IOM Head: People Smugglers Make $35 Billion a Year on Migrant Crisis

People smugglers make about $35 billion a year worldwide and they are driving the tragedy of migrants who die trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe, the head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) told Reuters on Wednesday.

Increasing numbers of desperate migrants fleeing from Africa and elsewhere due to conflicts and humanitarian crises are dying as they attempt to reach Europe via Libya, coaxed to do so by smugglers as they wait in detention centers.

The death toll of people crossing the Mediterranean has reached 1,700 so far this year before the summer when many more often make the journey, compared to 3,700 for all of 2015 and 5,000 last year, said IOM head William Lacy Swing.

“Now, let’s be careful because those are the people we know who died, how many other bodies are submerged in the Mediterranean or buried in the sands of the Sahara?” he said in an interview on the sidelines of a conference on migration.

“That’s the tragedy and this is why we are so concerned to try to caution migrants about smugglers. The smugglers are really the big problem. It’s about $35 billion a year [that people smugglers make] and we know they’re making lots of money across the Mediterranean.”

People smuggling now represents the third-largest business for international criminals, after gun and drug trafficking, he said.

Libya has become a major point of departure for migrants from Africa, where lawlessness is spreading six years after the fall of strongman Muammar Gaddafi and migrants say conditions at government-run migrant centers are terrible.

After visiting Libya in March, Lacy Swing said his organization is “all ready to go” and return international staff to Libya to work at migrant centers but has so far not been allowed to do so by the United Nations.

On Tuesday, the IOM and U.N. refugee agency UNCHR presented plans in Geneva on boosting operations in Libya. Lacy Swing said the IOM was ready to help the government with Libya’s own internally displaced people and work in migration centers.

He said Europe’s migrant crisis has been aggravated by what he called “unprecedented anti-migrant sentiment, fueled now by suspicions that some of those fleeing terrorism might be terrorists themselves.”

But he urged governments to try to address the root causes of migration — conflicts, water shortages and big disparities between rich and poor countries.

“In my lifetime I have never known a situation quite like today, because you have nine armed conflicts and humanitarian emergencies from West Africa to the Himalayas,” he said.

He said Europe needs to come up with a comprehensive plan on migration “but I don’t see it happening any time in the near future, but we’ll do everything we can to support them on it.”

Lacy Swing stressed that “migration is not an issue to be solved, it’s a human reality that has to be managed or governed.”

“We know that historically, migration has always been overwhelmingly positive.”

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Woman Thought Headed for Canada Found Dead in Minnesota

Authorities say a woman who may have been trying to reach Canada was found dead in northwestern Minnesota.

Kittson County Chief Deputy Matt Vig tells WDAZ-TV that the woman, 57-year-old Mavis Otuteye, is believed to be a citizen of Ghana. Her body was found Friday in a field a half-mile from the Canadian border near the tiny town of Noyes.

Otuteye was reported missing a day earlier. Vig says she was headed to Canada on foot to try to reunite with her daughter. Otuteye had been living in Delaware for the past several years.

Autopsy results are pending, but Vig says she apparently died of hypothermia. He says temperatures were in the 40s that night, and part of her body was in a shallow pool of water in a ditch.

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From Home Help to Driver, New Class of Indian Homeowner

When Rajnish Dhall’s driver wanted to borrow money to buy a home, Dhall suggested he go to a bank. But without proof of income or tax returns to show his credentials, the driver said no bank would lend to him.

It was the start of a whole new business for Dhall, a former banker whose firm aims to help the hundreds of millions of informal workers who make up the bulk of India’s labor force.

They are the newly emerging home-owning class.

“My driver was earning a steady income and could have paid back the loan easily, yet none of the banks would lend to him because he didn’t have the necessary paperwork,” Dhall told Reuters. “The housing problem is very real and visible, especially in a city like Mumbai. There is certainly aspiration to own a home, but without finance, there is no way to realize the aspiration.”

Dhall lent his driver the money, then looked more closely at home loans for a host of other workers in the informal sector.

Of India’s 470 million-strong workforce, about 90 percent is in the informal sector. They include domestic help, street vendors, daily wage earners and small business operators, who may have no collateral and whose incomes are irregular.

They have few options besides borrowing from money lenders and employers, Dhall found. So he set up Micro Housing Finance Corp. to give home loans to low-income and informal workers.

Housing for all

More homes are desperately needed.

Already, one in three Indians live in cities, many in crowded slums and other informal settlements. Every year, tens of thousands of villagers migrate to cities in search of jobs, and the pace of urbanization is set to rise.

