REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
26 August 2014
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the Spokespersons for the United Nations Refugee Agency, United Nations Children’s Fund, International Organization for Migration, World Health Organization and the Human Rights Council.
Tarik Jasarevic, for the World Health Organization (WHO), stated that an update in the form of a situation report was expected to be delivered later in the day. Regarding WHO teams, Mr. Jasarevic reported that Dr. Kenji Fukuda was now back from Freetown to Monrovia in Liberia while Dr. David Nabarro was travelling to Conakry. Several press releases had been issued on their activities.
Responding to a question, Mr. Jasarevic confirmed that a second meeting on experimental treatment would indeed take place on 4-5 September and the WHO was planning a virtual press briefing and a note for journalists after the conference.
Answering another question on air traffic disruptions that occurred in the affected countries and ensuing supply shortages, Mr. Jasarevic responded that the WHO was looking at this issue very closely. He reiterated that cancellation of flights and closure of borders might have not only economic impacts on the country but also an adverse effect on WHO operations. Mr Jasarevic said that the WHO had regular discussions with airlines to reassure them that all the measures had been taken in affected countries in order to have in place exit screenings. The risk of Ebola infection through air travel was very low.
Asked about the impact of this supply shortage on the spread of Ebola virus in Western Africa, he said that the WHO was trying to find alternative ways and to work with UN humanitarian airlines services in case they did not find another solution. In a response to a question about WHO staff members who had been delayed by flight disruptions while trying to travel to one of the affected countries, Mr. Jasarevic said that the WHO staff had fortunately managed to get in.
On the issue of suspected cases in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mr. Jasarevic said that the WHO had been notified by the Ministry of Health of positive tests of two samples for Ebola in the province of Equator. Further tests were being currently conducted to identify the strain. WHO was working with several partners in the DRC to set up a rapid response. There had been 24 unexplained cases of hemorragic fever, 13 of which had resulted in deaths. It appeared to be an unrelated indigenous strain of Ebola but this still needed to be confirmed.
Regarding the situation of a colleague affected with the virus, Mr. Jasarevic said that he was still in Sierra Leone while WHO organized his repatriation, although the final destination had not yet been decided. Asked whether the WHO had reinforced its presence with the increasing number of deaths in the four affected countries , Mr. Jasarevic answered that the WHO currently had deployed 200 people in the field including WHO staff and external specialists. He highlighted that more than 400 people had been deployed, many of them several times, since the beginning of the epidemic outbreak.
Responding to a question, Mr. Jasarevic said that WHO was working in very close collaboration with ICRC and the MSF in the field. He underlined the fact that all working teams were composed by different members of each partner organization and that all of them were chaired by the local Ministry of Health, each team being specialized respectively in its own competence area (logistic, social, lab work, contacts). Answering a question about the funding for the fight against Ebola, he announced that the African Bank for Development had released 60 million USD and that the African Union had expressed its intention to mobilize several African health workers to help fight against the spread of Ebola virus.
On the specific professional position of the 120 members of medical staff who had died thus far, Mr. Jasarevic said that the WHO did not have the breakdown. All those who were in treatment centres and in isolation wards, whether doctors, nurses, cleaners or any other support staff, were at risk.
UNICEF emergency supply operations
Joan Howe, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that UNICEF was deploying its largest emergency supply operation ever in a single month. This August UNICEF was sending 1,000 metric tons of life-saving supplies to children caught in the world most urgent crises. The amount delivered could have filled up nineteen cargos jumbo jets. The largest ramp-ups had been in response to the conflict in Iraq and the Ebola outbreak in West-Africa. In 27 days, UNICEF had dispatched 33 humanitarian cargos for children in the Central African Republic, Iraq, Liberia, the State of Palestine, South Sudan and Syria and its neighbouring countries where families had sought safety. The range of supplies revealed the major threat to life and health that children were facing in different countries.
Ms. Howe gave an example of the Central African Republic shipments, which included hardware to dig water wells, and anti-Malaria pills to protect children from a leading cause of death. In South Sudan, where 1 million children were at risk of malnutrition. Nutritional aid was the priority. In Iraq, supplies for displaced families in the North-East had included medicines, water, tents, and food rations. In Liberia, UNICEF was focusing on supplies to protect health workers and also working with governments to assess their supply chain capacity. In Palestine, UNICEF focused on refurnishing stocks of medicine and vaccines to damaged hospitals and health facilities in Gaza.
Answering a question about details on Liberia, and the apparent discrepancy between supplies available to the MSF treatment centers and the Government treatment centers, Ms. Howe said that supplies had been handed over to the Government and they would distribute them amongst 450 health centers within the country. MSF treatment centers as well as Government treatment centers were all there to help people who fell ill and to prevent epidemics.
