Russian jets hit Syrian south, U.N. urges Jordan to open border

Syrian army soldiers stand as they hold their weapons in Deraa, Syria, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Dark smoke rose over areas held by Syrian rebels near the border with Jordan on Thursday as President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian allies unleashed heavy air strikes and government forces sought to advance on the ground.

The UNHCR refugee agency urged Jordan to open its borders to Syrians who have fled the fighting, saying the total number of displaced now stood at more than 320,000, with 60,000 of them gathered at the border crossing with Jordan.

Smoke rises in Deraa area, Syria in this handout released on July 4, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

Smoke rises in Deraa area, Syria in this handout released on July 4, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

Assad aims to recapture the entire southwest including the frontiers with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Jordan. The area is one of the last rebel strongholds in Syria after more than seven years of war.

With no sign of intervention yet by his foreign foes, government forces seem set for another big victory in the war after crushing the last remaining rebel bastions near Damascus and Homs.

State television footage showed giant clouds of smoke towering over fields, rooftops and a distant industrial area, accompanied by the sound of occasional explosions.

After four days of reduced bombardment, intense air strikes resumed on Wednesday following the collapse of talks between rebels and Russian officers, brokered by Jordan.

“The Russians have not stopped the bombardment,” Bashar al-Zoubi, a prominent rebel leader in southern Syria, told Reuters in a text message from the Deraa area, the focus of the government offensive.

“The regime is trying to advance and the clashes are continuing.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, monitoring the war through what it describes as many sources on the ground, said there had been 600 air strikes in 15 hours, extending into Thursday’s early hours.

State media said government forces had captured the town of Saida, some 10 km (six miles) east of Deraa city. A rebel command center said on Twitter government attempts to storm the town were being resisted after it was struck with “dozens of Russian air raids”, barrel bombs and rocket barrages.

The two-week-old attack has taken a chunk of rebel territory northeast of Deraa city, where some rebels surrendered.

The Observatory said 150 civilians have been killed.

ASSAD IN ASCENDANT

For the president, the Deraa campaign holds out the prospect of reopening the Nassib crossing with Jordan, a vital trade artery. Once Deraa is captured, the campaign is expected to move into the Quneitra area closer to the Golan frontier.

Recovering the frontier with the Golan Heights is also important to Assad, reestablishing his status as a frontline leader in the conflict with Israel, which sent reinforcements to the Golan frontier on Sunday.

State TV said Thursday’s bombardment had targeted the southern parts of Deraa, a city long split between rebels and the army, and the towns of Saida, al-Nuaima, Um al-Mayadan and Taiba.

Its correspondent said the army aimed to drive southwards through the area immediately east of Deraa city, where rebel territory narrows to a thin corridor along the Jordanian border.

This would split the territory in two.

The army has been trying for days to reach the Jordanian border in the area immediately west of Deraa, but had not succeeded in attempts to storm an insurgent-held air base there, the rebel command center Twitter account said.

Fleeing civilians have mostly sought shelter along the frontiers with Israel and Jordan, which is already hosting some 650,000 Syrian refugees. Both countries have said they will not open their borders, but have distributed some supplies inside Syria.

Southwest Syria is a “de-escalation zone” agreed last year by Russia, Jordan and the United States to reduce violence.

Near the start of the government’s offensive, Washington indicated it would respond to violations of that deal, but it has not done so yet and rebels said it had told them to expect no American military help.

For the anti-Assad rebels, losing the southwest will reduce their territory to a region of the northwest bordering Turkey and a patch of desert in the east where U.S. forces are stationed near the border with Iraq and Jordan.

Assad now controls most of Syria with help from his allies, though a large part of the north and east is in the hands of Kurdish-led militia backed by the United States.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall and Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Andrew Roche)

Number of displaced in southern Syria climbs to 270,000: U.N.

Internally displaced people from Deraa province arrive near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in Quneitra, Syria June 29, 2018. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Faqir/File Photo

AMMAN (Reuters) – The number of people forced to flee their homes in southwestern Syria as a result of the two week escalation in fighting has climbed to 270,000 people, the U.N. refugee spokesman in Jordan said.

The United Nations said last week 160,000 had been displaced as they fled heavy bombardment and mostly took shelter in villages and areas near the Israeli and Jordanian borders.

