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The promise and peril of the EU’s new asylum plan

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The European Union has proposed an ambitious new plan to deal with the thousands of asylum seekers who continue to arrive on Europe’s shores. But even top officials in the bloc acknowledge that the plan won’t make anyone happy.

On Wednesday, the European Commission (the EU’s executive arm) released more than 500 pages filled with proposals to change its years-long asylum policy. The “New Pact for Migration and Asylum,” which is strongly backed by Germany, aims to convince EU member nations skeptical of letting in migrants, already overburdened with refugees, or angling for reform that a new compromise can be struck by the end of next year.

“I am not asking you to like it,” European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas told EU lawmakers on Thursday. “I am asking you to understand it.”

Under the plan, all 27 member states would agree to take in asylum seekers or take responsibility for sending those who are denied asylum back to their home countries. The plan would end the quotas for the number of refugees each country should take in, and would set up a new, expedited system for processing and deporting people who are denied asylum back to their countries of origin.

The problem is that the plan has upset nearly everyone, likely dooming its prospects for full adoption.

“These rules are not acceptable for us,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said during a Thursday news conference alongside other leaders hostile to refugees. “The strategy should be that these people really should stay and live in their home countries, and we have to do the maximum for this and we have really to discuss it.”

Those who want to help asylum seekers and believe the EU’s migration laws should be more welcoming don’t support the plan, either. “There’s not a whole lot that’s actually new in this proposal, and the few things that are new are, on the whole, ghastly,” said Judith Sunderland, the deputy director for Europe at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Simply put, for some the new migration policy isn’t tough enough, and for others it isn’t humane enough — a divide that may be too wide to bridge. “The proposal is an attempt to reconcile two extreme positions among member states that can’t really be reconciled,” Gerald Knaus, chair of the European Stability Initiative (ESI) think tank headquartered in Berlin, told me.

Such a challenge hasn’t stopped European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen from tackling the continent’s migration woes, an issue she has made a core concern during her first year in charge. The EU’s migration policy needs “a fresh start,” she told reporters in Brussels after releasing the reform package. “The old system to deal with it in Europe no longer works.”

She has a point. European politics have roiled since more than a million people fleeing war and persecution sought asylum in the EU in 2015 — with hundreds of thousands arriving since, and others dying on the way — fueling the rise of far-right parties and the strongmen who lead them. The bloc’s mishandling of the issue, mainly by stashing those who await an asylum decision in sprawling refugee camps on the continent’s periphery, has deepened the humanitarian crisis.

The extent of the overall failure was underscored earlier this month when a fire destroyed Europe’s largest refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, leaving the majority of its 12,000 residents homeless.

The lives of thousands of people, then, hang in the balance as European leaders debate the complex set of proposals over the coming year. Unfortunately, very few believe it’ll lead to any real progress.

“Most of this is unlikely to work the way the European Commission says it will work,” HRW’s Sunderland told me, “but it is likely to cause a lot of suffering to people.”

How the EU’s new asylum proposals would work

Within the 500-plus pages of proposals lie solutions to three interrelated problems the EU’s leaders aim to solve.

First, they want immigration officials in border states to adjudicate asylum claims much faster than they do now, hoping to reduce the number of people waiting for a decision and foster a more efficient process.

Second, they want to incentivize nations unwilling to assist with asylum claims to pitch in. If they don’t, there is a mechanism by which the bloc can force those countries to do so.

Third, they want to expedite the return of people not granted asylum back to their home countries, ensuring they don’t linger too long in the temporary host nation.

The reason for tackling those three issues is not only to attempt to improve the situation for thousands of refugees, but also to satisfy the concerns of countries that don’t want to accept more asylum seekers, according to multiple European Commission staffers I spoke with.

They said top Commission officials have engaged every nation’s leader for months — including immigration hawks in Hungary, Austria, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and more — to hear their views. The suite of proposals is meant to assuage their worries.

But experts say the reform package falls well short of the mark, however well-intentioned. “The end result, if adopted, wouldn’t make much of a difference, and it wouldn’t address the problems along the external border today,” said ESI’s Knaus.

Let’s take a look at the proposals for those three problems:

1) Approve or deny asylum claims faster

The current EU asylum directive gives member states up to six months to decide whether or not to accept someone’s asylum claim if they arrive at a European border irregularly — that is, illegally by land or sea.

