Cold and humiliated, Syrians displaced yet again by new Assad campaign

IDLIB, Syria (Reuters) – Khaled Sabri and his family huddle in the makeshift shelter in northern Idlib, still shell-shocked after fleeing the sudden bombardment of their rebel-held town earlier this week.

They are part of an exodus that has shaken northwest Syria, the last rebel redoubt in the country’s nine-year civil war, as hundreds of thousands push toward Turkey to escape a sudden and fast-moving advance by government forces.

Backed by heavy Russian airstrikes, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have recaptured dozens of towns since last Friday in a major campaign that has stoked tensions between Ankara and Moscow and raised the specter of a new refugee crisis.

A view of the trucks carrying belongings of displaced Syrians, in northern Idlib, Syria January 30, 2020. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

“We fled with just the clothes we were wearing because of the heavy bombing,” said 55-year-old Sabri. His city Maarat al-Numan, the second biggest in Idlib, was re-captured on Tuesday in a major milestone for Assad’s stated goal of reclaiming all of Syria.

At the camp outside Maarat Misrin, a northern Idlib town about 20 km (12 miles) south of the Turkish frontier, dozens of families sheltered in plastic white tents, many unsure of where they would wind up.

Jennah, 10, said it was the second time her family had been displaced. Like many others, they had sought refuge in Idlib after being ousted from other areas earlier in the war.

“I was forcibly displaced from eastern Ghouta, and then we went to Maarat al-Numan and the Syrian regime launched a military campaign on Maarat al-Numan, so we came here.”

A United Nations report on Thursday estimated that 390,000 people have fled northwest Syria from Dec. 1-Jan. 27, 80% of them women and children.

Moscow and Damascus say they are fighting jihadist militants who have stepped up attacks on civilians in Aleppo in northern Syria, but rights groups and rescue workers say air strikes and shelling have demolished hospitals, schools and homes.

Turkey, which fears a fresh wave of migrants piling into it territory, adding to the more than 3.6 million Syrians already there, said on Friday it would not tolerate new threats near its border and would act militarily if needed.

Trucks crowded with civilians’ furniture, mattresses and rugs were seen on Friday hauling out of towns across much of Idlib and western Aleppo, another area of northern Syria hit hard over the past week.

“Today we are homeless, humiliated, oppressed and cold. We want to be returned to our homes and towns,” said a woman who called herself Um Abdallah, or Abdullah’s mother, 30, from Maarat al-Numan.

(Reporting by Reuters TV in Idlib; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Bangladesh warns Myanmar over border amid refugee crisis

A Rohingya refugee woman looks on in a newly built makeshift camp, in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh September 15, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

By Ruma Paul

DHAKA (Reuters) – Bangladesh has accused Myanmar of repeatedly violating its air space and warned that any more “provocative acts” could have “unwarranted consequences”, raising the risk of a deterioration in relations already strained by the Rohingya refugee crisis.

Nearly 400,000 Rohingya Muslims from western Myanmar have crossed into Bangladesh since Aug. 25, fleeing a Myanmar government offensive against insurgents that the United Nations has branded a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

Bangladesh said Myanmar drones and helicopters had violated its air space three times – on Sept. 10, 12 and 14 – and it had called in a top Myanmar embassy official in Dhaka to complain.

“Bangladesh expressed deep concern at the repetition of such acts of provocation and demanded that Myanmar takes immediate measures to ensure that such violation of sovereignty does not occur again,” the ministry said in statement late on Friday.

“These provocative acts may lead to unwarranted consequences.”

A Myanmar government spokesman said he did not have information about the incidents Bangladesh had complained about but Myanmar had denied an earlier accusation.

The spokesman, Zaw Htay, said Myanmar would check any information that Bangladesh provided.

“Our two countries are facing the refugee crisis. We need to collaborate with good understanding,” he told Reuters.

Bangladesh has for decades faced influxes of Rohingya fleeing persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where the Rohingya are regarded as illegal migrants.

Bangladesh was already home to 400,000 Rohingya before the latest crisis erupted on Aug. 25, when Rohingya insurgents attacked about 30 police posts and an army camp, killing a dozen people.

