U.S. now has its largest military presence in war-torn Somalia since ‘Black Hawk Down’ disaster

Politico reports: The number of U.S. military forces in Somalia has more than doubled this year to over 500 people as the Pentagon has quietly posted hundreds of additional special operations personnel to advise local forces in pockets of Islamic militants around the country, according to current and former senior military officials.

It is the largest American military contingent in the war-torn nation since the infamous 1993 “Black Hawk Down” battle, when 18 U.S. soldiers died. It is also the latest example of how the Pentagon’s operations in Africa have expanded with greater authority provided to field commanders.

The growing Somalia mission, coming more fully to light after four American troops were killed in an ambush in Niger last month, also includes two new military headquarters in the capital of Mogadishu and stepped-up airstrikes. It’s driven by a major shift in strategy from primarily relying on targeted strikes against terrorists to advising and supporting Somali troops in the field, the officials said. [Continue reading…]

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Somalia: The role of climate change in recurring violence

Giovanna Kuele and Ana Cristina Miola write: The deadliest blast in Somalia’s history, which killed more than 350 people, and the double car bombing in Mogadishu last October represented frustrating backslides in the country’s efforts to build stability. For almost 30 years, Somalia has been tackling a combination of civil war, famine, desertification, piracy, political fragmentation, and terrorism — even as the population struggles to rebuild and move forward. Although the conflict has many underlying causes, one factor that remains poorly understood is climate change. In a country where, alongside war, six million people currently face starvation, understanding the role of climate change and its impact on patterns of drought — and developing innovative responses — is more pressing than ever.

Since the country’s state and social resilience to climate consequences is limited, the ability of around 70% of Somalis to meet their basic needs depends heavily on a regular climate pattern. However, over the past decade climate change-related desertification has expanded in Somalia, greatly increasing the vulnerability of the local population. Climate change feeds armed conflict in Somalia by exacerbating tensions between clans; boosting the ranks and role of terrorist groups, including al-Shabaab; and increasing migratory flows.

First, climate change sharpens disputes over already-scarce resources between warlords. While Al-Shabaab has conquered large pieces of the country’s territory, clan elders still wield considerable power, dominating the political system. In this sense, the severe droughts cause disruptions to water access, high rates of malnutrition, disease outbreaks, and food insecurity, leading to tension and even open disputes between the clans. In a country facing this set of challenges, resources like food and water are not only a basic need but also a source of power. [Continue reading…]

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Somalia bombing may have been revenge for botched U.S.-led operation

The Guardian reports: The man who killed more than 300 people with a truck bomb in the centre of Mogadishu on Saturday was a former soldier in Somalia’s army whose home town was raided by local troops and US special forces two months ago in a controversial operation in which 10 civilians were killed, officials in Somalia have said.

The death toll from the bombing now stands at more than 300, making it one of the most devastating terrorist attacks anywhere in the world for many years. On Tuesday remains of victims were still being brought out of rubble spread over hundreds of square metres.

Investigators believe the attack on Saturday may in part have been motivated by a desire for revenge for the botched US-led operation in August.

Al-Shabaab has not claimed responsibility for Saturday’s attack but a member of the cell detained by security forces has told interrogators the group was responsible, one security official told the Guardian. [Continue reading…]

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Mogadishu atrocity one of the most lethal acts of terrorism this century

The Guardian reports: The death toll in the bombing that hit the centre of Mogadishu on Saturday continues to rise, with more than 300 people now believed to have been killed and hundreds more seriously injured.

The scale of the loss makes the attack, which involved a truck packed with several hundred kilograms of military-grade and homemade explosives, one of the most lethal terrorist acts anywhere in the world for many years.

On Monday morning, Somalia’s information minister announced that 276 people had died in the attack with at least 300 people injured. Within hours, however, Abdikadir Abdirahman, the director of Amin ambulances, said his service had confirmed that 300 people died in the blast.