That’s a long time, but consider what goes into such a decision. The government must figure out if sending an applicant back home might lead to their persecution, imprisonment, or even death. That’s a hard thing to do, made harder by the fact that some people have weak — or even fraudulent — asylum claims. If the nation’s immigration agency is understaffed or overwhelmed by a large number of asylum seekers, delays inevitably ensue.

Many of the individuals and families come from war-torn nations or are religious and ethnic minorities facing persecution back home. Fleeing for their lives, they may not have the requisite paperwork and evidence to prove they were recently in mortal danger. They also may not have the funds to contract proper representation for a tricky legal matter.

International law states that someone who requests asylum at another nation’s port of entry should have their plea heard and fairly considered, and the EU as a whole abides by that. But, of course, there are countries that don’t want migrants awaiting asylum decisions for months in their territory, and most refugees would like an answer as quickly as possible.

To satisfy both needs, the EU has now proposed ways of making the entirety of the process faster.

Say an asylum seeker — let’s call him Alex — arrives in Greece irregularly from the United States. Before Alex can pass a border checkpoint, local and EU asylum officials will put him through a five-day-long screening process. He’ll have his ID and health checked, his background delved into, and more. After the screening, Alex will be placed on one of two tracks: 1) where a negative decision is likely, or 2) where a positive decision is likely.

Alex is most likely not going to get his asylum claim granted. The US is a safe country, he’s male, he’s in his 30s, and no one could find evidence that sending him back to his reporting job in Washington would put him in danger. There’s also the chance that border guards find Alex poses some security threat to Europe — perhaps he has an extremist acquaintance on Facebook — and that might also put him on the negative track.

In either case, under the new proposal, he will remain at Greece’s border in a facility constructed to house people going through the “border procedure.” He won’t be granted access into the country, he can’t leave the frontier, and he’ll only have 12 weeks total to make his case, including any needed appeals — about half the time of the current deadline. If Greece still thinks Alex has a weak asylum claim by the end of that time period, he’ll be sent back to the US, though that’s easier said than done (more on this in a minute).

(To be clear, if Alex were an unaccompanied minor, part of a family from a war-torn nation, or an individual from a country that might harm him upon return — say, Syria — he might be put in the positive decision track and the normal six-month process remains in effect.)

European Commission

At first blush, this all sounds well and good. Asylum seekers would be in limbo for less time, and authorities can more quickly remove from the queue people unlikely to have their appeals granted.

But if all this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. This is basically the EU’s existing plan, known as the “hotspot approach,” to house asylum seekers in ramshackle facilities at borders. The only real difference here is the handle-the-asylum-claims-faster twist.

The refugee camp in Lesbos that just burned down, for instance, was a so-called hotspot. So it seems the EU doesn’t actually have a plan to move away from having places like it. “What they’re proposing would lead to more and more and more [Lesbos-like camps] in more and more places,” said HRW’s Sunderland. “The whole logic of the hotspot approach hasn’t worked at all.”

There’s also a debate on the speed-of-decisions part. Some experts fear plowing through asylum claims will lead to more errors. For example, instead of delving more deeply into a refugee’s background, some details might be missed by authorities in an effort to rush, perhaps ending in a wrongful denial. Others say certain European countries — namely the Netherlands and Switzerland — have successfully expedited decisions on asylum claims by modernizing procedures, increasing staff, and offering government-funded legal advice to claimants.

Either way, this part of the reform package doesn’t seem that different at all, save for trying to move things along more quickly.

2) Get other countries to help with asylum claims, even if they don’t want to

This next change — having other nations chip in to help overwhelmed member states — is arguably the EU’s most controversial proposal and the one most likely to cause the greatest political strife.

Countries in Europe’s south — Greece, Italy, Spain, Malta, and more — have by virtue of their geography seen hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers arrive on their shores in the last five years alone. Nations elsewhere on the continent don’t see such high numbers of refugees because they’re not as easily accessible by land or sea.

During the 2015 crisis, those southern countries, especially Greece and Italy, were overwhelmed with asylum claims and asked other nations to help them. But many didn’t, leaving them to handle the influx mostly by themselves.

In the following years, some southern European nations have forced boats of migrants and refugees to turn away, in violation of international and EU law, in order to keep the number of asylum-seekers down because they feel they can’t take anymore.

