are automatically referred to SBA for a more thorough screening.

Applicants are not required to follow through on the SBA process – but they cannot qualify for FEMA aid unless they do. FEMA only provides a grant when the SBA denies the applicant a loan.

FEMA said it has referred about 520,000 people out of 1.1 million total applicants so far to the SBA. But as of Monday, only 59,000 followed through with SBA applications. Of those, some 12,000 later withdrew, SBA data shows.

“As soon as people see SBA they say, ‘I give up, I don’t want a loan – I can’t afford a loan,’” FEMA’s Hernandez said.

SBA spokeswoman Carol Chastang said the agency is working with FEMA to educate flood victims on available benefits and the application process, including sending staffers to applicants’ homes.

330,000 VACANT HOMES

Before the storm hit, Puerto Rico already had about 330,000 vacant homes, according to Census Bureau 2016 estimates, resulting from years of population decline as citizens migrated to the mainland United States and elsewhere. Puerto Ricans are American citizens and can move to the mainland at will.

Puerto Rico and federal officials have considered rehabilitating the vacant housing for short- and long-term use, along with building new homes and buying out homeowners in illegally built neighborhoods, according to Gil and federal officials.

Rosselló, the Puerto Rican governor, has said the rebuilding plan must include a fleet of properly built new homes. Gil, the housing secretary, said the administration would like to build as many as 70,000 properties.

HUD officials declined to comment on whether the agency would finance new housing. Its Community Development Block Grant program allows for local governments to design their own solutions and seek HUD approval for funding.

The cost of constructing enough new, code-compliant properties to house people displaced by Maria could far exceed the available federal aid. Making them affordable also presents a problem.

Puerto Rico’s subsidized “social interest housing,” geared toward low-income buyers, typically provides units that sell in the mid-$100,000 range, with prices capped by the government. That’s beyond the means of many displaced storm victims.

Gil offered little detail on a solution beyond saying it will include a mix of new development, buyout programs for owners of illegally built homes and other options.

The answer will come down to how much Washington is willing to pay, he said. He invoked the island’s territorial status and colonial history as a root cause of its poor infrastructure and housing stock before the storm.

“It is precisely because we have been neglected by the federal government that the island’s infrastructure is so weak,” he said.

Many Puerto Rico officials continue to advocate for bringing relief and legitimacy to squatter communities like Villa Hugo, rather than trying to relocate their residents.

Canovanas Mayor Lornna Soto has been negotiating with island officials to provide property titles to Villa Hugo’s population. The vast majority still don’t have them.

“It’s long overdue to recognize that they are not going anywhere and their communities need to be rebuilt with proper services,” Soto said.

Diaz said she supports her mother’s decision to return to Villa Hugo, regardless of what aid the government ultimately provides.

“I grew up there,” Diaz said. “Everyone knows us there.”

(Reporting by Nick Brown in Canóvanas, Puerto Rico; editing by Brian Thevenot)

Israel offers to pay Illegal African migrants to leave, threatens jail

African migrants protest outside Israel's Supreme Court in Jerusalem January 26, 2017.

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel said on Wednesday it would pay thousands of African migrants living illegally in the country to leave, threatening them with jail if they are caught after the end of March.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in public remarks at a cabinet meeting on the payment program, said a barrier Israel completed in 2013 along its border with Egypt had effectively cut off a stream of “illegal infiltrators” from Africa after some 60,000 crossed the desert frontier.

The vast majority came from Eritrea and Sudan and many said they fled war and persecution as well as economic hardship, but Israel treats them as economic migrants.

The plan launched this week offers African migrants a $3,500 payment from the Israeli government and a free air ticket to return home or go to “third countries”, which rights groups identified as Rwanda and Uganda.

“We have expelled about 20,000 and now the mission is to get the rest out,” Netanyahu said.

An immigration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there are some 38,000 migrants living illegally in Israel, and some 1,420 are being held in two detention centers.

“Beyond the end of March, those who leave voluntarily will receive a significantly smaller payment that will shrink even more with time, and enforcement measures will begin,” the official said, referring to incarceration.

Some have lived for years in Israel and work in low-paying jobs that many Israelis shun. Israel has granted asylum to fewer than one percent of those who have applied and has a years-long backlog of applicants.

Rights groups have accused Israel of being slow to process African migrants’ asylum requests as a matter of policy and denying legitimate claims to the status.

Netanyahu has called the migrants’ presence a threat to Israel’s social fabric and Jewish character, and one government minister has referred to them as “a cancer”.

Teklit Michael, a 29-asylum seeker from Eritrea living in Tel Aviv, said in response to the Israeli plan that paying money to other governments to take in Africans was akin to “human trafficking and smuggling”.

“We don’t know what is waiting for us (in Rwanda and Uganda),” he told Reuters by telephone. “They prefer now to stay in prison (in Israel) instead.”

