Not a baby factory: South Korea tries to fix demographic crisis with more gender equality

A volunteer takes care of a baby who was left in the baby box at Jusarang Community Church in Seoul, South Korea, December 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Joori Roh

SEOUL (Reuters) – In just over a decade, South Korea has spent the equivalent of a small European economy trying to fix its demographic crisis, yet birthrates have dropped to the lowest in the world.

This year, President Moon Jae-In, who describes himself as a feminist president, is testing a new angle: showing women more respect.

At the end of last year, South Korea announced plans to remove some of the disincentives for employing women, allowing both parents to take parental leave at the same time and extending paid paternal leave. Employers also get incentives to allow either parent to work fewer hours.

“Efforts on gender equality are very timely,” said Shin Eun-kyung, an economist with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. South Korea is the worst place for women to work in the OECD, despite women being among the organization’s best educated, and more highly so than men.

But the measures go beyond the workplace: mothers can choose to give the baby their own last name and a tickbox on birth certificates showing whether a baby was born outside marriage will be removed.

Fertility treatments will be offered to single women and unmarried couples as well. Social campaigns will encourage men to participate more in child care and household chores.

Contrast that with a 2016 effort by the previous government, run by the country’s first woman president, Park Geun-hye, which launched a website carrying a real-time statistical heatmap of women of child-bearing age, marriages and births in the hope of spurring competition between cities and regions.

The website was taken down after one day, with women complaining it made them feel like “reproductive organs”.

“The country sees women as baby factories,” says Hong Sook-young, who produces the country’s most popular children TV show. Asked about the latest measures, Hong said “at least pretending to hear what people really want is a start toward change”.

 

TEMPLE BONDING

South Korea’s demographic time bomb is ticking louder. The government’s latest forecast sees its population declining from 2027, and a presidential committee said the country’s economic growth potential could fall to below 1 percent.

Birth rates have long been a policy priority: since 2006, the government has spent 152.9 trillion won ($135.65 billion) – about the size of an economy like Hungary or Nevada – on perks for families and subsidies for children from birth through university and beyond. Last year’s 26.3 trillion low birth policy budget was more than half the defense spending of a country technically still at war with its northern neighbor.

But demographic experts say money is not the main issue: the experience of advanced countries with higher birth rates, such as France or Sweden, shows gender equality plays a crucial role.

The previous allocation of resources drew criticism as well.

The government went far beyond child allowances and subsidizing care and education. For instance, it funded temple stays for family bonding and financed youth seeking brief jobs abroad.

Many such programs will end, with the 2019 birth-support budget cut by a quarter, to 20.5 trillion won.

“It should have been cut a long time ago,” said Jung Jae-hoon, social welfare professor at Seoul Women’s University.

Jung cautioned, however, the signal the government was finally sending will take a long time to filter through the conservative East Asian society.

Births outside marriage, for instance, are so widely frowned upon that they amount to only 1.9 percent of the total, the lowest anywhere. Experts compare that to France, where the ratio is over 50 percent and the birth rate is 1.9 versus South Korea’s 1.05. Abortion is illegal and adoption rules very strict.

The stigma of out-of-wedlock babies has seen Seoul’s Jusarang Community Church build an oven-sized “baby box”, with cushions and a heating system into its outside wall.

Last year, 261 children were abandoned across the country, according to Statistics Korea.

JOBS FOR MEN

About 56 percent of women aged 15-64 work in South Korea, below the OECD average of almost 60 percent, and 72-75 percent in Denmark and Sweden, where birth rates are among the highest of advanced economies.

Recruiters say married young women are less likely to get job opportunities due to discrimination.

In November, the Supreme Court upheld a four-year jail sentence against a former CEO of state-run Korea Gas Safety Corp over manipulating interview scores to knock women out of the hiring process.

While Samsung Electronics has a more balanced gender ratio than Apple globally, with women accounting for 45 percent of the staff versus a third at its U.S. rival, only one in four staff at its Korea headquarters are women. None of the nine board members at Hyundai Motor Co are women, versus six out of 12 at General Motors.

“The whole period of before, during and after childbirth weighs on our career,” said a female assistant manager at Hyundai Motor. The pay gap between sexes only makes it harder, she added.