“The death toll will still be higher because some people are still missing,” Abdirahman told Reuters.

More victims continue to be dug from the rubble spread over an area hundreds of metres wide in the centre of the city. [Continue reading…]

Jason Burke writes: For many years, Somalia was a forgotten front among the various campaigns against violent extremist Islamists around the world.

The massive bombing of the centre of Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, will bring the international spotlight back on to the battered country – at least for a few days.

Al-Shabaab, the tenacious and capable Islamist group based in the country, is almost certainly responsible for the huge truck bomb that killed as many as 300 people in Mogadishu on Saturday.

The attack proves once more it is among the most capable and tenacious militant organisations anywhere.

Al-Shabaab’s roots run back through a series of violent – and sometimes non-violent – revivalist Islamist movements in Somalia over the past 40 years. In the past decade, it has been fighting local, regional and international forces, and has survived significant strategic setbacks primarily by exploiting the weaknesses and failings of central government in the shattered state. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: Earlier this year, the White House loosened the rules governing U.S. operations in the country, declaring parts of Somalia to be an “area of active hostilities.”

A one-star general was assigned to coordinate operations from a compound within Mogadishu’s airport. The small, elite teams of U.S. Special Operations forces in Somalia were augmented with conventional Army troops who provide a variety of training for the Somali forces.

The Pentagon refuses to say precisely how many Americans are deployed to Somalia — believed to be a few hundred at most — but Defense Secretary Jim Mattis indicated earlier this year that the Trump administration would consider sending more personnel if asked by the Somali president.

It’s unlikely, though, that the weekend’s attack will result in any substantial American military buildup. As in other unstable parts of Africa, the U.S. strategy in Somalia has been to support allied forces by sharing intelligence, providing training and equipment, and conducting precision airstrikes — but not doing the fighting for them. [Continue reading…]

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New order indefinitely bars almost all travel from seven countries

The New York Times reports: President Trump on Sunday issued a new order indefinitely banning almost all travel to the United States from seven countries, including most of the nations covered by his original travel ban, citing threats to national security posed by letting their citizens into the country.

The new order is more far-reaching than the president’s original travel ban, imposing permanent restrictions on travel, rather than the 90-day suspension that Mr. Trump authorized soon after taking office. But officials said his new action was the result of a deliberative, rigorous examination of security risks that was designed to avoid the chaotic rollout of his first ban. And the addition of non-Muslim countries could address the legal attacks on earlier travel restrictions as discrimination based on religion.

Starting next month, most citizens of Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad and North Korea will be banned from entering the United States, Mr. Trump said in a proclamation released Sunday night. Citizens of Iraq and some groups of people in Venezuela who seek to visit the United States will face restrictions or heightened scrutiny.

Mr. Trump’s original travel ban caused turmoil at airports in January and set off a furious legal challenge to the president’s authority. It was followed in March by a revised ban, which expired on Sunday even as the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments about its constitutionality on Oct. 10. The new order — Chad, North Korea and Venezuela are new to the list of affected countries and Sudan has been dropped — will take effect Oct. 18. [Continue reading…]

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How Trump is enabling famine

Jackson Diehl writes: Last month, eight large private U.S. relief organizations formed an unprecedented alliance to call Americans’ attention to the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II: 20 million people at imminent risk of famine in four countries, including millions of children the United Nations says are “acutely malnourished.” Thinking of the popular anti-famine movements of the 1980s and ’90s, the groups enlisted support from big corporations and rock stars; the hope was to get through to the 85 percent of Americans whom polling showed were unaware of the crisis, and make a dent in the more than $2 billion deficit in funding needed to head off mass starvation.

For the most part, the two-week campaign didn’t work. Officials from the groups say they raised about $3.7 million and got more coverage than they would have working separately. But there was no eruption of public interest; news stories about the famine remain few and far between. The reason is fairly obvious: The continuing Trump circus sucks up so much media oxygen that issues that otherwise would be urgent — such as millions of people starving — are asphyxiated.

