U.S., partners take punitive action against Belarus

By Daphne Psaledakis and Simon Lewis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States on Thursday imposed restrictions on dealings in new issuances of Belarusian sovereign debt and expanded sanctions on the country, targeting dozens of individuals and entities in an action coordinated with partners including the EU.

Washington increased pressure on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, targeting the country’s defense, security and potash sectors as well as officials and Lukashenko’s son in the move aimed at making Belarus accountable for allegedly orchestrating a migrant crisis in Europe.

The action was coordinated with Canada, Britain and the European Union. In a joint statement the group called on Lukashenko’s government to immediately and completely halt its orchestrating of irregular migration across its borders with the EU.

“Those, in Belarus or in third countries, who facilitate illegal crossing of the EU’s external borders should know this comes at a substantial cost,” the statement said.

The action came as East-West tensions have risen over the refugee crisis on the borders between Belarus, a Russian ally, and Poland and Lithuania.

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said it would retaliate against the EU sanctions. In a statement, it said: “The goal of this policy is to economically strangle Belarus, to complicate and worsen the life of Belarusians.”

“As a response, as we have previously said, we will take harsh, asymmetrical but adequate measures.”

It did not immediately comment on the action from the United States, Canada or the United Kingdom.

The U.S. Treasury Department issued a directive restricting Americans from transacting in, provision of and other dealings in new Belarusian sovereign debt with a maturity greater than 90 days issued on or after Thursday by the country’s finance ministry or Development Bank.


Washington also imposed sanctions on Belarus’s state-owned tourism company, Republican Unitary Enterprise Tsentrkurort, and seven Belarusian government officials over the migrant crisis.

EU countries have accused Belarus of creating a migrant standoff nL1N2SM0RR on the bloc’s eastern borders by encouraging thousands from the Middle East and Africa to try to cross into Poland and Lithuania, in revenge for Western sanctions on Minsk.

Lukashenko denies doing so and pins the blame for the crisis on the EU.

Rights groups say at least 13 people have died as migrants have camped in freezing conditions at the border.

Entities related to the potash sector were also blacklisted on Thursday. Britain targeted one of the world’s largest potash fertilizer producers, Belaruskali, while Washington imposed sanctions on several entities in an effort to limit the financial benefits Lukashenko’s government derives from potash exports.

Washington had already blacklisted the state-run Belaruskali in August, but added its exporting arm, the Belarus Potash Company, and another potash producer, Slavkali. Shares of global potash producers rose on Thursday following the announcement.

The U.S. Treasury issued a general license, authorizing activities necessary for the wind-down of transactions involving the Belarusian Potash Company or its subsidiary, Agrorozkvit LLC, until April 1.

Belarus Potash Company did not immediately reply to a request for comment.


Washington also blacklisted state-owned cargo carrier Transaviaexport Airlines, which it accused of shipping thousands of tons of ammunition and weapons to foreign conflict zones such as Libya, and two of its aircraft, as well as five entities that produce or export defense materials.

The defense firms listed included the makers of riot control barriers and armored vehicles that were deployed against demonstrators protesting the August 2020 election, a surveillance system maker and the state weapons exporter that provides cash for the government.

Brian O’Toole, a former Treasury official now with the Atlantic Council, said Thursday’s move helped the United States catch up with previous European Union action while also leaving “significant” room for escalation, giving Washington leverage to continue to pressure Minsk.

“This is exactly what you want to see out of the U.S. It’s a big action, it will have lots of impact, and there’s still lots of head room,” he said.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis, Simon Lewis and Tim Ahmann in Washington, Polina Devitt in Moscow; Robin Emmott in Brussels and David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets in Kyiv, Rod Nickel in Winnipeg and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber in Moscow; Editing by Matthew Lewis, Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Frances Kerry)


Turkey curbs flights to Belarus to ease migrant crisis

By Robin Emmott and Tuvan Gumrukcu

BRUSSELS/ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey banned Syrian, Yemeni and Iraqi citizens from flights to Minsk on Friday, potentially closing off one of the main routes that the EU says Belarus has used to fly in migrants by the thousand to engineer a humanitarian crisis on its frontier.

Thousands of migrants from the Middle East are sheltering in freezing conditions in the woods on the border between Belarus and the EU states Poland and Lithuania, which are refusing to let them cross. Some have already died and there are fears for the safety of the rest as bitter winter conditions settle in.