Answering a question on conflicts within the countries and how supplies were intended to be distributed, Ms. Howe said that local supplies logistics were established to help get the supplies to where they were needed. UNICEF had been in those countries for decades, and had long established this partnership and they were getting through to where they were needed. UNICEF very much relied on the help of UN partners and NGOs.
Ms. Howe also said that the supplies in Iraq were being distributed by its partners in the country. UNICEF had the supplies in the hills where the refugees were actually trapped. UNICEF’s priority was to keep the humanitarian corridor so the supplies could continue to arrive.
Deaths in the Mediterranean
Melissa Fleming, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that the previous few days had been the deadliest in 2014 on the Mediterranean for people making irregular crossings to Europe, with at least three vessels having overturned or sunk and more than 300 lives lost. In all, it was estimated that 1,889 people had perished in 2014 while making such journeys, 1,600 of those since the beginning of June.
The first and largest of those incidents had occurred on 22 August, when a boat reportedly carrying at least 270 people had overturned near Garibouli to the east of Tripoli; 19 people had survived. The Libyan coastguard had since recovered the bodies of 100 others, including five children under the age of five, but the remaining passengers were feared drowned. According to survivors’ reports, the boat had been packed full and more people had been pushed on board before the departure. According to accounts, the boat had suddenly flipped trapping the people on the bottom deck. To support the ongoing search and recovery operation, the Libyan coast guard had requested body bags, equipment, medical help and manpower.
In a second incident on the evening of 23 August, a damaged rubber dinghy had been recovered by the Italian Navy 20 miles from Libyan territorial waters; 73 people had been rescued, and 18 bodies recovered. Ten people were believed still missing. The passengers had been mainly from Mali, Côte D’Ivoire, Guinea and Sudan. The dinghy had already partially deflated when spotted by an Italian search and rescue aircraft and life rafts had been dropped to people in the water.
In a third incident, on 24 August, a fishing boat carrying roughly 400 people had capsized north of the Libyan coast in bad weather conditions. The Italian Navy and coastguard, in a joint operation with a nearby merchant ship, had rescued 364 people. So far 24 bodies had been recovered and more were feared dead. The exact number of missing was not yet confirmed, while survivors and deceased would be disembarked in Sicily.
Ms. Fleming explained that the main departure country for Europe was Libya, where the worsening security situation had fostered the growth of people smuggling operations, but also prompted refugees and migrants living there to decide to risk the sea rather than remain in a zone of conflict. UNHCR’s Tripoli office received daily calls from refugees, asylum seekers and other vulnerable people expressing fear for their lives and making desperate requests for food, water, medicine and relocation. Those who chose to leave for Italy were taking longer and riskier journeys through new ports of departure such as Benghazi.
Many of those risking their lives at sea in their attempt to find safety in Europe were refugees fleeing war, conflict, violence and persecution. Such a dramatic situation at Europe’s sea borders demanded urgent and concerted European action including strengthened search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, ensuring that rescue measures were safe and incurred minimum risks for those being rescued. UNHCR commended the lifesaving Mare Nostrum operation conducted by the Italian Navy and coastguard, which had saved thousands of lives. As more refugees and migrants risked their lives at sea to reach Europe, mostly Eritreans, Syrians, and Somalis, urgent action was needed including in finding legal alternatives to those dangerous journeys.
Ms. Fleming stressed that it was of vital importance that survivors of those tragedies, who had often lost family and friends, be given immediate access to psychological support once they were disembarked. UNHCR had also called for procedures to be put in place to allow for identification of the bodies recovered at sea, providing quick and clear information so that families were not subjected to unnecessary additional suffering.
Chris Lom, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), referred the media to the UNHCR’s latest numbers. He pointed out that IOM Director-General Swing had stressed that European countries absolutely had to do something to save more lives, which was a priority. Solutions had to be found in order to prevent those people from exposing themselves to danger. That involved finding alternatives to those people getting onto boats, providing them with a safe and legal entry into Europe, resettlement opportunities and family reunifications.
The numbers of casualties were growing at extraordinary rates. At least 1,800 migrants had died trying to reach Italy from North Africa in 2014, compared to an estimated 700 in 2013. The number of migrants arriving to Italy by sea so far in 2014 – over 102,000 - had also nearly tripled compared to 20134. UNHCR, IOM, Save the Children and other agencies were working with the Italian authorities to receive those people in Italy, process them for them and boast the capacity of Italy to aborb them.