India has a shortage of about 20 million urban homes; the shortfall disproportionately affects families earning less than 16,000 rupees ($248) a month, according to consultancy KPMG.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made affordable housing a priority, offering incentives such as subsidized loans to meet a 2022 target of “Housing for All,” even as critics say the plan bypasses the homeless.

The government plan aims to create 20 million new urban homes and 30 million rural homes.

An affordable home is typically about 250 square feet (23 square meters) in size, and can cost up to 1.2 million rupees ($18,600). It is aimed at families earning 8,000-25,000 rupees a month, and is usually located in the outskirts of the city where land is cheaper.

In recent years, developers including the Tata group, Mahindra and TVS group have entered the affordable housing market, enticed by government incentives and future potential.

These big firms have enhanced the quality and reputation of affordable homes, which were once described as “vertical slums.”

About 15 micro home finance companies have also launched, with reputable builders and more ready finance combining for better results for low-income earners.

Increasingly, it is a choice between “owning a good-quality, formal home in the periphery of the city over a badly made or informal home in the city,” said Vikram Jain, director of social consultancy FSG, which has studied the segment.

“With more developers and better access to finance, they are well designed, quality constructions that residents take pride in owning,” he told Reuters.

From chalk to pigeons

India’s micro housing finance companies have a loan portfolio of more than $160 million, with near-zero defaults, Jain estimates.

But micro home loans of up to 1 million rupees for low-income clients only account for a quarter of home loans.

Micro home finance companies lend up to 90 percent of the value of the property, at slightly higher interest rates of about 13 percent, on average. The repayment term can be up to 25 years.

Since its founding, MHFC has dispensed about 14,000 home loans, Dhall said.

Its customers represent 600 diverse professions — from a man selling grains to feed pigeons, to one making marking chalk for tailors, and a grass seller for people with cows at home.

At Aadhar Housing Finance — owned in part by the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation — more than three-quarters of customers did not have a credit history when they asked for a loan, said Chief Executive Deo Shankar Tripathi.

Aadhar has given more than 50,000 home loans, mostly in India’s poorest states where customers typically buy a plot of land and build a modest home, Tripathi said.

The high cost of land needed to build homes can be a challenge to affordable housing. Rising construction costs and limited financing for developers are other constraints.

But Tripathi said nobody should be deterred.

“Owning a home is a dream for everyone. For the low-income segment, a home means security, empowerment and greater inclusion in society,” Tripathi said.

“We cannot give them a big bungalow like Mukesh Ambani’s [India’s wealthiest man], but we can make a decent home within the reach of everyone,” he said.

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USS Vinson, USS Reagan Carrier Strike Groups Conduct Dual Exercises in Sea of Japan

Two U.S. aircraft carriers have started military exercises together in the Sea of Japan, U.S. Navy officials tell VOA.

“The USS Carl Vinson Strike Group and USS Ronald Reagan Strike Group are conducting routine operations in the Western Pacific,” Navy spokesman Lt. Loren Terry said.

Officials said the carriers, along with the ships and aircraft assigned to each, began dual operations in international waters within the sea on Wednesday.

The dual-carrier exercises come days after North Korea launched another missile into the Sea of Japan.

The multi-day, multi-carrier exercises provide “combatant commanders with significant operational flexibility should these forces be called upon in response to regional situations,” Terry told VOA.

“This unique capability is one of many ways the U.S. Navy promotes security, stability and prosperity throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific,” he added.

The dual-carrier operations mark the end of the USS Vinson strike group’s tour in the Western Pacific, according to a Navy official.

The USS Reagan strike group includes cruiser USS Shiloh and destroyers USS Barry and USS McCampbell.

The USS Vinson strike group includes destroyers USS Wayne E. Meyer and USS Michael Murphy along with cruiser USS Lake Champlain.

American ships and aircraft routinely operate in international waters throughout the Western Pacific, which includes waters surrounding the Korean Peninsula.

U.S. Pacific Command said the short-range ballistic missile North Korea launched on May 28 posed no threat to North America, adding that the U.S. military stands behind its “ironclad commitment to the security of our allies in the Republic of Korea and Japan.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to work with the United States to “take specific action to deter North Korea.”

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Trump Assails Congressional Probes of His Campaign’s Links to Russia

U.S. President Donald Trump again assailed the congressional probes into his campaign’s links to Russia on Wednesday, claiming opposition Democrats are blocking the testimony of one of his former aides looking to clear his name.

“Witch Hunt!” Trump declared in one comment on his Twitter account.

Trump said, without citing evidence, Democrats on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee “don’t want” Carter Page, a former campaign adviser whose ties to Moscow officials are under investigation, to testify.  Trump said Democrats “have excoriated Page about Russia,” but that he “blows away their case against him.”

