Refugees arriving in US unlikely to exceed cap set by Trump

In this May 11, 2021, file photo shadows of migrants lined up at an intake area are cast along the side of a bus after turning themselves in upon crossing the US-Mexico border in Roma, Texas. (AP)
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Updated 17 May 2021

Refugees arriving in US unlikely to exceed cap set by Trump

  • Biden first proposed raising the cap to 62,500 in February in a plan submitted to Congress

SAN DIEGO, US: President Joe Biden, under political pressure, agreed to admit four times as many refugees this budget year as his predecessor did, but resettlement agencies concede the number actually allowed into the US will be closer to the record-low cap of 15,000 set by former President Donald Trump.

Refugee advocates say they are grateful for the increase because it’s symbolically important to show the world the US is back as a humanitarian leader at a time when the number of refugees worldwide is the highest since World War II. But they’re frustrated, too, because more refugees could have been admitted if Biden hadn’t dragged his feet.

“About 10,000 to 15,000 is what we’re expecting,” said Jenny Yang of World Relief, adding that Biden’s inaction for months after taking office in January was “definitely problematic.”

“That delay meant not being able to process refugee applications for four months. We weren’t able to rebuild for four months, so it really was unfortunate,” Yang said.

Biden first proposed raising the cap to 62,500 in February in a plan submitted to Congress, but then refused to sign off on it for two months before coming back April 16 and suggesting he was sticking with Trump’s target.

Democratic allies and refugee advocates lambasted him, saying he was reneging on his campaign promise in the face of bipartisan criticism over his handling of an increase in unaccompanied migrant children at the US-Mexico border.

“To be clear: The asylum process at the southern border and the refugee process are completely separate immigration systems. Conflating the two constitutes caving to the politics of fear,” said Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Weeks later, on May 3, Biden raised the cap.

So far this year only about 2,500 refugees have arrived, with less than five months left before the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.

More than 35,000 refugees have been vetted and approved to come to the US, but thousands were disqualified under the narrow eligibility criteria Trump established in October when he set the low cap.

By the time Biden expanded the eligibility, many health screenings and documents were no longer valid, according to resettlement agencies. And if someone had a baby during that time, then the entire family could be stalled.

Even under the best circumstances, it can take two months for each case to be updated.

Before the Trump administration’s drastic cuts, the US had admitted more refugees each year than all other countries combined under a program now 41 years old.

With a family history that includes two step-parents who fled Europe during and after WWII, Secretary of State Antony Blinken pushed to restore that leadership by significantly boosting the cap in the early days of the administration. The State Department recommended to the White House the ceiling be set at 62,500, officials said.

But a senior official familiar with Blinken’s thinking said it quickly became clear that the State Department offices responsible for refugee resettlement had been so gutted that they wouldn’t be able to process and absorb that number of refugees.

The official described the situation as “aspiration meeting reality” and said Blinken reluctantly concluded that 62,500 wouldn’t be possible in the short term.

“It turned out there was even more damage done than we knew,” Blinken told reporters this month.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement also has been taxed by the jump in unaccompanied migrant children coming to the US border, according to the administration. Some $85 million was diverted from refugee resettlement money to help care for the children, government documents published by The New York Times show.

Biden did not want to promise something he wasn’t sure was possible, Blinken said.

“So we needed to take some time to make sure that the resources were in place, the people were in place, the programs were in place to actually receive refugees coming in,” he said.

The Trump administration had cut US staff overseas who interview refugees by 117 officers. As a result, the number of interviews that were conducted fell by one-third in 2019 compared with those done in 2016 under the Obama administration. That number fell off almost entirely in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Due to travel restrictions in and out of refugee processing sites worldwide, the US suspended refugee arrivals from March 19 to July 29 of last year except for emergency cases. Only 11,800 refugees were admitted in the 2020 fiscal year, the lowest number in the history of the program.

The administration is working on rehiring that staff and addressing the backlog, including by making it possible to conduct interviews by video teleconferencing instead of doing them in person, deputy State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter said.

But it can take months to train new officers.