The U.N. tried to call attention to the looming hunger crisis in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria in March. Nearly six months later, the grim facts are these: Just 54 percent of the $4.9 billion the U.N. said was needed to head off a catastrophe has been raised. Though aid deliveries have pulled a state in South Sudan formally out of famine, more than half the population there and in Somalia need emergency food assistance, along with 5.2 million people in northeastern Nigeria. [Continue reading…]

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More than 20 million people are at risk of starving to death. Will the world step up?

In an editorial, the Washington Post says: More than 20 million people in four countries are at risk of starvation in the coming months, in what the United Nations has called the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. But the global response to the emergency has been lacking, both from governments and from private citizens. As of Monday, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs was reporting that only 43 percent of the $6.27 billion needed to head off famine this year in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria had been raised. A poll by the International Rescue Committee showed that 85 percent of Americans are largely uninformed about the food shortages. The IRC calls it “likely the least reported but most important major issue of our time.”

Accounts by the United Nations, the U.S. government and private aid groups more than back up that claim. More than half the populations of Somalia and South Sudan are in need of emergency food assistance, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. Civil wars in those countries have combined with meager spring rains to drastically reduce food supplies. In Nigeria, some 5 million people are at risk in the northeastern provinces where the terrorist group Boko Haram is active.

The most harrowing reports come from Yemen, where the United Nations says a staggering 20 million people need humanitarian aid. In addition to millions who lack food, more than 330,000 people have been afflcited by a cholera epidemic since late April, with one person dying nearly every hour on average. Donors have supplied less than 40 percent of the aid Yemen needs to prevent starvation, and officials have recently been forced to divert some of that assistance to fight cholera. In all four countries, children are disproportionately affected: Aid groups say 1.4 million severely malnourished children could die in the next few months if more help is not forthcoming. [Continue reading…]

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No one is paying attention to the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II

Jackson Diehl writes: The never-ending circus that is Donald Trump’s presidency has sucked attention from all kinds of issues that desperately need it, from health-care reform to the creeping expansion of U.S. engagement in Syria. Still, it’s shocking that so little heed is being paid to what the United Nations says is the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945: the danger that about 20 million people in four countries will suffer famine in the coming months, and that hundreds of thousands of children will starve to death.

Not heard of this? That’s the problem. According to U.N. and private relief officials, efforts to supply enough food to stem the simultaneous crises in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria are falling tragically short so far, in part because of inadequate funding from governments and private donors. Of the $4.9 billion sought in February by the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) for immediate needs in those countries, just 39 percent had been donated as of last week.

That resource gap could be attributed to donor fatigue, or to the sheer size of the need. But, in part, it’s a simple lack of awareness. “We can’t seem to get anyone’s attention to what’s going on,” says Carolyn Miles, the president and chief executive of Save the Children. [Continue reading…]

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Drought and war heighten threat of not just one famine, but four

The New York Times reports: First the trees dried up and cracked apart.

Then the goats keeled over.

Then the water in the village well began to disappear, turning cloudy, then red, then slime-green, but the villagers kept drinking it. That was all they had.

Now on a hot, flat, stony plateau outside Baidoa, thousands of people pack into destitute camps, many clutching their stomachs, some defecating in the open, others already dead from a cholera epidemic.

“Even if you can get food, there is no water,” said one mother, Sangabo Moalin, who held her head with a left hand as thin as a leaf and spoke of her body “burning.”

Another famine is about to tighten its grip on Somalia. And it’s not the only crisis that aid agencies are scrambling to address. For the first time since anyone can remember, there is a very real possibility of four famines — in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen — breaking out at once, endangering more than 20 million lives.

International aid officials say they are facing one of the biggest humanitarian disasters since World War II. And they are determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

One powerful lesson from the last famine in Somalia, just six years ago, was that famines were not simply about food. They are about something even more elemental: water.