The EU accuses Belarus of creating the crisis as part of a “hybrid attack” on the bloc – distributing Belarusian visas in the Middle East, flying in the migrants and pushing them to cross the border illegally. Brussels may impose new sanctions on Belarus and airlines it blames for ferrying the migrants, as soon as Monday.

EU officials welcomed Friday’s announcement by Turkey’s Civil Aviation General Directorate that Syrians, Yemenis and Iraqis would not be permitted to buy tickets to Belarus or board flights there from Turkish territory.

Turkey has denied playing a direct role by allowing its territory to be used to ferry in migrants. But Minsk airport’s website listed six commercial flights arriving from Istanbul on Friday, the most from any city outside the former Soviet Union.

European officials have repeatedly said their best hope of resolving the crisis is to stop would-be migrants in the Middle East from boarding flights for Belarus at the source, and that diplomats were negotiating in the region to achieve this.

“These contacts are already showing fruit,” a European Commission spokesperson said.

The EU spokesperson said Iraqi Airways had also agreed to halt flights to Belarus. A spokesperson for the airline said all airlines in Iraq had already suspended flights to Belarus several months ago at the request of the Iraqi government.

Belarus denies that it has fomented the crisis, but has also said it cannot help resolve it unless Europe lifts existing sanctions. The EU imposed several rounds of measures in response to President Alexander Lukashenko’s violent crackdown on mass street protests against his rule in 2020.

Lukashenko, a close ally of Russia, threatened this week to cut off Russian gas supplies delivered to Europe through Belarusian territory. On Friday, the Kremlin appeared to distance itself from that threat, saying it was not consulted in advance of Lukashenko’s remarks and it would fulfil its gas delivery contracts.

But Moscow shows no sign of leaning on Lukashenko to resolve the border crisis, and has made a number of demonstrations of its military support for him in recent days. Russian and Belarusian paratroopers held joint drills near the border on Friday, and the Russian air force has sent planes this week to patrol the frontier.

“From our point of view, the Russian president has the possibility to influence the situation and we expect him to take appropriate steps,” a German government spokesperson said.

At the border, Polish authorities said they had foiled 223 attempts to cross the border illegally from Belarus overnight, including two large groups. They estimate the number of migrants trapped along the border at 3,000-4,000.

Neighboring Lithuania reported 110 crossing attempts overnight and said it would be finishing a 100-km razor wire barrier along the border by Dec. 10, three weeks ahead of schedule.


The EU has so far fully backed Poland and Lithuania in taking a hard line on banning illegal crossings from Belarus, for fear that allowing even a small number to enter would encourage huge numbers to follow them.

But charities and advocates say the freezing conditions have created a humanitarian emergency, and that European states have an obligation to allow access to provide food and shelter. The media has also been kept away, which critics say is concealing the extent of the crisis.

“Access for independent observers and the media is essential,” said Iwo Los, from Grupa Granica (Border Group), a Polish organization. “These people…have to receive humanitarian aid, medical aid and this aid must be provided to them on both sides of the border.”

The Baltic nations bordering Belarus have warned that the crisis could escalate into a military confrontation. The Presidents of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia will meet on Monday in Vilnius to discuss the crisis and be joined by video link by Poland’s president Andrzej Duda, the Lithuanian president’s office said on Friday.

Interior ministers of the four countries are also due to call on international organizations to help avert a humanitarian crisis by engaging directly with Minsk.

“We call upon you to engage with Belarusian authorities and other relevant stakeholders in order to organize humanitarian and medical assistance for the people whose arrival to their territory they have organized themselves,” they will say according to a copy of the letter seen by Reuters.

(Reporting Robin Emmott and Marine Strauss in Brussels, Pawel Florkiewicz and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk in Warsaw, Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Andrius Sytas in Kapciamietsis, Lithuania, Dmitry Antonov and Andrew Osborn in Moscow, Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Writing by Jan Lopatka and Tomasz Janowski; Editing by Peter Graff)

U.N. view on the European migrant crisis? There isn’t one

FILE PHOTO: Activists from the Spanish Proactiva Open Arms charity place a life jacket on the Christopher Columbus statue after the Open Arms rescue boat arrived at a port in Barcelona, Spain, carrying migrants rescued off Libya, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Albert Gea/File Photo

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – The European Union is not in the throes of a migration crisis, despite a “toxic narrative” and political spin, U.N. migration experts said on Friday.