The president said Page wants to rebut the “the false or misleading testimony” of former Federal Bureau of Investigation chief James Comey and ex-Central Intelligence Agency director John Brennan about Page’s connections with Russian interests.

The FBI last year obtained a warrant under the country’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to monitor Page’s communications.

Page, an international businessman and energy consultant, on Monday sent a letter to the House Intelligence panel saying he had been told he “might not be immediately afforded the opportunity” to testify and made clear he was eager to do so at a public hearing.

The 45-year-old Page accused Comey, former president Barack Obama, Trump’s defeated challenger former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton, and the U.S. news media of making up “unrelenting lies about me.”

Trump’s defense of Page came as his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, agreed to hand over documents to the Senate Intelligence Committee in connection with its investigation into Russia’s efforts to influence last year’s U.S. presidential election.

Flynn had previously refused a subpoena from the committee, with his lawyers asserting the request was too broad in what it was seeking.  

The committee filed a narrower subpoena, and Flynn is now expected by next week to provide some personal documents and those related to two businesses.

The House intelligence committee is conducting its own investigation, and Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, turned down a request Tuesday to provide information, calling it “poorly phrased, overly broad and not capable of being answered.”

Four concurrent probes

There are currently four congressional investigations of Trump campaign links to Russia and Moscow’s meddling in the election.  In addition, the Justice Department appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller as a special counsel to probe whether Trump campaign aides illegally colluded with Russia during the long political campaign.

Trump has rejected allegations of collusion and dismissed the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign aimed at disrupting the November election and help Trump win.

“Russian officials must be laughing at the U.S. & how a lame excuse for why the Dems lost the election has taken over the Fake News,” Trump wrote Tuesday on Twitter.  Clinton has said that Russian interference was partly to blame for her defeat.

Later, at a White House briefing for reporters, spokesman Sean Spicer said Trump “is frustrated … to see stories come out that are patently false, to see narratives that are wrong, to see, quote, unquote, fake news, when you see stories get perpetrated that are absolutely false, that are not based in fact.”

Trump’s Russia comment came as news reports continued to focus on Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a White House adviser, and his reported attempt to establish a back-channel communications link to Russian officials in the weeks before Trump’s inauguration in January.

Some foreign affairs experts said the move, while Obama had weeks left in his term, worried them that it could undermine U.S. security, and some opposition Democrats have suggested Kushner’s security clearance should be revoked.  Other experts say exploring the creation of “backchannels” is commonplace, even during presidential transitions.

Spicer deflected several questions about Kushner’s actions, telling one reporter his inquiry “presupposes facts that have not been confirmed.”

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Court Rules Against Kremlin Critic, Orders Graft Allegation Video Deleted

A Russian court ruled on Wednesday against Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny in a defamation lawsuit brought by one of Russia’s richest businessmen, ordering

the removal of a popular video from the internet which details the offending allegations.

Navalny, who says he plans to run in next year’s presidential election, has emerged as a major irritant for the Kremlin after thousands of people across Russia attended anti-graft protests he organized in March.

A former lawyer, he has revived some Russians’ interest in politics by publicizing what he says are outrageous cases of top government officials and Kremlin-connected businessmen abusing the system to amass huge wealth.

Most of his targets merely deny such allegations, but businessman Alisher Usmanov, part-owner of British soccer club Arsenal, filed a lawsuit against Navalny alleging he had been defamed in a video about Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Medvedev and Usmanov said corruption and other allegations leveled against them in the video were utterly false.

On Wednesday, a Moscow court agreed with Usmanov, saying the allegations had wrongly impugned his “honor and dignity.” The presiding judge ordered Navalny to delete all references to the allegations within 10 days and to publish a retraction within

three months.

Usmanov’s lawyer, Genrikh Padva, was cited by the TASS news agency as saying his client’s good name had been upheld.

“Our position – which is that there was no basis for the publication of these slanderous statements – was confirmed in court,” Padva said.

Navalny, who plans to appeal the ruling, said he would not delete the video and stood by the allegations. “The reality that we see around us somewhat contradicts the court’s decision,” said Navalny. “The investigation was based on facts.”

Opinion polls show Navalny would lose next year’s presidential election to the Kremlin candidate – widely expected to be incumbent Vladimir Putin – by a large margin.

The offending video has helped boost his campaign, garnering over 21 million online views, and Navalny successfully used it to get people to take to the streets in March to protest against official corruption.

On Wednesday, after his supporters began recirculating the contested video online, he said his court defeat underlined the need to step up the fight against corruption. He also predicted it would boost turnout at the next anti-government protest.

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