Once again, a lack of clean water and proper hygiene is setting off an outbreak of killer diseases in displaced persons camps. So the race is on to dig more latrines, get swimming-pool quantities of clean water into the camps, and pass out more soap, more water-treatment tablets and more plastic buckets — decidedly low-tech supplies that could save many lives.

“We underestimated the role of water and its contribution to mortality in the last famine,” said Ann Thomas, a water, sanitation and hygiene specialist for Unicef. “It gets overshadowed by the food.”

The famines are coming as a drought sweeps across Africa and several different wars seal off extremely needy areas. United Nations officials say they need a huge infusion of cash to respond. So far, they are not just millions of dollars short, but billions.

At the same time, President Trump is urging Congress to cut foreign aid and assistance to the United Nations, which aid officials fear could multiply the deaths. The United States traditionally provides more disaster relief than anyone else.

“The international humanitarian system is at its breaking point,” said Dominic MacSorley, chief executive of Concern Worldwide, a large private aid group.

Aid officials say all the needed food and water exist on this planet in abundance — even within these hard-hit countries. But armed conflict that is often created by personal rivalries between a few men turns life upside down for millions, destroying markets and making the price of necessities go berserk. [Continue reading…]

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UN seeks inquiry into deadly assault on migrant boat near Yemen

The New York Times reports: The United Nations on Monday called for an inquiry into an aerial assault on a boat of migrants last week off Yemen’s Red Sea coast that left at least 42 people dead.

The attack on the boat, believed to be carrying 145 people leaving Yemen, was among the most horrific episodes of deadly violence on asylum seekers there since Saudi Arabia and its allies entered the country’s civil war and began an air campaign against the Houthi rebels two years ago.

The boat assault also illustrated the vibrant trade in people-smuggling between the Horn of Africa and Yemen, a congregation point for tens of thousands of Africans fleeing their own countries.

Most of the passengers aboard the vessel were believed to be Somalis who had been staying in Yemen and were trying to reach Sudan.

United Nations officials have registered nearly 280,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Yemen, mostly from Somalia. [Continue reading…]

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In President Obama’s last year in office, the United States dropped 26,171 bombs

Micah Zenko and Jennifer Wilson write: In President Obama’s last year in office, the United States dropped 26,171 bombs in seven countries. This estimate is undoubtedly low, considering reliable data is only available for airstrikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, and a single “strike,” according to the Pentagon’s definition, can involve multiple bombs or munitions. In 2016, the United States dropped 3,027 more bombs — and in one more country, Libya — than in 2015. [Continue reading…]

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Somali refugees are not a threat

Will Oremus writes: We still don’t know exactly what motivated the Ohio State student who wounded 11 people with his car and a knife on Monday, before a campus police officer shot and killed him. We know that the student, Abdul Razak Ali Artan, was a Somali refugee, and that he felt Muslims were subject to unfair scrutiny in his community, and in the United States in general. We know that he posted a rant on Facebook just minutes before the attack, saying he was “willing to kill a billion infidels in retribution for a single DISABLED Muslim.”

We also know that ISIS claimed credit for the attack on Tuesday, but that doesn’t tell us much. One of the group’s shrewdest strategies has been to embrace violent acts by Muslims around the globe, whether or not it played a direct role in them. The tactic makes the group seem more potent and broad-based than it really is. President-elect Donald Trump readily accepted this claim, highlighting the ISIS link along with Artan’s Somali background in a tweet on Tuesday.


The tweet echoed Trump’s past warnings about the threat posed by Somali refugees in the United States, suggesting they will face increased scrutiny under his presidency. It’s also possible that he will follow through on his campaign proposal to ban refugees from the country, despite the ongoing violence there. Somalis in Columbus, and across the country, are on edge: Many have children and other close relatives in Somalia, or in Kenyan refugee camps, who are in the midst of the already arduous application process for a family reunification visa.