“Our latest update shows the figure of displaced across southern Syria has exceeded 270,000 people,” Mohammad Hawari, UNHCR’s Jordan spokesman told Reuters.

The United Nations has warned of a humanitarian catastrophe in the southwest caused by the fighting that erupted after a Russian-backed army offensive to recapture rebel-held southern Syria.

Jordan, which has taken in more than half a million displaced Syrians since the war began, and Israel have said they will not open their borders to refugees.

Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told reporters on Monday after a meeting with U.N. officials that shipments of aid were waiting to get approvals to enter into Syria from the Jordanian border.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Alison Williams)

Israel must prevent entry of refugees from Syria to Israel: minister

An undated image from material released on June 29, 2018 by the Israeli military relates to an Israeli humanitarian aid supply over the border to Syria. IDF/Handout via Reuters

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel must prevent the entry of refugees fleeing fighting in Syria, a senior Israeli cabinet minister said on Friday.

The remarks by Yuval Steinitz, energy minister in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, came on the same day that the Israeli military said it had transferred humanitarian aid to southern Syria.

“I think we must prevent the entry of refugees from Syria to Israel, in the past we have prevented such cases,” Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told Tel Aviv Radio 102FM.

More than 120,000 people in southwestern Syria have been forced to flee since the Syrian government launched an offensive to recover an area bordering Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights from rebels, a monitoring group said.

The Israeli military said an increased number of Syrian civilians had been spotted in refugee camps on the Syrian side of the Golan over the past few days, and that it had overnight sent aid supplies at four locations “to Syrians fleeing hostilities”.

Footage released by the Israeli military on Friday showed a forklift truck unloading palettes with supplies that it said included 300 tents, 28 tonnes of food, medical equipment and medication, footwear and clothing.

Israel has refused to accept refugees fleeing the more than seven-year conflict in Syria, a country with which it remains officially in a state of war. Israel also accuses Iran of stationing military bases and personnel in Syria to use the war- torn country as a launchpad for attacks into Israel.

However, Israel has taken in several thousand Syrians for medical treatment since 2011. Wounded Syrians have been treated at field hospitals set up along the frontier with Syria in the Golan, and in Israeli hospitals.

“We will continue to do what is necessary (for the refugees). I don’t want to go into details (but) our greater worry is … that Iran is trying to turn Syria into a forward military post to confront Israel,” Steinitz added.

(Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Hungary approves ‘STOP Soros’ law, defying EU, rights groups

Two soldiers stand in front of the Hungarian Parliament building in Budapest, Hungary, May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

By Marton Dunai

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Hungary’s parliament on Wednesday approved a package of bills that criminalises some help given to illegal immigrants, defying the European Union and human rights groups and narrowing the scope for action by non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been a vocal critic of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door migrant policy and has led eastern European opposition to EU quotas that aimed to distribute asylum seekers around the bloc.

Orban’s right-wing Fidesz party tightened its grip on parliament in an April election fought on a fiercely anti-immigration platform that demonised U.S. billionaire George Soros and liberal NGOs he backs. Orban accuses Soros of encouraging mass immigration to undermine Europe, a charge Soros denies.

Under the new law, officially called “STOP Soros”, individuals or groups who help migrants not entitled to protection to submit requests for asylum or who help illegal migrants gain status to stay in Hungary will be liable to prison terms.

“The Hungarian people rightfully expects the government to use all means necessary to combat illegal immigration and the activities that aid it,” Interior Minister Sandor Pinter wrote in a justification attached to the draft legislation.

“The STOP Soros package of bills serves that goal, making the organisation of illegal immigration a criminal offence. We want to use the bills to stop Hungary from becoming a country of immigrants,” he said.

Parliament, where Fidesz has a two-thirds majority, also passed on Wednesday a constitutional amendment to state that an “alien population” cannot be settled in Hungary – a swipe at Brussels over its quota plan.

TOUGH STANCE IS VOTE-WINNER

Immigration has become a major concern for voters across the European Union, helping to propel anti-migrant populists to power in Italy and Austria and threatening to fracture Merkel’s three-month-old coalition in Germany.