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The EU’s leadership knows this is a problem and has long made boosting solidarity on this issue — that is, getting all member states to help with migration and asylum claims — a main focus. The new proposals this week offer a remedy, basically by forcing other states to help.

Here’s how it would work: Say Alex is joined by thousands upon thousands of refugees awaiting asylum decisions in Greece. Like in 2015, the influx is so large that it’s overtaking what Greece could handle, even with the EU’s assistance. At that point, either the EU or Greece may realize other countries in the bloc need to help with the situation and officially call for help.

This is where it gets tricky. Most simply put, EU countries would have to pledge how many asylum seekers they’re willing to care for. If the number of pledges falls below 70 percent of the determined need (i.e., countries in total are only willing to take 600 of 1,000 claimants) then the EU can force those who have under-pledged — determined by how rich and populous a nation is — to take more people. (More on the forcing mechanism, and the problems with it, in a moment.)

Countries pledging to help can do so in one of two ways.

First, they can choose to relocate an asylum seeker. In this case, a country like Sweden would take Alex from Greece and continue to process his asylum claim there, in Sweden. That option is straightforward and appeals to nations not skeptical of bringing in new migrants.

The second option is geared toward refugee-skeptic countries. Instead of taking in Alex, a country like Hungary could sponsor his return back to the US once his asylum claim is denied. Alex would stay in Greece, but Hungary would handle the negotiations with Washington to send him back and pay for the flight to the US. That makes Greece happy by taking Alex’s return issues out of its hands, and makes Hungary happy by allowing it to help without having to take Alex in.

There’s a catch, though: If Alex isn’t returned to America within eight months, he would be sent to Hungary as the process continues. The reason for that is to ensure Alex doesn’t grow too fond of Greece or set up familial roots by getting married or having kids — which would make his eventual return home harder — and also to incentivize Hungary to handle Alex’s case quickly instead of letting him languish in Greece.

European Commission

But what if Hungary doesn’t want to pay for Alex’s, or any asylum seeker’s, return? After all, Hungary already passed a law making asylum assistance harder, and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is deeply hostile to refugees.

This is where the enforcement mechanism comes in.

Per European Commission officials I spoke to and the proposal documents, the European Commission would have the right to adopt an “implementing act” — a law — that would force a member state to assist whatever country is in need. Since such a measure would be official EU law, the strong belief is that EU member states would abide by it. After all, the bloc is governed by the rule of law, and Hungary would have no choice but to choose either the relocation or return-sponsorship option.

But EU officials don’t yet have an answer for what would happen if Hungary, or another refugee-hostile government, were to defy such a law. If that were to happen, the EU could find itself in a deep political crisis. “It’s hard to see how the Hungarian government is going to suddenly participate in schemes that would see more migrants move to Hungary,” said Andrew Geddes, director of the Migration Policy Center (MPC) in Florence, Italy.

That said, EU officials remain confident that even the migration-skeptic nations would follow the law, as they could be taken through the bloc’s judicial process for redress.

It’s therefore possible these proposals would work just fine if implemented and that cynicism is unwarranted. But what bothers some experts most is that the proposed reforms are the EU effectively cowing to refugee hardliners. “The lowest common denominator has been lowered,” Geddes told me. And even then, statements by Hungary’s government and other EU countries make it clear that those concessions still aren’t enough.

3) Send denied asylum seekers back to their home countries faster

Finally, we arrive at the return-to-the-home-country part.

Let’s stick with our example: Alex’s asylum claim in Greece was denied, and now he’ll be forced to go back to America. Greece can’t handle the return home because it’s overwhelmed, so Hungary — either willingly or forced by the EU — is taking care of it.

In this case, Alex’s return is quite simple. The US can easily absorb him back into society and his life won’t be in danger upon return. But say Alex was from Tunisia — now the situation gets trickier.

Tunisia is currently in an economic crisis and is struggling with the coronavirus. Because of that, thousands are crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Italy and other southern European countries to claim asylum. The problem is that not everyone is going to have their claim accepted, and Tunisia doesn’t necessarily want to take certain people back since they already wanted out (among other reasons).

As a result, there’d be a standoff as both Hungary and Tunisia work out what to do. Multiply that by thousands of cases, and you can see the scale of the problem: thousands of men, women, and children just languishing at European borders waiting for a resolution.

