UN demands Libya inquiry into shooting of escaping migrants

GENEVA (Reuters) – Libyan security forces used “unnecessary and disproportionate” force to detain African migrants, shooting dead some of those trying to escape, the U.N. human rights office said on Tuesday as it demanded an inquiry into the violence.

Hundreds of migrants and refugees have waited outside a United Nations centre in Tripoli in recent days to seek help in escaping Libya after what aid groups called a violent crackdown in which thousands were arrested and several shot.

Migrants and asylum seekers, some of whose claims are pending, have been targeted by heavy-handed operations by Libyan security forces, U.N. human rights spokesperson Marta Hurtado told a U.N. briefing in Geneva.

“These have resulted in killings and serious injuries, a rise in detentions in appalling conditions, as well as expulsions of individuals to countries in sub-Saharan Africa without due process,” Hurtado said.

Libya’s Government of National Unity has said it is “dealing with a complex issue in the illegal migration file, as it represents a human tragedy in addition to the social, political and legal consequences locally and internationally”.

Libya has become a major transit point for migrants seeking to reach Europe in search of a better life. Some have been returned there by the Libyan Coast Guard after setting out in rickety boats.

Ministry of Interior officials first raided an informal settlement of hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers in Gergaresh west of Tripoli on Oct 1, handcuffing, arresting, and shooting or beating those who resisted, Hurtado said.

Some 500 migrants managed to escape from the Gheriyan detention center in Tripoli on Oct. 6 and “were chased by guards who opened fire using live ammunition,” killing at least four and wounding others, she said.

Two days later, another mass escape took place from the al-Mabani center, with migrants chased by security officers who shot and killed an unknown number, she said. The head of the U.N. migration agency IOM in Libya said at least six people had been killed.

“We call on the authorities to establish prompt, thorough, impartial and independent investigations into the claims of unnecessary and disproportionate use of force including the allegations of killings by the security forces and affiliated armed groups, with a view to holding those responsible accountable,” Hurtado said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Angus McDowall and Giles Elgood)

Exclusive-U.S. urges Mexico to clear migrant camps near border -sources

By Dave Graham

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The United States has urged Mexico to clear ad-hoc camps housing thousands of migrants in border cities due to concerns they pose a security risk and attract criminal gangs, officials familiar with the matter said.

Facing domestic criticism over a jump in illegal crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has pressed Mexico to curb the flow of migrants to help ease pressure on the nearly 2,000 mile (3,200 km) frontier.

Two of the biggest camps to have sprung up in northern Mexico are in the city of Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, Texas, and in Tijuana, opposite San Diego, California.

Government officials and migrant advocates say the Reynosa camp is home to at least 2,500 people, is unsanitary and has drawn drug gang members looking to recruit desperate migrants. The Tijuana camp is of a similar size, rights groups say.

For weeks, the U.S. government has been asking Mexico to clear the camps, in part because the sheer volume of people in them could jeopardize security if they made a sudden rush for the border, two officials familiar with the matter said.

The State Department and the White House declined to comment. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment.

Mexico’s Foreign Ministry did not reply to requests for comment. The National Migration Institute declined to comment.

The officials emphasized the importance of eradicating conditions that encouraged cartel members to try to extort migrants, or to pressure them into joining their ranks.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered Biden to comply with a Texas-based federal judge’s ruling to revive a Trump administration immigration policy that forced thousands of asylum seekers to stay in Mexico to await U.S. hearings.

That has alarmed Mexican officials, who are concerned the country will struggle to cope with more people after the number of apprehensions or expulsions by U.S. agents of migrants crossing the border more than doubled this year.

Mexican authorities have stepped up efforts to expel migrants in the country illegally, many from Central America. In the past few weeks it has sent thousands of them to southern Mexico by plane in order to speed up the process.

(Reporting by Dave Graham; Additional reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

UN refugee agency presses Poland to help migrants on Belarus border

WARSAW (Reuters) -The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR and rights groups urged Poland on Tuesday to offer medical and legal support and shelter to migrants camping on the border with Belarus, a day after Warsaw said it would build a fence to prevent migrants crossing.

Poland and fellow EU states Lithuania and Latvia have reported sharp increases in migrants from countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan trying to cross their frontiers. The EU says Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is waging “hybrid warfare” with migrants to exert pressure on the bloc.

“While we acknowledge the challenges posed by recent arrivals to Poland, we call on the Polish authorities to provide access to territory, immediate medical assistance, legal advice, and psychosocial support to these people,” said Christine Goyer, the UNHCR’s representative in Poland.

On Monday, Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said that a new 2.5-metre-(8.2-foot)-high solid fence would be built along the border with Belarus.

“States have the legitimate right to manage their borders in accordance with international law. However, they must also respect human rights, including the right to seek asylum,” the UNHCR said in a statement.

Poland’s Foreign Ministry said it fully applies provisions of national and international law with respect to asylum.

“Poland fully respects the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and complies with its provisions in the current situation. At the same time, we expect that Belarus, as a party to the Convention, to fulfill its obligations and will provide appropriate care to people in its territory,” a ministry statement said.

The Helsinki Committee for Human Rights said on Tuesday it has requested the European Court of Human Rights take temporary measures to ensure Poland ensures the migrants’ safety, and offer them food, water and shelter at a refugee center.

The Polish Human Rights Ombudsman said Poland’s Border Guard had violated the Geneva Convention by not accepting verbal declarations from some of the migrants that they wanted to apply for international protection in Poland.

(Reporting by Joanna Plucinska; Additional reporting by Anna Koper; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Mark Heinrich)

U.S. faces deadline to reinstate ‘remain in Mexico’ border program

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States faces a court-ordered deadline this weekend to resume a controversial immigration program that forced tens of thousands of migrants to wait in Mexico for the resolution of their U.S. asylum cases.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals late on Thursday night denied a request by President Joe Biden’s administration to delay the effective date of a lower court judge’s ruling a week earlier ordering the program restarted by Saturday.

The ruling undercuts Biden’s decision earlier this year to end the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, which was put in place by his Republican predecessor, former President Donald Trump. Democrats and immigration advocates criticized the MPP program, informally known as “remain in Mexico,” saying it subjected mostly Central American migrants to unsanitary conditions and violence in the United States’ neighbor to the south.

Arrests of migrants caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border have reached 20-year highs in recent months, a trend Republicans pin on Biden’s reversal of MPP and other hard-line Trump immigration policies. Still, the Biden administration has left in place a Trump-era health order that allows border authorities to expel migrants to Mexico without the chance to seek asylum in the United States.

The ruling by the conservative-leaning 5th Circuit said the Biden administration must implement the MPP program in “good faith,” which appears to leave the government some discretion in how to move forward.

If the implementation efforts are “thwarted” by a lack of cooperation from Mexico, the appeals court wrote, the administration will still be considered to be in compliance with the lower court order calling for the program restart.

The U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment asking whether it would appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Kristina Cooke and Jonathan Oatis)

Poland says Belarus lets migrants cross border in ‘hybrid war’ with EU

WARSAW (Reuters) -Poland accused Belarus of sending a growing number of migrants over the border in retaliation for Warsaw’s decision this week to give refuge to Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, a Belarusian athlete who refused to return home from the Tokyo Olympics.

A deputy interior minister, Maciej Wasik, said on Thursday that Minsk was “waging a hybrid war with the European Union with the help of illegal immigrants.”

In recent weeks, neighbor and fellow EU member state Lithuania has reported a surge in illegal border crossings from Belarus and said Minsk was flying in migrants from abroad and dispatching them into the EU.

“There are both young men and women with children. Belarus is using these immigrants as a living weapon,” Wasik told online broadcaster Telewizja wPolsce.

“In recent days we have seen an increase (in migrants). We treat it as a reaction to the granting of asylum to the Belarusian sprinter.”

Tsimanouskaya’s Cold War-style defection has ratcheted up Western tensions with Minsk at a time when the EU has accused President Alexander Lukashenko of using migrants to hit back against EU sanctions.

Officials in the Belarusian government could not immediately be reached for comment.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Thursday accused Lithuania and Poland of fueling the migrant issue on the border, saying Lithuania wanted to drive migrants into Belarusian territory by force.

Belarus in May decided to let migrants enter Lithuania in retaliation for EU sanctions meted out after Minsk forced a Ryanair flight to land on its soil and arrested a dissident blogger who was on board.

Lukashenko at the time said Belarus would not become a “holding site” for migrants from Africa and the Middle East.

The Polish Border Guard told Reuters it had detained a group of 71 migrants on the border with Belarus during the night from Wednesday to Thursday and another group of 62, mostly Iraqis, on Wednesday.

That is more that the total of 122 illegal migrants the Border Guard said were detained along the frontier in the whole of last year. Last month, 242 migrants were intercepted.

Wasik said migrants arriving recently had mainly been from Iraq but also from Afghanistan.

The interior ministry did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.

The EU has summoned the Belarusian envoy in Brussels and held talks with the Iraqi government over the issue of illegal migration to the bloc.

(Reporting by Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk and Agnieszka Barteczko in Warsaw, Matthias Williams in London, writing by Alan Charlish, Editing by William Maclean, Mark Heinrich and Steve Orlofsky)

Nearly 600 rescued migrants disembark from charity boat in Italy

ROME (Reuters) – Hundreds of migrants rescued in the central Mediterranean disembarked on Friday in the southern Italian town of Augusta, in Sicily, after Rome-based maritime authorities agreed to give their ship a port.

The Ocean Viking vessel, operated by SOS Mediterranee, carried 572 people, including around 180 minors, after picking them up in six separate operations in Maltese and Libyan search and rescue areas, the European NGO said.

After asking the European Union to find a safe port for the migrants, the group said the situation onboard was deteriorating due to tension and exhaustion among those rescued.

“This news brings us relief and gives these people irrepressible joy,” said Carlotta Sami, spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, referring to the Ocean Viking being able to dock.

SOS Mediterranee said all migrants would be tested for COVID-19 after disembarking the boat.

Migrant boat departures from North Africa towards Europe have picked up in 2021 after a decline in the previous few years and scores of people have died in recent weeks following shipwrecks as they tried to reach Italy.

Some 22,900 migrants have arrived in Italy since the beginning of the year – many of them fleeing conflict and poverty in Africa and the Middle East – compared with almost 7,700 in the same period last year, Interior Ministry data shows.

Several charity boats have been impounded in Italy in recent months after officials reported irregularities onboard.

Charity group MSF complained Italian authorities were using such inspections to prevent ships from returning to sea where many migrants die.

(Reporting by Angelo Amante in Rome; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Lithuania toughens Belarus border with razor wire to bar migrants

By Andrius Sytas

VILNIUS (Reuters) – Lithuania began building a 550-km (320-mile) razor wire barrier on its border with Belarus on Friday after accusing Belarusian authorities of flying in migrants from abroad to send illegally into the European Union.

The government said the military-style wire coil would cost 4.9 million euros ($5.81 million) to put up and run along most of the frontier, which passes over sparsely populated areas and large stretches of forest and marsh.

At a later date the barrier will be reinforced with a two meter (6.5 ft) high border fence topped by razor wire, costing an additional 41 million euros, the interior ministry said.

Hundreds of migrants have crossed from Belarus in recent days, most of them Iraqi citizens, Lithuania has said.

Belarus in May decided to allow migrants to enter Lithuania in retaliation for sanctions imposed by the bloc after Minsk forced a Ryanair flight to land on its soil and arrested a dissident blogger who was on board.

“If someone thinks we will close our border with Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine and will become a holding site for those running from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Tunis and further down Africa – if someone thinks so, he is misguided, to say the least,” Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko said on Tuesday.

Belarus is guarding the border now only as much as it is “profitable” to it, and as much as it can financially, the president said.

Lithuania responded on Wednesday by announcing it would put up the frontier barrier and deploy troops to prevent migrants crossing illegally into its territory.

In a related move, Lithuania’s parliament will meet on Tuesday to urgently pass legislation streamlining asylum application reviews, including shortening their initial review to no more than 10 days, Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said.

All people who crossed the border illegally would be kept locked up, the draft law says, meaning an end to occasional short trips outside detention that are currently permitted.

Just over 1,500 people crossed the frontier illegally from Belarus this year, with 900 of them coming over in the first nine days of July.

The first stretch of the new barrier, to be completed on Friday, will run 500 meters (1,640 feet) in length and measure 1.8 meters (six feet) in height, the army defense chief’s spokeswoman Ruta Montvile told Reuters.

Simonyte told the national broadcaster she did not expect the migrant flow from Belarus to subside on its own.

“As the Belarus regime is making money from these people for visa charges and, I think, gets other income from them as well – it would be difficult to expect any positive trend without additional means of impact”, she said.

Simonyte said on Wednesday Belarus had been offering migrants flights to Minsk, citing documents found on at least one migrant who had reached Lithuania. She said the main airport from where people flew into Belarus was Baghdad, and her foreign minister said people also came Turkey.

The Lithuanian-Belarus border is 679-km (420-mile) long. About 78 km (48 miles) was fenced in preceding years, and about 258 km (160 miles) are monitored electronically, according to the interior ministry.

($1 = 0.8433 euros)

(Reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; Editing by Mark Heinrich, William Maclean)

U.S. border arrests top 1 million in fiscal year 2021

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. authorities have made more than 1 million arrests of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border so far in fiscal year 2021, according to preliminary figures shared with Reuters, a tally that underscores the immigration challenges facing President Joe Biden.

At the current pace, the total border arrests for the fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30, would be the highest since 2000, when nearly 1.7 million migrants were apprehended by U.S. authorities.

Biden, a Democrat who took office five months ago, has reversed many of the hardline immigration policies put in place by his Republican predecessor, former President Donald Trump.

Republicans blame Biden’s policies for the upsurge in illegal border crossings in recent months, but migration experts say poverty, violence and food insecurity are factors driving migrants to leave Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

U.S. Border Patrol made 172,000 migrant arrests at the southwestern border in May, on par with 20-year highs from March and April. Similar figures are expected in June.

The current demographics of migrants arriving at the border, including many from Central America and other countries, take longer to process than the mostly Mexican men who arrived at the border in 2000, according to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington, editing by Ross Colvin)

‘U.S. Welcome Patrol’: how some border agents are struggling with Biden’s policy shift

By Ted Hesson, Kristina Cooke and Mica Rosenberg

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Some U.S. border patrol agents are so frustrated with President Joe Biden’s more liberal border policies that they are considering early retirement, while other disgruntled colleagues are buying unofficial coins that say ‘U.S. Welcome Patrol.’

Interviews with a dozen current and former agents highlight growing dissatisfaction among some rank and file members of the agency over Biden’s swift reversal of some of former President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policies. Since Biden took office, border apprehensions have risen sharply.

Some of that frustration is coalescing into opposition to Biden’s pick to lead the border patrol’s parent agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The nominee is Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus, who still needs to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

The discontent was partly reflected in an unusual memo from the acting Border Patrol chief last month, who objected to a new directive to stop using the term ‘alien’ when referring to migrants, saying it would hurt agents’ morale.

The interviews provide an anecdotal snapshot of the mood within border patrol and, as such, do not represent the views of all agents. One agent who spoke to Reuters on the condition of anonymity said “there are always going to be changes” between presidential administrations and that agents are “used to it.”

But any internal strife could complicate plans Magnus may have to implement and reshape border and asylum policy. Criticism from even a small number of agents could also bolster Republican efforts to use concerns over illegal immigration to rally supporters ahead of the 2022 congressional elections.

Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the labor union that represents three-quarters of the roughly 20,000 border patrol agents, sharply criticized Biden in a news conference with Republican senators on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. The union endorsed Trump in the 2020 election and still supports his restrictionist policies.

“I can confidently say that President Biden owns this crisis,” Judd said, referring to the recent spike in border crossers. “It is his fault.”

The 97-year-old border patrol agency has been whipsawed by policy changes under Republican and Democratic administrations that have required them to frequently modify their approach to migrants they encounter at the border.

But a number of the agents interviewed said they had never experienced such a dramatic pendulum swing.

Discontent in the ranks has already led some agents to consider early retirement, six of them said. Voluntary retirements within border patrol are set to outpace last year if they continue at the current rate, according to agency data.

Rosemarie Pepperdine, a border patrol agent working in Casa Grande, Arizona, is one of those who said she was considering taking early retirement.

“We have so many people coming across, and then we’re out there killing ourselves to catch them, rescue them or whatever it is, and then they’re being released,” she said. “Why even bother?”

Asked about the agents’ frustration, a Biden administration official said the president’s approach was rooted in solutions and effective management.

HOSPITAL ESCAPE

The opposition to Magnus from within the agency derives in part from an incident in 2017, when a Honduran migrant escaped from a Tucson hospital while a border agent was looking at his phone.

Magnus’ police department dispatched search teams and helicopters, police records show. After they determined the migrant had likely left the area, they called off the manhunt, according to Tucson’s assistant police chief, Kevin Hall.

The border patrol wanted to use a police station to set up a command post to aid the search. But that was rejected by police, who according to Hall felt that was unnecessary because the border patrol had their own facilities. He said police also wanted to avoid attracting pro-immigrant protesters who were congregating at the hospital.

Border patrol union officials were outraged, writing on Facebook at the time that Magnus’ police department “put politics over rule of law and oath of office.”