South Korea’s gender wage gap is highest among advanced countries at 34.6 percent, above OECD average of 13.8 percent.

A Hyundai Motor spokeswoman said the firm was committed to providing equal opportunities to all employees and opposes discrimination. A Samsung Electronics spokeswoman said the company has been recruiting more females, including in managerial positions, and that most staff return to work after parental leave and its daycare centers can look after 3,000 children.

WEAK ECONOMY

Still, critics say while Moon’s approach to birth rates is an improvement, his job and housing policies discourage parenthood. Minimum wage hikes have led to higher unemployment, while larger downpayment requirements have made homes unaffordable for many.

“Creating a structure that enables us to have our own house is mostly needed,” said Lee Kyoung-min, a store manager at Lotte Mart, a father of three.

Some also argue work-life balance could be better: Moon in July cut the working week to 52 hours from 68, but South Koreans still work 15 percent longer than the OECD average.

If birth rates don’t improve, South Korea’s economy could be 5 percent smaller by 2060, as productivity falls and higher spending for elderly care leaves less room for investment, the National Assembly Budget Office estimates.

Industries catering for babies are struggling. Seoul has lost one in four maternity wards and in 2018 the capital sacked more than half its teachers.

Ryu Won-woo, manager of baby fair organizer BeFe, praised the government’s measures, especially those encouraging more responsibilities for dads. But he does not expect quick results.

“More local baby-product companies may disappear before Korea sees more babies,” Ryu said.

(Reporting by Joori Roh; Editing by Marius Zaharia and Lincoln Feast.)

Third woman breaches ban at Indian Hindu temple amid protests

Protesters scuffle with police during a protest against state government for allowing two women to defy an ancient ban and enter the Sabarimala temple, in New Delhi, India, January 3, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

KOCHI, India (Reuters) – A woman aged 46 has become the third to enter the Sabarimala Hindu temple in south India in defiance of an ancient ban on females of menstruating age, the office of the chief minister of Kerala state said on Friday.

It was not immediately clear how the woman, a Sri Lankan, had got in, and the temple management denied that she had in fact entered.

The hill temple, which pays homage to the celibate god Ayyappan and draws millions of worshippers a year, is one of a few in India that bar entry to girls and women between the ages of 10 and 50, saying that menstruating women are impure.

Conservative Hindu groups shut businesses and halted transport across Kerala on Thursday with a protest strike against the communist state government, which backs a Supreme Court ruling in September that ordered the lifting of the ban.

The first two women to breach the ban arrived in an ambulance with a plainclothes police escort on Wednesday and went in through a side gate without any devotees noticing.

VISITS BLOCKED

The chief minister’s office said the third had gone to the temple with her husband, and had been offered police protection.

Media identified her as Sasikala and reported that she had had her womb removed, which would mean she cannot menstruate. They said she had gone in at about 10:55 p.m. on Thursday.

The temple has refused to abide by the court ruling and subsequent attempts by women to visit had been blocked by thousands of devotees. It says the ban is necessary because menstruating women are impure, and denied that another woman had visited.

“The chief minister’s office is lying,” said Ayyappa Dharma Sena leader of the temple and grandson of former chief priest Rahul Easwar. “The pictures of the Sri Lankan woman Sasikala being shown in the media are fake.”

The protests against Kerala’s communist coalition, led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, were backed by both of the main national parties – Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress party. A general election is due by May.

On Friday, only small protests were reported from across the state. Fewer than 100 members of the Congress youth wing marched and shouted slogans against the chief minister in the city of Kochi.

In some parts of South Asia, menstruating women are commonly forbidden to enter houses or temples or take part in festivals and community events.

(Reporting by Sudarshan Varadhan and Jose Devasia in KOCHI; Editing by Martin Howell and Kevin Liffey)

Protests paralyze Indian state after women defy temple ban

Supporters of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) attend a protest rally during a strike against the state government for allowing two women to defy an ancient ban and enter the Sabarimala temple, in Kochi, India, January 3, 2019. REUTERS/Sivaram V

By Sudarshan Varadhan and Neha Dasgupta

KOCHI/NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Conservative Hindu groups paralyzed India’s southern state of Kerala on Thursday protesting against the state government for allowing two women to defy an ancient ban and enter a Hindu temple.