To blame Somalis and ISIS for acts of violence like Artan’s, and to respond with a crackdown on the group as a whole, may strike some as an understandable reaction. But in fact, it is a misdiagnosis of the problem — and a deeply misguided solution. That’s not only because it’s unfair to blame the group for the sins of a tiny number of individuals. It’s also because it’s counterproductive and misses the point.

The time I’ve spent with Columbus’ Somali community, working on a master’s thesis about young Somalis and the threat of radicalization in 2010 and 2011, revealed that its troubles stem not from a lack of scrutiny, but a surfeit of it. Many of its members escaped the armed conflict in Somalia only to face new obstacles in the U.S. heartland: poverty, alienation, and a wholly justified sense of persecution. The reaction from Columbus Somalis in the wake of Artan’s attack was one of horror — at the act itself, but also at the likely consequences for their community. This was Somali Americans’ worst nightmare, and something that many of them have been working for years to prevent. [Continue reading…]

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Obama expands war with Al Qaeda and greatly extends Trump’s capabilities and authorities

The New York Times reports: The escalating American military engagement in Somalia has led the Obama administration to expand the legal scope of the war against Al Qaeda, a move that will strengthen President-elect Donald J. Trump’s authority to combat thousands of Islamist fighters in the chaotic Horn of Africa nation.

The administration has decided to deem the Shabab, the Islamist militant group in Somalia, to be part of the armed conflict that Congress authorized against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to senior American officials. The move is intended to shore up the legal basis for an intensifying campaign of airstrikes and other counterterrorism operations, carried out largely in support of African Union and Somali government forces.

The executive branch’s stretching of the 2001 war authorization against the original Al Qaeda to cover other Islamist groups in countries far from Afghanistan — even ones, like the Shabab, that did not exist at the time — has prompted recurring objections from some legal and foreign policy experts.

The Shabab decision is expected to be publicly disclosed next month in a letter to Congress listing global deployments. It is part of the Obama administration’s pattern of relaxing various self-imposed rules for airstrikes against Islamist militants as it tries to help its partner forces in several conflicts. [Continue reading…]

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In Somalia, U.S. escalates a shadow war

The New York Times reports: The Obama administration has intensified a clandestine war in Somalia over the past year, using Special Operations troops, airstrikes, private contractors and African allies in an escalating campaign against Islamist militants in the anarchic Horn of Africa nation.

Hundreds of American troops now rotate through makeshift bases in Somalia, the largest military presence since the United States pulled out of the country after the “Black Hawk Down” battle in 1993.

The Somalia campaign, as it is described by American and African officials and international monitors of the Somali conflict, is partly designed to avoid repeating that debacle, which led to the deaths of 18 American soldiers. But it carries enormous risks — including more American casualties, botched airstrikes that kill civilians and the potential for the United States to be drawn even more deeply into a troubled country that so far has stymied all efforts to fix it.

The Somalia campaign is a blueprint for warfare that President Obama has embraced and will pass along to his successor. It is a model the United States now employs across the Middle East and North Africa — from Syria to Libya — despite the president’s stated aversion to American “boots on the ground” in the world’s war zones. This year alone, the United States has carried out airstrikes in seven countries and conducted Special Operations missions in many more. [Continue reading…]

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A reminder of the permanent wars: Dozens of U.S. airstrikes in six countries

The Washington Post reports: While Americans savored the last moments of summer this Labor Day weekend, the U.S. military was busy overseas as warplanes conducted strikes in six countries in a flurry of attacks. The bombing runs across Asia, Africa and the Middle East spotlighted the diffuse terrorist threats that have persisted into the final days of the Obama presidency — conflicts that the next president is now certain to inherit.

