New caravan sets off from Mexico as officials struggle with immigration claims

By Jose Luis Gonzalez

TAPACHULA, Mexico (Reuters) – Some 2,000 migrants and asylum seekers departed the southern Mexican city of Tapachula near the Guatemalan border overnight on Sunday in the latest in a series of caravans setting out for the United States.

By Monday morning, the caravan had advanced about 25 kilometers (15 mi) to reach the town of Huehuetan, according to a Reuters witness.

The majority of its members were families from Central America and the Caribbean fleeing violence, poverty and growing hunger crises in their home countries.

For months, migrants and human rights advocates have denounced the “prison-like” conditions in Tapachula. Under Mexican rules, migrants must wait to process their claims – often for months – before being able to relocate to other parts of the country without fear of deportation.

Thousands of migrants waited on Monday in an hours-long line inside a stadium where immigration officials had set up a processing center.

“In Tapachula, there’s no life for migrants. We don’t have work, we don’t have money to pay for housing,” said Atis, a Haitian migrant waiting in line who declined to give his last name.

“We’re waiting here at immigration, but if there’s no other option, then we’ll leave here on foot, in another caravan.”

Last week, the Mexican government transported hundreds of migrants from Tapachula to other states in efforts to head off the formation of more caravans. But tens of thousands of migrants still remain in the city.

(Reporting by Jose Luis Gonzalez; Writing by Laura Gottesdiener; Editing by Daina Solomon and Dan Grebler)

Lebanese carry ‘worthless’ stacks of cash after currency crash

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Restaurant owner Antoine Haddad has been in business for over 35 years but says he is running out of hope as Lebanon struggles with one of the deepest financial crises of modern times.

The Lebanese pound lost around 90% of its value in the past two years, propelling three quarters of the population into poverty.

For Haddad, the difference between this and other crises that Lebanon has experienced, including the 1975-1990 civil war, is that it feels like there is no end in sight.

“Previously, you had hope that: ‘tomorrow the war will end, we do this and that and go back to where we were’, but this time there is no hope,” he said.

“They (those in power) promised us we would have plenty of money in our hands, and we indeed have a lot of it to play with,” he said sarcastically referring to the growing stacks of banknotes needed for even basic purchases after the currency drop.

Haddad, whose small restaurant has been in business since 1984, said he can only buy 10% of the olive oil he used to buy with the same money.

The government, facing an election in March as it tries to secure an IMF recovery plan, has tripled transport allowance for employees to alleviate some of the pain but most salaries, including the minimum wage, have not been adjusted.

Pub-owner Moussa Yaakoub is also taken aback by the amount of cash he needs to run his business.

“I have never before held in my hands this amount of money,” he said as he counted some 10 million pounds, worth $6,600 at the pre-crisis rate but now less than $500 at the market rate.

That much money used to cover a pub’s operation for months, but now only pays a couple of bills, he said.

Grocery store owner Roni Bou Rached has changed the way he stores money in his cash drawer now that smaller notes are used less, and coins are almost non-existent.

“I am hesitant how much to carry in my pocket when I leave. I sometimes carry 1 million or 1.5 million … but I mean, they are worthless,” he said.

A single restaurant bill now could amount to sums higher than some workers’ earnings.

“God help those who do not have an income or are not able to work around things,” Ali Jaber, a private sector employee, said.

(Reporting by Issam Abdallah; Writing by Yara Abi Nader; Editing by Alison Williams)

Agencies distribute food, blankets, cash as hunger and cold threaten Afghanistan

KABUL (Reuters) – Aid agencies delivered food, blankets and cash to hundreds of displaced families in Kabul on Wednesday as humanitarian assistance begins to trickle into Afghanistan following warnings the country faces potentially catastrophic famine this winter.

The distribution of aid to 324 families represents a tiny fraction of the needs in Afghanistan, which faces a severe drought as well as a near collapse of its economy following the withdrawal of Western support.

Chilly weather on Monday underlined the urgency in getting assistance to thousands of displaced people in the capital, many having fled from the provinces and sleeping in tents or improvised accommodation around the city.

As people lined up inside the UN compound for handouts of food and basic household items, larger crowds gathered outside, many desperate for help.

“We got this assistance, but we cannot spend the winter with it,” said Bibi Pashtoon. “Winter is difficult, and we have nothing except God, and we need more help.”