Disputes over immigration have divided the European Union, with splits between and within governments about who should take responsibility for migrants crossing the Mediterranean. The issue threatened to bring down German Chancellor Angela Merkel and was a major factor in Britain’s vote to leave the EU.

“We consider it a political crisis, not a migrant crisis. The numbers are not that significant,” said Leonard Doyle, spokesman for the U.N. International Organization for Migration.

FILE PHOTO: A crew member of charity ship MV Lifeline reacts during a vigil to commemorate migrants who have lost their lives whilst crossing the Mediterranean, in Valletta's Marsamxett Harbour, Malta July 5, 2018. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A crew member of charity ship MV Lifeline reacts during a vigil to commemorate migrants who have lost their lives whilst crossing the Mediterranean, in Valletta’s Marsamxett Harbour, Malta July 5, 2018. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi/File Photo

“We are concerned that the toxic narrative against migrants, to put it bluntly, be diminished, and people see migration for what it is. It’s a necessary part of the modern world, provided it’s managed. The issue is that people’s perception is that it’s out of control,” he said.

The numbers of people risking the journey across the sea peaked in 2015, but have fallen sharply in each subsequent year. In the first half of 2018, 46,449 migrants and refugees entered Europe by sea, according to the IOM.

“This isn’t a crisis,” said Charley Yaxley, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR. “But what continues to be the case is that a small handful of countries are bearing a disproportionate responsibility for receiving new arrivals.

“What’s needed is for European states to come together with countries in the Mediterranean region as well to establish a fair and equitable distribution of refugees and asylum seekers so that the responsibility is shared.”

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

EU tries to assuage German, Italian concerns on migration

A migrant, part of a group intercepted aboard three dinghies off the coast in the Mediterranean Sea, leaves a rescue boat upon arrival at the port of Malaga, Spain June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

By Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union leaders will try to reassure Germany and Italy over migration at a summit next week as a stand-off in Berlin threatens Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition.

The union could take steps to stop asylum seekers moving on from the country in which they are registered and start deciding asylum requests at centers to be established beyond EU borders in the future, according to a draft summit statement.

The proposed steps come ahead of the June 28-29 summit in Brussels at which EU leaders will attempt to agree on a joint migration policy three years after more than 1 million people arrived in Europe, causing a crisis for the union.

Their joint draft statement is not public and its wording might change. But it showed the bloc is trying to accommodate a new, anti-establishment government in Italy, as well as Berlin where Merkel’s coalition partner issued an ultimatum for an EU-wide deal on migration.

If the summit fails to reach a satisfactory outcome, Berlin would issue a unilateral ban on refugees already registered in other EU states from entering the country, said the junior governing Christian Social Union that has the interior ministry.

German police data suggest any such ban could only affect several hundred people a month and hence would have no big impact on the overall number of refugees in Germany.

The EU border agency Frontex said more than 90 percent of current arrivals in Italy, Greece and Spain register for asylum there. Many still often go north, including to Germany. This “secondary movement” violates EU law but has been widespread.

“Member States should take all necessary internal legislative … to counter such movements,” the text said in an indirect response to German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer.

The proposal came as the CSU faces a tough regional vote in Bavaria in October. At its home base, the party faces growing popularity of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has advocated harsh anti-immigration policies.

The AfD on Tuesday accused the CSU of copying its ideas on how to deal with the migrant crisis.


The EU has long been bitterly divided over migration.

The bloc has struggled to reform its internal asylum rules, which broke down in 2015, and has instead tried to tighten its borders and prevent new arrivals. The EU has given aid and money to Turkey, Jordan, Libya, Niger and other countries.

Next week, EU leaders will also agree to look into opening “disembarkation platforms” in regions such as north Africa to decide asylum requests before people get to Europe.

European capitals from Rome to Budapest have long called for such centres but concerns that processing people outside EU borders could violate the law have stalled progress.

“Such platforms should provide for rapid processing to distinguish between economic migrants and those in need of international protection, and reduce the incentive to embark on perilous journeys,” the draft statement of EU leaders said.

Italy’s government closed its ports to rescue ships and said it prefers to have Frontex working in Africa to prevent people from coming rather than patrol the Mediterranean.