The Myanmar security forces and Rakhine Buddhist vigilantes responded with what rights monitors and fleeing Rohingya say is a campaign of violence and arson aimed at driving out the Muslim population.

Bangladesh has said all refugees must go home. Myanmar has said it will take back those who can verify their citizenship but most Rohingya are stateless.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was leaving on Saturday for the U.N. General Assembly where she would call for pressure to ensure Myanmar takes everyone back after stopping its “ethnic cleansing’, her press secretary, Ihsanul Karim, told Reuters.

The conflict has led to a humanitarian crisis on both sides of the border and raised questions about Myanmar’s path under the leadership of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi after nearly 50 years of strict military rule.

The generals still control national security policy but nevertheless, Suu Kyi has been widely criticized abroad for not stopping or condemning the violence.

There is little sympathy for the Rohingya in a country where the end of military rule has unleashed old animosities and the military campaign in Rakhine State is widely supported.


U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the U.N. Security Council have urged Myanmar to end the violence, which he said was best described as ethnic cleansing.

Ethnic cleansing is not recognized as a separate crime under international law but allegations of it as part of wider, systematic human rights violations have been heard in international courts.

Myanmar rejects the accusations, saying its security forces are carrying out clearance operations to defend against the insurgents of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which claimed responsibility for the Aug. 25 attacks and similar, though smaller, attacks in October.

The government has declared ARSA a terrorist organization and accused it of setting the fires and attacking civilians.

The ARSA says it is fighting for the rights of Rohingya and has denied links to foreign Islamists.

Myanmar’s army chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, said the violence – 93 clashes since Aug. 25 – was a bid by the insurgents to “build a stronghold”, according to speech to officer trainees, posted on a military Facebook page.

More than 430 people have been killed, most of them insurgents, and about 30,000 non-Muslim villagers have been displaced, Myanmar has said. Human Rights Watch said satellite imagery showed 62 Rohingya villages had been torched.

The United States has called for the protection of civilians and a deputy assistant secretary of state, Patrick Murphy, is due in Myanmar next week.

China, which also vies for influence in Myanmar, joined a U.N. Security Council call for an end to the violence while its ambassador in Myanmar expressed his support for the government’s action, Myanmar media reported.

Separately, the Committee to Protect Journalists has called on Bangladesh to release two Myanmar journalists detained last week while covering the refugee crisis. A police official told Reuters the two were found to be working on tourist visas and police were investigating.

(For a graphic on ‘Rohingya refugee crisis’ click

(Additional reporting by Shoon Naing in YANGON, Serajul Quadir in DHAKA; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

War forces two million South Sudanese children to flee homes

FILE PHOTO: A child displaced due to fighting in South Sudan arrives in Lamwo after fleeing fighting in Pajok town across the border in northern Uganda

NAIROBI (Reuters) – War and famine have forced more than 2 million children in South Sudan to flee their homes, the United Nations said on Monday, as 21 people died in the latest attack on civilians by unknown gunmen.

The civil war in the oil-producing country began when President Salva Kiir fired his deputy in 2013, two years after the country won independence from neighboring Sudan.

The fighting that followed split the country along ethnic lines, spurred hyperinflation and plunged parts of the nation into famine, creating Africa’s biggest refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

“No refugee crisis today worries me more than South Sudan,” Valentin Tapsoba, the Africa chief for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, said in a statement.

In a country of 12 million people, nearly three in every four children do not go to school, UNHCR and the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said. More than 1 million children have fled outside South Sudan while another 1 million are internally displaced.

The agencies said more than a thousand children have been killed in the fighting. The true figure may be much higher since there are no accurate death tolls available for South Sudan, one of the world’s least developed nations.

A displaced boy from South Sudan stands next to family belongings in Lamwo after fleeing fighting in Pajok town across the border in northern Uganda

FILE PHOTO: A displaced boy from South Sudan stands next to family belongings in Lamwo after fleeing fighting in Pajok town across the border in northern Uganda April 5, 2017. REUTERS/James Akena/File Photo

Separately, an official told Reuters that two commercial vehicles carrying passengers were attacked at two checkpoints along the Juba-Bor road on Friday.