Orban has drummed up support for his tough measures by exploiting Hungarians’ memories of the large numbers of mostly Muslim migrants fleeing conflicts in the Middle East who surged into the country in the summer of 2015.

The vast majority of them moved on to wealthier western European countries, but Orban has branded the migrants a threat to Europe’s Christian civilisation and built a border fence along Hungary’s southern borders to deter more from coming.

Hungarian statistics show 3,555 refugees living in Hungary, a country of 10 million, as of April. Only 342 people were registered as asylum seekers in the first four months of this year, mostly from the Middle East, and 279 were approved.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a rights group that often represents migrants, said on Wednesday the narrowing definition of who counts as a refugee essentially means nobody entering Hungary by land would be entitled to such treatment.

“Instead of giving protection against persecution, the Hungarian government has decided to join the ranks of the persecutors,” Helsinki Committee Co-Chair Marta Pardavi said.

The Orban government expects possible legal action by the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, over the new law.

Two leading European rights bodies, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), have criticised Hungary’s new law as “arbitrary” and vague and said it contravenes European law.

The Venice Commission, an expert body at the Council of Europe, had asked Hungary to refrain from approving the new law until a report it co-authored with the OSCE is published.

Orban has also tightened state control over the media, major business sectors and the courts since taking power in 2010.

In other constitutional changes approved on Wednesday, parliament agreed to set up a new judicial branch for administrative cases that critics say may increase political influence over judges. Another change narrowed the right to free expression and assembly.

(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Gareth Jones)

EU tries to assuage German, Italian concerns on migration

A migrant, part of a group intercepted aboard three dinghies off the coast in the Mediterranean Sea, leaves a rescue boat upon arrival at the port of Malaga, Spain June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

By Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union leaders will try to reassure Germany and Italy over migration at a summit next week as a stand-off in Berlin threatens Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition.

The union could take steps to stop asylum seekers moving on from the country in which they are registered and start deciding asylum requests at centers to be established beyond EU borders in the future, according to a draft summit statement.

The proposed steps come ahead of the June 28-29 summit in Brussels at which EU leaders will attempt to agree on a joint migration policy three years after more than 1 million people arrived in Europe, causing a crisis for the union.

Their joint draft statement is not public and its wording might change. But it showed the bloc is trying to accommodate a new, anti-establishment government in Italy, as well as Berlin where Merkel’s coalition partner issued an ultimatum for an EU-wide deal on migration.

If the summit fails to reach a satisfactory outcome, Berlin would issue a unilateral ban on refugees already registered in other EU states from entering the country, said the junior governing Christian Social Union that has the interior ministry.

German police data suggest any such ban could only affect several hundred people a month and hence would have no big impact on the overall number of refugees in Germany.

The EU border agency Frontex said more than 90 percent of current arrivals in Italy, Greece and Spain register for asylum there. Many still often go north, including to Germany. This “secondary movement” violates EU law but has been widespread.

“Member States should take all necessary internal legislative … to counter such movements,” the text said in an indirect response to German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer.

The proposal came as the CSU faces a tough regional vote in Bavaria in October. At its home base, the party faces growing popularity of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has advocated harsh anti-immigration policies.

The AfD on Tuesday accused the CSU of copying its ideas on how to deal with the migrant crisis.

IMMIGRATION LOW, TENSIONS HIGH

The EU has long been bitterly divided over migration.

The bloc has struggled to reform its internal asylum rules, which broke down in 2015, and has instead tried to tighten its borders and prevent new arrivals. The EU has given aid and money to Turkey, Jordan, Libya, Niger and other countries.

Next week, EU leaders will also agree to look into opening “disembarkation platforms” in regions such as north Africa to decide asylum requests before people get to Europe.

European capitals from Rome to Budapest have long called for such centres but concerns that processing people outside EU borders could violate the law have stalled progress.

“Such platforms should provide for rapid processing to distinguish between economic migrants and those in need of international protection, and reduce the incentive to embark on perilous journeys,” the draft statement of EU leaders said.

Italy’s government closed its ports to rescue ships and said it prefers to have Frontex working in Africa to prevent people from coming rather than patrol the Mediterranean.