The Libyan government already runs migrant camps where the EU pays the U.N. migration and refugee agencies to help resettle people to Europe legally or return them home further south in Africa, rather than have them try to reach Europe.

Despite pressure from Berlin and Rome, reform of the bloc’s internal asylum rules is stuck. Southern and wealthy central states demand that all EU members host some new arrivals but eastern states refuse leading to a stalemate.

In evidence of that division, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said on Tuesday that the CSU demand for border checks within the EU is unacceptable. Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said separately on Tuesday it would be “very difficult to reach a solution” next week.

Otherwise, there is agreement on strengthening external borders and bringing together the border protection databases.

“So much progress has been made, we can’t let all slip away now. So we need to give key countries something to keep them on board,” one EU official said of the proposed text.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Ratz and Michelle Martin in Berlin, Steve Scherer in Rome, Robert Muller in Prague and Johan Sennero, Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Italy looks to put G7 focus on Africa, but other crises encroach

A general view of the Greek Theatre of Taormina, where leaders from the world's major Western powers will hold their annual summit, in Taormina Italy May 18, 2017. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello

By Crispian Balmer

ROME (Reuters) – When U.S. President Donald Trump and other leaders of the world’s seven major industrialized nations gather in Sicily on Friday, they will enjoy a spectacular view of the Mediterranean Sea, but won’t get any glimpse of boats full of migrants.

A common sight off Sicily in recent years, the authorities have banned all migrant landings on the island during the Group of Seven Summit for security reasons, telling rescue vessels that pick them up at sea to take them to the mainland during the two-day meeting.

Out of sight does not mean out of mind. Italy chose to host the summit in Taormina, on the cliffs of eastern Sicily, to concentrate minds on Europe’s migrant crisis and to seek ways of developing Africa’s economy to hold back the human tide.

“Africa is very important for us. Indeed, it is perhaps the focus of our G7 presidency,” said Raffaele Trombetta, the senior Italian diplomat who has led behind-the-scenes negotiations on the G7 agenda with colleagues from the United States, Japan, Germany, Britain, France and Canada.

“We don’t just want to talk about crises, like migration and famine, but also to promote innovation in Africa and see what we can do to help,” he told Reuters.

But various other crises are bound to encroach on the meeting, starting with Monday’s suicide bombing in Manchester that killed at least 22 people and was allegedly carried out by a young British man of Libyan descent.

The six-year old Syrian conflict and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are other hot-button issues. Potential disagreements over climate change and free trade might also overshadow the event in the chic resort town.

Trump will face concerted pressure to commit to the 2015 Paris Agreement to slash greenhouse gas emissions and to water down his protectionist trade tendencies.

Diplomats said there had been no agreement on these issues ahead of the gathering, meaning the leaders will seek to strike an accord amongst themselves. One diplomat from an EU country said the other G7 nations might issue a separate statement on climate change if Trump refused to endorse the Paris deal.


Trump will be one of four leaders making their first appearance at a G7, alongside newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Theresa May and the host, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni.

It will be a second G7 for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a 6th for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the 12th for German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“There are so many new leaders here. It will provide an excellent opportunity for them to get to know each other and hopefully have a relaxed meeting,” said Trombetta.

One thing that will change from recent summits is that the final communique will be much more concise – down from more than 30 pages last year to fewer than 10 pages this time around.

“We hope that in this way more people actually read it,” an Italian diplomat joked.

Underscoring the importance of Africa, the leaders of Tunisia, Niger, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Kenya will join the discussions on Saturday morning.

Italy had hoped to use the occasion to unveil a multi-billion euro project promoting food security, but neither the United States nor Japan backed it, so the scheme has been scaled back, a diplomatic source said.

However, Italy is determined to encourage a plan to sponsor young African entrepreneurs, looking for ways to strengthen the continent’s economy and dissuade people from fleeing to Europe.

More than half a million migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, have reached Italy since 2014 as smugglers took advantage of the chaos in Libya to cram people onto unsafe boats for the dangerous crossing.

The Italian Interior Ministry said on Tuesday more than 50,000 migrants have come ashore so far this year, a record pace for arrivals and up 46 percent on the same period last year. More than 1,300 people have died during the crossing.

