This caravan of migrants headed south to Mexico – for Christmas

This caravan of migrants headed south to Mexico – for Christmas
By Daniel Becerril

JALPAN DE SERRA, Mexico (Reuters) – Poor Central American migrants who form caravans to fend off predatory gangs as they cross Mexico’s interior en route to the United States have made global headlines and drawn the ire of President Donald Trump.

But last week in the Texan border city of Laredo a caravan of about 1,500 families made up of Mexican migrants and Americans of Mexican origin set out in the opposite direction – for their Christmas holidays.

Driving large cars laden with clothes, perfumes and other Christmas presents, the Mexicans, all with U.S. legal status, bore scant resemblance to the Central American migrants trudging north on foot, except for their shared fear of criminal gangs.

“There’s a lot of extortion, corruption, many people have been attacked,” said Jesus Mendoza, a 35-year-old painter who obtained U.S. legal residency in August and returned to Mexico for the first time this year since 2001.

About half of the 12 million Mexicans living in the United States have legal residency, and Mexico’s Senate expected more than 3 million to return home this year.

But doing so by car poses a challenge as Mexico’s northern border regions have been racked by a tide of drug-fueled violence that led to a record 29,000 murders last year.

With three young children and a wife he met on Facebook, Mendoza was going back to a Mexico different to the one he left behind as a teenager before the country embarked on a so-called war on drugs in 2006 and violence spiraled.

“It’s a sad thing that some don’t want … to visit with their family because of the situation,” he told Reuters in Jalpan de Serra in central Mexico after arriving there on Dec. 16.

Trump has called migrant caravans bound for the United States “invasions” and has threatened to close the U.S. border with Mexico.

Mendoza’s caravan of hundreds of cars set off around 5 a.m. local time from a Walmart car park in Laredo, reaching its final stop in Jalpan some 14 hours later, shortly after dusk.

Such car caravans moving south into Mexico have been rare over the past decade. But those who reached their family homes say safety in numbers is vital.

“It’s sad that when I enter Mexico I don’t feel safe,” said Mariela Ramirez Palacios, a Mexico-born resident of Oklahoma. “The caravan is safe.”

(Reporting by Daniel Becerril; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Special Report: In a working-class Hong Kong neighborhood, the protests hit home

Special Report: In a working-class Hong Kong neighborhood, the protests hit home
By James Pomfret and Jessie Pang

Hong Kong (Reuters) – “In life, there is joy, but inevitably there is also sorrow.

We all met below the Lion Rock.”

– “Below the Lion Rock,” theme song for long-running Hong Kong drama series

From the top of Lion Rock, all of Hong Kong reveals itself: the sprawl of the Kowloon Peninsula directly below, the iconic Star Ferry plying the waters of Victoria Harbor, the moneyed heights of Hong Kong island beyond. Like a crouching beast, the craggy ridgeline stands guard over a city on edge.

In the shadow of the revered mountain rise huge monoliths, drab concrete tower blocks far removed from the glittering glass highrises of Hong Kong island’s steroidal skyline. Here, in a neighborhood of public housing estates called Wong Tai Sin, seemingly endless stacks of aging windows heave with drying laundry and hum with air conditioners sweating droplets onto the pavement below.

At night, the towers slowly light up, each window’s glowing rectangle framing a second glowing rectangle flickering with the latest soaps and news. Every evening, at exactly 6:30, many residents take part in a daily ritual: tuning in to the main newscast on broadcaster TVB for the latest on a political crisis raging in this former British colony now ruled by China.

Sparked by anger against a controversial extradition bill, protests spread through many of Hong Kong’s 18 districts, putting the city’s freedom-loving populace on a collision course with the local government, and China’s Communist Party leaders behind it.

Over the summer and autumn, millions have marched. Protesters have hurled Molotov cocktails and bricks at police, sprayed revolutionary graffiti on walls, burned Chinese flags and vandalized businesses linked to the world’s second-largest economy. Police have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons, arresting more than 2,600 people on charges including rioting.

The violence has also come to the concrete towers of Wong Tai Sin, home to tens of thousands of working-class families whose struggles are woven into the fabric and lore of Hong Kong’s global rise. And with the unrest has come a test of what Hong Kongers call “the Lion Rock spirit” – this city’s sense of community and grit in the face of hardship.

THE LION ROCK SPIRIT

Elaine Chan heard gunshots. She opened the window of her flat in Lung Kwong House, or Dragon Bright House, and smelled something vinegary. Her eyes and skin began to smart. Tear gas. She started coughing. “I felt like being sick,” said the 39-year-old office worker, who has spent most of her life in Wong Tai Sin.

Two days later, on August 5, clashes broke out again in Wong Tai Sin as hundreds of anti-government protesters dressed in black blocked roads as part of a citywide strike. Chan had just finished eating a bowl of rice noodles at a place in the Temple Mall when a group of youngsters ran past, fleeing riot police.

“Follow me,” she yelled, then guided them into her building’s communal area via a back staircase, keying in the passcode to the security door to let them through to safety.

Chan, the mother of a 6-year-old daughter, felt indignant and maternal.

“We had to help them,” she said. “They were terrified.”