The Libyan government already runs migrant camps where the EU pays the U.N. migration and refugee agencies to help resettle people to Europe legally or return them home further south in Africa, rather than have them try to reach Europe.

Despite pressure from Berlin and Rome, reform of the bloc’s internal asylum rules is stuck. Southern and wealthy central states demand that all EU members host some new arrivals but eastern states refuse leading to a stalemate.

In evidence of that division, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said on Tuesday that the CSU demand for border checks within the EU is unacceptable. Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said separately on Tuesday it would be “very difficult to reach a solution” next week.

Otherwise, there is agreement on strengthening external borders and bringing together the border protection databases.

“So much progress has been made, we can’t let all slip away now. So we need to give key countries something to keep them on board,” one EU official said of the proposed text.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Ratz and Michelle Martin in Berlin, Steve Scherer in Rome, Robert Muller in Prague and Johan Sennero, Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Merkel’s government frays as migrant row festers in Germany

German Chancellor Angela Merkel walks at the fraction level of the German lower house of parliament Bundestag in Berlin, Germany June 14, 2018. REUTERS/Michele Tantussi

By Gernot Heller and Andrea Shalal

BERLIN (Reuters) – Angela Merkel’s conservative alliance may splinter in a row over immigration, an ally of the German chancellor said on Friday, as the third party in her fragile government suggested its patience was wearing thin.

The dispute between Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) sister party threatens the future of her coalition three months after it took office, just as European divisions over migrants are causing rifts between EU partners.

“I believe (Merkel) will try to the very end to find unity in the matter,” said CDU home affairs spokesman Mathias Middelberg. Asked if the alliance with the CSU could shatter, he told Deutschlandfunk radio: “That can’t be fully ruled out.”

Middelberg said the vast majority of CDU politicians backed Merkel in wanting to find a European solution to the migration issue in the two weeks ahead of a June 28-29 EU summit. But the CSU does not want to wait and is urging Germany to take unilateral action.

Bavaria was on the frontline of a migration crisis in 2015, when an “open door” policy adopted by Merkel led to around a million refugees flooding into Germany.

Many conservatives held that policy responsible for a surge in support for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), the main opposition party since national elections in September.

CSU Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, whose party faces a regional election in October, now wants Germany to refuse entry to migrants who have already registered in countries further south, a plan that Merkel opposes.

As a compromise, the CDU proposes turning away at the border migrants who have already applied for asylum and been rejected. The CDU also suggests forging bilateral deals to make it possible to send back people who have already applied for asylum in another EU country.

Bavarian CSU premier Markus Soeder – widely considered to want to wrest the CSU party chairmanship from Seehofer – stood by that proposal on Friday. “We have to listen to the people,” he told mass-circulation daily Bild.

A poll for broadcaster ARD published on Thursday found that 62 percent of Germans believed refugees without papers should not be allowed in.

“NOT GAME OF THRONES”

Veteran CSU politician Hans-Peter Friedrich was optimistic the dispute would be settled, telling broadcaster RTL there was agreement on 62 of the 63 points in Seehofer’s plan, adding: “There’s still a problem on one point but we’ll manage it.”

Economy Minister Peter Altmaier of the CDU said he was convinced the sister parties could come to an agreement.

The conservatives’ centre-left coalition ally, the Social Democrats (SPD), said the dispute – linked by many to the CSU’s desire to improve its chances in Bavaria’s elections and the battle for succession with the party – needed to be settled.

SPD Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said: “The task of governing our country is not an episode of Game of Thrones, but a very serious matter. Those involved should not forget that.”

SPD leaders are due to meet on Monday to assess the dispute among the conservatives, a party source said.

A source in Merkel’s CDU denied a report in the Rheinische Post newspaper that said Volker Kauder, the head of the conservative benches in parliament, had asked Wolfgang Schaeuble, head of the lower house Bundestag, to mediate.

The parliamentary president traditionally steers clear of daily political issues.

The CSU fears anti-immigration sentiment could bring to an end its decades-old domination of Bavaria’s government.

Merkel says its plan would tie her hands as she seeks agreement on a proposal to share the refugee burden more equitably across the European Union, where another row over immigration has damaged ties between two other core member states, Italy and France.