US lawmakers meet detained Philippine opposition leader

Updated 6 sec ago

US lawmakers meet detained Philippine opposition leader

  • Leila de Lima was charged with non-bailable drug cases that landed her in jail in February 2017
MANILA: US Sen. Edward Markey, who was once banned from the Philippines by former President Rodrigo Duterte, on Friday met a long-detained Filipino opposition leader, whom he says was wrongfully imprisoned under Duterte and should be freed.
Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and a group of US legislators met former Sen. Leila de Lima for more than an hour in her high-security detention cell in the main police camp in Metropolitan Manila, according to her lawyer, Filibon Tacardon, and police.
Details of their court-authorized meeting were not immediately available.
Duterte had banned Markey and two other American legislators from traveling to the Philippines after they called for de Lima’s release and raised alarm over human rights violations under his presidency. Duterte’s turbulent six-year term ended in June.
The former president’s brutal anti-drugs crackdown, which left thousands of mostly poor suspects dead, has sparked an investigation by the International Criminal Court.
Duterte was succeeded by Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who took office on June 30 following a landslide election victory with his vice presidential running mate Sara Duterte, the former president’s daughter.
Markey and his delegation met Marcos Jr. at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila on Thursday. After the meeting, Marcos Jr. said he looked forward “to continuing our partnership with the US in the areas of renewable energy use, agricultural development, economic reform, and mitigation of drug problems.”
A top critic of Duterte, the 62-year-old de Lima has been locked up for more than five years and has accused the former president and his then-deputies of fabricating the non-bailable drug-linked charges that landed her in jail in February 2017. Her arrest and detention effectively stopped her at the time as a senator from investigating the widespread killings under Duterte’s campaign against illegal drugs.
Duterte had insisted on her guilt, saying witnesses testified that she received payoffs from imprisoned drug lords. Several witnesses, however, have recently recanted their allegations against her, re-igniting calls for the Marcos Jr. administration to free her.
Markey, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations East Asia and Pacific Subcommittee, renewed deep concerns over human rights conditions under then-outgoing President Duterte in a joint statement in June with two other US senators.
They said then that the incoming administration of Marcos Jr. provided an “opportunity to reject the repression of the past, release Sen. Leila de Lima and embrace policies that support the rule of law and a vibrant free press in the Philippines.”
It was not immediately clear if Markey renewed his call for de Lima’s release in Thursday’s meeting with Marcos Jr. and how the Philippine leader responded.

No Tube: London subway hit by strike, day after rail walkout

Updated 19 August 2022

No Tube: London subway hit by strike, day after rail walkout

  • No subway trains were running on most of London’s Tube lines because of the strike over jobs, pay and pensions
  • Rail unions accuse Britain’s Conservative government of preventing train companies from making a better offer

LONDON: A strike by London Underground workers brought the British capital’s transit network to a grinding halt on Friday, a day after a nationwide walkout by railway staff. Another rail strike is scheduled for Saturday as the UK endures a summer of action by workers demanding pay increases to offset soaring food and energy price hikes.
No subway trains were running on most of London’s Tube lines because of the strike over jobs, pay and pensions by members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union, operator Transport for London said.
“It is going to be a difficult day,” said Nick Dent, TFL’s director of customer operations. “We’re advising customers not to travel on the Tube at all.”
There was also continuing disruption above ground as trains started to run again following Thursday’s strike by thousands of railway cleaners, signalers, maintenance workers and other staff. Only about a fifth of trains ran during the 24-hour walkout, the latest in a series of strikes on Britain’s railways.
Rail unions accuse Britain’s Conservative government of preventing train companies — which are privately owned but heavily regulated — from making a better offer. The government denies meddling, but says rail companies need to cut costs and staffing after two years in which emergency government funding kept them afloat.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Times Radio that “it’s a kick in the teeth” to the public for unions “to turn round after we provided 16 billion pounds of support for the railways and go ‘Right, well, the next thing we’re going to do is go on strike.’”
More public- and private-sector unions are planning strikes as Britain faces its worst cost-of-living crisis in decades. Postal workers, lawyers, British Telecom staff and port workers have all announced walkouts for later this month.
Garbage collectors and recycling workers in Edinburgh, Scotland, began an 11-day strike on Thursday, warning that trash will pile up in the streets as tourists flock to the city for the Edinburgh Fringe and other arts festivals.
UK inflation hit a new 40-year high of 10.1 percent in July, and the Bank of England says it could rise to 13 percent amid a recession later this year. The average UK household fuel bill has risen more than 50 percent so far in 2022 as Russia’s war in Ukraine squeezes global oil and natural gas supplies. Another increase is due in October, when the average bill is forecast to hit 3,500 pounds ($4,300) a year.


Australia upset at Indonesia reducing Bali bomber’s sentence

Updated 19 August 2022

Australia upset at Indonesia reducing Bali bomber’s sentence

  • Umar Patek could be released on parole ahead of the 20th anniversary of the bombings in October
  • Australian leader Anthony Albanese: ‘His actions were the actions of a terrorist’

CANBERRA: Australia’s leader said Friday that it’s upsetting Indonesia has further reduced the prison sentence of the bombmaker in the Bali terror attack that killed 202 people — which could free him within days if he’s granted parole.
The most recent reduction of Umar Patek’s sentence takes his total reductions to almost two years and means Patek could be released on parole ahead of the 20th anniversary of the bombings in October.
“This will cause further distress to Australians who were the families of victims of the Bali bombings,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told Channel 9. “We lost 88 Australian lives in those bombings.”
Albanese said he would continue making “diplomatic representations” to Indonesia about Patek’s sentence and a range of other issues, including Australians currently jailed in Indonesia. Albanese described Patek as “abhorrent.”
“His actions were the actions of a terrorist,” Albanese told Channel 9. ”They did have such dreadful results for Australian families that are ongoing, the trauma which is there.”
Indonesia often grants sentence reductions to prisoners on major holidays such as the nation’s Independence Day, which was Wednesday.
Patek received a 5-month reduction on Independence Day for good behavior and could walk free this month from Porong Prison in East Java province if he gets parole, said Zaeroji, who heads the provincial office for the Ministry of Law and Human Rights.
Zaeroji, who goes by a single name, said Patek had the same rights as other inmates and had fulfilled legal requirements to get sentence reductions. “While in the prison, he behaved very well and he regrets his radical past which has harmed society and the country and he has also vowed to be a good citizen,” Zaeroji said.
Patek was arrested in Pakistan in 2011 and tried in Indonesia, where he was convicted in 2012. He was originally sentenced to 20 years imprisonment.
With his time served plus sentence reductions, he became eligible for parole on Aug. 14. The decision from the Ministry of Law and Human Rights in Jakarta is still pending, Zaeroji said. If refused parole, he could remain jailed until 2029.
Patek was one of several men implicated in the attack, which was widely blamed on Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian militant group with ties to Al-Qaeda. Most of those killed in the bombing on the resort island were foreign tourists.
Another conspirator, Ali Imron, was sentenced to life. Earlier this year, a third militant, Aris Sumarsono, whose real name is Arif Sunarso but is better known as Zulkarnaen, was sentenced to 15 years following his capture in 2020 after 18 years on the run.
Jan Laczynski, a survivor of the bombings, told Channel 9 that many Australians will be “devastated” by Patek’s potential release. “This guy should not be going out unsupervised, unmonitored,” he said.


North Korea dismisses Seoul’s aid-for-disarmament offer

Updated 19 August 2022

North Korea dismisses Seoul’s aid-for-disarmament offer

  • Kim Yo Jong: Country has no intentions to give away nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles program for economic cooperation

SEOUL: The sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said her country will never accept South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s “foolish” offer of economic benefits in exchange for denuclearization steps, accusing Seoul of recycling proposals Pyongyang already rejected.
In a commentary published by state media Friday, Kim Yo Jong stressed that her country has no intentions to give away its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles program for economic cooperation, saying “no one barters its destiny for corn cake.”
She questioned the sincerity of South Korea’s calls for improved bilateral relations while it continues its combined military exercises with the United States and fails to stop civilian activists from flying anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets and other “dirty waste” across their border.
She also ridiculed South Korea’s military capabilities, saying the South misread the launch site of the North’s latest missile tests on Wednesday, hours before Yoon used a news conference to urge Pyongyang to return to diplomacy.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, expressed “strong regret” over Kim Yo Jong’s comments that it said were disrespectful to President Yoon Suk Yeol and reaffirmed the North’s desire to continue developing nuclear weapons.
“This attitude from North Korea will not only threaten peace on the Korean Peninsula but result in further difficulties for the North by worsening its international isolation and economic situation,” said Lee Hyo-jung, a ministry spokesperson.
Kim Yo Jong last week had threatened “deadly” retaliation against the South over the COVID-19 outbreak in the North, which it dubiously claims was caused by leaflets and other objects dropped from balloons launched by southern activists.
Yoon during a nationally televised speech on Monday proposed an “audacious” economic assistance package to North Korea if it takes steps to abandon its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles program. The offers of large-scale aid in food and health care and modernizing electricity generation systems and seaports and airports weren’t meaningfully different from previous South Korean proposals rejected by the North, which is speeding the development of an arsenal Kim Jong Un sees as his strongest guarantee of survival.
Kim Yo Jong, one of the most powerful officials in her brother’s government who oversees inter-Korean affairs, said Yoon displayed the “height of absurdity” with his offer, saying it was realistic as creating “mulberry fields in the dark blue ocean.”
She said South Korea’s words and actions would only incite “surging hatred and wrath” from North Koreans and insisted Pyongyang has no immediate plans to revive long-stalled diplomacy with Seoul. “It is our earnest desire to live without awareness of each other,” she said.
Inter-Korean ties have worsened amid a stalemate in larger nuclear negotiations between North Korea and the US that derailed in 2019 because of disagreements over a relaxation of crippling US-led sanctions on the North in exchange for disarmament steps.
There are concerns that Kim Yo Jong’s threats last week over the leafletting portends a provocation, of which the possibilities may include a nuclear or missile test or even border skirmishes. The United States and South Korea kick off their biggest combined training in years next week to counter the North Korean threat. The North describes such drills as invasion rehearsals and has often responded to them with missile tests or other provocations.
During Wednesday’s news conference, Yoon expressed hope for meaningful dialogue with the North over his aid-for-disarmament proposal. Maintaining a reserved tone, Yoon said his government has no plans to pursue its own nuclear deterrent and doesn’t desire political change in Pyongyang that’s brought by force.
Yoon spoke hours after South Korea’s military detected North Korea firing two suspected cruise missiles toward the sea and identified the western coastal site of Onchon as the launch location. Kim Yo Jong in her column said the weapons were fired from a bridge in the city of Anju, north of Onchon and farther inland, and ridiculed South Korean and US capacities to monitor North Korean missile activity. The South’s military has yet to release its analyzed flight details of those missiles.
“If the data and flight trajectory (of the missiles) are known, (the South) will be so bewildered and afraid,” Kim Yo Jong said. “It will be a thing worthy of seeing how they will explain about it before their people.”
The latest launches extended a record pace in North Korean missile testing in 2022, which has involved more than 30 ballistic launches, including the country’s first demonstrations of intercontinental ballistic missiles in nearly five years.
North Korea’s heighted testing activity underscores its dual intent to advance its arsenal and force the United States to accept the idea of the North as a nuclear power so it can negotiate economic and security concessions from a position of strength, experts say.
Kim Jong Un could up the ante soon as there are indications that the North is preparing to conduct its first nuclear test since September 2017, when it claimed to have developed a thermonuclear weapon to fit on its ICBMs.


Erdogan warns of ‘another Chernobyl’ after talks in Ukraine

Updated 19 August 2022

Erdogan warns of ‘another Chernobyl’ after talks in Ukraine

  • A flare-up in fighting around Europe’s largest nuclear facility in Russian-controlled southern Ukraine has sparked urgent warnings from world leaders

LVIV, Ukraine: Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Thursday of a nuclear disaster in Ukraine during his first face-to-face talks with President Volodymyr Zelensky since Russia’s invasion began, echoing pleas from the UN’s chief.
A flare-up in fighting around Europe’s largest nuclear facility in Russian-controlled southern Ukraine has sparked urgent warnings from world leaders, and UN chief Antonio Guterres cautioned during talks with Erdogan that any damage to the plant would be akin to “suicide.”
“We are worried. We don’t want another Chernobyl,” Erdogan said during a press conference in the eastern city of Lviv, during which he also assured the Ukrainian leader that Ankara was a firm ally.
“While continuing our efforts to find a solution, we remain on the side of our Ukraine friends,” Erdogan said.
Guterres said he was “gravely concerned” about the situation at the plant and that it had to be demilitarized, adding: “We must tell it like it is — any potential damage to Zaporizhzhia is suicide.”
Erdogan, who has major geopolitical rivalries with the Kremlin but maintains a close working relationship with President Vladimir Putin, met with the Russian leader less than two weeks ago in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
The Turkish leader and Guterres were key brokers of a deal inked in Istanbul last month allowing for the resumption of grain exports from Ukraine after Russia’s invasion blocked essential global supplies.
The success of the grain deal contrasts with failed peace talks early in the war, and Zelensky on Thursday ruled out peace with Russia unless it withdrew its troops from Ukraine.
He told reporters he was “very surprised” to hear from Erdogan that Russia was “ready for some kind of peace,” adding: “First they should leave our territory and then we’ll see.”
Fighting raged along the front on Thursday and early Friday.
Bombardments across the city of Kharkiv and nearby Krasnograd left at least six dead and 25 injured on Thursday, just one day after Russian bombardments killed 13 in the country’s second-largest urban center.
Early-morning shelling on Friday also targeted the city of Nikopol, according to a local military official, while the mayor of Mykolayiv reported “massive explosions” there around the same time.
Fighting in recent weeks has focused around the southern region of Zaporizhzhia and the nuclear facility there, and Zelensky called on the UN to ensure security at the plant after direct talks with Guterres, while also blaming Russia for “deliberate” attacks on the facility.
Russian forces took the plant in March and uncertainty surrounding it has fueled fears of a nuclear incident.
Moscow dismissed Ukrainian allegations Thursday, saying its forces had not deployed heavy weapons at Zaporizhzhia and accusing Kyiv of preparing a “provocation” there that would see Russia “accused of creating a man-made disaster at the plant.”
Kyiv, however, insisted it was Moscow that was planning a “provocation” at the facility.
Ukrainian military intelligence said in a Facebook post on Thursday night that it had received reports that all but a “small part of operational personnel” at the plant had been ordered to stay home on Friday, while representatives of Russia’s state nuclear operator “actually left the territory” of the facility.
“Considering the number of weapons that are currently located on the territory of the nuclear plant, as well as repeated provocative shelling, there is a high probability of a large-scale terrorist attack at the nuclear facility,” it said.

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