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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
1 February 2013

Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by Spokespersons for the High Commissioner for Refugees, the Human Rights Council, the Economic Commission for Europe, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization, the International Labour Organization, the International Organization for Migration and the International Trade Centre.

Mali

Adrian Edwards for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said the fast-evolving situation in the north of Mali had raised hopes that many displaced people would be able to go back to their homes soon. Nonetheless, considerable challenges remained to a safe and sustainable return. To the extent that refugee numbers were a barometer of the situation, UNHCR noted that refugees were continuing to leave to neighbouring countries.

In the capital, Bamako, UNHCR had interviewed displaced families who said they were ready to return to their homes in the Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal regions, as soon as the roads to the north were re-opened. Bus services to Gao and Timbuktu had been suspended because of the on-going conflict. Bus companies in Bamako confirmed that they were receiving phone calls from people asking about the resumption of regular services to Douentza, Gao and Timbuktu. Buses were presently travelling only as far as Mopti and Sevare.

While some of the displaced were eager to return home, reports of unrest and revenge attacks against certain groups were dissuading others. Media and other reports showed that Tuareg and Arab minorities, in particular, had been targeted because of their perceived support for the rebels, who had been accused of serious abuses against the population. Shortages of food, fuel and electricity, as well as disruption to basic services such as health and education, were also mentioned by those people who at present prefer to wait and see before returning to the north.

The presence of anti-personnel landmines and unexploded ordnance was also a serious concern, both for the civilian population and aid agencies hoping to help them. Some of the displaced told UNHCR that their houses in the north had been seriously damaged or destroyed, and that they needed assistance to repair or rebuild them. Families whose children were attending schools in Bamako said they would not return to the north until after the end of the school year in June.

Living conditions for the internally displaced in the south were precarious. Families lacking the means to rent houses were sleeping in the open, on roof terraces. Children, in particular, were suffering from the cold at night and were prone to coughing and respiratory diseases, as they were exposed to wind and wind-blown sand.

From internally displaced people a common complaint was about the lack of assistance from the government or aid agencies. People lacked blankets, tents, mosquito nets, clothes and school supplies for their children. Many children go to school on an empty stomach, as their parents cannot afford to buy food. Many IDP families were surviving thanks to the generosity of neighbours. Bamako was home to some 50,000 IDPs.

In Burkina Faso, there were currently 43,629 Malian refugees registered (as of 29 January), including 5,411 who arrived since the beginning of the French intervention in Mali on 11 January. In Mauritania, there were currently 64,805, including nearly 11,000 who arrived since the military intervention in Mali. In Niger, the number of recent arrivals remained small and work was being done to provide an exact figure. There were an estimated 230,000 displaced people inside Mali and over 150,000 Malian refugees in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria.

Answering another point Ms. Momal-Vanian said a UN multi-disciplinary team which had arrived in Bamako included human rights experts and would be reminding all sides of their obligations under international law. She added that the Secretary-General had expressed concern over reports of human rights violations and called for all sides to respect human rights and investigate any report of abuse.

Syria

Yacoub El Hillo for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said UNHCR had this week completed a first delivery of winter emergency relief to the Azzas area of northern Syria where thousands of internally displaced people were living in makeshift camps.

Two hundred metric tons of tents and blankets was airlifted last weekend from UNHCR’s central warehouse in Copenhagen to a civilian airport near Latakia on the Syrian coast. From there, it was transported by road in an eight-truck convoy to an area between Aleppo and the Syrian-Turkish border.

The operation was only possible thanks to the logistics support of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, the agreement and cooperation of the Syrian Government, and facilitation by the Syrian National Coalition. This allowed the convoy to safely reach people in need, in a strictly humanitarian and non-political operation.

In neighbouring countries the refugee numbers continued to grow this week and 728,553 Syrians were now either registered as refugees or awaiting registration. This number comprised 237,623 in Lebanon; 227,484 in Jordan; 163,161 in Turkey; 79,769 in Iraq; 14,478 in Egypt; and 6,338 in North Africa.

Answering questions he said the situation on the ground in Syria was appalling. He explained this was the first time that UNHCR staff, rather than local representatives, had managed to travel to the distant north-west part of the country to make this delivery. The Azzas area was chosen as it had been communicated that people were in real need of stocks for winter. Future supplies would be delivered from stockpiles in Jordan, he said. Recent discussions with the Syrian Government had agreed that humanitarian supplies could be sent anywhere in the country, providing they started from within Syria and it was hoped that now the momentum had been built that the next convoy to the part of the country, and many others, could seen be transported.

Answering a question he said professionalism and impartiality was key to UNHCR’s ability to deliver humanitarian assistance, as was a willingness to work with all sides in the conflict.

Marixie Mercado for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said a United Nations inter-agency mission to the western Syrian governorate of Homs, in which UNICEF took part, found that 420,000 people, half of them children, were in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. According to partners, almost one in three people in Homs was a displaced person, and about two-thirds of the displaced were below 18 years old.

The Homs mission found that out of some 1,500 schools, around 200 had been damaged as a result of the fighting, and another 65 were sheltering children and families. Across Syria, one in four schools had been damaged or destroyed, or was being used as a shelter for the displaced.

The mission also witnessed an extraordinary thirst for education – a 14-year-old girl and her younger brother, who had transformed their shelter into a reading room where children come together to study, children who fearlessly made their way through rubble to get to remedial learning programmes, and teachers struggling to teach classrooms with double or even triple the number of students. The common refrain of parents and education officials was how important it was that children be supported in their education.

The mission visited Talbiseh, which was in opposition control, and heard how communities were struggling to make do with assistance, with women turning donated blankets into clothing, and breaking up sets of children’s clothing to give one child a pair of shoes, another child a sweater, and another a pair of pyjamas.

Across the country, UNICEF was reaching children and families with vital, life-saving support – safe water and sanitation, health services and supplies, education and psychosocial support. Funding remained a major constraint as UNICEF had appealed for $68.5 million over the next six months, with just over $8 million received so far.

Glenn Thomas for the World Health Organization (WHO) said reports had been received of an increase in cases of leishmaniasis in the Aleppo region. The condition was endemic to the area, he said, and not life-threatening. Supplies were being sent to help treat the condition, which is spread by sandflies.

Jumbe Omari Jumbe for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said 80 Filipinas and one Vietnamese flew out of Lebanon's Rafic Hariri airport on Wednesday (30 January) thanks to repatriation flights organised by the IOM. This brings the total number of migrant workers IOM has assisted to 3,223. A further group of 65 vulnerable migrants was currently ready to travel and would return to Egypt, South Sudan, Belarus, Nigeria and Liberia.

He added that in addition to these IOM was expressing concern about the situation of thousands of other foreign migrant workers believed to still be inside Syria. Many had no means to leave the areas where they were working and risk becoming trapped. Others had no documents and therefore did not have the same level of legal protection accorded to citizens.

IOM believed there were as many as 120,000 migrant workers still in Syria, of which 60,000 may be in priority need of assistance for evacuation, transit or border reception, repatriation, health services and psychosocial support. Some 6,800 stranded migrants had already contacted their embassies and IOM directly to communicate their urgent need for repatriation assistance.

These includes vulnerable women at risk from human trafficking, the elderly and sick, and migrants from countries unable to assist their nationals to leave, especially those with no diplomatic representation in Syria, he said.

The Filipina migrants who left Beirut for the Philippines on Wednesday had been working in Syria as domestic helpers for periods ranging from a few years to 30 years.

Assisted Voluntary Return from Greece

Jumbe Omari Jumbe for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said IOM Athens had to date registered a total of 10,691 migrants who had expressed desire to return to their countries from Greece through various Assisted Voluntary Return (AVR) programme.

So far, IOM had helped 851 irregular migrants from 36 countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Georgia and Ghana to return voluntarily to their countries of origin.

Upcoming changes in leadership

Carlos Moreno for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) said the mandate of the Secretary-General of the Conference was coming to an end and the replacement would be appointed by the UN Secretary-General, and then confirmed by the General Assembly.

He said that the Secretary-General of UNCTAD had previously been appointed on a rotating geographical basis, with candidates coming only from developing countries. This meant that it was expected for the next appointee to come from Africa.

Answering questions he explained that a vacancy notice had been issued with a deadline of 7 January. The notice also said that the Secretary-General would select a candidate in consultation with Member States, and he explained that the selection would need to be a consensus decision.

Fiona Walker for the International Trade Centre (ITC) said that as a specialised agency the new Executive Director of the ITC would be selected by the Director-General of the WTO and the Secretary-general of UNCTAD. A joint selection panel had been created to help with this choice and a notice had been sent to Member States last year to seek applications. Those involved in the recruitment were currently reviewing applications and the process should be completed by early May, she said.

World Cancer Day

Glenn Thomas for the World Health Organization (WHO) said Monday (4 February) was World Cancer Day and a press release would be issued later today (Friday) to assist reporting.

WHO expert, Andreas Ullrich, added that the day was an opportunity to raise awareness on the public health concern which killed 7.6 million people every year and created 13 million new cases in the same period. From these up to one-third of cancer deaths can be avoided, he said, by modifying cancer risks such as tobacco use, alcohol consumption, a lack of physical activity and in some parts of the world, infections.

There was some progress in preventing these cases though inoculations he said, and on the care side, it was possible to treat cases when they were detected early through a variety of interventions. However, he said a recent study of country’s capacity to treat cancer showed that over half the countries involved did not have a comprehensive cancer plan, which would need to be in place to suggest a country can deal effectively with the illness.

Work going forward was to improve ways to measure the burden of cancer, such as establishing cancer registries to understand the dynamic of the disease. It was also important to put cancer in the content of the non-communicable disease agenda, and two documents were being worked on that would include the disease in monitoring indicators and create an action plan.

Answering questions he said it was expected that considering population ageing and exposure to risk factors the case load of cancer was to double in the future. He also explained that in-depth studies were being undertaken to discover if exposures in the environment increased cancer risk. He also explained that contamination of certain nuts in Africa could cause liver cancer. These cases were preventable, he said.

On another point he said cancer cases in the developing world were increasing due, among other factors, to tobacco use and the impact of urbanisation.

Geneva activities

Ms. Momal-Vanian said the Committee on the Rights of the Child finished its work today and its concluding observations would be released on Monday. Reports had been received from Malta, the United States, Guinea, Guyana, Burkina Faso, Niue, the Philippines and Slovakia. A final press release was to be issued this afternoon giving details of how to obtain copies of the reports adopted.

The Conference on Disarmament held its third public session on Tuesday (5 February). The Conference had considered the propositions presented by the current President.

Ankai Xu for the World Trade Organization (WTO) said on Tuesday (5 February) there was a book launch inside the WTO building at 16:30. This was for a joint study on the promotion of access to medical technology and innovation. Speakers at the launch were the Directors-General of the WHO, the WTO and the WIPO.

The schedule of the Director-General, Pascal Lamy, also saw him on Wednesday meet the Executive Director of UNAIDS, on Thursday he met with the State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology of Germany. ON Friday he attended a United Nations high-level task force on food security.

Jean Rodriguez for the Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) said a team was to visit Moldova next week for the third evaluation of the country’s environmental performance. It was to meet with ministers and view facilities and would produce a new report in the months ahead. He also mentioned meetings next week (5 and 6 February in room XIX) on the legal, investment, working rights and infrastructure aspects of public-private partnerships, including a discussion on how projects such as the work being done to renovate the Palais des Nations could be approached through similar agreements in the future.

Rolando Gomez for the Human Rights Council (HRC) said the current session of the Universal Periodic review closed this afternoon with the adoption of the last two reports. Looking at the work done in this session he said that 13 countries were examined, 800 statements were delivered (an average of 60 per review) and over 14oo recommendations were posed. The next UPR session was to take place from the 22 April to 3 May and thereafter, from the 21 October to 1 November.

Other meetings of note were the upcoming 10th Session of the Advisory Committee from 18 to 22 February, the 22nd regular Session of the Council from 25 February to 22 March. During this period 80 reports were to be presented, including that of the fact-finding mission on Israeli settlements, thematic and country reports including Mali and the Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

Hans von Rohland for the International Labour Organization (ILO) said a report was to be launched in Beirut on Tuesday (5 February) entitled “Rethinking economic growth towards productive and inclusive Arab societies.” This looked at the causes and consequences of the Arab Spring on the jobs market, with examples from Egypt and Tunisia.


The webcast for this briefing is available at http://webtv.un.org/media/geneva-press-briefings/.