“One commercial vehicle coming from Juba was attacked at a checkpoint in Jamaza and the other at Sudan Safari,” said Jacob Akech Deng, the Jonglei province’s state minister of information.

“We have received, and saw 21 people killed and 25 injured at Bor Hospital,” he told Reuters, referring to areas along the highway.

Reports in South Sudan said the death toll could reach to 51. Deng said authorities were still collecting evidence.

Many South Sudanese refugees have fled into neighboring Uganda, Kenya, Sudan or Ethiopia, nations which are already struggling to provide enough food and resources for their own populations.

(Writing by Clement Uwiringiyimana and Aaron Maasho; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Charities slam Calais ban that could halt food aid for migrants

An aid worker provides assistance near a group of migrants claiming to be minors who use blankets to protect themselves from the cold as they prepare to spend the night after the dismantlement of the "Jungle" camp in Calais, France, October 27, 2016. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

By Matthias Blamont and Sudip Kar-Gupta

PARIS (Reuters) – Charities expressed outrage on Friday as the mayor of French port Calais, which has symbolized Europe’s refugee crisis, signed a ban on gatherings that could stop aid groups distributing meals to migrants and refugees.

A decree published on Thursday said the Calais authority believed that handing out meals at the site of the former “jungle” migrant camp was one reason for a rise in ethnic tensions and conflict between rival groups of migrants.

The decree, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, said food distribution by charities had led to large numbers of people gathering at the site of the now-closed camp, with fights breaking out and risks posed to the safety of local residents.

It did not expressly ban food distribution, but said it was “necessary to ban all gatherings” at the site and banned people from entering it. The decree said gatherings tended to take place “after the distribution of meals to migrants”.

Migrants have been streaming into Calais for much of the last decade, hoping to cross the short stretch of sea to Britain by leaping onto trucks and trains, or even walking through the railway tunnel under the English Channel.

Calais Mayor Natacha Bouchart, a member of conservative party The Republicans who signed the decree, defended her decision on the grounds of public safety and the damage to the local Calais economy caused by the refugee problem.

In a statement, Bouchart said it was also up to the national government to deal with the problem, and that she had always sought to act with “humanity” towards the refugees.

But human rights groups criticized the move, with some saying they would still hand out food to migrants and refugees.

“You’re talking about young people and children. You just can’t deprive them of food,” said Gael Manzi, who works for local aid association Utopia 56.

Manzi said Utopia 56 would continue to distribute food, but at a new site elsewhere in Calais.

Last month, non-government associations said hundreds of migrant children had been returning to Calais, despite the dismantling of the “jungle” camp late last year.

The influx of migrants fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa is a key issue in France’s upcoming presidential election, with many voters concerned about competition for scarce jobs, security, and the risk of further terror attacks.

Police forces are still deployed permanently in the area where the “jungle” camp stood.

(Reporting by Matthias Blamont and Sudip Kar-Gupta; Editing by Andrew Callus and Catherine Evans)

Naming the nameless: experts struggle to identify drowned migrants

Wooden crosses for an unmarked refugee grave

By Isla Binnie and Michele Kambas

ROME/ATHENS (Reuters) – Mose tapped the screen of his mobile phone to zoom in on a photograph of his wife, Yordanos, pointing to a mole under her eyebrow.

“She has a recognizable mark here,” the 26-year-old Eritrean said in a park in Rome; after fleeing compulsory military service back home, Mose now lives in an Italian reception center for migrants.

He has not seen Yordanos since May 26 when they left Libya, packed by people smugglers on to two separate boats bound for Italy. He was rescued, but her boat sank in the Mediterranean.

Helping people like Mose find out their loved ones’ fate is becoming ever more pressing as Europe’s migrant crisis drags on in its third year and the death toll rises.

Teams of forensic scientists in Italy and Greece are painstakingly trying to identify the victims of drowning found at sea, washed up on shores or recovered from wrecks.

However, there is no common practice to collect information about these deaths between states or even sometimes within the same country, and a plan by the Dutch-based International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) to start tracing lost migrants is still awaiting funding.

Kathryne Bomberger, director general of the ICMP, said the problem was too big to be left solely to front-line countries such as Italy and Greece.

“This is a complex, international problem,” she said, as the task of identification and notification involves tracking down relatives who may be in their home countries, in refugee camps, or building new lives in the likes of Germany or Sweden.

“We are ready to go, we have the necessary database systems, we have an agreement with Italy, we have done our homework. We just need the financial support.”

The ICMP and International Organization for Migration (IOM) are calling for a strategy to process the data, and a system for repatriating migrants’ remains.


Mose, who withheld his surname for fear of reprisals from Eritrean authorities, clings to the hope that Yordanos was rescued and that she could be recognised from the photograph.

If she did not survive, and her body was recovered, her remains are likely to have been buried in one of hundreds of numbered graves in Sicily or the southwestern Calabria region for migrants who have drowned.

Both in Italy and Greece, which migrants have also tried to reach on a shorter but still dangerous sea crossing from Turkey, the forensic experts are trying to replace the numbers with names.

Sometimes they succeed, despite the practical and financial problems, as in the case of a baby boy found floating near the Greek island of Samos in January.

The child, no more than six months old, had been lost in a shipwreck on Oct. 29, 2015 when 19 migrants drowned. For over two months, his body drifted more than 150 km (95 miles) north until it was recovered from the water.

In the end, police identified the little boy from a DNA sample given by his Syrian father, who was among 139 people rescued when the boat sank in the Aegean off the island of Kalymnos.

“It is the least we can do for these people, under very difficult circumstances,” said Penelope Miniati, director of the Greek police’s Forensic Sciences Division.

For some, the tragedies recall Greece’s own history of migration, including in the 1950s and ’60s when many escaped poverty for a new life in countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia, breaking up families who sometimes lost contact with each other.

“We are Greeks, we also migrated and some people were lost in the journey … and each time people wondered what had happened to them,” said Miniati.


More than three quarters of the 4,027 migrant and refugee deaths worldwide in 2016 so far happened in the Mediterranean, according to the IOM.

Most died between Libya and Italy. Hundreds also drowned on the Turkey-Greece route, although arrivals have fallen sharply since a deal between the European Union and Ankara on curbing the flow in March.

Many shipwreck victims are never recovered, but about 1,500 have been brought to Italy since 2013. So far, just over 200 have been identified.

In a “policy vacuum” the action in Italy and Greece has been driven by “improvisation”, the IOM said in June in a joint report with City University London and the University of York.

The report praised a deal that Italy’s special commissioner for missing persons struck with a university laboratory, which provides free forensic work, and the interior ministry, to adopt a protocol to identify victims and inform relatives.

The commissioner records details of corpses and sends notices through embassies and humanitarian organizations asking survivors for photographs of the missing, and personal effects such as toothbrushes that could harbor DNA.

In Athens, Miniati’s division has a database with information on 647 people who need identifying, about 80 percent of them the nameless dead of the migrant crisis.

People who drown and stay trapped underwater for months are often unrecognizable, so accounts of scars, tattoos and dental cavities help. Some people come to Italy to look for missing relatives in the commissioner’s files and some take DNA tests.


Deputy Italian Commissioner Agata Iadicicco said a shared international database would make it easier to reach migrants’ home countries and diasporas across Europe. “We need money to standardize this model and to involve all the migrant communities that mainly live in northern Europe,” she said.

With no sign of a let-up in the perilous voyages from North Africa, Italy feels that fellow EU countries should pull their weight more in handling the crisis.

The issue of graves for the victims has become caught up in the ill-feeling. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said he sent the navy to raise a ship that sank last year and bury the more than 450 people found in the wreck to “tell Europe which values really count”.

For Mose, whose young son is still in Eritrea, even being sure Yordanos had died would be some comfort. “If I find her body, I can find some serenity,” he said. “If my son asks whether his mother is, at least I can say where she is buried.”

(editing by David Stamp)

Bodies found off coast of Libya as migrant toll climbs: IOM

Migrants await rescue in dinghy

GENEVA (Reuters) – The bodies of 120 migrants believed to have been trying to reach Italy by boat from Libya have been found off the Libyan coast over the past 10 days, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Tuesday.

“We are getting this information from Libyan authorities that we are collaborating with,” said IOM spokesman Joel Millman. The bodies had been discovered near Sabratha and had not come from previously known shipwrecks in the Mediterranean.

Mainly African migrants are taking often unseaworthy boats from Libya to Italy, gateway to Europe. Nearly 8,000 were rescued at sea between Friday to Monday on that central Mediterranean route, Millman told a briefing.

It is a longer and more perilous journey than that from Turkey to Greece, largely shut down since a deal was struck between the European Union and Turkey in March, although 174 migrants did make it by sea to Greece over the weekend, IOM said.

More than 257,000 migrants and refugees have already entered Europe by sea this year through July 27, and for the third straight year, at least 3,000 others have died, the agency said.

A total of 4,027 migrants or refugees have perished worldwide so far this year, three-quarters of them in the Mediterranean, Millman said.

The figures represents a 35 percent increase on the global toll during the first seven months of 2015, he said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Pessimism pervades Syria talks for peace

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (2R) and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) attend the ministerial meeting on Syria in Vienna, Austria, May 17, 2016.

By John Irish and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

VIENNA/AMMAN (Reuters) – Major powers sought at talks on Tuesday to reimpose a ceasefire in Syria and ensure aid reaches besieged areas, with Moscow and Washington deeply divided over the fate of President Bashar al-Assad and violence rumbling around the country.

The aim of the conference, which brings together 17 countries backing the two warring sides, is to convince armed factions and opposition leaders to restart negotiations with the government.

Officials and diplomats said the talks, including the United States, Russia, Iran, European and Middle East powers, were unlikely to lead to major decisions that could change the course of the five-year war that has killed more than 250,000 people.

A surge in bloodshed in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the war, wrecked a partial “cessation of hostilities” sponsored by Washington and Moscow from February, which had allowed U.N.-brokered indirect talks that included the warring sides to take place in Geneva.

Those talks collapsed last month after the opposition walked out due to a surge in bloodshed. U.N. special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura hopes to launch a new round of peace talks between the two sides by the end of May.

“We’ll need to see the guarantors of the ceasefire – Russia and the U.S. – putting something down that will really convince the opposition that this process is worthwhile,” a senior Western diplomat involved in the talks said.

“Sadly, I don’t sense that and fear the U.S. will try to impose a text that is excessively optimistic, but for which its implementation will not be possible.”

The Geneva talks aim to end a war that has created the world’s worst refugee crisis, allowed for the rise of the Islamic State group and drawn in regional and global powers.

Washington insists Assad must go but the president, backed by Moscow and Tehran, is fighting for territory and refuses to step down.


A Western official said the meeting, chaired by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, was focusing more on the logistics of expanding and implementing the “cessation of hostilities” and increasing aid deliveries that have been blocked in some areas.

The United Nations said this month that Syria’s government, which has been on the front foot in the war since the military intervention of its ally Russia, was refusing U.N. demands to deliver aid to hundreds of thousands of people.

Describing the talks as serious and engaged, another Western diplomat said one of the key issues was stopping the violence in a way which successfully separated al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s wing in Syria, from opposition fighters.

Western and Arab states accuse the Syrian government and Russia of using links between rebels and Nusra as a pretext to launch major offensives against Western and Arab-backed opponents of Assad. Nusra, along with Islamic State, is not party to the ceasefire.

“We must find a way back into the political process … It’s about improving the conditions for the ceasefire and humanitarian aid so as to win the opposition over to negotiate with the regime in Geneva,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said ahead of the meeting.

The main Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee has said it would not resume talks until there was progress on the ground.

HNC chief negotiator Asaad al-Zoubi was doubtful about how much the Vienna talks can achieve: “I don’t think there will be results, and if there are any results they will not be sufficient for the Syrian people,” he told Reuters.

“We are used to the fact that Russian and U.S. foreign ministers are taking the world into an unknown direction,” saying they are working against the people not for them.

The group walked out of the Geneva talks. Asked if the HNC would return to another round of talks, al-Zoubi said: “The HNC has said that if aid does not reach everybody, if the sieges aren’t lifted and if a full truce does not happen, there will be no negotiations.”

De Mistura is trying to meet an Aug. 1 deadline to establish a transitional authority for the country that would lead to elections in 18 months as agreed in a December United Nations Security Council resolution.


However, the U.S. administration’s failure to convince Moscow that Assad must go is fuelling European and Arab frustration at being sidelined in efforts to end the country’s five-year civil war, diplomats say.

Some diplomats and analysts question whether the United States has misread Russia’s desire to keep Assad in power.

In the past weeks, several hundred civilians have been killed in air strikes and rebel bombardments in Aleppo province alone, while fighting has taken place in other parts of Syria, including Idlib, Deir al-Zor and around Damascus.

As the talks took place, rebel fighters and officials in a besieged Syrian town on the outskirts of Damascus said they believed government forces were preparing an assault after they turned back an aid convoy last week.

Daraya, situated close to a large air base and just a few kilometers (miles) from Assad’s palace, had seen little violence since the cessation of hostilities agreement came into effect.

But, with the truce unraveling across Syria, government forces began shelling the town on Thursday after refusing entry to the first aid convoy it would have ever received. Residents say they are on the verge of starvation.

Known for its peaceful protests in the early days of the uprising against Assad, Daraya has been besieged and regularly bombed since 2012.

“Large convoys of (government) troops are moving from the airport and from Ashrafiyat Sahnaya (the next town south),” said Abu Samer, spokesman for the Liwa Shuhada al-Islam rebel group.

“We are prepared to repel their assault but our main fear is for the civilians besieged in the town who face severe shortages of food.”

A Syrian military source denied rebel accounts of troop deployments, saying nothing had changed in the area.

The aid convoy blocked last week would have been the first delivered since the siege began. But even then it was not allowed to contain food, only medical and other aid, and residents launched an online campaign ahead of the expected delivery with the slogan: “We cannot eat medicine”.

(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Shadia Nasralla in Vienna and Lisa Barrington in Beirut; writing by Peter Millership; editing by Peter Graff)

World must tackle ‘once in a generation’ refugee crisis

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras meets United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Special Envoy Angelina Jolie at the Maximos Mansion in Athens, Greece, March 16, 2016.

By Lin Taylor

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Global leaders must come together to tackle a ‘once-in-a-generation’ migrant crisis, said U.N. special envoy Angelina Jolie, or risk greater instability that could drive more refugees to Europe.

The United Nations and the declaration of human rights were among the world-changing outcomes of the global refugee crisis after World War Two, Jolie said, adding that the international community is now at a similar pivotal moment.

“I believe this is again that once-in-a-generation moment when nations have to pull together,” the Hollywood actress and director told the BBC.

“How we respond will determine whether we create a more stable world, or face decades of far greater instability.”

Jolie said inaction or uncoordinated efforts that did not address the underlying causes of the crisis would only lead to more conflict and displacement.

“If these things continue to happen, there will be further displacement and more people on the borders of Europe and elsewhere,” she said.

Europe is grappling with its largest migration wave since World War Two, as a traditional flow of migrants from Africa is compounded by refugees fleeing wars and poverty in the Middle East and South Asia.

The U.N. refugee agency has said the number of people forcibly displaced worldwide was likely to have “far surpassed” a record 60 million in 2015, including 20 million refugees, driven by the Syrian war and other drawn-out conflicts.

The Oscar-winning actress argued against closing borders to refugees and migrants.

“If your neighbor’s house is on fire you are not safe if you lock your doors. Isolationism is not strength,” she said.

European Union leaders, alarmed by an influx of one million refugees and migrants into the bloc of 500 million people, struck an accord with Turkey in March that would grant Ankara more money to keep Syrian refugees on its territory.

