Rights group urges China to release North Korean refugees

China should immediately reveal the whereabouts of eight North Koreans it detained last month, Human Rights Watch said Monday, adding they risk severe torture if they were returned to the North.

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Most North Korean refugees begin their escape by crossing into China and then try to make it to third countries – often in Southeast Asia – where they seek asylum in the South.

If caught and returned to the North they can face severe punishment.

China regularly labels North Koreans as illegal “economic migrants” and repatriates them based on a border protocol adopted in 1986.

“By now, there are plenty of survivor accounts that reveal Kim Jong-Un’s administration is routinely persecuting those who are forced back to North Korea,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

Watch: North Korea ‘ready for final battle’

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The group it highlighted – which includes at least four women – was detained by Chinese officials in mid-March after they were stopped for a random check in Shenyang, in northeastern China.

Human Rights Watch said that on the basis of information from sources it considers usually reliable, the group was still believed to be jailed in China.

But it feared they may soon be returned to the North since “most repatriations happen two months after detention”.

“There is no way to sugar coat this: if this group is forced back to North Korea, their lives and safety will be at risk,” Robertson said.

More than 40 North Koreans, including children and pregnant women, have been held by China over the past nine months, Human Rights Watch said, and at least nine forcibly returned to the North.

Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, more than 30,000 North Koreans have escaped – most after a deadly famine in the mid-90s – and settled in the South.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un is believed to have tightened border controls since he came to power after the death of his father Kim Jong-Il in December 2011.

The number of refugees arriving in South Korea plunged nearly 50 per cent to 1,417 last year.

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Canada, Germany deliver shock World Relays wins

Despite that disappointment, the Americans still ended the two-day competition in Nassau with the most gold medals, five.

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A strong leg by Olympic silver medallist Andre De Grasse and a solid exchange with anchor Aaron Brown put the Canadians out front in the men’s 4×200 and Brown raced home for the year’s best time of 1:19.42.

Brown said the team had been determined to make up for a dropped baton that knocked them out of Saturday’s 4×100.

“It did not go well yesterday,” said Brown. “But I’m glad we were able to break the curse, get the monkey off our backs and show the world what we are able to do in the relays.”

The win, the first in the event by a non-U.S. or Jamaican team at the World Relays, came after Canadian leadoff runner Gavin Smellie was called for a false start in the heats.

“There was maybe a little twitch, but I didn’t move,” said Smellie. “I was asking the officials to watch the video to see there was no false start.”

The officials agreed and the red card was withdrawn.

The United States, running without Justin Gatlin, were second in the final in 1:19.88 and Jamaica took third (1:21.09).

In the women’s 4×100, anchor Rebekka Haas held off Jamaica’s Sashalee Forbes to give Germany their first World Relays victory in 42.84 seconds

“We were just hoping to get a medal, but we got gold,” said German leadoff Alexandra Burghardt.

The United States won three of Sunday’s other finals.

Olympic bronze medallist Clayton Murphy outdueled Kenya’s Ferguson Rotich in the men’s 4×800 as the United States came home in 7:13.16 with Kenya running 7:13.70.

Olympian LaShawn Merritt anchored the Americans to a narrow victory over Botswana in the men’s 4×400, the Americans winning in 3:02.13, just 0.15 seconds ahead of Botswana.

There was no such drama in the women’s 4×400 where the Americans came home in 3:24.36, nearly four seconds ahead of Poland.

“These ladies blew that thing open for me,” said American anchor Natasha Hastings.

Host Bahamas finally struck victory in the finale of the night, the mixed 4×400, in 3:14.42.

The top eight finishers in the 4×100 and 4×400 for men and women automatically qualified for the IAAF world championships in London in August.

(Reporting by Gene Cherry in Raleigh, North Carolina; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

Budget to have another go at dole bludgers

The Turnbull government is going back to basics with its May 9 budget and having another crack at dole bludgers.

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After weeks of speculation over what the budget might bring to ease housing affordability pressures, Malcolm Turnbull has attempted to tone down expectations despite a red-hot property market in Sydney and Melbourne.

A new poll has found voters agreeing with the prime minister about housing affordability, saying while it’s an important issue it isn’t necessarily a top priority.

The government will crack down on people who claim welfare but won’t participate in work-for-the-dole schemes, closing a loophole that allows payments to continue despite people refusing interviews or placements.

Employment Minster Michaelia Cash says there is a cohort of people in Australia that actively says no to suitable work

“I think all taxpayers would rightly expect that those who can work should work and our welfare system should be there as a genuine safety net, not as something that people can choose to fund their lifestyle,” she told reporters in Brisbane on Monday.

Labor frontbencher Katy Gallagher is a “bit suspicious” when a coalition government attempts to demonise and attack those who rely on welfare.

“We support rigour around people being responsible for the money they receive and actually having to play by the rules. There is no problem with that,” she told reporters in Canberra.

But Labor wants to make sure the government isn’t being “harsh and unfair” by attacking those who are most vulnerable.

