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)

Israeli troops wound dozens on Gaza border as Palestinians bury dead from earlier violence

A Palestinian hurls stones at Israeli troops during clashes at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops shot and wounded about 70 Palestinians among crowds demonstrating at the Gaza-Israel border on Saturday, health officials said, after one of the deadliest days of unrest in the area in years.

Thousands of people marched through the streets of Gaza in funerals for the 15 people killed by Israeli gunfire on Friday, and a national day of mourning was observed in the enclave and in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Israel was responsible for the violence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was protecting its sovereignty and citizens.

An Israeli military spokesman said he was checking the details of Saturday’s unrest. It broke out when Palestinians gathered on the border between the Hamas-run enclave and Israel then began throwing stones. Palestinian health officials said about 70 were wounded.

A Palestinian hurls stones at Israeli troops during clashes at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Palestinian hurls stones at Israeli troops during clashes at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

On Friday at least 15 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces confronting protesters. The military said some had shot at them, rolled burning tyres and hurled rocks and fire bombs toward troops across the border.

Hamas said five of them were members of its armed wing. Israel said eight of the 15 dead belonged to Hamas, designated a terrorist group by Israel and the West, and two others belonged to other militant groups.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians had gathered on Friday along the fenced 65-km (40-mile) frontier, where tents had been erected for a planned six-week protest pressing for a right of return for refugees and their descendents to what is now Israel.

But hundreds of Palestinian youths ignored calls from the organizers and the Israeli military to stay away from the frontier and violence broke out.

The protest, organized by Hamas and other Palestinian factions, is scheduled to culminate on May 15, the day Palestinians commemorate what they call the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe” when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven out of their homes in 1948, when the state of Israel was created.

Israel has long ruled out any right of return, fearing an influx of Arabs that would wipe out its Jewish majority. It says refugees should resettle in a future state the Palestinians seek in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza. Peace talks to that end have been frozen since 2014.

Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but still maintains tight control of its land and sea borders.

Egypt also keeps its border with Gaza largely closed.

Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdainah, said: “The message of the Palestinian people is clear. The Palestinian land will always belong to its legitimate owners and the occupation will be removed.”

A Palestinian is evacuated during clashes with Israeli troops at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Palestinian is evacuated during clashes with Israeli troops at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Israeli military spokesman Brigadier-General Ronen Manelis said Hamas was using the protests as a guise to launch attacks against Israel and ignite the area. He said violence was likely to continue along the border until May 15.

“We won’t let this turn into a ping-pong zone where they perpetrate a terrorist act and we respond with pinpoint action. If this continues we will not have no choice but to respond inside the Gaza Strip,” Manelis told reporters.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for an independent investigation into Friday’s bloodshed, and appealed for all sides to refrain from any actions that could lead to further casualties or put civilians in harm’s way.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Maayan Lubell, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Israel says to send 16,000 African migrants to Western countries

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel said on Monday it has scrapped a plan to deport African migrants to Africa and reached an agreement with the U.N. refugee agency to send more than 16,000 to Western countries instead.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu named Canada, Italy and Germany as some of the nations that will take in the migrants.

Other migrants, many of whom are seeking asylum, will be allowed to remain in Israel, which they entered illegally on foot through the border with Egypt, for at least the next five years.

The fate of some 37,000 Africans in Israel has posed a moral dilemma for a state founded as a haven for Jews from persecution and a national home. The right-wing government has been under pressure from its nationalist voter base to expel the migrants.

But the planned mass deportation led to legal challenges in Israel, drew criticism from the United Nations and rights groups and triggered an emotional public debate among Israelis.

In February, Israeli authorities started handing out notices to 20,000 male African migrants giving them two months to leave for a third country in Africa or risk being put in jail indefinitely.

Teklit Michael, who came to Israel from Eritrea a decade ago, said he was delighted by the new deal.

“I saw in the past few years a lot of people lose their hopes because of that deportation to an unsafe place,” said Michael, 29.

MONEY AND AN AIR TICKET

The Israeli government has offered migrants, most of them from Sudan and Eritrea, $3,500 and a plane ticket to what it says is a safe destination. At immigration hearings, migrants were told they could choose to go to Rwanda or Uganda.

But rights groups advocating on their behalf say that many fled abuse and war and that their expulsion, even to a different country in Africa, would endanger them further.