This is a common problem in the EU. Its own statistics show only 40 percent of asylum seekers are successfully returned to their home countries, and that number plummets if the home nation is outside of the European continent, experts told me. ESI’s Knaus said Germany could only deport 1,000 people outside the EU in the first half of this year, well below last year’s rate, when 4,000 people total were sent back to their non-European home nations.

It’s this issue countries like Hungary cite often, and it is partly why they’re opposed to even the return-sponsorship option. Remember, if the Hungarian government can’t send Alex to his home country within eight months, it has to bring him to Hungary as it further works on sending him out of the EU. That’s just not a scenario refugee-hostile nations want hanging over them.

Put together, the EU tried to tackle three key problems with its new reforms, but it seems they either repackaged old solutions or didn’t offer appealing remedies. It’s for those and other reasons experts feel the proposals won’t make it through a year or more of deliberations.

What would make the EU’s migration policy better?

To be adopted, every proposal must make it through the European Parliament — which is made up of representatives from member states — and the European Council, a decision-making group made up of heads of state or ministers from each EU nation. Unanimity isn’t required, but it will take a large portion of each body to approve the new measures.

That’s a big task, and few believe most of the proposals will make it through the process. “The European Commission is basically saying ‘these are our ideas,’ but it doesn’t mean member states will like them,” said MPC’s Geddes. ”This is a big test for the EU to see if it can put in place agreements for such issues of high politics. A lot is at stake.”

What’s more, most experts I spoke to believe debating these issues amounts to a wasted opportunity. If passed, the reforms would lock in most of the failures of the EU’s asylum and migration policies of the last few years. And if they fail to pass, vulnerable people will have continued to suffer while politicians spent time fruitlessly debating and posturing.

The experts offered three general solutions the EU should focus on instead.

First, the EU shouldn’t try to force countries to take in migrants they simply don’t want. The bloc’s focus should shift from finding a common policy to creating a “coalition of the willing” — a group of EU nations that actually do want asylum seekers. As a reward, they might receive more funding or perhaps even greater voting power inside the EU.

The downside is the bloc won’t be as cohesive on asylum and migration issues. But some feel giving people a welcoming place to stay should be the priority, not creating an artificial sense of unity.

“I don’t think Europe should be held hostage by a hostile minority,” HRW’s Sunderland told me.

Second, the EU should work on enforcing existing asylum and migration laws instead of trying to sell new ones. That means ensuring countries don’t push asylum seekers back on boats and actually take in refugees from hotspots to lessen the burden on the Greeces and Italys of Europe. Furthermore, the EU should find a way to punish countries like Hungary for making it harder for asylum seekers to enter there.

“The fundamental problem right now is that we have a lot of laws that are being broken already,” said ESI’s Knaus. “If laws are being broken with impunity, isn’t the first step toward change making the laws already in force count? Why would changed laws be any better?”

Third, the EU must get creative with how it deals with home nations. For example, Moroccans and Tunisians don’t have visa-free travel in the EU. The EU could offer visa-free travel to citizens — making tourism and commerce easier — in exchange for their willingness to expedite the return of nationals denied asylum in Europe. Such a trade worked with Ukraine, and the EU has found it easier to send back asylum-seekers there ever since a deal was struck.

None of these solutions is perfect, but many believe they’ll serve the interests of both refugees and the EU more than what was just proposed.

“There’s a big question mark about whether or not all this will actually help asylum seekers,” MPC’s Geddes told me. That said, he understands why EU leadership wants to settle this problem now before it gets any worse. “Something has to get done, or else the EU is never going to make an agreement.”


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World

All the products we found to be the best during our testing this year

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(CNN) —  

Throughout the year, CNN Underscored is constantly testing products — be it coffee makers or headphones — to find the absolute best in each respective category.

Our testing process is rigorous, consisting of hours of research (consulting experts, reading editorial reviews and perusing user ratings) to find the top products in each category. Once we settle on a testing pool, we spend weeks — if not months — testing and retesting each product multiple times in real-world settings. All this in an effort to settle on the absolute best products.

So, as we enter peak gifting season, if you’re on the hunt for the perfect gift, we know you’ll find something on this list that they (or you!) will absolutely love.