In Iraq and Syria, between Saturday and Monday, the United States conducted about 45 strikes against Islamic State targets. On the other side of the Mediterranean, in the Libyan city of Sirte, U.S. forces also hit fighters with the militant group. On Sunday in Yemen, a U.S. drone strike killed six suspected members of ­al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The following day, just across the Gulf of Aden in Somalia, the Pentagon targeted al-Shabab, another group aligned with ­al-Qaeda. The military also conducted several counterterrorism strikes over the weekend in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and the Islamic State are on the offensive.

Militants in each of those countries have been attacked before, but the convergence of so many strikes on so many fronts in such a short period served as a reminder of the endurance and geographic spread of al-Qaeda and its mutations.

“This administration really wanted to end these wars,” said Paul Scharre, a former Army Ranger and Pentagon official now at the Center for a New American Security. “Now, we’ve got U.S. combat operations on multiple fronts and we’re dropping bombs in six countries. That’s just the unfortunate reality of the terrorism threat today.”

In meeting those threats, Obama has sought to limit the large-scale deployments of the past, instead relying on air power, including drones; isolated Special Operations raids; and support for foreign forces.

But militant groups have defied eight years of these sustained counterterrorism efforts.

Nowhere are the unexpected turns of Obama’s foreign-policy record more visible than in Iraq, where thousands of U.S. troops returned after the 2011 withdrawal to support local forces’ battle against the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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U.S.-funded Somali intelligence agency has been using kids as spies

The Washington Post reports: For years they were children at war, boys given rifles and training by al-Qaeda-backed militants and sent to the front lines of this country’s bloody conflict. Many had been kidnapped from schools and soccer fields and forced to fight.

The United Nations pleaded for them to be removed from the battlefield. The United States denounced the Islamist militants for using children to plant bombs and carry out assassinations.

But when the boys were finally disarmed — some defecting and others apprehended — what awaited them was yet another dangerous role in the war. This time, the children say, they were forced to work for the Somali government.

The boys were used for years as informants by the country’s National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), according to interviews with the children and Somali and U.N. officials. They were marched through neighborhoods where al-Shabab insurgents were hiding and told to point out their former comrades. The faces of intelligence agents were covered, but the boys — some as young as 10 — were rarely concealed, according to the children. Several of them were killed. One tried to hang himself while in custody.

The Somali agency’s widespread use of child informants, which has not been previously documented, appears to be a flagrant violation of international law. It raises difficult questions for the U.S. government, which for years has provided substantial funding and training to the Somali agency through the CIA, according to current and former U.S. officials.

A CIA spokesman declined to comment on the issue. But in the past the U.S. government has supported Somali security institutions — despite well-known human rights violations — citing the urgent need to combat terrorist groups such as al-Shabab. [Continue reading…]

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Refugee crisis focus shifts to North Africa

Der Spiegel reports: Abdul Kadir Mohamed Moalim has seen hell. Originally from Somalia, a country ravaged by civil war, he traveled via a refugee camp in Yemen and then to Libya. From there, he crossed the Mediterranean to Europe.

On April 16, an overloaded wooden vessel capsized on the high seas and only a few people on board managed to survive. Moalim was one of them. Now, he is in Kalamata, the Greek city that rescuers brought him to. In an interview conducted there by the BBC, he was asked if he had a message for those still in Africa who are waiting for their opportunity to flee to Europe. His answer: “It’s so dangerous,” he said. “You have to believe in your country and … stay where you are.”

Moalim bore witness to a tragedy in which up to 500 Somalis, Sudanese and Ethiopians drowned, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). That would make it the worst such accident of the last 12 months. In April 2015, a fishing boat sank while on its way from Libya toward Italy and up to 800 men, women and children died. Then, too, most of the victims were from sub-Saharan Africa.

Europe continues to focus primarily on the war refugees coming from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. But it is often forgotten that increasing numbers of people from countries south of the Sahara are trying to head north as well. In 2015 alone, according to the European Union border control agency Frontex, 108,000 Africans made their way illegally to Europe. That represents an increase of 42 percent over 2014 — and experts believe the total is but a harbinger of what Europe may soon be facing. [Continue reading…]

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