The groups had challenged the deportation plan in Israel’s High Court, which on March 15 issued a temporary order that froze its implementation.

Netanyahu said the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees had agreed to organize and fund the new plan that would take five years to implement.

“The joint commitment is that ‘You take out 16,250 and we will leave 16,250 as temporary residents’. That enables the departure of a very large number of people, 6,000 in the first 18 months,” Netanyahu said at a news conference in Jerusalem.

A UNHCR spokeswoman in Tel Aviv confirmed that an agreement had been reached but gave no details.

The U.N.’s refugee agency had urged Israel to reconsider its original plan, saying migrants who have relocated to sub-Saharan Africa in the past few years were unsafe and ended up on the perilous migrant trail to Europe, some suffering abuse, torture and even dying on the way.

The largest community of African migrants, about 15,000, lives in south Tel Aviv, in a poor neighborhood where shops are dotted with signs in Tigrinya and other African languages and abandoned warehouses have been converted into churches for the largely Christian Eritreans.

(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Civilians flee as two big Syria battles enter decisive phases

FILE PHOTO: People walk with their belongings as they flee the rebel-held town of Hammouriyeh, in the village of Beit Sawa, eastern Ghouta, Syria March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Thousands of civilians were fleeing from besieged enclaves on opposite ends of Syria on Friday as two major battles in the multi-sided civil war entered decisive phases, with hundreds of thousands of people trapped in the path of both assaults.

Air strikes killed dozens of people in eastern Ghouta, a war monitor said, and weary residents streamed out on foot for a second day as Russian-backed government forces pressed their campaign to capture the last big rebel bastion near Damascus.

On another front, Turkish and allied Syrian rebel forces shelled the northern Kurdish-held town of Afrin heavily, killing at least 18 people and forcing 2,500 people to flee, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor reported.

The Kurdish YPG militia, defending Afrin, said it was battling the Turkish forces and their Syrian militia allies who tried to storm the town from the north.

The two offensives, one backed by Russia and the other led by Turkey, have shown how Syrian factions and their foreign allies are aggressively reshaping the map of control after the defeat of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate last year.

The Syrian war entered its eighth year this week having killed half a million people and driven more than 11 million from their homes, including nearly 6 million who have fled abroad in one of the worst refugee crises of modern times.

The government launched its assault on eastern Ghouta a month ago, and Turkey began its cross-border campaign in Afrin in January. In both cases, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been trapped inside areas encircled on the battlefield.

AIR STRIKES KILL 57, CIVILIANS FLEE

Backed by Russia and Iran, government forces have thrust deep into eastern Ghouta, splintering the area into three separate enclaves. The United Nations believes up to 400,000 people have been trapped inside the rebel-held area of densely populated farms and satellite towns on the outskirts of the capital, with virtually no access to food or medicine.

For the first time since the government unleashed the Ghouta offensive, one of the deadliest of the war, residents are fleeing in their thousands, carrying children and belongings on foot from rebel-held territory to reach government positions.

Moscow and Damascus accuse the rebels of having forced people to stay in harm’s way to use them as human shields. The rebels deny this and say the aim of the government assault is to depopulate opposition areas.

The Observatory said air strikes in eastern Ghouta killed 47 people in the town of Kafr Batna and another 10 people in Saqba on Friday. It said Russian aircraft had carried out the strikes. Syrians believe they can distinguish Russian aircraft from those of the Syrian army because the Russians fly at higher altitude.

Syrian State TV broadcast footage of men, women and children walking along a dirt road near the town of Hammouriyeh, many of them carrying bags, to escape rebel-held areas. Some waved to the camera and said the rebels had stopped them from leaving.

Russian news agencies reported that around 3,300 people had come out on Friday morning. An army officer at Hawsh Nasri, where hundreds of people gathered, told Reuters that many more people were expected to leave on Friday.

Around 5,000 people were sheltering at the nearby town of Adra and many more would arrive on Friday, the Adra mayor said. “Today we are expecting a big number,” Jassem al-Mahmoud said.

The exodus began on Thursday with thousands fleeing the southernmost of the three Ghouta pockets. Russia said more than 12,000 people left on Thursday.

The eastern Ghouta town of Douma, where many people are sheltering, has been spared the worst of the shelling in recent days, a resident said.

During campaigns to recover other areas, the Syrian government has taken territory by allowing rebel fighters and opposition activists safe passage out to insurgent-held areas at the Turkish border. Russia has offered similar safe passage to rebels who leave eastern Ghouta, but so far they have refused.