She’d seen video clips of police beating skinny teenagers, smashing batons over their bodies and heads. She wondered what the Hong Kong she’s known her whole life had come to.

“Some people say Hong Kongers no longer have the Lion Rock spirit,” Chan said. “The ’60s and ’70s immigrants are different. You felt that they were really striving for Hong Kong. Helping one another, with no airs. Hong Kong has lost this. It’s become zero now.”

Lion Rock speaks to the constantly fluctuating Hong Kong identity over decades of transformation, hardship and reinvention. Many locals revere the peak, in the way Japanese cherish Mount Fuji, or Parisians love Notre Dame cathedral. In recent years, the mountain has become a politically charged space, with banners including those in support of full democracy draped from the peak.

Back in the 1970s, Hong Kong’s public broadcaster, RTHK, began running a television series called “Below the Lion Rock.” Airing periodically for decades, it chronicled the lives of regular Hong Kongers as they worked their way out of poverty, touching on social issues. With diverse characters including a policeman, an odd-jobs man, an office worker and a bookseller abducted by Chinese authorities, the show seemed to illuminate part of Hong Kong’s essence, a kind of can-do spirit that had elevated it from almost nothing into one of the world’s wealthiest cities.

The title song, “Below the Lion Rock,” is an unofficial Hong Kong anthem, and hearing its Cantopop melody and we’re-in-this-together Cantonese lyrics can make normally stoic residents choke up, particularly older ones who suffered deprivation and grinding poverty.

“The impression it gives me is of being very small at the time, watching it on telly,” Chan said, her voice cracking, as she listened on a mobile phone to the opening refrain, “In life, there is joy, but inevitably there is also sorrow.”

Today, she said, some people have criticized the protests because the unrest has disrupted the unfettered capitalism for which the city is famous.

“People only feel that this movement has meant they make less money, stops them from going to work,” she said. “Making money is most important.”

She has no time for that kind of thinking.

“The Lion Rock spirit is that no matter how tough things are, Hong Kong people will use each arm and each leg to help one another; if you can’t go on, I’ll help you. If I can’t make it, then you help me back. Real Hong Kong people still have this spirit. I really hope that I can pass this spirit to my next generation.”

MAINLANDERS IN HONG KONG

The only fully landlocked district in the city of 7.4 million, Wong Tai Sin extends along the flanks and approach of Lion Rock with a population of 420,000. Once a squatter area full of tin shacks and wooden shanties, the district was redeveloped by the then-British administration to provide affordable public housing blocks with elevators, running water and toilets to meet the chronic needs of a population that had been swelling with Chinese immigrants for decades.

The first of the modern public housing blocks in Wong Tai Sin, 15 of which are named after dragons, was built in 1982. Some had a then-innovative H-shaped design with open corridors to allow better ventilation and natural light. The apartments, some as small as 200 square feet, are utilitarian, with basic kitchens and bathrooms. Their doors are often left open to let in air, guarded only by concertina metal grilles.

Since the return from British to Chinese rule in 1997, more than 1 million people have arrived in Hong Kong from mainland China, but public housing hasn’t kept pace, meaning queuing times for flats are now over five years.

But for some new arrivals from the mainland, the housing crunch hasn’t mattered.

“It was like heaven on earth when I arrived,” said Chun Hui, a pork butcher at Wong Tai Sin’s Tai Shing Street wet market, a sprawling building crammed with stalls selling everything from pak choi to silver carp.

The 28-year-old came to Hong Kong 10 years ago from a coastal town in eastern Guangdong province after his mother married a Hong Kong man. “The people, the education, the politeness,” he said. “It was so civilized!”

Chun, who has a Japanese manga tattoo of Son Goku from the martial arts cult series “Dragon Ball” on his right forearm, gets to work every day at half past 5 in the morning, when he chops up several whole pig carcasses into cuts of meat for the day’s trade.

“Hong Kong is a good thing. The Hong Kong spirit, the mutual respect,” he said as a man flame-torched a pig’s head behind him.

He said soaring pork prices in China from African swine flu have made life more difficult and eroded his monthly income. He gets home around 8 p.m. and takes one day off a month to spend with his 5-year-old daughter.

He sees the protesters ultimately losing out.

“Hong Kong will become more mainlandized. But so what? We just need to fill our stomachs, wear warm clothes, have a job, buy a mobile phone. What more do you need?” he added, lighting up a cigarette and flicking the ash into a used Nescafe can.

All around him, locals wandered with red plastic bags of groceries, hailed loudly by stall owners and haggling back with equal volume.

Wong Tai Sin had long tended to vote for pro-Beijing candidates in local elections given its older populace and deep-rooted ties to patriotic Chinese political groups in the area. In Hong Kong, such China and government supporters are described as being in the “blue” camp. Yet the recent unrest has seen lots of residents turn against the police given the perceived excessive violence. They’ve shifted to the “yellow” camp of the protesters and democracy advocates, including those who supported the Occupy movement, which spearheaded pro-democracy protests in 2014.

Chun is troubled by this split. “The Lion Rock spirit is about unity. If a society isn’t unified, then the country will collapse,” he said.

He’s uneasy with the violence that has marked some demonstrations. “I feel that if you just protest with some violent individuals, including those who throw petrol bombs, I think this is very wrong,” he said.” I understand that they’re striving for something, but they shouldn’t do it this way.”

“THERE WILL BE TROUBLE”

Many Hong Kongers believe their city’s success is underpinned by not only geography, but also myth. A coastal city on the South China Sea, it has one of the best deep-water harbors in Asia, cradled between the hills of the Kowloon Peninsula to the north and the peaks of Hong Kong island to the south.

The ridgeline of Lion Rock runs uninterrupted down to the seas to the east and west of Kowloon. Nestled in these hills are believed to be the spirits of nine dragons, or Kau Lung, after which the Kowloon Peninsula was named.

“The lion guards over Hong Kong,” said Wai Nang-ping, 69, who has been a soothsayer in the Wong Tai Sin Temple for more than three decades.

The temple is one of the most famous in the city, drawing visitors with its promises of luck, wealth and health. The Taoist place of worship has done a roaring trade with a flood of mainland Chinese tourists. The visitors shake fortune sticks that are then read by soothsayers such as Wai, who channels prophecies from the gods from a two-story collective of her fellow seers.

Their building was tear-gassed in the recent protests, and these days, the temple is half-empty as many Chinese stay away from the city given the unrest. The carpark is no longer crammed with tourist coaches, and it’s much easier to get a table for dim sum in the mall next door. Fewer people take selfies beside the sinuous dragons that twist all over the eaves, walls and columns of the temple or the 12 bronze statues of the animals of the zodiac, in anthropomorphized form, arrayed in a half-crescent in front of the public housing estate to the south.

“Lion Rock is very auspicious and has a strong spirit,” Wai said. “Hong Kong is a lucky place. But sometimes the environment changes, and this year, the feng shui has three jade stars coming to the south, so you have squabbles.

“Each year, the environment shifts and the fortune sticks change. Especially for the youth and boys, there will be more trouble.”

A POLICE OFFICER’S SON JOINS PROTESTS

On September 13, Wong Tai Sin residents celebrated the traditional mid-autumn festival at a piazza near the temple surrounded by swirls of incense smoke. The crowds linked arms, singing, holding lanterns.

“Liberate Hong Kong!” came the shouts of hundreds, followed by its paired refrain, “Revolution of our times!” These twin bursts of defiance carried above the roaring traffic on a highway near Wong Tai Sin Lower Estate and its cluster of 15 tawny-sided buildings.

Suddenly the crowd hushed and everyone looked up to a floodlit spot above where a young man in a yellow helmet and goggles held a trombone. He played a few wistful bass notes through his face mask, and the crowd began singing “Glory to Hong Kong,” a song written by an anonymous composer over the summer that has galvanized protesters.

That same evening, Yan, the 17-year-old son of a policeman, climbed Lion Rock with four of his schoolfriends and thousands of other Hong Kongers. The Wong Tai Sin teenager set off at 7 p.m. and didn’t get home until 1 in the morning.

It was so packed at the summit, Yan said, that he couldn’t make it to the very top. Many people shone mobile phone flashlights and headlamps, giving the mountain a halo effect. Across the harbor, on Victoria Peak on Hong Kong island, people also shone laser beams, creating a crisscrossing light show with the beams on Lion Rock. The Peak is a wealthy residential neighborhood, while Lion Rock is seen as an egalitarian symbol of the poor and striving in the city.

Hong Kong’s wealth gap is one of the biggest in the developed world. Hong Kong real estate is among the most expensive anywhere, making it difficult for youngsters to get on the home ownership ladder without being left with crippling lifelong mortgages – and feeding a sense of disillusionment in society.

So far, however, the protesters haven’t directed their ire at the city’s billionaire tycoons. Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s richest man, started off as a penniless migrant from China and still commands respect in this capitalist haven, where even pensioners play the forex markets and the stock exchange.

Yan said the rich and poor came together that evening amid protests that have crossed economic divides. A recent poll of 613 protesters by the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Communication and Public Opinion Survey backs him up, showing that demonstrators are fairly evenly split between those living in private apartments, who tend to have higher incomes, and those in public or subsidized housing, who tend to be working or lower-middle class.

“There were a lot of people that night. You can see Hong Kong people, above and below, are of one heart. They go up together and come down together; no one is left behind,” he said.

“It was tough, but I enjoyed it. I was moved, seeing lots of people on the same road going up the hill.”

Yan spoke on the condition that he be identified by his Chinese nickname to protect his father, who declined to talk for this story.

“I’m afraid of being arrested, as my dad works for the force,” he said. “If I’m arrested, it will create pressure for him, especially from his colleagues.”

His dad knows he joins the protests, with a rucksack bulging with kit: body armor, change of clothes and, to shield him from the tear gas, three gas masks, including a 3M 6800 full-face respirator with double filters that he bought on Amazon.

“We just don’t talk about politics,” he said with a shrug. “We don’t want to hurt each other’s feelings.”

Yan said of his dad: “He understands that the government ignores people’s voices, and that it’s a good thing for the people to protest. But he doesn’t support violence.”

Yan doesn’t want independence – which China resolutely opposes – but he hopes for a brighter future.

“If we win, I hope young people can take over Hong Kong,” he said. “One day, the future belongs to us.”

A HOMEMAKER IS CHANGED BY THE UNREST

Ah Bi, a homemaker who grew up in Wong Tai Sin, was in the piazza on the evening of the mid-autumn festival. In the disarming euphoria of that night, she said, the protests had brought division, but also unity.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said. “There’s a connection between people.”

The protests had already changed Ah Bi’s life. On August 3, she was in the Temple Mall on Ching Tak Street with her 12-year-old daughter when a group of riot police blocked the road and shouted at passers-by. As she tried to get closer, she was pushed back and forced against the wall of the Wong Tai Sin Catholic Primary School.

“My daughter sprinted up the steps into the shopping center,” and the two were separated, she said.

A group of police special forces, known as “raptors” or “fast dragons” in Cantonese, charged at the crowds and grabbed a young man by his shirt and pressed him to the ground. The crowd began growing – and getting more agitated. “Black police!” and “Triads!” they yelled, likening the police to members of Hong Kong’s notorious organized criminal gangs, given their beatings of protesters.

When Ah Bi was finally reunited with her daughter and they had made it home, her hands were trembling as she put her daughter to bed. “The police didn’t used to be like this. What happened, mummy?” her daughter said, her head on the pillow.

Ah Bi went out into the streets again after her daughter was in bed, outraged by the actions of the police. She joined crowds outside the station, demanding they release those arrested.

“I prayed very late that night. I couldn’t sleep. We adults are not worried so much about our peace and safety but the future for our children. I want to do something for Hong Kong, to protect our home.”

Days later, Ah Bi did something unprecedented. On August 8, she joined a “citizens press conference” and spoke on behalf of the protest movement in a live broadcast beamed across the city and abroad. She has remained politically active since.

“My mum used to say I didn’t care about politics,” she said. “But that day, my personality changed.”

A RETIREE FEELS HELPLESS

A greater percentage of elderly people live in Wong Tai Sin than any other Hong Kong district. One in four people here are over 65.

Poon Wing-cheung, a retired electrician, lives near the top floor of the 28-story Lung Hing House, or Dragon Vigour House, with his wife and grown daughter. He has a steadfast daily routine: a brisk walk or run into Morse Park with its landscaped grounds and football pitches, followed by an afternoon nap on the sofa and a stroll over to the Tai Shing Street wet market. A contented man with a round Buddha’s face and ready smile, his eyes dance with delight at this simple pleasure.

The 65-year-old moved into Dragon Vigour House 34 years ago when it was first built. The city has changed, he said, but also remained unchanged in other ways. He paused, leaving these words to settle upon the mind.

He talked of politics in the abstract, and said he rarely turns on the television for news of the protests anymore because “they keep doing the same every day. What’s the use? There’s no point watching.”

Some afternoons, when no one else is home, he takes out his DVD of pop singer Roman Tam performing “Below the Lion Rock” from a shelf crammed with a selection of animated films like “Finding Nemo” and “My Neighbor Totoro.” He slips it in, takes out his karaoke mic and starts singing.

“There used to be a lot of things we were unhappy about with the government, but they can’t possibly agree to everything you want,” he said after one of the sessions. “It’s not about not striving for something, but you sometimes have to accept the bigger picture.”

Sitting in his flat with a wall full of family pictures Blu-tacked behind the sofa, he said: “Singing this song at this time seems to have some meaning. I feel a bit helpless somehow. I can’t think of what we should do, how to change things.”

He crossed his arms with a contemplative smile. “Can anyone figure out a way?”

LADY LIBERTY ATOP LION ROCK

The worst violence in months of protests flared on October 1, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Across the city, 269 people were arrested, and a policeman shot an 18-year-old in the chest, an escalation that shocked the city.

In Wong Tai Sin, thousands blocked Lung Cheung Road, one of Kowloon’s key highway links, and battled riot police on the tarmac in front of the Wong Tai Sin Temple.

Yan, the cop’s son, stood a little farther back, extinguishing tear-gas canisters with bottles of water. Elaine Chan watched the smoky projectiles arc in the air toward the youngsters from a footbridge to the Temple Mall. Poon, the retired electrician, stayed home several hundred paces away in Dragon Vigour House. Ah Bi, the homemaker, watched the clashes from her flat overlooking the temple, and went down several times to join the crowds occupying Lung Cheung Road. Chun, the butcher, had been at work at his pork stall since before dawn.

Nearly two weeks later, as the change in weather brought the first of the autumn birds down from the north, a group of protesters hatched a plan. Meeting at midnight at a temple on the lower slopes of Lion Rock, the masked men stood like ninjas in the shadows. Before long, a truck arrived with the cargo they would hoist to the summit.

The men made their way up steep and winding mountain paths, their headlamps flickering upon the dismembered parts of a giant statue known as “Lady Liberty.” The statue, which had been displayed on university campuses and at various protests, was heavy, so the men had dismantled her to make the climb easier. In small teams, they carried her legs, her torso and her upraised arm through the scrubby slopes, then over the craggy ridgeline until they came to the very head of the lion. There, the glowing rectangles of the windows of Wong Tai Sin spread below them.

One of the men, a Wong Tai Sin resident, talked about wanting to create a new Lion Rock spirit. “We feel that it’s not enough to just try hard in life. You also have to care about society,” he said. “This new Lion Spirit is to fight against injustice, and for all of society to strive for freedom.”

As they struggled to tether Lady Liberty with metal struts and wires, the four-meter-high symbol of the protest movement began to sway. They drilled into the granite with power tools in the howling winds of a sudden thunderstorm, and eventually managed to secure it. Then, at dawn, the weather cleared and the statue could be seen from afar, a beacon atop Lion Rock.

(Reporting by James Pomfret and Jessie Pang; edited by Kari Howard)

Eroding trust in vaccines leaves populations vulnerable, global study finds

FILE PHOTO: A vial of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and an information sheet is seen at Boston Children's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts February 26, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

By Kate Kelland

LONDON, June 19 (Reuters) – Trust in vaccines – one of the world’s most effective and widely-used medical products – is highest in poorer countries but weaker in wealthier ones where skepticism has allowed outbreaks of diseases such as measles to persist, a global study found on Wednesday.

France has the least confidence of any country in the world in the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, with a third believing that vaccines are unsafe, according to the study.

While most parents do choose to vaccinate their children, varying levels of confidence expose vulnerabilities in some countries to potential disease outbreaks, the study’s authors said, recommending that scientists need to ensure people have access to robust information from those they trust.

Public health experts and the World Health Organization (WHO) say vaccines save up to 3 million lives every year worldwide, and decades of research evidence consistently shows they are safe and effective.

But to achieve “herd immunity” to protect whole populations, immunization coverage rates must generally be above 90% or 95%, and vaccine mistrust can quickly reduce that protection.

“Over the last century, vaccines have made many devastating infectious diseases a distant memory,” said Charlie Weller, head of vaccines at the Wellcome Trust health charity, which co-led the Wellcome Global Monitor study.

“It is reassuring that almost all parents worldwide are vaccinating their children. However, there are pockets of lower confidence in vaccines across the world.”

The spread of measles, including in major outbreaks in the United States, the Philippines and Ukraine, is just one of the health risks linked to lower confidence in vaccines.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, false rumors about polio vaccines being part of a Western plot have in recent years hampered global efforts to wipe out the crippling disease.

The study, led by Wellcome and polling company Gallup, covered 140,000 people from more than 140 countries.

It found 6% of parents worldwide – equivalent to 188 million – say their children are unvaccinated. “The highest totals were in China at 9%, Austria at 8% and Japan at 7%.”

Seth Berkley, chief executive of the not-for-profit GAVI vaccine alliance, said the report showed a “worrying number of people” questioning vaccine safety. But by focusing on the “vocal minority” who refused to vaccinate, it was easy to forget that the vast majority trusted vaccines and the science that underpinned them.

The study also found that three-quarters of the world’s people trust doctors and nurses more than anyone else for health advice and that in most parts of the world, more education and greater trust in health systems, governments and scientists is a also sign of higher vaccine confidence.

In some high-income regions, however, confidence is weaker. Only 72% of people in North America and 73% in Northern Europe agree that vaccines are safe. In Eastern Europe, it is just 50%.

Heidi Larson, director of the vaccine confidence project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, worked with researchers on this study. She said it “exposes the paradox of Europe” which, despite being a region with among the highest income and education levels, also has the world’s highest levels of vaccine skepticism.

In poorer regions, trust levels tend to be much higher, with 95% in South Asia and 92% in Eastern Africa feeling confident that vaccines are safe and effective.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; editing by John Stonestreet)

Uber unveils safety measures after college student’s murder

FILE PHOTO: Uber sign is seen on a car in New York, U.S., April 12, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

(Reuters) – Uber Technologies Inc said it was rolling out new safety features to help riders avoid fake rideshare drivers, two weeks after the murder of a college student who got into her killer’s car mistakenly believing it was her ride.

The features include steps to identify the right car and a push notification to remind riders of the “Check Your Ride” steps just before their car arrives, the ride-hailing company said in a blog on Thursday.

The features will go live in Columbia and South Carolina on Thursday and will roll out across the United States within a few days.

The 21-year old victim Samantha Josephson was a South Carolina university student.

Uber had in July 2017 launched a public awareness campaign against scams and how riders can avoid getting into the wrong car, suggesting that they check the app to ensure that the car matches the one that they booked.

The company is also planning to launch a new tool for universities to provide service for students at odd hours when other options are limited. The pilot program will start with the University of South Carolina, while other universities can get themselves enrolled.

“We’re also launching an awareness campaign on social media, and we’re placing ads in college newspapers and on billboards near entertainment districts across the country to educate students about these steps,” Uber said.

(Reporting by Sayanti Chakraborty in Bengaluru; Editing by Shailesh Kuber and James Emmanuel)

Consumer Reports pushes carmakers on automatic emergency braking

By Nick Carey

DETROIT (Reuters) – Influential U.S. magazine Consumer Reports on Thursday turned up the pressure on automakers to include automatic emergency braking (AEB) as standard on new U.S. models by withholding its 2019 annual top vehicle picks from best-selling brands like General Motors Co’s Chevrolet.

“We’ve been pushing for this feature for a long time because it’s very good at preventing crashes,” Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports’ senior director of automotive testing, told Reuters. “We have telegraphed for some time that this was coming.”

Millions of prospective auto buyers consult the magazine’s rankings, which are based on road testing, reliability, safety and owner satisfaction scores.

A growing number of new vehicle models now include AEB as standard, including Subaru Corp’s Ascent, Consumer Reports’ 2019 top pick for the midsize SUV category.

Last year Chevrolet, GM’s best-selling brand, won top picks for its fully-electric compact Bolt sedan and its full-size Impala sedan.

GM, which constantly stresses it is aiming for “zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion,” did not respond to a request for comment.

This year’s top picks included several wins for Toyota Motor Corp, including for its full-size Avalon hybrid electric sedan and the Toyota Prius. Subaru won for its compact Forester SUV and its mid-size Ascent SUV.

Tesla Inc’s rollout of its mass-market Model 3 electric sedan hurt the brand’s overall standing, knocking it down 11 spots to No. 19 out of 33 brands ranked by Consumer Reports.

Fisher said Tesla’s ramp-up of production of the Model 3 had been accompanied by rising reports of problems with the car’s body, interior, windows and paint, though he added Model 3 owners said they love their vehicles despite reliability issues.

Those reliability issues mean that Consumer Reports no longer recommends the Model 3, Fisher said.

Subaru was ranked as Consumer Reports’ top car brand, followed by Hyundai Motor Co’s luxury Genesis then Volkswagen AG units Porsche and Audi in third and fourth place respectively. Toyota’s luxury Lexus brand ranked fifth.

GM’s Chevrolet brand was ranked 23rd, while the Cadillac brand ranked 26th and GMC 27th.

Ford Motor Co’s Ford brand ranked 20th and its Lincoln brand 8th, but its best-selling F-150 pickup truck was named best pickup.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s Chrysler brand ranked 22nd, with its Dodge brand 25th and Jeep brand in 29th place.

The automaker’s Fiat unit finished last among 33 brands rated.

(Reporting By Nick Carey; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

U.S. asset manager State Street to press gunmakers on safety efforts

FILE PHOTO: Rifles are seen at the Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc. gun factory in Newport, New Hampshire January 6, 2012. REUTERS/Eric Thayer/File Photo

By Ross Kerber

BOSTON (Reuters) – U.S. asset manager State Street Corp said it plans to seek details from gunmakers on how they will support the “safe and responsible use of their products,” adding to pressure on the industry after the Feb. 14 shooting that killed 17 people at a Florida high school.

Other firms including Bank of America Corp are also reviewing relations with the weapons industry, as social media and shareholder activism open new fronts in a long-running U.S. debate over firearms.

As a large shareholder in weapons makers such as American Outdoor Brands Corp and Sturm Ruger & Co Inc Boston-based State Street wields extra clout including the ability to vote against directors and to back shareholder resolutions on gun safety pending at each company.

“We will be engaging with weapons manufacturers and distributors to seek greater transparency from them on the ways that they will support the safe and responsible use of their products,” State Street spokesman Andrew Hopkins said in an emailed statement.

The statement also said State Street will monitor the companies’ lobbying activities.

State Street is joining larger rival BlackRock Inc in putting weapons executives on the spot. On Feb. 22 BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, said it will speak with gunmakers and distributors “to understand their response” to the Florida shooting.

Representatives for American Outdoor and Sturm Ruger did not respond to questions over the weekend, after Hopkins sent the statement on Friday evening.

State Street, with $2.8 trillion under management at Dec. 31, owns about 2 percent of the shares of both American Outdoor and Sturm Ruger, according to filings.

Bank of America said on Saturday it would ask clients who make assault rifles how they can help end mass shootings. Other financial firms have cut marketing ties with the National Rifle Association (NRA) recently, including the First National Bank of Omaha, which will not renew a contract to issue an NRA-branded Visa card.

The fund manager statements were striking given that many major investors try to steer clear of political debates to avoid alienating customers. But asset managers lately have supported more social and environmental measures as sought by their clients.

Both American Outdoor and Sturm Ruger face shareholder resolutions filed by religious investors calling for them to report on their gun safety efforts, aimed for their shareholder meetings later this year.

Patrick McGurn, special counsel for proxy adviser Institutional Shareholder Services, said directors on the boards of both should expect tough questions from shareholders.

“Guns join opioids, cyber hacks, sexual harassment, human rights and climate change as top-of-mind risks that shareholders will want to discuss with boards during engagements and at annual meetings,” McGurn said via e-mail.

Not all top fund firms are taking a public stance on the weapons debate.

Vanguard Group Inc said in a statement e-mailed by a spokesman on Friday that while it discusses with companies whose shares it owns “the impact of their business on society,” the Pennsylvania fund manager also “believes we can be more effective in advocating for change by not publicly discussing the nature of engagements with specific companies by name.”

A spokesman for Fidelity Investments said via e-mail on Sunday that the firm generally does not comment on individual companies or how it plans to vote on proxy resolutions.

“We do our best to see that our investment decisions are in line with our fiduciary obligation to ensure that every Fidelity fund is managed based on the investment objective described in its prospectus,” she said.

(Reporting by Ross Kerber; Editing by Susan Thomas)

UK inquiry to examine Grenfell Tower fire but not broader social issues

FILE PHOTO: A general view shows the Grenfell Tower, which was destroyed in a fatal fire, in London, Britain July 15, 2017. REUTERS/Tolga Akmen

By Estelle Shirbon

LONDON (Reuters) – A public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire in London that killed 80 people in June began on Tuesday with a mission to examine the cause of and response to the tragedy, but not broader issues such as social housing policy.

The destruction of the 24-storey social housing block, home to a poor, multi-ethnic community, in an inferno that spread with terrifying speed in the middle of the night shocked the nation and raised public anger over social inequalities.

Grenfell Tower was part of a deprived housing estate in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, one of the richest areas in the country. The fire has prompted debate about the impact on poor communities of years of public spending cuts by Conservative-led governments.

The inquiry, led by retired judge Martin Moore-Bick, was announced by Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May to show she wanted the truth about the disaster to emerge after her initial response was seen by survivors as slow and insensitive.

The inquiry formally opened on Tuesday with the publication of its terms of reference. Moore-Bick will start hearings in September.

It will examine the cause and spread of the fire, the design, construction and refurbishment of the tower, fire regulations relating to high-rise buildings, whether they were complied with at Grenfell Tower, and the actions of the authorities before and after the tragedy.

But Moore-Bick said the inquiry would not delve into broader issues such as social housing policy and the relationship between the community and the authorities, even though many local people wanted it to.

That drew immediate criticism from the local member of parliament, Emma Dent Coad of the opposition Labour Party, who said it was precisely what the community had feared.

“We were told ‘no stone would be unturned’ but instead are being presented with a technical assessment which will not get to the heart of the problem: what effects if any the lack of investment into social housing had on the refurbishment project,” she said in a statement.

Moore-Bick said it would take too long to fully examine social housing policy issues when there was a need for the inquiry to quickly identify safety problems that may be putting lives at risk in other tower blocks.

May said the government would tackle the deeper issues in a different way.

“I am determined that the broader questions raised by this fire — including around social housing — are not left unanswered,” she said in a statement.

May said the housing minister, Alok Sharma, would personally meet as many social housing tenants as possible in the Grenfell Tower area and across Britain to help identify common concerns, and there would be further announcements about this shortly.

But Dent Coad rejected the assurance.

“We have no confidence whatever in the ability of Alok Sharma and a few politically compromised individuals to take on the task of answering this most important question,” she said.

The Grenfell Tower inquiry faces an uphill struggle in gaining the cooperation of those affected by the fire, many of whom are distrustful of the authorities and see Moore-Bick as a remote, establishment figure unlikely to relate to their lives.

During consultation meetings with the community in recent weeks, he was heckled several times.

(Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Alister Doyle)

With housing blocks failing safety checks, UK’s May calls for more tests

Cladding is removed from the side of Whitebean Court in Salford, Manchester,

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May appealed to landlords of high-rise buildings on Monday to allow potentially flammable building material to be tested, seeking to reassure residents after a tower block fire killed 79 people in London.

The Grenfell Tower blaze, which trapped dozens of people in their beds, has become a focus of public anger at the Conservative government’s austerity cuts and the perceived slow response in trying to look after those who escaped.

The government said the number of high-rise tower blocks in England found to have “cladding” – panels placed on the facades of buildings, mainly for insulation or to improve their appearance – that have failed fire safety tests had risen to 75 from 60.

Communities minister Sajid Javid said that all samples submitted had failed the tests, which May’s spokesman had earlier said was “concerning”.

May, who scored a deal with a Northern Irish party to prop up her minority government on Monday, wants to repair her authority by showing leadership in dealing with the aftermath of the June 14 Grenfell disaster, but faces criticism by her political opponents.

“Clearly it’s concerning, concerning for residents who are living in these blocks,” the spokesman told reporters at a regular government briefing.

“That’s why we have put in place a system where testing can be carried out very quickly and whereby local authorities are informed immediately when a positive test comes back and that appropriate measures are put in place,” he said.

Responding to criticism that the testing program was not running quickly enough, he said landlords must get potentially flammable building materials tested as soon as possible.

Material should also be tested in schools and hospitals if there were safety concerns there too.

Some 600 buildings are being tested, showing how widely combustible cladding may have been used across Britain.

“It is clearly of huge concern that this is the case,” the spokesman said.

“What is apparent is that this is on buildings across the country … Obviously the job for the public inquiry will be to find out how and why this happened,” he said, hoping there would be an earlier interim report to cast some light on why such materials were used and whether they met safety requirements.

U.S. firm Arconic Inc said it was stopping global sales of its Reynobond PE cladding, which was used in Grenfell Tower, for use in high-rise buildings following the fire. Shares in Arconic fell around 5 percent.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper and Alistair Smout; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Without school, children of Mosul feared lost to poverty and conflict

Falah, 11, sells vegetables and fruits in a market in eastern Mosul, Iraq April 20, 2017. REUTERS/ Muhammad Hamed

By Ahmed Aboulenein

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – Ahmed Abdelsattar was 14 when Islamic State swept into Mosul and declared a caliphate in 2014. Fearing he would be indoctrinated and sent to fight by the militants, his parents took him out of school.

Three years later, he sells ice cream at a refugee camp for internally displaced Iraqis. His family have lost their home and his father is too old for the manual labor positions at the camp, which means he is his family’s sole breadwinner.

Coupled with a shortage of teachers, books and supplies, the 17-year-old sees no reason to go to the makeshift schools set up in the Khazar camp near Erbil.

“Going to school is now useless. I am helping my family,” he said. He adds that it is too late for him anyway. Had his education not been interrupted, Abdelsattar would be graduating in a few weeks.

Abdelsattar is one of tens of thousands of children orphaned or left homeless by the war on Islamic State and forced to work to support their families in Mosul, the militant’s last major city stronghold in Iraq.

Returning these children to school is a priority for Iraq to end the cycle of sectarian violence fueled in part by poverty and ignorance, the United Nations says.

“Investment in education is urgently needed, without which Iraq could lose an entire generation,” said Laila Ali, a spokeswoman for the UN’s children agency UNICEF.

“Children from different ethnicities and religions, in the same classroom, will promote a cohesive society and will get children to think differently.”

Even in the half of Mosul east of the Tigris River that has been retaken by Iraqi forces, where 320 of the 400 schools have reopened, Reuters interviewed dozens of children working as rubbish collectors, vegetable vendors or mechanics.

“I did not go to school because Islamic State came and they would teach children about fighting and send them to fight,” says 12-year-old Falah by his vegetable cart in Mosul.

Within earshot, fighting was still raging. Just across the river, government troops, artillery and aircraft were attacking Islamic State’s last stronghold in western Mosul.

Falah has four younger brothers. None of them have ever been to school.

ONE PLUS ONE EQUALS TWO

Huzayfa studied up to the fifth grade but stopped when Islamic State came. The militants taught math using bullets, rifles and bombs, said the 12-year-old, who sells scrap metal.

“They taught us ‘one bullet plus one bullet’ and how to fire weapons,” he said.

The local education department in Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, estimates 10 percent of children in east Mosul are still out of school. There has been no official count for almost four years, it said.

There are also no official statistics on the dropout rate, a spokesman for Iraq’s Education Ministry said, especially as many families have fled Mosul or Iraq altogether.

“We are counting on parent-teacher conferences and local officials to convince parents to send their kids back to school,” said Ibrahim al-Sabti.

Government funds normally allocated to education have been depleted by corruption and mismanagement, lawmakers and non-governmental organizations say, citing the results of investigations in 2014 and 2016.

Oil-rich Iraq historically had very high literacy rates and primary school enrolment was 100 percent in the 1980s.

Illiteracy became rampant after international sanctions were imposed due to the August 1990-1991 occupation of Kuwait. Economic hardship was made worse by the civil war that broke out after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

LOST FUTURE

Schools in east Mosul started reopening in January and so far around 350,000 students are back in class, compared to 183,229 in 2013, with much of the increase due to displaced people from west Mosul and surrounding villages.

UNICEF estimates around 1.2 million Iraqi children are not in school nationwide.

The Iraqi military expects to dislodge Islamic State from the rest of Mosul in May but the militants are mounting a strong resistance in the densely populated Old City.

Iraqi troops began their offensive in October backed by a U.S.-led international coalition providing air and ground support. The militants are fighting back using booby traps, suicide motorcycle attacks, sniper and mortar fire and sometimes shells filled with toxic gas.

For children like Ahmed Abdelsattar, whether or not the group is finally ousted from Mosul has little bearing on their fate.

If he is lucky, he will return to where his home used to be in western Mosul’s Al-Jadida district, an area where local officials and eyewitnesses have said as many as 240 people may have died in March when a building collapsed after a blast, burying families inside.

“The future is lost,” he said with an air of resignation.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

EU says summons Turkish ambassador over Erdogan comments

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during a meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, March 19, 2017. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Commission said on Thursday it had summoned the Turkish ambassador to explain comments by President Tayyip Erdogan that Europeans would not be able to “walk safely on the streets” if they kept up their current attitude toward Turkey.

Turkey’s relations with the European Union have become particularly strained after two member states canceled planned campaign rallies on their territory by Turkish ministers ahead of an April 16 referendum on boosting Erdogan’s powers.

Germany and the Netherlands cited security concerns for their decision, but Erdogan has accused them of using “Nazi methods” and of trampling on free speech.

On Wednesday Erdogan said: “If Europe continues this way, no European in any part of the world can walk safely on the streets. Europe will be damaged by this. We, as Turkey, call on Europe to respect human rights and democracy.”

The Commission, the EU’s executive arm, is seeking an explanation from Turkey’s envoy to the 28-nation bloc, a spokeswoman said.

“On these specific comments, we have actually asked the Turkish foreign delegate to the EU to come to the EEAS (the Commission’s foreign policy service) today for a meeting,” the spokeswoman said.

Turkey’s mission to the EU had no immediate comment.

(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska and Waverly Colville; Editing by Robin Emmott and Gareth Jones)