Mr. Lom said that the reasons for such an increase in numbers were global. Those were people fleeing war, persecution and totalitarian regimes, with the largest groups being Eritreans and Syrians, 25,000 and 16,000 of whom had, respectively, arrived to Italy by sea in 2014. Other nationalities included Malians, Nigerians, Gambians and Somalis, but there were also Yazidis and Gazans arriving. It was now extremely difficult to leave from Tripoli, given the instability there. The smugglers were becoming increasingly ruthless and reckless, putting people on unseaworthy vessels without sufficient fuel or life jackets. Sometimes the smugglers would beat up people and push them on board. It was a very lucrative business, as one crossing was paid thousands of euros. Among the myriad of political solutions, was also the crackdown on smugglers’ networks, which were causing the deaths of thousands of people.
On a question with which authorities in Libya the United Nations was cooperating, given that there were two Governments in place, Mr. Lom said that the IOM was dealing with the Government in Tripoli, to which the IOM was accredited. Ms. Momal-Vanian referred to the statement of the UN Spokesman on 25 August, which said that the United Nations continued to support the legitimacy of the elected Assembly.
Asked on whether there was a contingency plan in place if a full-fledged civil war was to break out in Libya, Ms. Fleming said that the Italian Government was extra vigilant given the number of boats departing. The situation was very fluid. UNHCR was stepping up its own contingency plan in case Libyans themselves started to flee Libya. For the time being, the smuggling route via Libya was thriving in spite of, or perhaps because of the violence. Mr. Lom added that the IOM had increased the presence of its staff in Tunisia to deal with possible Libyan arrivals.
Answering a question on the reasons for the increased migration, Ms. Fleming said that it could probably be explained by an increase in conflicts. Numbers had spiked, with ever more Syrians crossing the Mediterranean. Many of those people were well informed and they understood the risks, but were so desperate that they were nonetheless ready to go ahead. If the Italian Navy had not been there, there would have been hundreds of more deaths. Mr. Lom added that these days most people understood the risks thanks to the high levels of connectivity.
Ms. Fleming said that the Italian Navy had repeatedly appealed for increased European support in rescue efforts. Resettlements and family reunifications were among actions that Europe could increasingly undertake.
Answering a question about the responsibility of Europe, Mr. Lom explained that the Migration Convention had only been signed by migrant-sending countries, which was the saddest aspect of global migration governance. There were myriad political reasons driving the migration policies in democratic countries. The moral issues of whether people should be allowed to freely migrate from poor countries or countries where they were at risk were not always the determining factor for determining migration policies. All developed countries now had to look into moral solutions, such as family reunification, which should be politically acceptable. Step-by-step, politically acceptable, solutions had to be found.
On why migrants would choose to go through Libya and not through neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Ms. Fleming said that people were being directed by smugglers.
Resettlement of Syrian refugees to Uruguay
Mr. Lom stated that Uruguay had agreed to accept 120 refugees from Syria. IOM, in coordination with the UNHCR, would manage the transportation of the refugees from the Middle East to their final destinations in the country.
For a long time, Uruguay used to be the country of immigration, mostly from Europe, but from the 1960s until the return of democracy, many Uruguayans had migrated to countries in the region. Current very low unemployment rates had been credited with an increase in immigration flows and an accelerated return of Uruguayan migrants.
Ms. Momal-Vanian informed that the Conference on Disarmament was holding a public session at the moment. There were three weeks left until the end of the 2014 session.
The Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was holding private meetings this week, until the public closing of the current session on 29 August. The Committee would present concluding observations on the situation in the following seven countries: El Salvador, United States, Peru, Cameroun, Iraq, Japan, and Estonia.
Rolando Gomez, for the Human Rights Council, informed that the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic would hold a press conference on 27 August at 11 a.m. in Press Room III. All four commissioners would be present.
Mr. Gomez said that a special session of the Human Rights Council on Iraq might take place the following week, on 1 or 2 September, which was yet to be confirmed.
Mr. Jasarevic announced that a press conference on E-Cigarettes, related to the WHO Report prepared for the Conference of the Parties (COP6) to the WHO/FCTC Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, would be held on 26 August at 2 p.m. in Press Room I. Speakers would include Armando Peruga, Programme Manager, Tobacco Free Initiative at WHO, and Douglas Bettcher, Director, Prevention of Non-communicable Diseases at WHO.
Mr. Jasarevic informed that, for the first time, the WHO was hosting a conference to help countries deal with the effects of climate change on public health. The three-day conference (27-29 August) would produce a set of proposals to Member States. A press conference be held on 27 August in Press Room 1. [It was later announced that the press conference would be held at 1 p.m.] Speakers would be Maria Neira, Director, Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health Department at WHO, Alistair Woodward, Coordinating lead author of the health chapter of the 5th Assessment report, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, Scientist and team leader climate change, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health Department, also at WHO.
Mr. Lom introduced Joel Millman, who would replace him as a Geneva-based spokesperson for the IOM. Mr. Lom would be moving to Manila, the Philippines, for his next assignment.
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The representatives of the International Labour Organization and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs also attended the briefing, but did not brief.
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The webcast for this briefing is available here