Coffee

Best burr coffee grinder: Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder With Digital Timer Display ($249; amazon.com or walmart.com)

Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder
Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder

Beginner baristas and coffee connoisseurs alike will be pleased with the Baratza Virtuoso+, a conical burr grinder with 40 settings for grind size, from super fine (espresso) to super coarse (French press). The best coffee grinder we tested, this sleek look and simple, intuitive controls, including a digital timer, allow for a consistent grind every time — as well as optimal convenience.

Read more from our testing of coffee grinders here.

Best drip coffee maker: Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker ($79.95; amazon.com)

Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker
Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker

During our testing of drip coffee makers, we found the Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker made a consistently delicious, hot cup of coffee, brewed efficiently and cleanly, from sleek, relatively compact hardware that is turnkey to operate, and all for a reasonable price.

Read more from our testing of drip coffee makers here.

Best single-serve coffee maker: Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus ($165; originally $179.95; amazon.com)

Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus
Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus

Among all single-serve coffee makers we tested, the Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus, which uses pods that deliver both espresso and “regular” coffee, could simply not be beat for its convenience. Intuitive and a snap to use right out of the box, it looks sleek on the counter, contains a detached 60-ounce water reservoir so you don’t have to refill it with each use and delivers perfectly hot, delicious coffee with a simple tap of a lever and press of a button.

Read more from our testing of single-serve coffee makers here.

Best coffee subscription: Blue Bottle (starting at $11 per shipment; bluebottlecoffee.com)

Blue Bottle coffee subscription
Blue Bottle coffee subscription

Blue Bottle’s coffee subscription won us over with its balance of variety, customizability and, most importantly, taste. We sampled both the single-origin and blend assortments and loved the flavor of nearly every single cup we made. The flavors are complex and bold but unmistakably delicious. Beyond its coffee, Blue Bottle’s subscription is simple and easy to use, with tons of options to tailor to your caffeine needs.

Read more from our testing of coffee subscriptions here.

Best cold brewer coffee maker: Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot ($25; amazon.com)

Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot
Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot

This sleek, sophisticated and streamlined carafe produces 1 liter (about 4 1/4 cups) of rich, robust brew in just eight hours. It was among the simplest to assemble, it executed an exemplary brew in about the shortest time span, and it looked snazzy doing it. Plus, it rang up as the second-most affordable of our inventory.

Read more from our testing of cold brew makers here.

Kitchen essentials

Best nonstick pan: T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid ($39.97; amazon.com)

T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid
T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid

If you’re a minimalist and prefer to have just a single pan in your kitchen, you’d be set with the T-fal E76597. This pan’s depth gives it multipurpose functionality: It cooks standard frying-pan foods like eggs and meats, and its 2 1/2-inch sides are tall enough to prepare recipes you’d usually reserve for pots, like rices and stews. It’s a high-quality and affordable pan that outperformed some of the more expensive ones in our testing field.

Read more from our testing of nonstick pans here.

Best blender: Breville Super Q ($499.95; breville.com)

Breville Super Q
Breville Super Q

With 1,800 watts of motor power, the Breville Super Q features a slew of preset buttons, comes in multiple colors, includes key accessories and is touted for being quieter than other models. At $500, it does carry a steep price tag, but for those who can’t imagine a smoothie-less morning, what breaks down to about $1.30 a day over a year seems like a bargain.

Read more from our testing of blenders here.

Best knife set: Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set ($119.74; amazon.com)

Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set
Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set

The Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set sets you up to easily take on almost any cutting job and is a heck of a steal at just $119.97. Not only did the core knives included (chef’s, paring, utility and serrated) perform admirably, but the set included a bevy of extras, including a full set of steak knives. We were blown away by their solid construction and reliable execution for such an incredible value. The knives stayed sharp through our multitude of tests, and we were big fans of the cushion-grip handles that kept them from slipping, as well as the classic look of the chestnut-stained wood block. If you’re looking for a complete knife set you’ll be proud of at a price that won’t put a dent in your savings account, this is the clear winner.

Read more from our testing of knife sets here.

Audio

Best true wireless earbuds: AirPods Pro ($199, originally $249; amazon.com)

Apple AirPods Pro
Apple AirPods Pro

Apple’s AirPods Pro hit all the marks. They deliver a wide soundstage, thanks to on-the-fly equalizing tech that produces playback that seemingly brings you inside the studio with the artist. They have the best noise-canceling ability of all the earbuds we tested, which, aside from stiff-arming distractions, creates a truly immersive experience. To sum it up, you’re getting a comfortable design, a wide soundstage, easy connectivity and long battery life.