If Seehofer pushes ahead with the plan under his authority as interior minister, Merkel could be forced to dismiss him, further fraying the coalition but potentially helping the CSU in its regional battle with the AfD.

(Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke, Michelle Martin and Holger Hansen; Writing by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Gareth Jones and Robin Pomeroy)

Lawfare? Syrian development plan alarms refugees and host nations

A Syrian army soldier walks past the rubble of damaged buildings in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

By Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A new law allowing the Syrian government to redevelop areas devastated by war has alarmed refugees and the countries that host them, prompting fears that people will lose their property and be less likely to return home.

Seven years into the war that has killed half a million people, the law signals the government’s intention to rebuild areas of Syria where the rebellion has been defeated, even though large parts of the country remain outside its control.

“Law 10” came into effect last month as the army was on the brink of crushing the last insurgent enclaves near Damascus, consolidating President Bashar al-Assad’s grip over nearly all of western Syria.

The law allows people to prove they own property in the areas chosen for redevelopment, and to claim compensation. But aid groups say the chaos of war means few will be able to do so in the time specified. The law has yet to be applied.

People forced to flee their homes – more than half the prewar population – will find it hard to make such claims, aid groups say.

Many refugees now face a major problem: whether to return home, even if they think it may be unsafe, and claim their property rights in person, or risk losing them, along with a big incentive to go back to Syria in future.

“If it is applied to areas once held by the opposition from which the residents have been displaced, or where land registries have been destroyed, it will in effect prevent the return of refugees,” said a briefing note circulated to EU states at a recent high-level meeting.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, whose country hosts more than a million Syrian refugees, said this week that the law “tells thousands of Syrian families to stay in Lebanon” by threatening them with property confiscation.

Assad says the law has been misinterpreted in order to inflame Western public opinion against his government. He told the Greek newspaper Kathimerini that the law “is not about dispossessing anyone”.

“You cannot, I mean even if he’s a terrorist, let’s say, if you want to dispossess someone, you need a verdict by the judicial system,” he said.

Assad’s opponents already accuse him of engineering “demographic change” by driving rebels and their families out of Syria’s cities, and say the law confiscates property and homes of the displaced.

Amnesty International has said it effectively deprives thousands of people of their homes and land.

WHY DID SYRIA PASS LAW 10?

Managing the reconstruction of ruined cities, vital for Syria’s economy, will grow more important for Assad if he is to turn battlefield victories into a full restoration of his rule.

Experts on post-war reconstruction have likened it to laws passed in other war zones, notably in Beirut after the 1975-90 civil war.

Assad is banking on allied countries, chiefly Russia and Iran, to help with reconstruction as Western states say they will not contribute until a political transition is in place.

Western Syria’s main cities – Damascus, Aleppo, Hama and Homs – are now entirely in his hands, but apart from Hama they each have entire districts in ruins.

However, rights groups, including Amnesty International, accuse Assad of conceiving Law 10 to push his opponents from their homes, since Syria’s most damaged areas were major centers of the uprising.

“If enacted, this law could be used to implement a breathtakingly efficient feat of social engineering. Thousands of Syrians – mostly those in pro-opposition areas or who have sought refuge abroad – risk losing their homes because their documents are lost or destroyed,” said Diana Semaan, Amnesty International’s Syria researcher.

Syrian army soldiers walk past a damaged military vehicle in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Syrian army soldiers walk past a damaged military vehicle in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

WHY WILL IT PARTICULARLY AFFECT REFUGEES?

Many refugees owned property in Syria but they will find it more difficult to stake their claims than people who stayed.

The Norwegian Refugee Council has said 67 percent of refugees it had interviewed said they owned property in Syria, but only 17 percent of them still had ownership documents.

Another big worry is the law’s time frame.

Once a local authority announces a redevelopment plan – and none have yet done so – people will have 30 days to submit ownership claims, making them eligible for compensation.

Government supporters say protections for property owners are generous: family members or people given power of attorney can make claims and appeal decisions on behalf of absent owners.

But after years of a war in which government buildings have been destroyed along with their files, and in which people have lost identity cards or land deeds as they fled, it could take months to prove who somebody is – let alone what they own.

For refugees abroad, getting power of attorney under Syrian law for a friend or relation back in Syria, even if they both have all the right documents, takes a minimum of three months. It also requires security clearance – potentially a problem for people who fled districts that were opposition centers.

Syrian army soldiers ride on a motorbike at a damaged site in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Syrian army soldiers ride on a motorbike at a damaged site in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

WHAT ARE THE OTHER CONCERNS WITH THE LAW?

Compensation is offered in the form of shares in the redevelopment company, but aid agencies suggest few original occupants will be able to afford the additional cost of new housing within such projects and might come under pressure to sell their property at low prices.

Since many of the most damaged areas were opposition strongholds, many people who left Syria – and relatives who stayed on – might be afraid to appear before government officials to prove ownership.

The law also targets settlements built without formal approval or legal deeds. Owners of such dwellings can be allocated shares on the basis of the assessed value of their building but will not be able to secure compensation for land without proof of ownership, said an expert on the law.

Many property owners have been killed in the war, sometimes without their relatives obtaining death certificates, setting up likely inheritance disputes that would complicate property claims.

Ownership paper trails were also confused after the fighting began in 2011, as families fled one front line after another, taking only what they could carry and selling their property to neighbors. Some properties were bought and sold many times, without proper documentation.

Property owners cannot challenge the designation of an area for redevelopment, and challenges over the value of their property will be settled by the appeal court.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Additional reporting by Tom Perry; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Canada wants U.S. cooperation in turning back asylum seekers

FILE PHOTO: A group of migrants who said they were from Djibouti and Somalia walk along railway tracks after crossing the Canada-U.S. border in Emerson, Manitoba, Canada, March 27, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie/File Photo

By Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada wants to change a bilateral agreement to allow it to turn back thousands of asylum seekers walking across the border but the United States is not cooperating, according to a Canadian official with knowledge of the discussions.

Under the Safe Third Country Agreement, or STCA, asylum seekers who arrive at a formal Canada-U.S. border crossing going in either direction are turned back and told to apply for asylum in the first country they arrived in.

Canada wants the agreement rewritten to apply to the entire border.

More than 26,000 people have illegally crossed the Canada-U.S. border to file refugee claims in the past 15 months, walking over ditches and on empty roads along the world’s longest undefended border. Many have told Reuters they might have stayed in the United States were it not for President Donald Trump’s immigration rhetoric and policies.

Canadian officials first discussed changing the pact with U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials last September, shortly after more than 5,700 asylum seekers walked into Canada in August.

“We’d like to be able to get them to agree that we can, if somebody comes across, we just send them back,” the official told Reuters on Friday, adding Canada had raised the issue “at least a dozen” times since.

“I wouldn’t say they’ve been objecting or saying: ‘No, we won’t do it,’ but it’s been not responding rapidly.”

The Department of Homeland Security is reviewing Canada’s proposal and has not yet made a decision, a spokeswoman said.

The Canadian official compared Canada’s position to U.S. requests that Mexico prevent migrants traversing its territory from entering the United States

“We’ve got a problem, here. We’ve got to fix it,” the official added. “And we need the Americans’ cooperation.”

For now, another official said, Canada would keep doing what it is doing: Managing the influx of refugee claimants in a strained system, while seeking to dissuade would-be crossers through outreach efforts.

Even if the United States agreed to take back anyone trying to cross into Canada, keeping people out between all ports of entry would be a challenge and could result in asylum seekers taking potentially deadly risks to avoid detection, said University of Toronto law and human rights professor Audrey Macklin.

The STCA already faces a Canadian court challenge that argues the agreement is discriminatory and violates Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Canada has also urged U.S. officials to crack down on visas, saying many of the asylum seekers had valid U.S. visas and used the United States merely as a transit point.

Earlier this year, Canadian officials traveled to Nigeria, the source of a significant number of asylum seekers, to speak with Nigerian government officials and U.S. embassy staff.

The number of U.S. visas being issued to Nigerians has since dropped, said Mathieu Genest, a spokesman for Canadian Immigration and Refugee Minister Ahmed Hussen.

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Syria is death trap for civilians, U.N. refugee chief warns

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi adresses the media with German Chancellor Angela Merkel (not pictured) following their talks in Berlin, Germany, April 23, 2018. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Civilians can no longer flee fighting and bombing raids in Syria because borders are so tightly controlled and neighboring countries are overwhelmed by refugees, creating some of the worst suffering in modern times, a top U.N. agency chief said.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi was warning of a new disaster if the rebel-controlled Syrian city of Idlib was the next target of the Syrian military.

“The country is becoming a trap, in some places a death trap for civilians,” Grandi told Reuters during a donor conference for Syria.

“There is an entire population out there that cannot bear its refugees anymore, that is suffering from one of the worse ordeals in modern history.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitor, said last month about 511,000 people had been killed in the war since it began in March 2011.

Some 5.5 million Syrians are living as refugees in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and now account for a quarter of Lebanon’s population. Another 6.1 million people are still in Syria but have been forced to flee their homes.

Grandi is hoping to raise $5.6 billion from international donors for emergency humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees this year, but that money is not for Syria itself, instead going to help host countries such as Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon.

Meanwhile, the United Nations estimates that more than 400,000 civilians trapped in besieged areas throughout Syria.

That the number could rise dramatically because 2 million people live in northwestern Idlib region, the largest populated area of Syria in the hands of insurgents fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus.

Some aid agencies are predicting suffering on an even greater scale than during the siege of Aleppo last year and in eastern Ghouta and Raqqa this year if the Syrian army and its Russian and Iranian backers turn their full fire on Idlib.

Tens of thousands of fighters and civilians have fled to the area from parts of the country which the army has recaptured with the help of Russia and Iran.

“Idlib is where an area where a lot of fighters have transferred,” Grandi said. “If fighting moves more decisively to that area, it could be very dangerous for civilians.”

However, Grandi and other aid agencies predict they will have nowhere to flee to because Turkey’s southern border with Syria at Gaziantep is tightly controlled, mainly letting aid supplies through to Idlib, forcing refugees deeper into Syria.

“I think we are going to lose not only a generation but a population,” Grandi said.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Alison Williams)

800 Venezuelans flee to Brazil daily to escape insecurity, hunger: UNHCR

Venezuelans line up to cross into Colombia at the border in Paraguachon, Colombia, Feb. 16, 2018. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – More than 800 Venezuelans stream into northern Brazil each day, the United Nations said on Friday, citing Brazilian government statistics on people fleeing the worsening crisis in the economically crippled nation.

More than 52,000 Venezuelans have arrived in Brazil since the start of 2017, including an estimated 40,000 living in Boa Vista, capital of Roraima state, it said.

About 25,000 of the migrants are asylum seekers while 10,000 have obtained temporary resident visas and the rest are seeking to regularize their status, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.

“We are stepping up our response in Brazil as the number of Venezuelan arrivals grows,” UNHCR spokesman William Spindler told a news briefing. “According to the government’s latest estimates, more than 800 Venezuelans are entering Brazil each day.”

Venezuelans have also fled to Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Panama, Argentina and Peru, while others have sought refugee status in the United States, Spain, Mexico and Costa Rica, according to the UNHCR.

President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Caracas is faced with widespread discontent over hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicines during a fifth year of recession that he blames on Western hostility and the fall of oil prices.

Venezuelans report they are fleeing insecurity, violence and often a loss of income, Spindler said. Many are in desperate need of food, shelter and health care.

UNHCR is working with Brazilian authorities to register Venezuelans to ensure they have proper documentation that entitles them to work and access services, Spindler said.

Ten shelters have been opened in Boa Vista, each with 500 people, but some Venezuelans are living on the streets, he said.

Venezuelans willing to relocate from Roraima to other parts of Brazil are being flown to Sao Paulo and Cuiaba this week, as communities and services in Boa Vista are over-stretched, he said.

UNHCR’s $46 million appeal to help Venezuelans across the region is only 4 percent funded, Spindler said, and he called for more donations.

Within Venezuela, the economic crisis has limited people’s access to health services and medicines, World Health Organization spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said.

“WHO is working closely with the health authorities in order to fill those shortages. We are providing medicines for malaria and anti-retrovirals. We are equipping maternal hospitals with supplies that are needed for pregnant women and babies.”

Venezuela’s crisis has posed major challenges for governments in the region, who also worry that assistance to Venezuelans could increase the number of people leaving their country.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich)