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EU leaders seek compromise over immigration as arrivals increase

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October 22, 2021

By Gabriela Baczynska and Philip Blenkinsop

BRUSSELS (Reuters) -European Union leaders made a fresh effort on Friday to overcome their differences on how to handle immigrants, but disagreed on the best way forward, with the head of the bloc’s executive saying there would be no EU funds for ‘barbed wire and walls’.

While total immigration numbers are low compared to the bloc’s population of some 450 million people, the issue feeds support for nationalist and populist groups across the EU, making it hard to reach a compromise among its 27 members.

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“Recent months have shown that the pressure of migration is not letting up. It’s actually rising again,” said Austria’s new chancellor, Alexander Schallenberg.

A tightening of the bloc’s external borders was essential, he said, endorsing Lithuania’s call for EU financing for hard border infrastructure such as drones or fences.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen signalled opposition to this demand.

“I was very clear that there is a longstanding view in the European Commission and in the European Parliament that there will be no funding of barbed wire and walls,” she said.

EU leaders tasked the bloc’s executive Commission with making proposals, without giving a figure or specifying at this stage what the money should go to.

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Only some 5,100 migrants arrived across the Mediterranean so far this year, U.N. data shows, and several thousand have also crossed to the three EU countries neighbouring Belarus – two of several routes into the bloc.

But EU border agency Frontex said this month that almost 134,000 had tried to cross into the bloc from all the directions so far this year, nearly 50% above the figures reported for the first nine months of 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

TOGETHER?

Luxembourg, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium have taken in many of refugees and migrants who entered the bloc since a spike in irregular arrivals across the Mediterranean overwhelmed the union in 2015-16.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said that was not right, calling for both measures to protect the external border from irregular migration and help for refugees seeking asylum.

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“All 27 of us can do that together,” he said.

His comments go to the heart of the internal feuds in the EU, where Poland and Hungary refuse to host any of the people arriving from the Middle East and North Africa to help the southern arrival countries and rich destination ones.

The EU says Belarus is encouraging migration as a form of hybrid warfare designed to put pressure on the European Union over sanctions it imposed on Minsk. Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has denied this and has blamed the EU for the humanitarian crisis building on their border.

“We will keep up the pressure on the Lukashenko regime,” von der Leyen told a news conference, stressing that the bloc was willing to explore further sanctions.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said a physical barrier was needed to defend the EU in the short-term from possible further “weaponised” migratory pressure from Belarus.

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“Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow. Maybe there will be three, four, five thousand migrants staying at the border at the same time or trying to cross the border in different places… We have to be decisive,” he said.

The prime minister of Luxembourg said the EU should talk to both Minsk and Moscow to find a solution, rather than imposing more sanctions. He also called for safeguarding human rights.

“These people are not being treated adequately, also by various European countries,” Xavier Bettel said. “An orderly migration must remain possible. We need to find the right balance.”

The EU has tightened asylum rules and its external borders since more than a million refugees and migrants reached Europe across the Mediterranean six years ago and cut deals with countries like Turkey and Libya for people to stay elsewhere along the global routes.

(Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold, Benoit Van Overstraeten, Jan Strupczewski, Marine Strauss, Bart Meijer, Essi Lehto, Ingrid Melander; writing by Gabriela Baczynska; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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Taiwan, Europe must defend democracy together, president says

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November 29, 2021

TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan and Europe must work together to defend against authoritarianism and disinformation, President Tsai Ing-wen told visiting lawmakers from the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia on Monday.

Lithuania has faced sustained pressure from China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory, since allowing the opening of a de facto Taiwanese embassy in its capital.

Beijing has ramped up military and diplomatic pressure on Taipei to accept Chinese sovereignty claims and to limit its international participation, though Tsai says Taiwan will not bow to threats and will defend its freedom and democracy.

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Tsai told the lawmakers at the Presidential Office that Taiwan and the Baltic nations – once part of the Soviet Union – share similar experiences of breaking free from authoritarian rule and of fighting for freedom.

“The democracy we enjoy today was hard earned. This is something we all understand most profoundly,” she said.

“Now the world faces challenges posed by the expansion of authoritarianism and threat of disinformation. Taiwan is more than willing to share its experience at combating disinformation with its European friends. We must safeguard our shared values to ensure our free and democratic way of life.”

Matas Maldeikis, leader of the Lithuanian parliament’s Taiwan Friendship Group, told Tsai in response their group was in Taipei to express their solidarity with the island.

“Lithuanian government policy towards Taiwan has wide support in our society. Preserving freedom and the rules-based international order is in the vital interests for both Taiwan and Lithuania,” he said.

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There is much opportunity for economic and cultural cooperation, added Maldeikis, whose trip has been condemned by China.

No European Union member state has official ties with Taiwan.

The United States has strongly backed its NATO ally Lithuania in its spat with China.

Lithuania faces problems too with pressure from Russia and Belarus, with migrants on its border with Belarus.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; editing by Richard Pullin)

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Australia’s reopening plans in doubt after Omicron cases

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November 29, 2021

By Renju Jose

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia will review its plans to reopen borders to skilled migrants and students from Dec. 1, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday, after the country reported its first cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Two people who arrived in Sydney from southern Africa tested positive on Sunday for the newly identified variant as officials ordered 14-day quarantine for citizens returning from nine African countries.

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Morrison said “it is a bit too early” to reinstate two-week mandatory hotel quarantine for foreign travellers, urging people to remain calm as data had not yet fully determined the severity, transmissibility and vaccine resistance of the Omicron strain.

“So we just take this one step at a time, get the best information, make calm, sensible decisions,” Morrison told Nine News.

Omicron, dubbed a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, is potentially more contagious than previous variants. But experts do not know yet if it will cause more or less severe COVID-19 compared to other strains.

Morrison said the national security committee will meet later on Monday to assess the border reopening relaxations due from Wednesday. A meeting of leaders of all states and territories will be held by Tuesday, he said.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said he had asked the country’s immunisation advisory group to review the time frame for COVID-19 booster shots. About 87% of Australia’s population above 16 years of age have been fully vaccinated, above the rates seen in the United States, Britain and many countries in Western Europe.

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Health officials in New South Wales said three people who arrived on Sunday from southern Africa had tested positive for COVID-19 and that genomic sequencing was underway to check if they were infected with the Omicron strain.

The new variant has emerged as Sydney and Melbourne, Australia’s largest cities, had begun to allow vaccinated citizens entry from overseas without quarantine from Nov. 1, having shut their borders for more than 18 months.

Both cities have tightened their travel rules with all international travellers ordered to quarantine for 72 hours. Other states have not opened their borders to foreign travellers yet due to varying vaccination rates.

Australia has so far recorded about 209,000 coronavirus cases and 1,997 deaths since the pandemic began.

(Reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by David Gregorio and Stephen Coates)

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Earthquake hits remote northern Peru, 75 homes destroyed, no deaths reported

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November 29, 2021

By Marco Aquino

(Reuters) – A 7.5 magnitude earthquake shook the remote Amazon region of northern Peru on Sunday and was felt as far as Lima in the center of the country, destroying 75 homes but with no deaths reported.

The seismological center of the Geophysical Institute of Peru (IGP) said the earthquake had a depth of 131 kilometers (81 miles) and that the epicenter was 98 kilometers from the town of Santa Maria de Nieva in the province of Condorcanqui.

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The quake was felt throughout central and northern Peru. Some residents left their homes as a precaution, according to local radio and television reports.

No damage was reported to the 1,100-kilometer oil pipeline of state-owned Petroperu that crosses the Peruvian Amazon region to the Pacific coast in the north.

The National Institute of Civil Defense (Indeci) said in a statement that 220 homes were affected, 81 uninhabitable and 75 destroyed. Seven places of religious worship and two shopping centers were among damaged facilities, Indeci said, adding that four residents were injured.

President Pedro Castillo said through Twitter that he ordered the immediate deployment of support personnel and took a trip in a military plane to the area.

“We will support those affected and address material damage,” he said.

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Walter Culqui, mayor of the town of Jalca Grande in Chachapoyas province, said several houses had been damaged, leaving three non-serious injuries. Part of the church tower in the area collapsed, he said.

Through social networks, electricity cuts were reported in several locations in jungle areas. Local TV images showed stretches of roads blocked by huge rocks and dirt that had been knocked loose.

The U.S. warning system said there was no tsunami warning after the earthquake.

(Reporting by Marco Aquino in Lima and Aakriti Bhalla in Bengaluru, writing by Hugh Bronstein, Editing by Catherine Evans and Mark Porter)

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