ALARMING REPORTS

The Ghouta and Afrin campaigns have both continued despite a U.N. Security Council demand for a ceasefire. Moscow and Damascus argue the enemies they target in Ghouta are terrorists unprotected by the truce. Turkey says the same of the Kurdish YPG militia it is fighting in Afrin.

The foreign ministers of Turkey, Iran and Russia convened a meeting in the Kazakh capital Astana to discuss the situation in Syria. The three states last year agreed to contain the conflict on several fronts with “de-escalation zones”, while simultaneously pursuing own military objectives in Syria.

Turkey wants to crush the YPG which it views as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency in Turkey. The United States views the YPG as a valuable partner in its war against Islamic State in Syria.

A spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said it had received “deeply alarming reports from Afrin in northwestern Syria about civilian deaths and injuries due to airstrikes and ground-based strikes, as well as reports that civilians are being prevented from leaving Afrin city by Kurdish forces.”

Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen TV broadcast footage from the Afrin area showing cars, small trucks, tractors and groups of people on foot leaving the town. An elderly man told the channel he had left on foot at 2 a.m. when shells started falling.

“There are a lot of people leaving the city as well, and a lot still inside,” he said.

Birusk Hasakeh, the YPG spokesman in Afrin, said the Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel militia allies were trying to storm Afrin from the north. The YPG and its all-female affiliate, the YPJ, were battling the attacking forces.

“They are shelling in order to storm (Afrin),” Hasakeh said by phone. The shelling had killed 18 people and more people were believed to be trapped under rubble, he said.

The spokesman for Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday that Turkey expected its forces and rebel allies to clear Afrin town of militants “very soon”.

(Reporting by Tom Perry and Dahlia Nehme in Beirut, Firas Makdesi in Damascus, Jack Stubbs in Moscow and Tom Miles in Geneva; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Peter Graff)

The lives of three men show why Syria’s rebels are losing the war

FILE PHOTO: Members of al Qaeda's Nusra Front gesture as they drive in a convoy touring villages, which they said they have seized control of from Syrian rebel factions, in the southern countryside of Idlib, Syria December 2, 2014. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi/File Photo

By Dahlia Nehme

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The war has cost one man part of his liver and intestines. Another his home and work. A third his homeland and studies.

All three have lost hope.

Abu Farhan, Fouad al-Ghraibi and Abu al-Baraa took the rebels’ side in the violence which began after the government put down street protests that started on March 15, 2011.

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from one of the buildings in the city of Homs, Syria March 11, 2013. REUTERS/Yazan Homsy/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from one of the buildings in the city of Homs, Syria March 11, 2013. REUTERS/Yazan Homsy/File Photo

Ghraibi, who has a business renting out construction machinery, joined a rebel group and later set up his own fighting unit. Abu al-Baraa, then just 16, joined a militant group, the Nusra Front, and became a jihadist fighter. Abu Farhan, a student and part-time kitchen fitter, joined the first protests in the central Syrian city of Homs and went on to became an opposition activist.

The harrowing tales of the three men — they don’t know each other but all risked their lives by siding against President Bashar al-Assad — help show why the rebellion is failing.

All three quickly became disillusioned with divisions among the rebels and what they saw as various fighting groups’ intolerance of anyone who does not think like them — a trait similar to what they see in Assad.

Two of them have concluded the war is unwinnable, especially as Assad now has heavy military support from Russia and Iran that far outweighs the weapons shipped to rebels by the United States, Gulf Arab states and Turkey.

But hatred of Assad means fighters like Ghraibi battle on. Men such as Abu al-Baraa and Abu Farhan are so disillusioned with both sides that they see no life for them in Syria.

“What happened destroyed my whole future,” Abu al-Baraa, who now lives in exile in Turkey, told Reuters by telephone. He fled across the border after falling out with the Nusra Front, which he says imprisoned and tortured him.

Ghraibi, 37, has recovered from abdomen and hand wounds and lost part of his liver and intestines, and a finger, says he will fight to the death with the rebels but also believes the rebellion’s original ideals are dead.

“We’ll keep fighting to our last breath, even against the whole world,” he said.

FILE PHOTO: Free Syrian Army members, with covered faces and holding weapons, sit by the side of a street in Qaboun district, Syria Damascus June 11, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Free Syrian Army members, with covered faces and holding weapons, sit by the side of a street in Qaboun district, Syria Damascus June 11, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

OPPOSITION ACTIVIST

Abu Farhan shares that sense of despair. Now 30, he was forced out of Homs by the fighting in 2014. Although he has found work and an apartment in Syria’s northern Idlib province, he is deeply disillusioned by what has become of Syria and dreams of leaving to start a new life abroad.

“We didn’t want to destroy our country and create this rift among Syrians,” he said. “If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t have joined the protests.”

He asked to be identified only by his nom de guerre for fear of upsetting rebels in Idlib.

The civil war has killed 511,000 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and forced over 5.4 million to flee the county, according to U.N. data. It has also caused a refugee crisis in neighboring countries and western Europe and inspired fatal attacks from Nice to Los Angeles.

(Years of deadly days in Syria: http://tmsnrt.rs/2HB9bkG)

It is a civil war that has laid bare the international community’s inability to resolve conflicts on such a scale, increasing strains between Russia and the West.

Abu Farhan had studied physical education at university in Homs before the war and was working as a kitchen fitter. He threw his lot in with Assad’s opponents when he joined anti-government protesters pouring out of the Khaled bin al-Walid mosque in Homs.

Abu Farhan put aside his studies and his hopes of marriage, and began organizing protests.

His best friend and favorite cousin both disappeared under arrest. Last year he found out that they were killed – a fate which human rights groups say has befallen tens of thousands in Assad’s prisons. The president denies the accusations.

By February 2012, the Syrian army was regularly shelling the district where Abu Farhan lived in the Jouret al Shayyah district of Homs near the Old City. But he chose not to fight.

“I knew that taking up arms would be a curse, not a blessing,” he said.

As fighting intensified and warplanes began bombing city blocks in late 2012, he left his home with his parents and two siblings for al-Waer, a quieter opposition area in another part of the city.

Waer was soon subjected to a siege that lasted until 2017 and food became more scarce. During Ramadan, the Muslim holy month when people traditionally eat delicacies at night after fasting through the daylight hours, he says the family usually had only bulgur wheat to break their fast.

“Sometimes we didn’t even have that,” he said.

Terrified of arrest by Assad’s security forces – which he believed would lead to torture and summary execution – Abu Farhan and his family joined rebels who left for Idlib in a negotiated withdrawal, surrendering Waer to the government.

Idlib will never feel like home for Abu Farhan. “I am a refugee here,” he said.

After leaving Waer, he and his sister both found jobs in Idlib, with Abu Farhan working as a fitness instructor.

Despite overcrowding caused by the flood of refugees from other parts of Syria, they were able to rent an apartment. For now, though, Abu Farhan is unable to get to work in the southern part of Idlib because bombing by pro-Assad forces makes his journey too dangerous.

The bombing, destruction and what he sees as the intolerance of rebel groups running Idlib have convinced him there is no point staying in Syria. He has started learning Turkish and hopes to gain refugee status.

JIHADIST AND EXILE

Abu al-Baraa was a schoolboy in Waer when the protests began, but volunteered as a hospital orderly and helped injured demonstrators hide from the police. He briefly became a medical student, while it was still possible to travel into the university in central Homs.

Realising he was now a wanted man because of his actions, he joined the Nusra Front. He said the group seemed to represent his conservative religious views and that he became aware of its true nature and violent militancy only later.

“We didn’t know then that the Nusra Front was affiliated to al Qaeda. We had a religious upbringing, and they lured us in with their religious beliefs,” said Abu al-Baraa.

The Nusra Front’s brutal methods were soon evident to Abu al-Baraa, as was the split between jihadist and nationalist groups that has plagued the uprising.

“They established security apparatuses and prisons just like the (Assad government) regime, where they tortured people,” Abu al-Baraa said. “I know of at least one man who died under torture and was later shown to be innocent.”

After only a few months fighting with the group, he was stripped of his gun and mobile phone for opposing its actions and he started volunteering at a medical center.

His disillusionment with the Nusra Front and other rebels grew and he publicly argued with the group’s local commander, who threw him into prison.

He was held in a dark underground cell infested with rats and was tortured, he said.

“They faked 15 accusations against me, including theft and spying for the regime. After 12 days of living hell, I collapsed and confessed to the fake accusations,” he said.

While he wasted in prison the rebellion, undermined by internal wrangling and facing a government strengthened by the arrival of Russian warplanes, was losing ground.

When its enclave in the city of Aleppo fell to Assad in late 2016, it led to a series of surrenders of other small opposition pockets around Syria. Waer was one of them.

Abu al-Baraa was stuck in prison, but he still had friends in the Nusra Front who managed to smuggle him out. He was able to board one of a number of green buses sent by the government to evacuate the rebels, and made it to Idlib.

For Abu al-Baraa, worried he was in danger from the Nusra Front and now using false documents, the misery and poverty of Idlib offered no haven.

“Two or three families shared one small apartment, taking turns to sleep,” he said.

Six weeks after arriving there, he made the dangerous border crossing into Turkey with the help of the same people who had rescued him from prison. It was his seventh attempt.

Mow living in Istanbul with his mother and younger brother, Abu al-Baraa says the trauma of that time, when the sound of jets meant an attack could be imminent, still affects them.

“We live near the airport. Whenever a plane takes off or lands, my brother runs crying to his mother,” he said.

Their father did not make it out of Syria. He died of a stroke in Waer in 2014. Abu al-Baraa still fears his former rebel allies enough to be identified only by his nom de guerre.

REBEL COMMANDER

When anti-government protests began in the city of Idlib in 2011, Fouad al-Ghraibi quickly joined them.

There was never any question where his allegiances lay. Thirteen of his uncles and cousins, all from the family’s home village of Kafr Oueid in Idlib province, were killed or jailed when government forces crushed a years-long revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization, in 1982.

Ghraibi was shot in the hand and abdomen when Assad cracked down on the protesters and was taken to Turkey for treatment.

Returning to Idlib months later, he gathered friends to join the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an alliance of rebel groups backed by Western and Arab countries.

Disappointed by divisions in the FSA, he later joined Jaish al-Islam, a better organized Islamist coalition backed by Saudi Arabia where he was put in charge of 150 fighters.

Three of his brothers, Mokhlis, Khaled and Mustafa, were killed in combat in the northwest, scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war. An air strike on his village in June 2015 killed 33 civilians, including his niece.

When an alliance of jihadist groups led by the Nusra Front, which changed its name in 2016, took over much of Idlib last year, Ghraibi returned home to Kafr Oueid.

Once there, he set up a group of 45 local fighters which he hopes will defend the village from both Assad and the Islamist factions, and return the revolution to the ideals he believes it originally espoused.

All it has done so far is contribute yet another small armed faction to a civil war that shows no sign of ending.

(Editing by Angus McDowall and Timothy Heritage)

Thousands stream out of Syrian rebel enclave as army advances

A child sleeps in a bag in the village of Beit Sawa, eastern Ghouta, Syria March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT/DAMASCUS (Reuters) – Thousands of Syrians fled a rebel pocket in eastern Ghouta on Thursday and crossed by foot to army positions, the largest such outflow in almost a month of fighting, as troops seized more ground in the opposition stronghold.

Men, women and children walked along a dirt road to army lines on the outskirts of Hammouriyeh town, footage on state TV showed. They carried blankets, bags, and suitcases on their shoulders, some of them weeping. A group crammed in the back of pickup truck waved Syrian state flags.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 12,500 people left toward government territory. They came out of Hammouriyeh and Jisreen, which the army advanced into on Thursday, and other towns nearby, the UK-based monitor said.

A Reuters witness and state-run media separately said thousands were leaving.

“Every hour, over 800 people are leaving,” Russia’s RIA news agency cited Major General Vladimir Zolotukhin as saying.

It marked the first time such large crowds of people fled the enclave since the government launched a fierce offensive to recapture it nearly a month ago.

Last week, pro-government forces splintered rebel territory into three separate pockets in eastern Ghouta, the largest opposition stronghold near the capital.

A man gestures as they flee the rebel-held town of Hammouriyeh, in the village of Beit Sawa, eastern Ghouta, Syria March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

A man gestures as they flee the rebel-held town of Hammouriyeh, in the village of Beit Sawa, eastern Ghouta, Syria March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Earlier this week, smaller groups of sick and wounded people were evacuated from another zone further north, under a deal the Jaish al-Islam rebel faction that controls it and Russia.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said 25 aid trucks entered that besieged zone and was headed to the town of Douma. “This is just a little of what these families need,” the ICRC in Syria said in a tweet.