Many small businesses were shut after the groups called for a state-wide stoppage. Most bus services were halted and taxis were refusing to take passengers as some drivers said they feared they would be attacked.

Some protesters burst makeshift bombs outside a police station in the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram, police said.

On Thursday morning, about 400 protesters – including some women – marched towards the main city junction in Kochi, the commercial capital of Kerala, to stage a sit-in, shouting slogans and waving flags, with streets otherwise deserted.

They were backed by officials from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the BJP.

India’s Supreme Court in September ordered the lifting of the ban on women of menstruating age entering the Sabarimala hill temple, which draws millions of worshippers a year.

The temple has refused to abide by the ruling and subsequent attempts by women to visit have been blocked by thousands of devotees.

On Wednesday, two women were escorted by police into the temple through a side gate. They offered prayers from the top of a staircase where they could see the deity below without drawing the attention of the priest or other devotees, a police official familiar with the operation said.

He did not wish to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.

The Kerala state government is run by left-wing parties and has sought to allow women into the temple, a position that has drawn criticism from both of India’s main political parties, the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress.

Policemen wear riot gear before the start of a rally during a strike called by Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to protest against state government for allowing two women to defy an ancient ban and enter the Sabarimala temple, in Kochi, India, January 3, 2019. REUTERS/Sivaram V

Policemen wear riot gear before the start of a rally during a strike called by Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to protest against state government for allowing two women to defy an ancient ban and enter the Sabarimala temple, in Kochi, India, January 3, 2019. REUTERS/Sivaram V

BUSES DAMAGED

The state’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan told reporters women were the target of some attacks by protesters, including women journalists covering the event.

On Wednesday, a woman police constable was molested by five protesters near Kochi, while a protester was pelted with stones and killed in a southern district of the state, police said.

The protests on Thursday remained largely peaceful, Vijay Sakhare, Inspector General of Police Kochi Range, told Reuters.

Since Wednesday, police have arrested more than 700 people and taken more than 600 protesters into preventive custody, V.P. Pramod Kumar, deputy director, public relations, state police headquarters, told Reuters. He said police had riot gear, teargas and water cannons in case protests became unruly.

In several places protesters damaged state-run buses, Kumar said.

A majority of stores in one of the busiest markets in Kochi remained shut even after protesters dispersed in the evening, according to M.C.K Jaleel, the state joint secretary of Kerala Samsthana Vyapari Vyavasayi Samithi, one of the largest merchant associations in the city.

DEFIANCE BY STEALTH

The women, Bindu Ammini, 42, and Kanaka Durga, 44, had approached state police to find a way to enter the temple after a failed attempt on Dec. 24.

For more than a week before Wednesday’s visit, the women were under police protection at an undisclosed location, unknown even to their families, to prevent the plan from leaking out, the police official said.

In the early hours of Wednesday, the police took the two women to the hill temple inside an ambulance to avoid attention. Medical services are frequently used outside the temple to help the elderly who go on the trek, the official said.

After offering prayers, the women merged with the crowd and headed to the exit, accompanied by four police in plain clothes, the police official said.

“Every minute, about 100 devotees throng to the sanctum sanctorum and there was no way the priest would have noticed these two,” he said.

Several women turned away by devotees in previous attempts to enter the temple said they had faced a backlash.

Bindhu Thankam Kalyani, 43, a teacher in Kerala, who tried to enter Sabarimala in October, said she was harassed by protesters. “They would come to my school and intimidate me,” she said.

However, some women who support the ban have criticized the women, saying they were defying religious tradition.

“We have been taught from our childhood that women should not go,” said Saritha C. Nair, 35, an entrepreneur.

(Additional reporting by Jose Devasia; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Plight of stranded Syrians worsens as food blocked

FILE PHOTO: Syrian refugees wait to board a Jordanian army vehicle after crossing into Jordanian territory with their families, in Al Ruqban border area, near the northeastern Jordanian border with Syria, and Iraq, near the town of Ruwaished, 240 km (149 miles) east of Amman September 10, 2015. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed/File Photo

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – Thousands of Syrians stranded on Jordan’s border with Syria are running out of food as routes leading to their camp are closed by the Syrian army and Jordan is blocking aid deliveries, relief workers and refugees said on Thursday.

The Syrian army has tightened its siege of the camp, in Rukban, near the northeastern Jordanian border with Syria and Iraq, preventing smugglers and traders from delivering food to its 50,000 inhabitants, mostly women and children.

“More than a week ago the Syrian regime cut all the routes of supplies towards the camp. There are now only very small amounts of food that smugglers bring,” Abu Abdullah, the head of the civil affairs council that runs the camp, told Reuters.

“The camp is a balloon that could explode at any moment because of hunger, sickness and lack of aid … if the situation continues like this there will be real starvation,” he added by phone.In the last three years, tens of thousands of people have fled to the camp from Islamic State-held parts of Syria that were being targeted by Russian and U.S.-led coalition air strikes.

Rukban is located near a U.S. garrison in southeastern Syria at Tanf on the Iraqi-Syrian border. The camp falls within a so-called deconfliction zone set up by the Pentagon with the aim of shielding the Tanf garrison from attacks by pro-Assad forces.

Damascus says the U.S. forces are occupying Syrian territory and providing a safe-haven in that area for rebels it deems terrorists.

Jordan has since the start of the year blocked any aid deliveries to the camp over its frontier and says now that the Syrian government had recovered territory around the camp, it could not be made responsible for delivering aid.

LIVES AT RISK

With Damascus intransigent, U.N. aid agencies have been pressing Jordan to let in urgent deliveries to stave off more deaths, aid workers and diplomatic sources said.

The U.N. children’s agency UNICEF warned on Thursday that without “critical action” by parties to the conflict to “allow and facilitate access” the lives of thousands of children in the camp were at risk.

“The situation for the estimated 45,000 people – among them many children – will further worsen with the cold winter months fast approaching, especially when temperatures dip below freezing point in the harsh desert conditions,” Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF regional director for Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement.

Already two more infants died in the last 48 hours, Cappelaere added. Relief workers inside the camp say a woman also died this week.

Jordan wants the United Nations and Russia to put pressure on Damascus to give the written authorizations needed to allow supplies into Rukban from Syrian government-held territory.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said recently that his country, already burdened with hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria, could not be made responsible for delivering aid to the camp.

Western diplomatic sources believe the siege of the camp is part of a Russian-backed Syrian government effort to put pressure on Washington to get out of Tanf.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Tom Perry, William Maclean)

More than 3,000 Vietnamese fell victim to human traffickers in 2012-2017

FILE PHOTO - A woman walks along a dirt road during a misty day in Sapa, northwest Vietnam, May 23, 2011. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Khanh Vu

HANOI (Reuters) – More than 3,000 people in Vietnam, most of them women and children, were trafficked between 2012 and 2017, many of them into China, the Ministry of Public Security said on Friday, as parliament sought to tighten laws to tackle the problem.

Human traffickers took people from markets and schools, and used Facebook and a Vietnamese messaging app to befriend victims before selling them to karaoke bars, restaurants or smuggling them abroad, the ministry said in a statement.

Seventy-five percent of cases involved people being smuggled across the border into China, the ministry said.

“Human trafficking has been taking place across the country, not just in remote and mountainous areas,” Le Thi Nga, head of the National Assembly’s justice department, told a hearing on the problem on Thursday.

The National Assembly is reviewing its anti-human trafficking law, introduced in 2012.

Nga said enforcement of the law had faced “difficulties and shortcomings” and urged legislators to introduce more comprehensive guidelines.

The Ministry of Public Security said police had launched investigations into 1,021 human trafficking cases and arrested 2,035 people in the 2012-2017 period.

A total of 3,090 people had been victims of human trafficking during that time, the ministry said, of whom 90 percent were women and children from ethnic minorities living in remote, mountainous areas.

Vietnam should “reduce poverty, eradicate illiteracy, provide vocational training and create jobs for people – especially for the ethnic minorities”, to help address the problem, the ministry said.

(Reporting by Khanh Vu; Editing by James Pearson)

‘Makes me shake with rage’: Japan probe shows university cut women’s test scores

Tetsuo Yukioka (L), Managing Director of Tokyo Medical University and Keisuke Miyazawa, Vice-President of Tokyo Medical University, bow as they attend a news conference in Tokyo, Japan August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) – A Japanese medical school deliberately cut women’s entrance test scores for at least a decade, an investigation panel said on Tuesday, calling it a “very serious” instance of discrimination, but school officials denied having known of the manipulations.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made a priority of creating a society “where women can shine”, but women in Japan still face an uphill battle in employment and face hurdles returning to work after childbirth, a factor behind a falling birthrate.

The alterations were uncovered in an internal investigation of a graft accusation this spring regarding the entrance exam for Tokyo Medical University, sparking protests and anger.

Lawyers investigating bribery accusations in the admission of the son of a senior education ministry official said they concluded that his score, and those of several other men, were boosted “unfairly” – by as much as 49 points, in one case.

They also concluded that scores were manipulated to give men more points than women and thus hold down the number of women admitted since school officials felt they were more likely to quit the profession after having children, or for other reasons.

“This incident is really regrettable – by deceptive recruitment procedures, they sought to delude the test takers, their families, school officials and society as a whole,” lawyer Kenji Nakai told a news conference.

“Factors suggesting very serious discrimination against women was also part of it,” added Nakai, one of the external lawyers the university hired to investigate the incident.

The investigation showed that the scores of men, including those reappearing after failing once or twice, were raised, while those of all women, and men who had failed the test at least three times, were not.

The lawyers said they did not know how many women had been affected, but it appeared that women’s test scores had been affected going back at least a decade.

At a news conference, senior school officials bowed and apologized, pledging to “sincerely” consider their response, such as possible compensation. However, they said they had been unaware of the manipulation.

“Society is changing rapidly and we need to respond to that and any organization that fails to utilize women will grow weak,” said Tetsuo Yukioka, the school’s executive regent and chair of its diversity promotion panel.

“I guess that thinking had not been absorbed.”

No immediate comment was available from the government or the education ministry official who figures in the case.

Entrance exam discrimination against women was “absolutely unacceptable”, Education Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi told reporters last week.

Reports of the incident set off a furor in which women recounted their own experiences of discrimination on social media with the hashtag, “It’s okay to be angry about sexism.”

Some referred to the potential costs exacted in a rapidly aging society.

“I’m 29 and will probably never get married,” said one poster.

“Women are pitied if they don’t, but Japanese women who are married and working and have kids end up sleeping less than anybody in the world. To now hear that even our skills are suppressed makes me shake with rage.”

Another said, “I ignored my parents, who said women don’t belong in academia, and got into the best university in Japan. But in job interviews, I’m told ‘If you were a man, we’d hire you right away.’

“My enemy wasn’t my parents, but all society itself.”

(Reporting by Elaine Lies, additional reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Saudi Arabia’s women drivers get ready to steer their lives

Driving instructor Ahlam al-Somali (R) reads instructions before getting ready to drive with trainee Maria al-Faraj at Saudi Aramco Driving Center in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) – On June 24, when Saudi women are allowed to drive for the first time, Amira Abdulgader wants to be sitting at the wheel, the one in control, giving a ride to her mother beside her.

“Sitting behind the wheel (means) that you are the one controlling the trip,” said the architect, dressed in a black veil, who has just finished learning to drive. “I would like to control every single detail of my trip. I will be the one to decide when to go, what to do, and when I will come back.”

Abdulgader is one of about 200 women at the state oil firm Aramco taking advantage of a company offer to teach female employees and their families at its driving academy in Dhahran to support the social revolution sweeping the kingdom.

“We need the car to do our daily activities. We are working, we are mothers, we have a lot of social networking, we need to go out – so we need transport,” she said. “It will change my life.” (Click for Wider Image picture essay https://reut.rs/2thn2qN )

Women make up about five percent of Aramco’s 66,000 staff, meaning that 3,000 more could eventually enroll in the driving school.

Last September, King Salman decreed an end to the world’s only ban on women drivers, maintained for decades by Saudi Arabia’s deeply conservative Muslim establishment.

But it is his son, 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is the face of the wider social revolution.

Many young Saudis regard his ascent to power as proof that their generation is finally getting a share of control over a country whose patriarchal traditions have for decades made power the province of old men.

For Abdulgader, June 24 will be the day to celebrate that change, and there is only one person she wants to share it with.

“On June 24, I would like to go to my mother’s house and take her for a ride. This is my first plan actually, and I would like really to enjoy it with my mother. Just me and my mother, without anyone else.”

(Reporting by Rania El Gamal; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Alison Williams)

Central American ‘caravan’ women and children enter U.S., defying Trump

Members of a caravan of migrants from Central America line up to receive food near the San Ysidro checkpoint as the first fellow migrants entered U.S. territory to seek asylum on Monday, in Tijuana, Mexico April 30, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

By Delphine Schrank

SAN YSIDRO PORT OF ENTRY (Reuters) – Hopes rose on Tuesday among a caravan of migrants who traveled from Central America to seek asylum in the United States after U.S. border authorities allowed the first small group of women and children entry from Mexico overnight.

Gathering people along the way, the caravan set off a month ago on a 2,000-mile (3,220-km) trek across Mexico to the U.S. border, drawing attention from American news media after President Donald Trump took to Twitter to demand such groups not be granted entry and urging stronger immigration laws.

Celebrations erupted on Monday night among dozens of migrants camped near the U.S. border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, after U.S. officials admitted eight women and children, fueling the determination of others to remain until they were admitted.

However, the U.S. Department of Justice late on Monday announced what it described as the first prosecutions against members of the caravan, filing criminal charges against 11 migrants accused of entering the country illegally about four miles (6 km) west of the San Ysidro, California, border crossing.

“The United States will not stand by as our immigration laws are ignored and our nation’s safety is jeopardized,” U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement announcing the charges.

The statement did not provide a figure on any other caravan members who might have also been detained.

On the asylum applicants, the Trump administration’s hands are tied by international rules obliging the United States to accept some applications. Most in the caravan said they were fleeing death threats, extortion and violence from powerful street gangs.

Dozens of members of the caravan slept in the open for a second cold desert night in the surroundings of the busy San Ysidro port of entry, after pumping fists and cheering the news late on Monday that Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) had opened the gate to eight women and children.

Those left behind said they would continue their sit-in until they were at least allowed to recount their stories to border officials and try to convince them that it was unsafe to go home. The caravan swelled to 1,500 people at one point but has since dwindled to a few hundred.

“We crossed the whole of Mexico,” said Angel Caceres, who said he fled Honduras with his 5-year-old son after his brother and nephew were murdered and his mother beaten and raped. They would stay, he said, “until the last person is in, as long as it takes.”

It was not clear when more of the group would be allowed to make their asylum bids. A CBP spokeswoman said the port of entry was congested with other undocumented immigrants, and that the caravan members might have to wait in Mexico temporarily.

The majority of asylum claims by Central Americans are ultimately unsuccessful, resulting in detention and deportation. The Trump administration says many claims are fake, aided by legal loopholes.

Vice President Mike Pence has accused the caravan’s organizers of persuading people to leave their homes to advance an “open borders” agenda.

Only two of the dozens of people in the caravan who spoke to Reuters over the past month said they were aware of the caravan’s existence before they left home. They said it had not played a role in their decision to flee what they described as appalling conditions.

Asylum seekers must demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution at home, most often from a state entity. Central Americans fare badly in such claims because the state is rarely seen as directly responsible for the life-threatening situations they leave behind.

U.S. border authorities said in a statement over the weekend that some people associated with the caravan were caught trying to slip through the border fence.

Trump on Monday railed against a system that may see some of the caravan members freed in the United States until their cases are resolved, because a shortage of beds at detention centers and rules that limit how long women with children can be held.

“Catch and release is ridiculous. If they touch our property, if they touch our country, essentially you catch them and you release them into our country. That’s not acceptable to anybody, so we need a change in the law,” he said.

(Writing and additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel in Mexico City; editing by Daniel Flynn, Raissa Kasolowsky and Jonathan Oatis)

Toronto police eye deadly van attack suspect’s ‘cryptic message’

Mourners attend a makeshift memorial a day after a van struck multiple people along a major intersection in north Toronto, Ontario, Canada, April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegr

By Anna Mehler Paperny and Nichola Saminather

TORONTO (Reuters) – The man accused of plowing a rental van into pedestrians on a crowded Toronto sidewalk, killing 10 people in Canada’s deadliest mass killing in decades, left a “cryptic message” on social media before his attack, police said on Tuesday.

Suspect Alek Minassian, 25, was charged with 10 counts of murder and 13 counts of attempted murder in the incident.

One possible clue to his motive emerged on Tuesday as Facebook confirmed Minassian wrote a post before the incident that referenced an “incel rebellion.” The term is shorthand used in some online message boards for “involuntary celibacy”, a loose social media movement of men who blame women for their celibacy.

Canadian authorities have declined to say whether anger toward women had motivated the attack.

A mourner reacts at a makeshift memorial a day after a van struck multiple people along a major intersection in north Toronto, Ontario, Canada, April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

A mourner reacts at a makeshift memorial a day after a van struck multiple people along a major intersection in north Toronto, Ontario, Canada, April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

The post also voiced admiration for a man who killed six college students before taking his own life in California in 2014 and who cited the “cruelness of women” for his virgin status.

“The accused is alleged to have posted a cryptic message on Facebook minutes before” the attack, Graham Gibson, a Toronto police detective sergeant, told a news conference. The majority of the victims were women, ranging in age from their mid-20s to early 80s, Gibson said.

He said the question of whether the attack was driven by anger against women was “going to be part of our investigation.”

Facebook has since deleted Minassian’s account, a representative said. “There is absolutely no place on our platform for people who commit such horrendous acts,” she said in an email.

Minassian kept his shaved head down during a brief court appearance in Canada’s largest city, speaking quietly with a defense lawyer and stating his name in a steady voice when asked to do so.

The incident had the hallmarks of deadly vehicle assaults by Islamic State supporters. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there was no reason to suspect any national security connection.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Toronto Mayor John Tory visit a makeshift memorial a day after a van struck multiple people along a major intersection in north Toronto, Ontario, Canada, April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Toronto Mayor John Tory visit a makeshift memorial a day after a van struck multiple people along a major intersection in north Toronto, Ontario, Canada, April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Trudeau called on all Canadians to stand united with Toronto as flowers and scrawled messages in multiple languages piled up at a makeshift memorial in the city’s north end, an ethnically diverse neighborhood of towering office buildings, shops, restaurants and homes.

“We cannot as Canadians choose to live in fear every single day as we go about our daily business,” Trudeau told reporters outside of parliament in Ottawa.

The prime minister said the incident had not changed the country’s threat level or security preparations for a G7 summit in Quebec in June.

Minassian had briefly served in Canada’s armed forces in late 2017 but asked to be voluntarily released after 16 days of training, defense ministry spokeswoman Jessica Lamirande said.

The suspect’s two-story red-brick home in a suburb north of Toronto was a crime scene Tuesday, taped off and surrounded by police vehicles. Officers went in and out of the house.

SOUTH KOREANS AMONG VICTIMS

Details about the dead began to emerge on Tuesday, with a South Korean foreign ministry representative saying that two of that country’s citizens were killed and one injured in the attack. The representative spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.

A Jordanian citizen was also killed, said an official at the country’s embassy in Ottawa.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp identified one of the victims as Anne Marie D’Amico, an employee of asset manager Invesco Canada. In a statement, Invesco confirmed that one of its employees had been killed but did not name her.

It could be days before all the victims are publicly identified, said Ontario Chief Coroner Dirk Huyer said, adding that the extent of their injuries was making some identities difficult to determine.

“It ranges from scrapes and bruises to terrible injuries that I won’t get into discussing here,” Gibson added.

The attack shook the usually peaceful streets of Toronto, which recorded 61 murders last year.

The drama started at lunchtime on a warm spring day, when the driver drove his vehicle into the crowds. The street was soon covered in blood, empty shoes and bodies.

Last October, eight people died in New York when a man driving a rented pickup truck mowed down pedestrians and cyclists on a bike path. The Islamic State militant group encourages its supporters to use vehicles for attacks.

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny and Allision Martell; Additional reporting by Andrea Hopkins in Ottawa; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Cynthia Osterman)

Israeli forces kill 15 Palestinians in Gaza border protests: Gaza medics

A Palestinian demonstrator holds an axe during clashes with Israeli troops, during a tent city protest along the Israel border with Gaza, demanding the right to return to their homeland, the southern Gaza Strip March 30, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA-ISRAEL BORDER (Reuters) – At least 15 Palestinians were killed and hundreds injured by Israeli security forces confronting one of the largest Palestinian demonstrations along the Israel-Gaza border in recent years, Gaza medical officials said.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians, pressing for a right of return for refugees to what is now Israel, gathered at five locations along the fenced 65-km (40-mile) frontier where tents were erected for a planned six-week protest, local officials said. The Israeli military estimate was 30,000.

Families brought their children to the encampments just a few hundred meters (yards) from the Israeli security barrier with the Hamas Islamist-run enclave, and football fields were marked in the sand and scout bands played.

But as the day wore on, hundreds of Palestinian youths ignored calls from the organizers and the Israeli military to stay away from the frontier, where Israeli soldiers across the border kept watch from dirt mound embankments.

The military said its troops had used “riot dispersal means and firing towards main instigators.” Some of the demonstrators were “rolling burning tires and hurling stones” at the border fence and at soldiers.

Two Palestinians were killed by tank fire, the Gaza Health Ministry said. The Israeli military said the two were militants who had opened fire at troops across the border.

Palestinian health officials said Israeli forces used mostly gunfire against the protesters, in addition to tear gas and rubber bullets. Witnesses said the military had deployed a drone over at least one location to drop tear gas.

Live fire was used only against people trying to sabotage the border security fence and at least two of the dead were Hamas operatives, an Israeli military official said.

Gaza health officials said one of the dead was aged 16 and at least 400 people were wounded by live gunfire, while others were struck by rubber bullets or treated for tear gas inhalation.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement that Israel was responsible for the violence and declared Saturday a national day of mourning.

The United Nations Security Council was due to meet later on Friday to discuss the situation in Gaza, diplomats said.

Israeli military vehicles are seen next to the border on the Israeli side of the Israel-Gaza border, as Palestinians demonstrate on the Gaza side of the border, March 30, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Israeli military vehicles are seen next to the border on the Israeli side of the Israel-Gaza border, as Palestinians demonstrate on the Gaza side of the border, March 30, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

RIGHT OF RETURN

The protest presented a rare show of unity among rival Palestinian factions in the impoverished Gaza Strip, where pressure has been building on Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah movement to end a decade-old rift. Reconciliation efforts to end the feud have been faltering for months.

The demonstration was launched on “Land Day,” an annual commemoration of the deaths of six Arab citizens of Israel killed by Israeli security forces during demonstrations over government land confiscations in northern Israel in 1976.

But its main focus was a demand that Palestinian refugees be allowed the right of return to towns and villages which their families fled from, or were driven out of, when the state of Israel was created in 1948.

In a statement, the Israeli military accused Hamas of “cynically exploiting women and children, sending them to the security fence and endangering their lives”.

The military said that more than 100 army sharpshooters had been deployed in the area.

Hamas, which seeks Israel’s destruction, had earlier urged protesters to adhere to the “peaceful nature” of the protest.

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

There were also small protests in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and about 65 Palestinians were injured.

In Gaza, the protest was dubbed “The March of Return” and some of the tents bore names of the refugees’ original villages in what is now Israel, written in Arabic and Hebrew alike.

Citing security concerns, Israel, which withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, blockades the coastal territory, maintaining tight restrictions on the movement of Palestinians and goods across the frontier. Egypt, battling an Islamist insurgency in neighboring Sinai, keeps its border with Gaza largely closed.

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Ori Lewis and Stephen Farrell; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Gareth Jones)