The deal sealed off the main route by which a million migrants crossed the Aegean into Greece last year, but some believe new routes will develop through Bulgaria or Albania as Mediterranean crossings to Italy from Libya resume.

Jolie, special envoy for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, said she was disappointed in some politicians for fear-mongering and a “race to the bottom” approach to the refugee crisis.

She said it has led to “countries competing to be the toughest, in the hope of protecting themselves whatever the cost… and despite their international responsibilities.”

When asked about Republican Donald Trump’s U.S. presidential campaign, Jolie said it was divisive.

“America is built on freedom of religion so it’s hard to hear that this is coming from someone who is pressing to be president.”

(Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, conflicts, land rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, women’s rights and climate change. Visit to see more stories)

U.N. urges Greece to stop detaining migrant children

Refugee girl with umbrella

By Karolina Tagaris

ATHENS (Reuters) – A top United Nations official urged Greece on Monday to stop detaining refugee and migrant children, some of whom are locked up in police cells for weeks, and to develop child protection services instead.

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Francois Crepeau, said he had met unaccompanied children held in police stations for more than two weeks without access to the outdoors, and “traumatised and distressed” by the experience.

Others were with their families in overcrowded detention centres, where inter-communal frictions and contradictory information created “an unacceptable level of confusion, frustration, violence and fear”, he said.

“Children should not be detained – period,” said Crepeau, on a fact-finding mission in Greece from May 12 to 16.

“Detention should only be ordered when people present a risk, a danger, a threat to the public and it has to be a documented threat, it cannot simply be a hunch.”

Crepeau said children and families should be offered alternatives to detention. He urged authorities to develop a “substantial and effective” guardianship system for unaccompanied minors and increase the shelter capacity for them.

More than a million migrants, many fleeing the Syrian war, have arrived in Europe through Greece since last year. More than 150,000 have arrived in 2016 so far, 38 percent of them children, according to U.N. refugee agency data.

Greece, in its sixth year of economic crisis, has struggled to cope with the numbers.

International charity Save the Children says an estimated 2,000 unaccompanied children who travelled alone to Europe or lost their families on the way are stranded in Greece and only 477 shelter spaces are available across the country.

(Unaccompanied minors) are put in … protective custody and the only place there is space (for them) is the cell in police stations and that’s where we find them quite often,” Crepeau said.

“Spending 16 days (in a police cell) is way too long. What is needed is specialised body of competent professionals who can take care of unaccompanied minors.”

(Reporting by Karolina Tagaris; editing by Andrew Roche)

Russia tops agenda for White House visit by Nordic leaders

President Obama and Nordic Leaders

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The leaders of Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Iceland will be treated to the pomp of a White House state visit on Friday, a summit where Russia’s military aggression will top the agenda.

President Barack Obama will welcome the leaders for talks focused on pressing global security issues, including the crisis in Syria and Iraq that has led to a flood to migrants in Europe.

Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 alarmed Russia’s Nordic and Baltic neighbors. With NATO considering ways to try to deter further Russian aggression, the White House wants to show support for its northern European allies.

“It is a way of sending a signal that the United States is deeply engaged when it comes to the security of the region, and we will be actively discussing what steps we can collectively take to improve the situation,” said Charles Kupchan, Obama’s senior director for European affairs.

Kupchan declined comment on specific measures the White House hopes to emerge from the summit.

Obama will be limited in what he can promise by the political calendar, given that his second and final term ends next year on Jan. 20. Americans are set to hold presidential elections on Nov. 8.

The visit will culminate in a star-studded state dinner in a tent with a transparent ceiling, with lighting, flowers and ice sculptures evoking the northern lights.

Pop star Demi Lovato, known for her support of liberal causes, will perform after guests enjoy a main course of ahi tuna, tomato tartare, and red wine braised beef short ribs.

Obama is expected to laud the humanitarian and environmental accomplishments of his guest nations, who have been key supporters of an international deal to curb climate change that the White House sees as a key part of Obama’s legacy.

“The president has often said, ‘Why can’t all countries be like the Nordic countries?'” Kupchan said.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton)