REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
13 May 2014
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the Spokespersons for United Nations Refugee Agency, International Organization for Migration, World Food Programme, World Health Organization, and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Adrian Edwards, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), stated that UNHCR was deeply saddened at a rising death toll from boat accidents in the Mediterranean Sea in 2014, as increasing numbers of asylum-seekers and refugees made the journey on unseaworthy boats, often at the hands of ruthless smugglers.
On 12 May, at least 17 people had drowned after a boat had sunk in international waters, some 160 km south of Lampedusa, Italy and around 80 km north-west of Tripoli, Libya. The dead included 12 women, three children and two men. Two merchant ships from France and Vanuatu had rescued 226 people who had later received medical checks by Italian doctors transferred by the Italian Navy. The French vessel Bourbon Arcadia had rescued 158 people and the Kehoe Tide from Vanuatu had rescued 68 people.
Mr. Edwards said that the tragedy followed several shipwrecks off the Libyan coast over the past fortnight, in which 121 people were believed to have died in three separate boat accidents. The Libyan coast guard had rescued 134 people. The survivors received medical assistance from UNHCR in cooperation with the International Medical Corps, and the Libyan Coast Guard. UNHCR also provided clothing, mattresses and other relief items to the survivors.
Of the other shipwrecks, one had taken place off Libya around 6 May when a boat carrying 130 people had capsized some 30 minutes into the journey, just a few miles from the coast. Some of the 53 surviving passengers told UNHCR that the smugglers had pushed them onto the boat and set off even though the boat was damaged in the middle. Seventy seven people were believed to have drowned in this incident, including four women. As of 12 May, the coastguard had recovered 44 bodies believed to be from the same shipwreck; most washed ashore in the previous few days. The people on board had been from Sudan, Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Senegal.
The previous week, on 2 May, the Libyan coast guard had rescued 80 people (Eritrean, Somali and Ethiopian nationals) after their unseaworthy boat had started leaking, some five km off the coast. Another four people had drowned in the incident.
On 30 April, the Libyan coast guard had found the wreckage of another boat off the coast of Tripoli. The sole survivor, in a critical condition, had been treated at a government hospital; the remaining 40 passengers, all from Somalia, had drowned.
Shipwreck victims and survivors included people fleeing violence or persecution in their homelands and the risks they took on those perilous sea journeys reflected the limited safe options available in Libya and other contexts. UNHCR had launched an information campaign in association with the Libyan coast guard, NGOs, UN partners and asylum-seekers to inform people of the real risks involved with voyages by sea.
Mr. Edwards stated that UNHCR welcomed the rescue operations by Italian and Libyan authorities and the cooperation of private vessels without which the death toll would have been undoubtedly higher. At the same time, UNHCR was asking that search and rescue operations be further strengthened, especially in waters that had a high number of incidents. UNHCR also urged governments around the world to provide legal alternatives to dangerous sea journeys, ensuring desperate people in need of refuge could seek and find protection and asylum. Those alternatives could include resettlement, humanitarian admission, and facilitated access to family reunification. Governments were also asked to resist punitive or deterrent measures such as detention for people seeking safety.
UNHCR estimated that over 170 people had died at sea trying to reach Europe so far in 2014, including those who had lost their lives in waters off Greece, Libya, Italy and in international waters.
Responding to a question on arresting and jailing people who organized the illegal transport of migrants across the Mediterranean, Mr. Edwards said that law enforcement was one of the most important parts of the response to those dangerous operations. Unfortunately people often did not have other options or legal means to escape from their countries. People fleeing northern coasts of Africa had very limited legal alternatives. Other existing roads in the Middle East were blocked because of the Syrian conflict and physical barriers, such as the one in Israel.
Answering another question on the cooperation in assisting Libya, Mr. Edwards explained that enforcing the coast guarding and the law enforcement were a priority for UNHCR. Libya was a front line space and its capacities were now very limited. All the actions had to be coordinated at a multinational level.
Mr. Edwards added that different partners worked with UNHCR to improve the coast guard cooperation in Libya, including the International Maritime Organisation, non-governmental organizations and commercial shipping companies. The priority was helping survivors, and getting access to detention centers. In Libya, UNHCR was running an information campaign but many other aspects had to be strengthened in order to reinforce the Libyan capacities.
Regarding investigations, Mr. Edwards said that national authorities were conducting them. UNHCR was always in contact with the families in order to find a solution and had contacts with states in Europe on a regular basis. An important point was that it was not possible to stop the flows altogether, and for the time being the effort was concentrated on saving lives.
There was a clear rise of people who had tried to cross – 34,800 were known to have made this crossing so far in 2014, which represented a significant increase on the previous year (43,000 for the whole of 2013). 2014 could be comparable to 2011, the year of Libyan crisis, when more than 60,000 people had made the crossing. People were coming from a wide spectrum of countries. It was very difficult to come to Europe legally for nationals of a number of African countries without proper documents.
On why there was such a surge compared to 2013, Mr. Edwards explained that there were multiple factors involved, for both migratory and forced displacement reasons. In terms of refugees and asylum claims in Europe, there were not significantly higher numbers of refugees being registered.
On whether Spain and Israel blocking entry to Europe by land were the cause of the problem, Mr. Edwards said that when those people made journeys from their host countries, they had little alternatives, and when one route for migration was closed, people were naturally appearing somewhere else. UNHCR was thus asking for burden-sharing.
Mr. Lom confirmed that the IOM was cooperating very closely with the UNHCR on the issue of migrants from Africa. Priority was saving lives one way or another. The Italian Mare Nostrum operation had been designed to save people. In the broader context, prosecution of smugglers was certainly important, but capacity-building for Libyans was of essential significance. The Libyan Interior Minister had recently said that Europe had to do more to help.
Mr. Lom added that motivators for economic migration frequently depended on a very diverse number of factors. If people knew that there were smugglers who could provide access to Europe, they were more likely to take those routes in spite of risks as they were desperate. To some extent, the smugglers were quite sophisticated nowadays in marketing their operations. Having friends or family members already in Europe could also be a factor. Seasonal factor – better weather conditions – ought also to be taken into consideration.
Chris Lom, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), briefed on South Sudan’s situation, where there was an increasing risk of cholera, particularly in the crowded protection of civilians (PoC) sites where some 86,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) were currently sheltering in UN bases across the country.
This week, IOM had completed the first round of a mass oral cholera vaccination campaign in one PoC site, in Bor (Jonglei State). As part of a two stage vaccination, the first campaign had begun on 6 May at the PoC site which hosted an estimated 3,600 IDPs. Some 2,862 IDPs had been vaccinated. A second round would begin in Bor on 20 May.
Mr. Lom stressed that the risk of cholera rose dramatically in very crowded spaces with bad water and sanitation facilities. IOM was part of a much wider WHO-led campaign, which had been systematically trying to provide vaccines in those sites in order to prevent another outbreak of cholera in 2014.
Tarik Jasarevic, for the WHO, added that everyone living in overcrowded camps was at risk. This was the first oral vaccination campaign using stock file managed by different organizations, and thus far close to 140, 000 people had received two doses for cholera disease. With the rainy season, there was always a risk of increasingly diarrhoea diseases and cholera cases. Up to the moment, there were no confirmed cholera cases, just one suspected case. Others diseases included malaria and measles.
Asked how much the vaccines cost and how they were going to get through, Mr. Jasarevic said that the decision to start with the oral cholera vaccine (OVC) followed basically the pre-qualification of the vaccine that was much cheaper, much easier to transport and made possible for all sort of reasons for financial logistics to achieve this. A stock of two million doses of OVC had been created and this was the first time it was being used.
South Sudanese Refugees / Ethiopia
Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said that the WFP was preoccupied with the refugees from South Sudan in Ethiopia and was now increasing the operations as to meet their needs. The refugees had arrived in the Ethiopian border city of Burbe in March. Afterwards, troops of the South Sudan Government had occupied the opposition territory in Nacir.
WFP was immediately distributing High Energy Biscuits to new arrivals so as to make them hold out before being transported to refugee camps. Ms Byrs stated that as of the beginning of May 2014, more than 120,000 South Sudanese had crossed into Ethiopia. WFP was very concerned about their situation since 95 percent were women and children, including 70 percent of children, who were of particular concern for the WFP, and who were arriving famished, exhausted and malnourished. Many had walked for days to reach the border, eating little more than wild fruits, leaves and occasional hand-outs from fellow citizens. At some border points – particularly at Pagak and Akobo Tergol, where most people were arriving and where they might need to wait for days before being relocated to refugee camps, WFP was providing High Energy Biscuits and also conducting general food distributions.
Ms. Byrs informed that in 2014, WFP was planning to assist nearly 6.5 million vulnerable people in Ethiopia, including 520,000 refugees. Answering a question on the breakdown of that number, Ms. Byrs specified that there were 2 million draught-affected people receiving food assistance, 1.2 million beneficiaries of the WFP Safety Net Programme, 1.1 million beneficiaries of the Targeted Supplementary Feeding, 670,000 children in the school-feeding programme, in addition to another programme currently aiding 650,000 persons. WFP had the school feeding programme and planned to provide school meals for 670,000 children. Through its HIV programme, WFP was planning to reach roughly 375,000 people.
Ms. Byrs stressed the problem of finance and contributions to the WFP, which other UN agencies were also facing. In terms of the operation for refugees, WFP's current resources could only fund its refugee operation until August, and resources might be exhausted even earlier given the current influx of South Sudanese asylum seekers. WFP had a current 6-month shortfall of USD 21 million.
Ertharin Cousin, the WFP Executive Director, would attend a conference relating to resilience and food security in Ethiopia on 16 May. In the east of the country, there was an invasion of locusts, which could put the pastoral population in danger. Besides, in the north of the country, this was the third consecutive year of insufficient rains, making the situation ever more precarious.
Central African Republic
Mr. Lom informed that the IOM was building up its presence by opening an office in Moyen-Sido partly because of the arrival of the population from the Bangui district of PK12. The first step following their arrival had been establishing their presence at the site. IOM was there with a number of other agencies including the combined efforts of InterSOS, UNICEF, Solidarity International and MSF-Spain, as they were settling into their new surroundings. That presence had been in part to establish immediate assistance for the people who had been evacuated from PK12.
In terms of the food distribution, in Moyen-Sido, near the Chad border, food provided by the UN World Food Programme had been distributed to over 1,080 people (308 households). Some 60 km south in Kabo, three tons of food had been distributed to 314 people (146 households). IOM facilitated the distribution in collaboration with InterSOS.
Some of the PK12 community were being temporarily housed in long communal tents: eight in Kabo and 18 in Moyen-Sido. Others were living with host families. In both cases, the local communities had been extremely welcoming and had made sure that the displaced people were welcomed. Mr. Lom added that those were mixed communities, consisting of both Muslims and Christians, with an environment very different of that in Bangui, from where they had been evacuated.
The population of Moyen-Sido was now composed of some 11,000 people, of whom roughly 4,000 to 5,000 were IDPs. There were another 20,000 IDPs across the border in Sido-Chad.
Answering a question whether it was secure, given the hostility in the country, to keep them in those conditions, Mr. Lom said that it was difficult to provide a clear response with regard to the long-term prospect. However, the welcome that they had received, was a message that it was still possible for the communities to live together. It was a very positive development and they were optimistic that it would be sustainable and would be a model for the rest of the country.
Mr. Lom added that the international community was building up its presence in Moyen-Sido.
Speaking on the behalf of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR), Ms. Momal-Vanian informed that the OHCHR report on Ukraine would be released on 16 May, simultaneously in Kiev and Geneva, around 10 a.m. Geneva time, (11 a.m. Kiev time).
Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic was also due to arrive in Kiev on 14 May for a four-day mission. OHCHR would issue a media advisory on 14 May with more details about the visit and possible press conferences in Kiev and Geneva on 16 May.
On the numbers of people fleeing Ukraine, Mr. Edwards said that there was still a relatively low level of internal displacement in Ukraine. There was no precise number at the moment, while the OHCHR was continuing to monitor the situation closely.
Joint Special Representative Brahimi
Answering a question, Ms. Momal-Vanian confirmed that Joint Special Representative for Syria Brahimi would brief the Security Council at 3 p.m. New York time (9 p.m Geneva time) today, and would address the press afterwards, which would be webcast on UN TV (webtv.un.org).
World Health Assembly
Christy Feig, for the World Health Organization (WHO), announced that the 67th annual meeting of World Health Assembly would take place at the Palais des Nations from 19 to 24 May 2014.
Ms. Feig highlighted that the address by the WHO Director – General, Ms. Margaret Chan would be on 19 May at 2:30 p.m. in the Assembly Hall, followed by a discussion. The First Lady of Zambia and WHO Ambassador against gender-based violence Ms. Christine Kaseba – Sata and the Co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Melinda Gates would speak on 20 May. The Committee A would take place in Room XVIII on 20 May at 9:30 a.m, and would work, among other issues, on a Newborn Action Plan, a developing plan on how to reduce the deaths in the first 30 days of life, while the Committee B would start in Room XVII on 21 May at 9 a.m.
The WHO would organise a daily briefing throughout the week. In the addition to the official agenda, which was available at the WHO website, there would be five technical briefings, which would take place in Press Room III between noon and 2 p.m, except for 19 May, when it would take place in Room VII. All those sessions were open to the media and the interpretation would be provided in six languages.
Among the draft resolutions, Ms. Feig highlighted those on the Global strategy and targets for tuberculosis prevention, care and control after 2015; on hepatitis, which was one of WHO’s biggest concern; and on addressing the global challenge of violence, in particular against women and girls.
Ms. Feig explained that the World Health Assembly was the one place where world health policy was made. All world health leaders would gather in one place, see what was feasible and what could be done. Most health problems were not about one single country, but were trans-boundary.
Asked if it was possible to have interviews with the First Lady of Zambia, Christine Kaseba – Sata, and Melinda Gates, Ms. Feig said it had to be decided yet and she would put the request on the list. Efforts were also being made to ensure that the WHO General-Director, Dr. Chan, would speak to the journalists following her keynote address.
On the new action plan on child mortality, Ms. Feig said that it was bringing together a lot of work to reduce child deaths. There were still almost three million deaths in the first months of life, so that initiative aimed to streamline what the WHO and various Member States were doing. Some questions to be raised were whether the focus should be only on babies or also on mothers, and what time-frame should be covered. It had been part of the WHO agenda for a while, and it was expected that the action plan would be adopted fairly easily, with the main discussion probably being on whether maternal deaths should be included as well.
The list of participating Ministers was still not complete and would be shared once it was finalized.
Other Geneva activities
Ms. Momal-Vanian informed that the Conference on Disarmament was continuing its work this morning at 11 am. The current session would continue until 27 June.
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was considering reports of El Salvador, Uzbekistan and Serbia this week.
The Committee against Torture was hearing responses from Lithuania on questions posed by the Committee the previous day. The rest of the week, the Committee would meet in private, with the exception of a public session on 15 May to present its concluding observations.
Ms. Momal-Vanian informed about the new initiative of the United Nations Office at Geneva, Ciné ONU, which would be launched at Maison de la Paix on 14 May at 6 p.m, with a projection of the Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave and a subsequent debate on the issue of slavery.
A press conference would be organized in Press Room I on 14 May at 9:15 a.m, on the subject of a new WHO report on adolescent health, which was revealing top causes of death, illness and disability in 10-19 year olds. Speakers would include Dr Elizabeth Mason, Director, Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health at WHO, and Jane Ferguson, Scientist, Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health at WHO and the lead author of the report.
Ms. Feig informed that the Emergency Committee on MERS was holding its meeting today, and at the end of the day, following the meeting, there would be a press conference, tentatively expected around 7 p.m.
The press conference "The right paths to integration and success for young African athletes" organized by the Italian Permanent Mission would take place at the Kazakh Room/Room XIV at 1:30 p.m. Speakers would include Wilfried Lemke, Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary - General on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP), and William Lacy Swing, Director General of International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Mr. Edwards announced that a press conference would take place in Press Room III on 14 May at 11:30 a.m, on the record numbers of internally displaced persons in the world. Speakers would include António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and Jan Egeland, Secretary-General, Norwegian Refugee Council.
Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), announced two press conferences on 15 May. At 12 noon, in Press Room I, the Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, Johannes Van Der Klaauw, would address the journalists. Later on that day, at 1:30 p.m. in Press Room I, the Humanitarian Coordinator for Central African Republic, Claire Bourgeois, would hold a press conference.
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The representatives of UNICEF, ILO and UNCTAD also attended the briefing, but did not brief.
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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/QEok9Q