“This is a thing that cannot be solved very quickly. We have to think about maybe 20-30 years. We have to improve the living conditions and take Africa seriously,” said Mathias Menge, who oversees rescues on the humanitarian boat Aquarius, which has brought thousands of migrants to Sicily over the past year.

(Additional reporting by Steve Scherer)

Germany must lift border controls, EU executive says

FILE PHOTO: Syrian refugees arrive at the camp for refugees and migrants in Friedland, Germany April 4, 2016. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach/File Photo

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Germany, Austria, Denmark and Norway should lift border controls within six months, the European Commission said on Tuesday, hours after Sweden said it was also planning to end frontier checks.

Part of the European Union’s response to a surge of refugees and migrants in 2015, the bloc allowed controls in its passport-free area, despite concerns about the impact on trade, but EU home affairs commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said they should now end.

“The time has come to take the last concrete steps to gradually return to a normal functioning of the Schengen area,” he said of the passport-free area named after a town in Luxembourg and meant to be a symbol of free movement in the bloc.

“Schengen is one of the greatest achievements of the European project. We must do everything to … protect it,” Avramopoulos said in a speech.

More than a million people sought asylum in Europe’s rich north in 2015, mostly in Germany but also in large numbers in Sweden, straining the capacity of countries to cope.

A contentious deal with Turkey to stop Syrian refugees from reaching Greece and the overland route to Germany, in return for EU funds, has reduced flows to a trickle, although thousands of migrants still try to reach Europe from Libya via sea routes.

The Swedish government said on Tuesday it would remove ID checks on journeys from Denmark into Sweden. However, its policy was not immediately clear after it said it would also maintain surveillance cameras and x-raying vehicles passing over the border.

Germany has argued it needs the controls despite the fall in migrants coming through Greece and the Western Balkans to combat the threat of Islamic militancy in Europe.

Under EU rules, the countries were allowed to impose the emergency controls for up to two years in September 2015.

The EU executive approved six-month extensions of controls at the German-Austrian border, at Austria’s frontiers with Slovenia and Hungary and at Danish, Swedish and Norwegian borders. Norway is a member of Schengen but not the EU.

EU governments must now agree to the recommendations.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott; editing by Francesco Guarascio)

German ‘godfathers’ reunite Syrian families

German godfather receives presents

By Joseph Nasr

BERLIN (Reuters) – Three days after an emotional reunion with his younger son in Berlin, a 71-year-old Syrian handed a bar of olive oil and laurel soap, a hand-made wall hanging and a box of pistachio sweets to a 56-year-old German he had never met before.

The gifts were from Aleppo, the city devastated by five years of war which he and his elder son had been able to leave thanks to the German, engineer and father of four, Martin Figur.

Figur is one of the “Godfathers for Refugees”, matched with the family by a non-profit organization of the same name that seeks sponsors to help Syrians already in Germany to bring their relatives here.

“During the war, the Germans – government and people – have shown they are closer friends of the Syrian people than the Arabs,” the Syrian father told Figur at their meeting, which was witnessed by Reuters. He declined to give his name to protect relatives still living in the fiercely contested city.

Tight border controls across Europe, stricter asylum rules, and an EU-Turkey deal to clamp down on migrant sea crossings to Greece have left many Syrians in Germany struggling for ways to help relatives still in their homeland make it to safety.

The arrival of more than a million migrants into Germany last year prompted the German government to tighten asylum rules, including a two-year ban on family reunions for those granted limited refugee status, making the situation worse.Martin Keune, the owner of an advertising agency, founded Godfathers for Refugees last year after two Syrian asylum seekers he was housing begged him to help them bring in their parents.

Keune was inspired by the story of his wife’s Jewish uncle, who survived the Holocaust thanks to a British couple who adopted him while the rest of his family were sent from Berlin to the Nazi death camp in Krakow, Poland, where they perished.

At Berlin’s Schoenefeld airport on Saturday, the Syrian father’s younger son Mohannad, who has been in Germany since 2006, held back tears as he greeted his father and brother.

“You look exhausted, but healthy and you are breathing and that is the most important thing,” he said, pressing his hand on his father’s arm.


Mohannad, 36, came to Germany ten years ago on a cultural exchange program and had been trying to reunite his family since 2012.

“When I started looking into laws on family reunions, I became desperate,” he said.

His net monthly salary at a Berlin-based charity for refugees is less than the minimum of 2,160 euros ($2,460.24) the authorities say a sponsor must earn to bring in just one family member. That is about the average net salary in Germany.

Since March 2015, the Godfathers’ group has found sponsors for 103 Syrians, two-thirds of whom are already with family members in Berlin. The rest are waiting to receive two-year residency permits at German consulates in Lebanon and Turkey.

The association can only sponsor Syrians who have at least one close family member, such as a spouse, a child, a parent or a sibling, who has been in Germany for at least one year.

It relies on crowd funding and donations from its 2,200 members to raise the 800 euros a month it needs for each Syrian. This covers rent, health insurance, and a 400-euro stipend, equal to what the government pays unemployed Germans.

The godfathers do not fund the Syrian newcomers directly but take on legal liability for their living costs for five years even if in the meantime they apply for asylum and are granted full refugee status.

Figur signed a “Declaration of Commitment” at the Foreigners’ Registration Office in Berlin accepting liability for Mohannad’s father, brother as well his mother, who is still in Aleppo.

Germany took in some 1.1 million migrants last year, and of the more than 470,000 asylum applications filed over that period the largest group were Syrians, making up 35 percent.

The influx has fueled the rise of the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD), which entered three state parliaments in elections in March by luring voters angry with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcoming approach toward refugees.

“I can only encourage people to make contact with refugees, because only then will their attitudes change,” said Figur, a Catholic, commending Merkel’s courage in the refugee crisis.

A ceasefire in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its main commercial center before the war, has held since last week, making it easier for father and son to leave by land to Lebanon and on to Germany, a 20-hour journey.

They know they are lucky and hope mother, daughter and grandson – who have stayed behind at the wish of the son-in-law – will be able to join them soon in Berlin.

They described the gifts to Figur as a gesture of gratitude for “helping strangers”.

“Martin Figur helped us even though he did not know us,” said Mohannad’s brother, 38, pointing at his “godfather” with a smile. “And this is what I want to do in the future, help others.”

($1 = 0.8705 euros)

(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Migrant arrivals fall after EU Turkey deal

Refugees and migrants holding their registration papers wait to board a bus that will transfer them from a makeshift camp at the port of Piraeus to a newly built relocation centre in the port town of Skaramagkas, in western Athens

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The number of migrants entering the European Union from Turkey fell sharply in March, EU border agency Frontex said on Monday, as the bloc’s migrant return deal with Ankara showed its first results.

For the whole of March, 26,460 migrants embarked on the journey from Turkey to Greece, Frontex said, less than half the figure recorded in February.

After the deal with Turkey came into force on March 20, under which migrants can be sent back, some 3,500 people arrived in Greece compared to the 22,900 who came between March 1 and 20.

The agency said that stricter border policies by the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia had also made a difference.

However, the number of people trying the longer and more dangerous sea journey from northern Africa to Italy increased sharply, to nearly 9,600 from 2,283 in March 2015.

Most of those arriving in Italy were from sub-Saharan African countries with little evidence that migrants from the Middle East had changed routes, Frontex added.

(Reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek; editing by Philip Blenkinsop)

Syria sees impasse broken as EU urges engagement in peace talks

GENEVA (Reuters) – The head of Syria’s delegation in Geneva said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini had urged his government to engage positively in peace talks on Wednesday, and he believed the round of talks had broken the diplomatic impasse.

Mogherini arrived unexpectedly in Geneva on Wednesday, possibly highlighting concerns that talks on Syria risk getting deadlocked unless headway on the matter of political transition is made soon.

“She passed on a letter of support for the Syrian-Syrian dialogue,” Bashar Ja’afari told reporters. “She came to support us to engage positively in the talks that would lead to an end to the Syrian crisis,” he said after the rare meeting with a senior Western official.

Mogherini earlier held talks with the chief coordinator for the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC), Riad Hijab.

Ja’afari told her he wanted the European Union to reopen its embassies and lift sanctions on Damascus, but said that while his team would return for a second round of talks in Geneva, he had told U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura they could not come back before Syrian elections on April 13.

Activists and diplomats said de Mistura was finalizing a document for delegates at peace talks that will synthesize common points of convergence, but is likely to stay clear of the divisive issue of political transition.

With a fragile truce in place in Syria, warring sides are more than a week into talks on ending the conflict, but government officials have rejected any discussion on a political transition or the fate of President Bashar al-Assad, who opposition leaders say must go as part of any such plan.

Speaking before the negotiations adjourn on Thursday, Ja’afari said he had received a document from envoy Staffan de Mistura.

“We will respond to it at the beginning of the next round,” he said, declining to take any questions.

The five-year-old conflict between the government and insurgents has killed more than 250,000 people, allowed Islamic State to take control of some eastern areas and caused the world’s worst refugee crisis.

The U.N. envoy said on Tuesday that he aimed to establish if there were any points held in common by the different parties. If successful, he would announce these on Thursday.

Randa Kassis, who heads up a Moscow-backed opposition group, said de Mistura would distribute a document of common points gathered from the various delegates.

Points included creating a future unified Syrian army to fight terrorism or ensuring a democratic and non-sectarian based Syria.

“I don’t think much has happened in this round,” Kassis told Reuters. “We’re waiting for a U.S.-Russian accord to solve the (key) issue once and for all. Until they resolve it this process will drag on.”

Jihad Makdissi, head of the Cairo opposition group, confirmed he was also expecting de Mistura to issue a paper on a potential “common vision” for Syria that he believed was on the right path.

“It covers many points important to the Riyadh platform, the Cairo platform, and the Moscow platforms,” he said, referring to the different opposition groups.

A Western diplomat said he believed de Mistura’s new document was an attempt to synthesize views he had heard from his various interlocutors during the round of talks.

The cessation of hostilities deal, engineered by Washington and Moscow three weeks ago, but not signed by any of the warring parties, remains fragile.

Asaad al-Zoubi, head of the HNC’s delegation, said on Tuesday it was “obvious” there were no points of convergence with the Syrian government and accused it of renewing sieges and barrel bombing campaigns against civilians.

Mogherini’s visit coincides with high-level meetings in Moscow between Russian and U.S. officials.

They aim to give fresh impetus to the talks and assess how Russia envisages a political transition in Syria, in particular the fate of Assad.

(Additional reporting By John Irish and Stephanie Nebehay; Writing by John Irish; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky/Ruth Pitchford)

Syrian refugees denied critical healthcare in Jordan, Amnesty says

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Syrian refugees in Jordan are finding it very difficult to get medical care because of Jordanian fees and bureaucracy, and shrinking humanitarian financial support, rights group Amnesty International said on Wednesday.

Many refugees cannot afford the fees for medical care imposed by the Jordanian government in 2014, and some, injured in the Syrian conflict, have died after being turned away at the border, Amnesty said in a report.

There are 630,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan registered with the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), the vast majority of them living in poverty outside the refugee camps, Amnesty said.

“Lengthy bureaucratic procedures and additional health care fees pose huge obstacles to those of them requiring medical treatment,” Sherif Elsayed-Ali, head of refugee and migrants’ rights at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

“The user fees imposed by Jordan may not appear to be high but are unaffordable for most refugees who are struggling to feed their families, and leave many unable to access the critical care they need.”

Refugees who have left the camps unofficially or re-entered Jordan after going back to Syria are not eligible to receive documents required by the Jordanian authorities to obtain public services, including healthcare, it said.

Falling humanitarian support has contributed to the problem, as only 26 percent of Jordan’s funding requirements for health had been met at the end of 2015, Amnesty said.

Some refugees with critical injuries have been denied access, despite a provision allowing entry for those with war-related injuries, since Jordan imposed restrictions in 2012 on Syrians trying to cross the border, Amnesty said.

The main reasons for refusal of entry were lack of identity documents (ID) or the injuries not being life-threatening, it said.

In July, 14 injured people, among them five children with shrapnel wounds, were prevented from entering Jordan and four of them died while waiting at the border, Amnesty said.

“To not even allow entry to people who are fleeing a conflict zone with serious injuries because they don’t have ID papers shows a chilling lack of compassion and appalling disregard for their rights to health and life,” Elsayed-Ali said.

Some 58 percent of Syrians with chronic conditions lacked access to medicines or other health services, Amnesty said, citing UNHCR figures.

“Greater international support in the form of more resettlement places for refugees and financial assistance would make a world of difference by enabling the Jordanian authorities to strengthen the health system and remove barriers that are preventing Syrian refugees from accessing crucial health care,” Elsayed-Ali said.

The Jordanian government was not immediately available to comment.

(Reporting by Magdalena Mis, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)