Read more from our testing of true wireless earbuds here.

Best noise-canceling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4 ($278, originally $349.99; amazon.com)

Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony WH-1000XM4

Not only do the WH-1000XM4s boast class-leading sound, but phenomenal noise-canceling ability. So much so that they ousted our former top overall pick, the Beats Solo Pros, in terms of ANC quality, as the over-ear XM4s better seal the ear from outside noise. Whether it was a noise from a dryer, loud neighbors down the hall or high-pitched sirens, the XM4s proved impenetrable. This is a feat that other headphones, notably the Solo Pros, could not compete with — which is to be expected considering their $348 price tag.

Read more from our testing of noise-canceling headphones here.

Best on-ear headphones: Beats Solo 3 ($119.95, originally $199.95; amazon.com)

Beats Solo 3
Beats Solo 3

The Beats Solo 3s are a phenomenal pair of on-ear headphones. Their sound quality was among the top of those we tested, pumping out particularly clear vocals and instrumentals alike. We enjoyed the control scheme too, taking the form of buttons in a circular configuration that blend seamlessly into the left ear cup design. They are also light, comfortable and are no slouch in the looks department — more than you’d expect given their reasonable $199.95 price tag.

Read more from our testing of on-ear headphones here.

Beauty

Best matte lipstick: Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick ($11, originally $22; amazon.com or $22; nordstrom.com and stilacosmetics.com)

Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick
Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick

The Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick has thousands of 5-star ratings across the internet, and it’s easy to see why. True to its name, this product clings to your lips for hours upon hours, burritos and messy breakfast sandwiches be damned. It’s also surprisingly moisturizing for such a superior stay-put formula, a combo that’s rare to come by.

Read more from our testing of matte lipsticks here.

Best everyday liquid liner: Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner ($22; stilacosmetics.com or macys.com)

Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner
Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner

The Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner is a longtime customer favorite — hence its nearly 7,500 5-star reviews on Sephora — and for good reason. We found it requires little to no effort to create a precise wing, the liner has superior staying power and it didn’t irritate those of us with sensitive skin after full days of wear. As an added bonus, it’s available in a whopping 12 shades.

Read more from our testing of liquid eyeliners here.

Work-from-home essentials

Best office chair: Steelcase Series 1 (starting at $381.60; amazon.com or $415, wayfair.com)

Steelcase Series 1
Steelcase Series 1

The Steelcase Series 1 scored among the highest overall, standing out as one of the most customizable, high-quality, comfortable office chairs on the market. At $415, the Steelcase Series 1 beat out most of its pricier competitors across testing categories, scoring less than a single point lower than our highest-rated chair, the $1,036 Steelcase Leap, easily making it the best bang for the buck and a clear winner for our best office chair overall.

Read more from our testing of office chairs here.

Best ergonomic keyboard: Logitech Ergo K860 ($129.99; logitech.com)

Logitech Ergo K860
Logitech Ergo K860

We found the Logitech Ergo K860 to be a phenomenally comfortable keyboard. Its build, featuring a split keyboard (meaning there’s a triangular gap down the middle) coupled with a wave-like curvature across the body, allows both your shoulders and hands to rest in a more natural position that eases the tension that can often accompany hours spent in front of a regular keyboard. Add the cozy palm rest along the bottom edge and you’ll find yourself sitting pretty comfortably.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic keyboards here.

Best ergonomic mouse: Logitech MX Master 3 ($99.99; logitech.com)

Logitech MX Master 3
Logitech MX Master 3

The Logitech MX Master 3 is an unequivocally comfortable mouse. It’s shaped to perfection, with special attention to the fingers that do the clicking. Using it felt like our fingers were lounging — with a sculpted ergonomic groove for nearly every finger.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic mice here.

Best ring light: Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light ($25.99; amazon.com)

Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light
Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light

The Emart 10-Inch Standing Ring Light comes with a tripod that’s fully adjustable — from 19 inches to 50 inches — making it a great option whether you’re setting it atop your desk for video calls or need some overhead lighting so no weird shadows creep into your photos. Its three light modes (warm, cool and a nice mix of the two), along with 11 brightness levels (among the most settings on any of the lights we tested), ensure you’re always framed in the right light. And at a relatively cheap $35.40, this light combines usability and affordability better than any of the other options we tested.

Read more from our testing of ring lights here.

Home

Best linen sheets: Parachute Linen Sheet Set (starting at $149; parachute.com)

Parachute Linen Sheets
Parachute Linen Sheets

Well made, luxurious to the touch and with the most versatile shopping options (six sizes, nine colors and the ability to order individual sheets), the linen sheets from Parachute were, by a narrow margin, our favorite set. From the satisfying unboxing to a sumptuous sleep, with a la carte availability, Parachute set the gold standard in linen luxury.

Read more from our testing of linen sheets here.

Best shower head: Kohler Forte Shower Head (starting at $74.44; amazon.com)

Kohler Forte Shower Head
Kohler Forte Shower Head

Hands down, the Kohler Forte Shower Head provides the best overall shower experience, offering three distinct settings. Backstory: Lots of shower heads out there feature myriad “settings” that, when tested, are pretty much indecipherable. The Forte’s three sprays, however, are each incredibly different and equally successful. There’s the drenching, full-coverage rain shower, the pulsating massage and the “silk spray” setting that is basically a super-dense mist. The Forte manages to achieve all of this while using only 1.75 gallons per minute (GPM), making it a great option for those looking to conserve water.

Read more from our testing of shower heads here.

Best humidifier: TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier (starting at $49.99; amazon.com)

TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier
TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier

The TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier ramped up the humidity in a room in about an hour, which was quicker than most of the options we tested. More importantly, though, it sustained those humidity levels over the longest period of time — 24 hours, to be exact. The levels were easy to check with the built-in reader (and we cross-checked that reading with an external reader to confirm accuracy). We also loved how easy this humidifier was to clean, and the nighttime mode for the LED reader eliminated any bright lights in the bedroom.

Read more from our testing of humidifiers here.

Video

Best TV: TCL 6-Series (starting at $579.99; bestbuy.com)

TCL 6-Series
TCL 6-Series

With models starting at $599.99 for a 55-inch, the TCL 6-Series might give you reverse sticker shock considering everything you get for that relatively small price tag. But can a 4K smart TV with so many specification standards really deliver a good picture for $500? The short answer: a resounding yes. The TCL 6-Series produces a vibrant picture with flexible customization options and handles both HDR and Dolby Vision, optimization standards that improve the content you’re watching by adding depth to details and expanding the color spectrum.

Read more from our testing of TVs here.

Best streaming device: Roku Ultra ($99.99; amazon.com)

Roku Ultra
Roku Ultra

Roku recently updated its Ultra streaming box and the 2020 version is faster, thanks to a new quad-core processor. The newest Ultra retains all of the features we loved and enjoyed about the 2019 model, like almost zero lag time between waking it up and streaming content, leading to a hiccup-free streaming experience. On top of that, the Roku Ultra can upscale content to deliver the best picture possible on your TV — even on older-model TVs that don’t offer the latest and greatest picture quality — and supports everything from HD to 4K.

Read more from our testing of streaming devices here.

Travel

Best carry-on luggage: Away Carry-On ($225; away.com)

Away Carry-On
Away Carry-On

The Away Carry-On scored high marks across all our tests and has the best combination of features for the average traveler. Compared with higher-end brands like Rimowa, which retail for hundreds more, you’re getting the same durable materials, an excellent internal compression system and eye-catching style. Add in smart charging capabilities and a lifetime warranty, and this was the bag to beat.

Read more from our testing of carry-on luggage here.

Best portable charger: Anker PowerCore 13000 (starting at $31.99; amazon.com)

Anker PowerCore 13000
Anker PowerCore 13000

The Anker PowerCore 13000 shone most was in terms of charging capacity. It boasts 13,000 mAh (maH is a measure of how much power a device puts out over time), which is enough to fully charge an iPhone 11 two and a half times. Plus, it has two fast-charging USB Type-A ports so you can juice a pair of devices simultaneously. While not at the peak in terms of charging capacity, at just $31.99, it’s a serious bargain for so many mAhs.

Read more from our testing of portable chargers here.

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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.


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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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