Magnus “refused to work with the agency that he’s going to be overseeing,” Judd, the union president, said in an interview with Reuters. “That alone, in my opinion, should be disqualification.”

Hall said he felt the police department had done everything they could to find the man. “We were all a bit surprised,” Hall said of the union’s outrage about the 2017 incident, “because the facts as we saw them were not exactly aligning with the facts as they saw them.”

Magnus declined to comment for this story.

The son of an immigrant father from Norway, Magnus, 60, has not publicly spoken about what his plan would be for CBP.

His backers in police and policy circles say he is a strong supporter of his employees and is open to a wide range of views.

Claudia Jasso, chief development officer at the Tucson-based nonprofit Amistades, said one of the first things Magnus did as head of the city’s police department was to meet with the Latino community to listen to their concerns. “He was humble and asked a lot of questions,” she said.

Gil Kerlikowske, who was CBP commissioner for three years under former President Barack Obama, said there are people within the agency who disagree with the politically outspoken union but who may not speak out.

If Magnus is confirmed to head CBP, Kerlikowske said, “empathy and compassion will be a standard.”

Many immigration advocates have been deeply critical of border patrol and say it is time for reform.

In 2019, the agency came under fire when the nonprofit news site ProPublica revealed a private Facebook group in which border patrol agents aired racist and misogynistic views. Then-acting CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said at the time that the posts did not reflect the views of the agency’s employees.

‘U.S. WELCOME PATROL’

Border apprehensions have been rising since Biden took office in January, reaching about 173,000 in April – the highest monthly level in more than 20 years.

The Biden administration initially struggled to process the border crossers fast enough, resulting in thousands of children being stuck in overcrowded border stations and forcing some agents to take on caretaker roles instead of patrolling for drugs and smugglers.

While the administration made changes that helped empty out the crowded stations, agents said they and their colleagues remain frustrated that many families are being released into the United States to pursue asylum cases, even as a Trump-era policy of quick expulsions at the border during the pandemic is still in place.

In at least one part of the southern border, some agents have started calling Biden ‘Let ‘Em Go Joe,’ according to a border patrol agent who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Gil Maza, a former agent who retired in March, runs a website selling an unofficial coin that refashions the U.S. Border Patrol logo to read ‘U.S. Welcome Patrol.’ Maza said he had sold 78 of the coins in four days to current and former agents.

“It sheds a little humor on the situation,” he said of the coins. “And it’s something that helps us, I guess, mentally and emotionally cope with the situation because especially right now, the situation is pretty dire out there.”

Some agents echoed a grievance aired by Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott in an April 16 memo seen by Reuters that criticized the Biden administration’s directive to use the terms ‘undocumented non-citizen’ or ‘migrant’ and stop using the phrase ‘illegal alien.’

“Over the years many outside forces on both extremes of the political spectrum have intentionally, or unintentionally, politicized our agency and our mission,” Scott wrote in the memo to acting CBP Commissioner Troy Miller.

The memo was first leaked to the right-wing news site Breitbart.

The Biden administration official defended the new terminology, saying that choice of words mattered and that those in custody deserved to be treated with dignity.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington, Kristina Cooke in San Francisco and Mica Rosenberg in New York, editing by Ross Colvin and Rosalba O’Brien)

UN says Europe needs more efficient mechanisms to handle migrant arrivals

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Europe could easily manage hundreds of migrants arriving on its shores if it had more predictable state-led systems to deal with such matters, the U.N.’s refugees chief said, pointing to the arrival of hundreds on Italy’s Lampedusa island at the weekend.

“The fact that over this weekend, we have witnessed again, arrivals through the central Mediterranean is further proof that … Europe needs predictable mechanisms to deal with these matters,” said Filippo Grandi, Commissioner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“Yes, there were several boats coming but we’re talking about manageable numbers: through a rational and agreed mechanism this would be very manageable, in our opinion,” he told a news conference with the EU’s home affairs commissioner.

He said a system is needed for disembarkation and relocation of migrants, and push backs of would-be migrants that are happening at the external borders of the European Union should be stopped.

Grandi said he agreed with European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson that Europe needs a mechanism that balances “proper arrival arrangements with solidarity through relocation”.

“I personally think that this is the least that Europe could put in place”, he said. “We also need … a good, efficient and fair, right space, but nevertheless fair mechanism of return to their countries of those that are not recognized as refugees.”

(Reporting by John Chalmers and Marine Strauss)