World Italy says 2,500 boat migrants rescued at sea in three days


ROME, Feb 23 (Reuters) – Almost 2,500 boat migrants were rescued in the past three days, the Italian Coast Guard said on Thursday, as this year’s arrivals already far outpace the record-setting 2016.

Some 1,100 were plucked from nine flimsy vessels off the coast of Libya on Thursday, the Coast Guard said, after a total of 1,360 were picked up the two preceding days.

Since the beginning of the year, there have been more than 10,700 sea arrivals, the Interior Ministry said on Thursday, a third higher than the same period last year.

“The situation is more dramatic than ever,” said Mathilde Auvillain, a spokeswoman on board the Aquarius, a rescue ship run by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders (MSF).

Last year a record 181,000 boat migrants reached Italy and more than 5,000 died in the Mediterranean. Since 2015, more than a million-and-a-half migrants have flooded into Europe.

To stop the flow, Italy and the European Union earlier this month pledged to fund migrant camps in Libya run by the U.N.-backed government, and to supply equipment and training for the fight against people smugglers.

But humanitarian groups including SOS Mediterranee and MSF have criticised the deal, saying Libya is not safe.

“In Libya, the police tells you they will deport you back to your country, but they don’t,” said Collins, 27, from Benin City, Nigeria, according to comments made to the Aquarius crew on Wednesday and Thursday.

“They just sell you to someone else. You cannot trust anybody in Libya, you never know if they are police or gangsters,” he said.

Youssef from Gambia said that since the signing of the EU-Libya migrants have heard that the sea journey may soon be shut down.

“I heard that they will close this route in one month, I’m very worried about my people, the blacks, who are still there in Libya. The situation is terrible,” he said. (Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

Bodies of 74 migrants heading to Europe wash up in Libya Feb. 21, 2017 Updated 6:25 a.m.


CAIRO – At least 74 bodies of African migrants have washed ashore in western Libya, the Libyan Red Crescent said Tuesday, the latest tragedy at sea along a perilous trafficking route to Europe.

The bodies were found near the western Libyan city of Zawiya on Monday, Red Crescent spokesman Mohammed al-Misrati told The Associated Press, adding that he feared more might surface. He said a torn rubber boat, the kind that usually carry up to 120 people, was found nearby.

The Red Crescent’s branch in Zawiya said there are bodies still floating out at sea but it has no means to retrieve them.

The International Organization of Migration said the traffickers took the engine and left the boat to drift. Another 12 migrants remain missing and are “presumed drowned,” and a sole survivor was transferred to a hospital in a coma, the U.N. migration agency said on Twitter.

The Red Crescent posted photographs of dozens of bodies in white and black bags, lined up along the shore. Al-Misrati said the bodies would be taken to a cemetery for unidentified people in the capital, Tripoli. The Red Crescent appealed for help on Facebook, saying there are no vehicles to transport the bodies.

Al-Misrati had initially said the bodies were found overnight Tuesday, but later clarified that they were recovered Monday afternoon and evening.

Libyan coast guard spokesman Ayoub Gassim said over 500 migrants were rescued at sea on Friday and Saturday off the coast of Sebratha, a city to the west of Zawiya. The migrants’ boats were about 5-7 miles (8-11 kilometers) from the coast.

Gassim said the smugglers pack larger rubber boats with up to 180 people, dramatically increasing the risk of capsizing.

“We are seeing the new boats, which are not equipped with anything, but they carry more people,” he said. “This is going to be even more disastrous for the migrants.”

The Libya to Italy smuggling route across the Mediterranean has seen record numbers of migrant drownings in 2016, Fabrice Leggeri, director of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, said last week. Some 4,579 migrant deaths were documented in 2016, up from 2,869 deaths the previous year and 3,161 in 2014. The real number of deaths is believed to be much higher.

Leggeri blamed the small dinghies and poor vessels used by the smugglers for the high death rate. The smugglers also appear more willing to brave the choppy winter sea. January alone saw 228 recorded deaths, by far the biggest monthly toll in recent years. IOM says the latest tragedy brings the total death toll this year to 365.

More than 180,000 people made the crossing last year, an increase of 17 percent from 2015.

Libya was plunged into turmoil by the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, and has since emerged as a popular, if extremely dangerous, route to Europe for those fleeing poverty and civil war elsewhere in Africa.

Libya is largely governed by local militias, many of which profit from the trafficking. Rights groups say migrants traversing Libya have been tortured, raped and subjected to forced labor.

The European Union has plans to halt the tide by training the Libyan coast guard and stepping up cooperation with neighboring Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. But rights groups fear that such measures could leave tens of thousands of migrants stranded in the restive country.

The plan would also require a much stronger Libyan government capable of controlling the country’s waters. At present, Libya is split between two competing governments which convene in different parts of the country.

The head of Doctors Without Borders, Arjan Hehenkamp, says the EU plan shows that it is “delusional about just how dangerous the situation in Libya really is.”

His organization, also known by its French acronym MSF, has aided in the sea rescues. He said survivors have recounted starving in Libyan detention centers and other abuses.

In Red Sea, Gulf states look to block Iran’s expansion



Moves by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to expand their military reach across the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden have long-term objectives, most prominent among them blocking Iranian ad­vances in a region that has become increasingly strategic in the strug­gle between the Arab monarchies and the Islamic Republic.

The drive by the two heavy­weights of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to strengthen their regional security roles has picked up steam as the United States’ scal­ing back of its military commitment as protector of the Arab monarchies in the Gulf has encouraged Iran’s efforts to assert itself as the dominant regional power.

This is an ambition that predates the 1979 overthrow of Shah Moham­mad Reza Pahlavi and was sharpened after U.S. president George W. Bush crushed Saddam Hussein with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Arab bulwark against Iranian ex­pansion and Iran’s arch-enemy.

In recent years, Iran has sought to establish alliances with Eritrea, Su­dan and other countries in the Red Sea region to enhance its capabili­ties against two of its key enemies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, which both have naval access to the Red Sea.

The Yemen war, in which Iran supports the Houthi rebels Saudi Arabia and the UAE are fighting, has provided Tehran with a toehold in the Red Sea.

It could also offer potential naval bases from which it could threaten shipping through the Bab el Man­deb strait, the Red Sea’s southern gateway to the Indian Ocean, as it has long sought to do with the Strait of Hormuz, the only way in and out of the Arabian Gulf.

The Horn of Africa is particularly important because it has a 2,500-mile coastline that runs from Sudan in the north to Kenya in the south and lies astride the Red Sea and South African cape maritime routes.

GCC fears of Iranian hegemony were sharply heightened in July 2015 with the nuclear agreement between Iran and U.S.-led global powers, which Gulf leaders con­cluded marked a dangerous shift in the Middle East’s balance of power.

Between them, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have either established or are preparing three military bases strategically located around the western shore of the Red Sea and on the Gulf of Aden.

On Feb. 12, the parliament of Somaliland, which broke away from the fractured Somali republic and declared its independence in 1991, overwhelmingly approved al­lowing the UAE to build a military base at the port of Berbera on the Gulf of Aden.

The scale of that facility is unclear but the UAE is constructing a major air and naval base in Eritrea at the Red Sea port of Assab under a 2015 agreement, and from it has already mounted operations in Yemen, 37 miles to the east.

Saudi Arabia is finalizing an agree­ment for a base in Djibouti with the government of the former French territory, with which Riyadh signed a security pact in 2016.

Djibouti has the added advan­tage of being a member of the Arab League and of the 34-state Saudi-led anti-Iranian “Islamic coalition” announced in December 2015.

The United States operates its main regional counter-terrorism base there at a former French For­eign Legion facility. China is build­ing a base there, too, with an eye on its westward expansion into Af­rica and securing vital Indian Ocean trade routes.

There are, however, broader pur­poses behind the military expan­sion by the Gulf Arab states towards a Saudi-led grand alliance of Sunni countries as the United States with­draws.

One is to isolate the Islamic threat from Somalia, where the al-Shabab movement has close ties with Yem­en-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, which is deemed by the United States to be one of the terror group’s most dangerous wings.

Another factor is food. “The GCC is interested in north-eastern Africa for its agriculture,” the U.S.-based global security consultancy Stratfor observed in a Jan. 3 analysis.

“From across the Red Sea, Arab states see stretches of arable land that could feed their people as well as the large workforce needed to farm that land. To that end, Saudi Arabia has prioritized agricultural investment in the region.”

This article originally appeared at The Arab Weekly.


Teen refugee from Eritrea arrives in San Jose after travel ban delay

Laura Fantone of Oakland welcomes her new foster child, a 17-year-old refugee girl from Ethiopia, who arrived Friday at San Jose International Airport. Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, the girl's legal guardian, asked that she not be identified and her face not be photographed. (Tatiana Sanchez/ Bay Area News Group).


The 17-year-old girl arrived alone in San Jose on Friday, marking a new chapter in a painstaking journey that took her from a refugee camp in Ethiopia to a new life in the Bay Area.

Waiting at the end of a long passageway was her new foster mother, an Oakland sociologist with no children of her own.

The two women had never spoken, yet they would go home as mother and daughter.

The teenager’s trip to the U.S., after years of waiting, was interrupted by President Trump’s order suspending refugee arrivals and her original trip to San Jose was cancelled. But on Friday, she finally landed at Mineta San Jose International Airport, where she met her foster mother, Laura Fantone, after being greeted by a small crowd holding welcome posters and balloons.

Once an activist in her native Italy, Fantone had volunteered at refugee camps across Europe and welcomed refugees fleeing political turmoil in Yugoslavia. But this time, something spurred her to act in a much larger way, she said.

“I did the (foster parent) training and started to really take in the idea of what it means to open your door, open your home, open your heart to someone that you don’t know,” said Fantone, who teaches at Santa Clara University.

“I’m glad that I have this chance, but a lot of people are still struggling to get out of the countries that have been blocked because they are a Muslim-majority and this is clearly unconstitutional.”

Fantone said she spent Thursday shopping for ingredients to cook traditional Eritrean dishes, which she researched online. Their first few days together will be spent exploring their East Bay neighborhood, shopping, meeting family members and making trips to the library, she said.

The Eritrean girl is going home with Fantone as part of a refugee foster program run by Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County. Catholic Charities, the girl’s legal guardian, declined to identify her in order to maintain her privacy. Since the Eritrean government does not allow people to leave the country, they feared naming her would put her extended family and other loved ones at risk, according to Angela Albright, director of the organization’s refugee foster care program.

Alone in her native Eritrea, the girl fled to Ethiopia to escape political turmoil. In Ethiopia, she lived in a refugee camp for many years.

Albright did not provide details but said the girl is an orphan. She was cleared to enter the U.S. by the United Nations after several years of vetting, according to Catholic Charities, which trains potential foster parents and later matches them with a refugee child.

“These are wonderful human beings who open their homes to kids that they don’t know and often don’t speak the same language,” Albright said. “But they recognize the bigger picture here, that these are kids that deserve a loving home. They deserve a second chance and a new opportunity.”

Catholic Charities’ Refugee Foster Care program is the only program in Northern California that serves unaccompanied refugee children who are fleeing oppression, according to staff.

Critics say that welcoming refugees from around the world puts the U.S. at increased risk of terrorism. Many also argue that refugees take valuable resources away from American citizens who need the same services. At the airport on Friday, one traveler told the crowd welcoming the girl to “go home.”

Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order suspended the entry of residents from seven Muslim-majority countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — for 90 days and temporarily suspended U.S. refugee admissions.

After a Washington state judge blocked the order last week, families throughout the Bay Area were reunited with spouses, students, business travelers and vacationers who had been stranded overseas.

The Trump administration appealed the Washington judge’s order, but on Thursday a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that the travel ban will remain suspended.

When she arrived In San Jose, a surprise awaited the refugee girl. As she walked past airport security, she saw a familiar face — her best friend from the refugee camp in Ethiopia had also been resettled in the Bay Area. The two cried as they embraced.

Overwhelmed, the girl asked for privacy through a translator and walked off with her best friend and her new foster mother.

From Arizona to Eritrea, a deadly start to 2017 for migrants – IOM

Image may contain: cloud, sky, outdoor and water


GENEVA, Feb 10 (Reuters) – More than 400 migrant deaths have been recorded so far in 2017, including on the Mediterranean crossings to Europe from North Africa and the route into the United States from Mexico, the International Organization for Migration said on Friday.

The deaths were recorded in the slow winter months and the IOM fears the toll will rise in the warmer weather, spokesman Joel Millman told a U.N. briefing in Geneva.

“Forty days into the year we’ve recorded almost 420 deaths worldwide of migrants, which is a rate of about 10 a day,” Millman said. “That is half of last year’s total rate.”

The IOM receives migration data sporadically. This week an update from Pima county in Arizona added 15 deaths to the total from a single county on the U.S.-Mexican border. It was unclear when the deaths occurred, he said.

“We’ve seen drownings in the Rio Bravo on the other side of the border at a much more robust pace than this time last year. We don’t know if this is reflecting more traffic or just a very unlucky stretch. It’s impossible to speculate on the motives,” Millman said.

Asked if people could be rushing to enter the United States before U.S. President Donald Trump tightens border controls, he said the strengthening U.S. economy might also be a lure, spurring an earlier rush than the usual mid-March “commuting season”.

In Europe, migrants and refugees are crossing the Mediterranean in far smaller numbers than a year ago, after the route between Turkey and Greece was effectively shut down, but traffic has become much heavier on the smaller and more dangerous route between North Africa and Italy.

Most of those making the trip are from West Africa, but most of those dying are from East Africa, specifically Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Although many bodies are never recovered from the sea, information from activists tracking social media for enquiries about missing family members show those nationalities are most at risk.

Many other migrants die in the desert or in detention centres in Libya, or are killed along the way.

“Eritreans are known to be Christians, and quite a number of them have a cross tattooed on their foreheads. That’s always been a source of great danger crossing parts of North Africa and into the Sinai,” Millman said.

In South America, migrant mortality so far this year is twice the rate of a year ago. “That doesn’t bode for a very safe year ahead,” Millman said.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Janet Lawrence)