In his remarks, Netanyahu cited the large presence of African migrants in Tel Aviv’s poorer neighborhoods, where he said “veteran residents” – a reference to Israelis – no longer feel safe.

“So today, we are keeping our promise to restore calm, a sense of personal security and law and order to the residents of south Tel Aviv and those in many other neighborhoods,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Miriam Berger; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Detained asylum-seekers win right to sue PNG government for compensation

Makeshift sleeping areas are seen inside the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea, November 15, 2017. Picture taken November 15, 2017.

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – A Papua New Guinea court has given hundreds of asylum-seekers who were held for years in a controversial Australian detention center the right to sue the PNG government for compensation, Australian media reported on Saturday.

Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court rejected an attempt by the PNG government to stop the asylum-seekers seeking compensation on Friday, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported.

The government had tried to argue that the time frame for such attempts to sue for compensation had passed but the court rejected its application.

“The finding opens the way to a major compensation and also for consequential orders against both the PNG and Australian governments,” Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul told Australian Associated Press.

The decision comes two months after the PNG government closed the detention center on remote Manus Island, which had housed about 400 male asylum-seekers.

Conditions in the camp, and another on the tiny Pacific island of Nauru, have been widely criticized by the United Nations and human rights groups.

The two camps have been cornerstones of Australia’s contentious immigration policy, under which it refuses to allow asylum-seekers arriving by boat to reach its shores.

The policy, aimed at deterring people from making a perilous sea voyage to Australia, has bipartisan political support.

The closure of the Manus island camp, criticized by the United Nations as “shocking”, caused chaos, with the men refusing to leave the compound for fear of being attacked by Manus island residents.

Staff left the closed compound and the men were left without food, water, power or medical support before they were expelled and moved to a transit camp.

Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court declared in 2016 that the detention of asylum-seekers on behalf of the Australian government was illegal and that it breached asylum-seekers’ fundamental human rights.

The asylum-seekers will now go back to court in February to seek orders from Australia and Papua New Guinea for them to be settled in a safe third country.

The United States announced on Friday that it had agreed to accept about 200 more refugees from Manus island and Nauru under a deal struck between Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and former U.S. President Barack Obama.

Another 50 refugees had already been accepted as part of the deal, under which Australia agreed to accept refugees from Central America. U.S President Donald Trump has called the deal “dumb”.

(Reporting by Alana Schetzer; Editing by Paul Tait)

Israel eyes law to remove online content inciting terrorism

Israeli Police search for suspects

By Tova Cohen

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Israel’s Justice Ministry is drafting legislation that would enable it to order Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other social media to remove online postings it deems to be inciting terrorism. “We are working on draft legislation, similar to what is being done in other countries; one law that would allow for a judicial injunction to order the removal of certain content, such as websites that incite to terrorism,” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said.

“There should be some measure of accountability for Internet companies regarding the illegal activities and content that is published through their services,” Shaked told a cybersecurity conference in Tel Aviv this week.

Israel blames a wave of Palestinian attacks which erupted in October last year on incitement to violence by the Palestinian leadership and on social media. Palestinian leaders say many attackers have acted out of desperation in the absence of movement towards creating an independent Palestinian state.

A spokeswoman for Shaked said it was too early to say what measures or sanctions might be included in the law, which would need parliamentary approval, but that it was likely to be similar to those introduced in France.

France has made far-reaching changes to surveillance laws since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo last year. It has taken steps to blacklist jihadi sites that “apologize for terrorism”, but stopped short of using such laws to censor major Internet services. “The legislation … will focus on removing prohibited content, with an emphasis on terrorist content, or blocking access to prohibited content,” Shaked’s spokeswoman said.

Governments around the world have been grappling with how to block online incitement to criminal activity, while major Internet services have stepped up campaigns to identify and remove Web postings that incite violence. Facebook, Google and Twitter are working more aggressively to combat online propaganda and recruiting by Islamic militants while trying to avoid the perception they are helping the authorities police the Web. Turkey has regularly censored YouTube, Facebook and Twitter in domestic political disputes. In 2015, more than 90 percent of all court orders for Twitter to remove illegal content worldwide came from Turkey, the company has reported.

Russia has used anti-terrorist laws to censor independent web sites, media organizations and global Internet sites, while China’s tightly controlled Internet blocks what it considers terrorist propaganda under general laws against incitement to criminal activity.

Shaked said governments and Internet services need to find ways to cooperate so that companies can quickly take down content deemed criminal that has been published on their platform. “We are promoting cooperation with content providers, sensitizing them as to content that violates Israeli law or the provider’s terms of service,” Shaked said. A spokesman for Facebook in Israel declined to comment. Google’s YouTube subsidiary has clear policies that prohibit content like gratuitous violence, hate speech and incitement to commit violent acts, a company spokesman said. “We remove videos violating these policies when flagged by our users. We also terminate any account registered by a member of a designated ‘foreign terrorist organization’,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Eric Auchard in Frankfurt; Editing by Dominic Evans)