However, Senator Gallagher welcomed a backflip by the government that will enable Australia’s most vulnerable people access to legal services under new funding arrangements.

The government will provide $39 million for community legal centres and $16.7 million for indigenous legal services in the budget.

“We’re actually announcing this in advance of the budget because we want to send a very clear signal about where the government’s priorities lie,” Attorney-General George Brandis told reporters in Brisbane.

The coalition has come under sustained fire from Labor, minor parties and community groups for not guaranteeing ongoing funding to the legal services, with previous commitments set to end on July 1.

Senator Gallagher said it was a humiliating about face by Senator Brandis.

“Just eight weeks out from these cuts taking effect, for those who have campaigned against the cuts, the victory is theirs today,” she said.

A new survey found a majority (57 per cent) of voters regard Medicare and hospitals as their top priority.

The polling, by JWS Research for the Australian Financial Review, found stimulating economic growth and employment came second on 48 per cent, followed by welfare and social issues on 46 per cent and then housing affordability and funding for education and schools, both on 41 per cent.

Storm wary of Foran and Warriors

Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy says the addition of playmaker Kieran Foran has made a huge difference to the Warriors ahead of their Anzac Day clash.

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The Warriors No.6 played his first game for his new NRL club in round five and Bellamy said he had improved their attack.

In his three games this month the New Zealand-based side have won two and lost one, falling to the highly-rated Raiders in Canberra last round.

“Foran makes a lot of difference,” Bellamy said ahead of the Tuesday night match at AAMI Park.

“He’s a really experienced player and he’s a real competitor and he really straightens up their attack a lot.

“He’s come in and I suppose taken over the organisation of the attack which means less responsibility on (Shaun) Johnson’s shoulders so he’s been real important for them.”

Foran, who is off-contract and is set to return to an Australian NRL club, has been linked to a move to the Storm but Bellamy delivered an emphatic denial on Monday when asked if they were interested.

While the Storm boast the best spine in the competition in fullback Billy Slater, halfback Cooper Cronk and hooker Cameron Smith, Bellamy said he was aware of the talents of the Warriors trio in Foran, fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and hooker Issac Luke.

Bellamy said he’d been stunned by the recovery of Tuivasa-Sheck from a knee reconstruction when they met in a pre-season trial.

“Usually it takes a while to get back their speed and agility but in their trial I can’t remember a guy come back from an ACL and move as well as Sheck did,” Bellamy said.

“He’s a freak of nature, he’s such a good player.”

Bellamy wouldn’t reveal whether he would continue with Ryley Jacks at five-eighth or give Cameron Munster a start following his recovery from a fractured jaw.

Munster came off the bench in their hard-fought win over Manly last round.

“Both of them are in really good form so we will work out what’s best for the team,” Bellamy said.

“Munster’s done a wonderful job for us for two years so with all due respect he’s probably earnt the right to have first go but whether that’s the right time this week with the time he’s had out,” Bellamy said.

Government finds ‘new money’ for community legal centres after backlash over funding cuts

The Federal Government has cancelled its plan to cut millions of dollars in funding for community legal centres across Australia after backlash from the sector.

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Centres had been bracing for a 30 per cent slash in funding from July 1, working out at nearly $35 million over three years, but today Attorney-General George Brandis announced he’d return funding and go further.

“This is new money, it is not being removed or taken away or transferred from other priorities of the government,” the Attorney-General said.  

“It represents the largest single commitment on an annualised basis by the Commonwealth Government to the legal assistance sector ever.”

The sector will receive a funding boost of $55.7 million over the next three years, which includes $16.7 million for Indigenous legal services.

Senator Brandis has blamed the funding shortfall on the previous Labor Government’s 2014 budget, however the Coalition also made savings during its time in office.

“We are announcing this in advance of the Budget because we want to send a clear signal about where the Government’s priorities lie,” he said.

Acting Shadow Attorney-General Katy Gallagher welcomed the increase in funding but said it was a humiliating change of heart from Senator Brandis.

“Yet he still continues to deny any responsibility for the uncertainty and the devastating impact that these potential cuts have caused,” Senator Gallagher said. 

Watch: Brandis announces funding for CLCs

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The U-turn is a relief for many centres, with the Law Council of Australia calling it a “tremendous victory” for access to justice.

“The scheduled budget cuts would have significantly deepened the funding crisis affecting the legal assistance sector, with enormous downstream costs to taxpayers,” Law Council President Fiona McLeod said.

“Those who work in the legal assistance sector are the unsung heroes of our community, working long hours in extremely challenging conditions to achieve justice for their clients.”  

Ms McLeod said many centres had been factoring in the cut, which was to take place in eight weeks, by slashing services or staff.

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In 2014 the Productivity Commission determined the community legal sector was underfunded, and needed a $200m injection of funding.

It highlighted the spending would be offset by savings for taxpayers by reducing costs and demand for the courts.

Today’s announcement takes funding for the services to 2020, when a national partnership agreement with the states and territories ends.

All jurisdictions will have to negotiate a new funding deal from that point.

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