But the challenge of providing the aid is massive. As well as farmers and rural people displaced by drought, poverty has extended into the cities where widespread unemployment has forced many to try to sell their household goods to raise money.

“Around 50,000 Afghan people from different provinces of the country have been displaced because of recent conflicts and are in Kabul. Our assistance continues to needy people every week,” said UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch.

Even before the Taliban’s victory over the Western-backed government in Kabul two months ago, more than 18 million Afghans, or about half the population, needed humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Other UN estimates suggest that as much as 97% of the country’s population could be plunged into poverty by next year in a worst-case scenario.

The Group of 20 major economies pledged this week to provide humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan and the United States has promised separately to help relieve the immediate hardship facing millions of Afghans as the cold season begins.

However donor nations have been reluctant to give any funds directly to the new Taliban government, meaning the aid is likely to be channeled through international agencies.

Wednesday’s distribution was overseen by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration, the World Food Program and the Danish aid agency DACAAR.

(Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Nick Macfie)

World needs to spend another $100 trln on U.N. fight against global woes – report

By Simon Jessop

LONDON (Reuters) – Global goals tackling poverty, inequality, injustice and climate change face a $100 trillion funding shortfall and are likely to be missed unless 10% of global economic output is directed to the U.N. targets every year to 2030, a report on Friday said.

The U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals set targets on everything from the environment to health and equality and have the support of all member states, yet the supply of finance from governments, investors, banks and companies to help meet them has consistently fallen short.

Hampered by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the annual shortfall is now up to $10 trillion a year, the landmark report by the United Nations and the Force for Good Initiative, backed by the finance industry, shared with Reuters showed.

“Humanity is at a crossroads. More than ever, all stakeholders must partner to ensure this crisis is the beginning of a new economics for sustainable development with prosperity for all,” said Chantal Line Carpentier, Chief, UN Conference on Trade and Development in the New York Office of the Secretary-General.

Adding the costs of financing the global transition to a low-carbon economy to limit global warming, and total funding out to 2050 comes in at $200-$220 trillion, the report added.

The SDGs are a global “to-do” list addressing such issues as war, hunger, land degradation, gender equality and climate.

While more than 1.1 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty since 1990, failure to accelerate efforts on the SDGs risked fueling conflict and crises, they said.

After a slow start, the world’s finance industry has begun to do more, with $9.5 trillion committed to 2030 and a record $2.1 trillion deployed in 2020. However there are imbalances in the way the money is being invested, the report said.

While climate change-related goals represented 20% of the funding gap, the theme was currently attracting 44% of the committed capital, the report said. By contrast, human, economic and social-related goals made up more than half of the funding gap but were taking in just 32% of current funding.

“The financial sector is playing a rapidly expanding role in financing the SDGs and the transition to a sustainable digital future,” said Ketan Patel, Chairman of Force for Good and CEO and Co-Founder of Greater Pacific Capital.

“However, with less than ten years to go, there is a pressing need to explore even bigger and more radical solutions than those being deployed today.”

Among other leading financial companies involved in the initiative include BlackRock, JPMorgan, Bridgewater Associates and Schroders, the report said.

(Reporting by Simon Jessop, Editing by William Maclean)

Over 71% of Lebanon’s population risks losing access to safe water – UNICEF

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The United Nations warned on Friday that more than four million people in Lebanon, including one million refugees risked losing access to safe water as shortages of funding, fuel and supplies affect water pumping.

“UNICEF estimates that most water pumping will gradually cease across the country in the next four to six weeks,” a statement by the U.N. body said.

Lebanon is battling an economic meltdown that has propelled more than half of its population into poverty and seen its currency lose over 90% of its value in less than two years.

The financial crisis has translated into severe shortages of basic goods such as fuel and medicine as dollars run dry.

UNICEF said that should the public water supply system collapse, water costs could jump by 200% a month as water would be secured from private water suppliers.

The U.N. agency said it needed $40 million a year to secure the minimum levels of fuel, chlorine, spare parts and maintenance required to keep critical systems operational.

“Unless urgent action is taken, hospitals, schools and essential public facilities will be unable to function,” UNICEF Representative in Lebanon, Yukie Mokuo, was quoted as saying in the statement.

(Reporting By Maha El Dahan; editing by Grant McCool)

Death toll from Colombia protests rises; U.N., EU call for calm

By Oliver Griffin and Luis Jaime Acosta

BOGOTA (Reuters) – The United Nations and European Union on Tuesday urged calm and warned of the use of excessive force amid further protests against the administration of Colombian President Ivan Duque, while local authorities in epicenter Cali reported a further five deaths and 33 injuries.

The protests – originally called in opposition to a now-canceled tax reform – have become a broad cry for action against poverty and what demonstrators and some advocacy groups say is police violence.

The western city of Cali has become the focus of protests since they began almost a week ago and is the site of 11 of the 19 deaths confirmed by the Andean country’s human rights ombudsman on Monday.

The national police has said it will investigate more than two dozen allegations of brutality, while the defense minister has alleged illegal armed groups are infiltrating the protests to cause violence.

“Preliminarily what we know is there were five people killed (and …) 33 injured,” Carlos Rojas, security secretary of Cali told journalists on Tuesday, referring to the night before.

Some 87 people have been reported missing nationally since the protests started, according to the human rights ombudsman.

Intermittent road blockades are delaying shipments out of key Pacific port Buenaventura, according to local authorities.

The United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights urged calm and warned of police shootings.

“We are deeply alarmed at developments in the city of Cali in Colombia overnight, where police opened fire on demonstrators protesting against tax reforms,” spokesperson Marta Hurtado said in a Tuesday statement.

The European Union also called for security forces to avoid a heavy-handed response.

Protests have so far led to the withdrawal of the original reform and the resignation of Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla.

Duque has said his government will draw up another proposal – the result of consultations with lawmakers, civil society and businesses.

New Finance Minister Jose Manuel Restrepo will need to convince Colombians, many of whom have seen their incomes battered by coronavirus lockdowns, that reform is vital, former Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas told the Reuters Global Markets Forum on Tuesday.

Restrepo “has a huge challenge ahead” Cardenas said.

Anger over long-standing inequalities in the nation of 50 million was a theme of 2019 protests, while police brutality was a focus at 2020 demonstrations.

Major unions, which are planning national marches again on Wednesday, say the government has not lived up to promises of dialogue with civil society.

Marchers on Wednesday will call for a basic income guarantee, the withdrawal of a government health reform proposal and the dissolution of the ESMAD riot police.

Duque has offered military assistance to protect infrastructure and guarantee access to essential services, though mayors of cities including Bogota and Medellin said it was unnecessary.

(Reporting by Oliver Griffin and Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Julia Symmes Cobb, Alistair Bell)

Gaza gravediggers and medics stretched as COVID spikes during Ramadan

By Rami Ayyub and Mohammed Salem

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The sick and dying are rapidly pushing Gaza’s hospitals close to capacity amid a surge in COVID-19 cases in the impoverished Palestinian territory, health officials said.

Palestinians fear a combination of poverty, medical shortages, vaccine skepticism, poor COVID-19 data and mass gatherings during Ramadan could accelerate the increase, which began before the start of the Muslim holy month on April 13.

Gaza health officials said around 70% of intensive care unit beds were occupied, up from 37% at the end of March. There were 86 deaths over the past six days, an increase of 43% over the week before.

“The hospitals are almost at full capacity. They’re not quite there yet, but severe and critical cases have increased significantly in the last three weeks, which is a concern,” said Dr Ayadil Saparbekov, head of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Team in the Palestinian Territories.

Gaza’s daily positivity rate reached as high as 43% this week, although Saparbekov said that number could be inflated because a shortage of tests meant they were mostly given to people already showing symptoms.

Saparbekov also said Gaza does not have the capacity to identify highly infectious COVID-19 variants when testing, meaning there is little data on them.

‘NO TRUCE’

Graveyards are also feeling the strain. In Gaza City, gravedigger Mohammad al-Haresh told Reuters he had been burying up to 10 COVID-19 victims per day, up from one or two a month ago.

“Wartime was difficult, but the coronavirus has been much harder for us,” said Haresh, who dug graves throughout the 2014 Israel-Gaza war.

“In war, we would dig graves or bury the dead during a truce or ceasefire. With the coronavirus, there is no truce.”

Densely populated and home to 2 million Palestinians, Gaza has for years had limited access to the outside world because of a blockade led by Israel and supported by Egypt.

Both countries cite security concerns over Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, saying they want to stop money and weapons entering.

Palestinians say the blockade amounts to collective punishment and that it has crippled Gaza’s economy and medical infrastructure, with shortages of critical supplies and equipment hampering their ability to tackle the pandemic.

The situation in Gaza is a stark contrast to Israel, where a world-beating vaccination rollout has led to more than 53% of Israelis being fully vaccinated.

RAMADAN LOCKDOWN

Amid growing concern, Hamas will on Thursday begin a week of nightly curfews, shutting down mosques that host hundreds of worshippers for Ramadan evening prayers.

But with around 49% of Gazans unemployed and parliamentary elections slated for May 22, Hamas has held back from more drastic measures that could further damage the economy.

“We may impose additional measures, but we do not expect at this phase to go into a full lockdown,” Hamas spokesman Eyad Al-Bozom said.

Health officials say the factors that led to the current spike include the flouting of guidelines for mask-wearing and social distancing and the opening in February of Gaza’s border with Egypt, which may have allowed in new variants.

Suspicion of vaccines also runs deep. A majority of Gazans – 54.2% – said they would not take the vaccine, against 30.5% who said they would and 15.3% who were undecided, according to an April 21 survey by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.

Just 34,287 people have been vaccinated, even though the enclave has received 109,600 doses since February donated by Russia, the United Arab Emirates and the global COVAX program.

“(The) reluctance of many, including medical staff, to be vaccinated remains a key concern,” the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in an April 12 report.

One Palestinian eligible for Gaza’s initial round of vaccines, Qasem Abdul Ghafoor, said he decided to get the jab to protect himself and his family.

“The situation here is horrific. We took it lightly before, but I assure you, it should not be taken lightly,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Mike Collett-White)

Brawls in shops as Lebanon’s financial meltdown hits supply of food

By Maha El Dahan and Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The collapse of Lebanon’s currency has forced many grocery shops to temporarily shut within the last 24 hours, raising fears that a country reliant on imports could soon face shortages of food.

Food shops around the country were locking their doors, halting online deliveries or restricting customers’ orders. Others stayed open, but could not say for how long.

“There’s a big possibility we will close if it stays like this. I don’t know where will we get supplies, and no one is helping us,” said Beirut grocer Mohieldin Fayed, who has kept his shop open.

The pound tumbled to 15,000 to the dollar on Tuesday, losing a third of its value in the last two weeks. It has now sunk by 90% since late 2019.

“If this persists, things will start to disappear, traders will prioritize what to get,” said Hani Bohsali, head of the foodstuffs importers syndicate. “We’ll have to buy less, in variety and quantity, because we can’t find the money.”

He estimated the country has roughly two months of supplies, while it was getting more and more difficult for importers to obtain the dollars they need to keep buying.

The economy’s collapse has pushed much of the population into poverty and poses the biggest threat to stability since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Social media users have been sharing videos of supermarket brawls, such as a fight between a man and a woman trying to buy powdered milk. Prices of many consumer goods such as diapers or cereals have nearly tripled during the crisis.

Nabil Fahed, head of the syndicate of supermarket owners, said some of the shops that had shut on Tuesday reopened on Wednesday after replenishing stocks. But he said permanent closures would happen if no exchange stability was reached.

“What we’re afraid of is that these eventually turn from temporary closures … that it becomes final because it is a dire situation, their capital is being eroded and they don’t have money to pay for goods.”

The vice president of Lebanon’s bakeries’ syndicate said bakeries were supplying the country with bread for now, but could not do so indefinitely without a solution. Lebanon imports almost all of its wheat.

“If we continue at this pace, in the end we will reach a forced closure until the exchange rate stabilizes,” Ali Ibrahim, who tried to resign from his position two weeks ago because of the dire situation, said in a statement.

LOOMING SUBSIDY REMOVAL

Many shops in Lebanon were already shut because of the coronavirus pandemic, and streets have also been closed by roadblocks during anti-government demonstrations. But until this week, groceries had mostly stayed open. Many have been offering deliveries online.

On Tuesday, a number of online grocery shops disappeared from apps. Others refused to accept orders.

Lebanon’s central bank has drawn on already critical foreign reserves to subsidize three key commodities – wheat, fuel and medicine – and a basket of other basic goods, as dollars inflows dried up. It has provided hard currency to importers at the old peg of 1,500 Lebanese pounds to the dollar.

But the state, fast running out of cash, has signaled multiple times that the subsidies would soon be lifted, although it has yet to give a timeline or announce a plan.

Supermarket syndicate head Fahed said the central bank was often slow to release dollars to food importers, causing shortages which in turn provoke consumers to hoard goods. In one example, he said a supermarket had sold a typical month’s stock of 5,000 gallons of subsidized cooking oil in only five hours.

The looming removal of subsidies has triggered fears of shortages, said Nasser Saidi, an economist and former cabinet minister.

“As soon as you announce that subsidies might be lifted or reduced…automatically consumers hoard goods,” he said.

(Reporting By Maha El Dahan, Ellen Francis, Imad Creidi and Alaa Kanaan; Writing by Maha El Dahan; Editing by Peter Graff)

Over 10 million displaced by climate disasters in six months: report

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – About 10.3 million people were displaced by climate change-induced events such as flooding and droughts in the last six months, the majority of them in Asia, a humanitarian organization said on Wednesday.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said about 2.3 million others were displaced by conflict in the same period, indicating the vast majority of internal displacements are now triggered by climate change.

Though the figures cover only a six-month period from September 2020 to February 2021, they highlight an accelerating global trend of climate-related displacement, said Helen Brunt, Asia Pacific Migration and Displacement Coordinator for the IFRC.

“Things are getting worse as climate change aggravates existing factors like poverty, conflict, and political instability,” Brunt said. “The compounded impact makes recovery longer and more difficult: people barely have time to recover and they’re slammed with another disaster.”

Some 60% of climate-IDPs (internally displaced persons) in the last six months were in Asia, according to IFRC’s report.

McKinsey & Co consulting firm has said that Asia “stands out as being more exposed to physical climate risks than other parts of the world in the absence of adaptation and mitigation.”

Statistics from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) show that on average 22.7 million people are displaced every year. The figure includes displacements caused by geophysical phenomenon such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, but the vast majority are displaced by weather-related events.

Globally, 17.2 million people were displaced in 2018 and 24.9 million in 2019. Full-year figures are not yet available for 2020, but IDMC’s mid-year report showed there were 9.8 million displacements because of natural disasters in the first half of last year.

More than 1 billion people are expected to face forced migration by 2050 due to conflict and ecological factors, a report by the Institute for Economics and Peace found last year.

(Reporting by Kanupriya Kapoor, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Coronavirus crisis in Latin America made worse by poverty, inequality, U.N. agency says

By Fabian Cambero

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Latin America and the Caribbean countries in the throes of the coronavirus crisis will only see their problems made worse by festering inequality, poverty and an ailing social safety net, a United Nations agency said on Thursday.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) said social unrest was on the rise across the region, a sign that immediate action was necessary to aid hard-hit countries struggling long before the pandemic hit.

“The effects of the coronavirus pandemic have spread to all areas of human life, altering the way we interact, paralyzing economies and generating profound changes in societies,” the report said.

Persistently high levels of inequality, the agency said, combined with a sprawling informal labor market that leaves workers without protection and a lack of effective health care coverage have made those problems worse.

Urban slums on the fringes of many of the region’s cities often lack access to basic services, mean many citizens found themselves unable to access food, water and healthcare necessary to confront the crisis.

Poverty meanwhile, has crept upward, while advances in reducing inequality have stagnated, exacerbating trends seen in the five years prior to the crisis.

During that period, Latin America and Caribbean economies grew an average of just 0.3% per year overall, while extreme poverty increased from 7.8% to 11.3% of the population and poverty, from 27.8% to 30.5%.

The report also said the prolonged closure of schools in the region could constitute a “generational catastrophe” that will only deepen inequality.

The pandemic has also brought a rise in mortality that could push down life expectancy in the region depending how long the crisis endures, the agency said.

There have been at least 21,699,000 reported infections and 687,000 reported deaths caused by the novel coronavirus in Latin America and the Caribbean so far.

‚Äč Of every 100 infections last reported around the world, about 24 were reported from countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

(Reporting by Fabian Cambero; Writing by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Angus MacSwan)