ICRC spokeswoman Iolanda Jaquemet said the convoy, which entered through the al-Wafideen crossing with the United Nations, contained food aid for 26,100 people for one month, among other items.

The trucks had 5,220 ICRC food parcels and 5,220 World Food Programme flour bags, Jaquemet said. A parcel can feed a family of five for one month.

“STATE’S EMBRACE”

The Syrian army seized swathes of farmland and factories in the northeast of Hammouriyeh, said a military media unit run by Iran-backed Hezbollah, which fights alongside Damascus.

Wael Olwan, spokesman for the Failaq al-Rahman rebel faction that controls the southern pocket, accused the army in a tweet of storming Hammouriyeh and exploiting the plight of civilians fleeing the bombs.

The Observatory said government warplanes and shelling had pounded the Failaq zone overnight. Air strikes on the town of Zamalka there killed 12 people on Thursday, it said.

The army’s onslaught of air and artillery strikes have battered eastern Ghouta for almost a month, killing more than 1,100 people and injuring thousands more, the United Nations has said.

Damascus and its key ally Moscow say their forces only target armed militants and seek to end the rule of Islamist insurgents over civilians and to stop mortar fire on Damascus. They have accused the factions of preventing residents from leaving, which the fighters deny.

“Praise God…the families are coming out to suitable locations to the state’s embrace,” an army officer said on state television on Thursday.

State TV showed interviews with people crossing the front, in which they said the Ghouta insurgents had not let them out before. They were coming through a crossing in Hammouriyeh, and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) would move them to temporary shelters in rural Damascus, it said.

Dozens of people crowded into trucks and tractors waved or chanted as they drove by. The sound of explosions briefly rang out in the background.

One man cried and thanked the Syrian army in the broadcast. Another from Hammouriyeh said militants had attacked somebody who tried raising the Syrian flag there in recent weeks. “They fired at him and brought down the flag,” the unnamed man said.

The Reuters witness said some arrived at government positions in the nearby town of Beit Sawa on wheelchairs.

A Hammouriyeh resident, who gave his name as Abu al-Nour, told Reuters the had been in contact with people in army territory since the offensive started to get civilians out.

“For eight days, we have coordinated with the soldiers, telling them we want to get the civilians out,” he said.

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Ellen Francis and Dahlia Nehme in Beirut, Kinda Mekieh and Firas Makdesi in Damascus, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Polina Ivanova in Moscow; Writing by Ellen Francisediting by John Stonestreet/Tom Perry/William Maclean)

The pain of Syrian refugees: Parents try to forget as children cling to lost past

Syrian refugee children run in a tented settlement in the town of Qab Elias, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

By Ayat Basma

(Reuters) – Warda, a Syrian refugee, wishes she could erase her old life, so painful have the memories become. By contrast, as the conflict in Syria slides into its eighth year, her younger children have nothing to remember of their homeland – nor to forget.

They are part of a new generation of Syrians whose parents fled war and destruction in their millions but who themselves are too young to remember their homeland.

For Warda’s children, home is a makeshift tent in a refugee camp in Lebanon which they share with their grief-stricken, 34-year-old mother.

“Even though I know I can’t, I want to forget Syria. I would forget my home, I would forget the place where I lived, I would forget my friends – I would forget everything. But one can’t forget,” Warda said as tears ran down her face.

Five million people have fled Syria since the war erupted after anti-government protests were put down with force in 2011. The eight-year anniversary of when these protests began is on March 15.

Warda and her son Bilal, 13, daughter Rayan, 7, and her youngest, a 3-year-old boy named Ibrahim, are among the one million refugees who stayed in neighboring Lebanon. Most live like them in rickety tents with no running water and inadequate sanitation.

“When my oldest son and I sit together, we reminisce about the things we used to do, going to the public garden or when I dropped him at school,” she said.

“But she doesn’t know what Syria is,” she said of her daughter Rayan, who sat on her lap.

“She repeats what everyone else says. She says things like: ‘when I saw my father’ or ‘when I met my uncle and grandmother’ – but she doesn’t know any of them and it really hurts,” says Warda, who managed to get work as a fruit picker on nearby farms a few days a week. She earns $5 a day.

Warda has heard nothing of her husband, who remarried and remained in Syria, for the past two years.

Syrian refugee children play at a tented settlement in the town of Qab Elias, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Syrian refugee children play at a tented settlement in the town of Qab Elias, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

OUR CHILDREN DON’T KNOW SYRIA

Moussa Oweid al-Jassem from Aleppo is also struggling to keep the memory of Syria alive for his seven children. His youngest is four years old and the oldest is 16.

“Our youngest knows nothing about Syria, she knows this camp. The children here don’t know,” said Jassem, who is 43 and a former textile factory worker.

His family has nothing to remind them of home or of the lives they lived before. When they left, they had no time to take family albums or even the deeds to the lands they owned, he says.

“We were not prepared to witness the things we have seen. The scale of the violence, the bombings and the airstrikes, we had seen nothing like it before.”

In this small camp on the outskirts of the town of Qab Elias, residents say they are trying their best to make this place feel like a home.

The center of the tented settlement has been kept free to host weddings and wakes, and for the children to play.

On a sunny day, chickens strutted by and a cat looked for scraps as women peeled potatoes and chopped onions on mats spread outside. Black pigeons made nests in tires used as fortifications on tent roofs.

His sons Khaled, 16 and Majed, 14, are among the few whose memories of Syria have not faded completely.

“It felt better than heaven, ” said Majed, when asked to describe what home was like.

What it is like to live in a camp?

“Hell,” replied Khaled.

(Reporting by Ayat Basma; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Monsoon floods and landslides threaten 100,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

A woman walks through the Chakmakul camp for Rohingya refugees in southern Bangladesh, February 13, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew RC Marshall

By Clare Baldwin and Andrew R.C. Marshall

CHAKMAKUL REFUGEE CAMP, Bangladesh (Reuters) – The Rohingya refugees who live in shacks clinging to these steep, denuded hills in southern Bangladesh pray that the sandbags fortifying the slopes will survive the upcoming monsoon.

“They make it safer, but they won’t hold if the rain is really heavy,” said Mohammed Hares, 18. Cracks have already formed in the packed mud on which his shack is built.

Nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh since last August to escape a military crackdown in neighboring Myanmar. Most now live in flimsy, bamboo-and-plastic structures perched on what were once forested hills.

Bangladesh is lashed by typhoons, and the Rohingya camps are clustered in a part of the country that records the highest rainfall. Computer modeling by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) shows that more than 100,000 refugees will be threatened by landslides and floods in the coming monsoon.

The rains typically begin in April and peak in July, according to the Bangladesh Meteorological Department.

In Kutupalong-Balukhali, the biggest of the makeshift camps, up to a third of the land could be flooded, leaving more than 85,000 refugees homeless, according to the UNHCR. Another 23,000 refugees live on slopes at risk of landslide.

The UNHCR, International Organization for Migration (IOM) and World Food Programme are using bulldozers to level 123 acres in northern Kutupalong-Balukhali camp in an effort to make the area safer, said UNHCR spokeswoman Caroline Gluck.

IOM is putting debris-removal equipment and work crews throughout the camps, it said, and trying to improve roads and stabilize slopes. It is also setting up emergency diarrhoea treatment centers and providing search and rescue and first aid training.

Bangladesh Disaster Management Secretary Shah Kamal said the government was working with the UN to relocate 133,000 people living in high-risk areas. It is also launching a Rohingya-language radio station that will act as a natural disaster warning system, he said.

Bangladesh government officials have also previously told Reuters they are pushing ahead with a controversial plan to turn an uninhabited island in the Bay of Bengal into a temporary home for the Rohingya and move 100,000 refugees there ahead of the monsoon.

Flooding increases the risk of disease outbreaks. It could also threaten access to medical facilities, making them difficult to reach and restock, the modeling shows. Latrines, washrooms and tube wells may also be flooded.

The risk of landslides has been exacerbated by refugee families needing firewood to cook. Trees were cut down to make way for the refugees, who also dug up the roots for firewood, making the slopes even weaker and prone to collapse.

“This was a forest when I first arrived,” said Arafa Begum, 40, who lives with her three children in a shack on a barren, vertiginous slope in Chakmakul camp. She said she wanted to move before the monsoon but must await the instructions of the majhi, or block leader.

The majhi’s name is Jahid Hussain. “I don’t know what I’ll do when the rain comes,” he told Reuters. “It depends on Allah.”

 

(Reporting by Clare Baldwin and Andrew R.C. Marshall in CHAKMAKUL REFUGEE CAMP; Additional reporting by Ruma Paul in DHAKA; Editing by Alex Richardson)