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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
2 October 2012

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 Human Rights, the High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration.

Syria

Adrian Edwards for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said the number of Syrians registered or awaiting registration as refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq had now surpassed 300,000, triple the level of just three months ago. The latest figures showed a total regional registered population of more than 311,500 Syrian refugees in the four countries, compared to around 100,000 in June.

The continuing rapid growth in refugee numbers underscored the urgency of last week's revised Syria Regional Response Plan, which sought $487.9 million in support of up to 710,000 Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries by the end of this year. The generosity and hospitality shown by these countries as they struggle to cope with growing numbers of refugees made it essential that the international community provided as much support as possible. Many refugees and the communities hosting them were already running out of resources.

Compounding the urgency was the upcoming onset of winter temperatures across the region, in less than 10 weeks from now. We were in a race against time, he said. In Jordan, for example, where thousands were living in tents, the average low temperature between mid-November and mid-March was two degrees Celsius. A winterization plan was being developed, but it too required support and funding.

In Jordan, 103,488 Syrians had registered or were awaiting registration and the new regional response plan estimated some 250,000 Syrian refugees will need assistance in that country by the end of the year. Some 65 per cent of Syrian refugees currently receiving or seeking assistance in Jordan were in urban areas, while the remaining 35 percent were in the new camp at Za’atri. Since it opened just two months ago, Za’atri had received more than 30,000 people. In many cases, those living on the local economy were finding it increasingly difficult as their resources dwindled.

In Lebanon, the number of registered Syrian refugees and those awaiting registration was now more than 80,800 people. The Lebanese government estimated that, in addition, tens of thousands of Syrians had entered Lebanon this year and not yet returned. Registered or not, they all live on the local economy - often depending on relatives or their own resources. It was expected that an increasing number will be seeking assistance in the coming months as the resources of refugees, as well as their host families, become seriously stretched. The scattered nature of the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon was posing challenges in providing assistance in often remote areas. Many of the hosting communities were among the most economically depressed in Lebanon.

As numbers increased and the winter months approached, needs were becoming more acute. UNHCR and partner agencies were rolling out a winterization programme.

Based on figures from the Government of Turkey, the number of Syrian refugees registered and assisted by the government in camps was 93,576 as of 1 October. Several thousand more were known to be residing outside the current 13 camps. Three more camps were opening. In addition to the influx of Syrians, Turkey had also seen an increase in the number of urban asylum applications over the past 15 months — many of them related to the crisis in Syria - mostly Iraqis, Iranians and Afghans.

In Iraq 33,704 Syrians had been registered, including 4,263 in the past week. More than 28,000 were Syrian nationals of Kurdish origin who have arrived in the Kurdistan Region (Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaimaniya). Further south, at Al-Qaem, more than 5,600 Syrian nationals have sought asylum since the Baghdad government opened the country's borders in late July.

Answering questions he said cases of insecurity had been seen at the Zatatri camp due to the ongoing poor conditions, which underscored the point that a camp was one of the last options for those seeking asylum. He also said it was essential that countries hosting refugee populations in the region got the help they needed from the international community and appeals for funding had been made. He believed that around 89,000 Iraqi refugees were currently in Syria, although some returns had been seen, though the current data was unclear.

Ms. Momal-Vanian answered a question on Palestinian refugees with details from the latest UNRWA (The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) update which said Syria hosted 518,000 Palestine refugees. About 40 per cent of the refugee population had been displaced as a result of the current crisis. A number of refugees had been killed and three UNRWA staff members had lost their lives. Some 42,000 Palestine refugee families (210,000 people) had so far requested cash assistance and to respond to such needs, UNRWA had launched a revised response plan amounting to US$44 million.

The number of Palestine refugees who had left Syria for neighbouring countries had increased over recent weeks. As of 27 September, about 1,100 Palestine refugees had crossed into Jordan, while 5,100 Palestine refugees had entered Lebanon. Their situation was challenging due to scarce resources, considerable restrictions on movement and limited job opportunities. UNRWA was providing basic assistance and access to services such as health and education.

Iran

Rupert Colville for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the UN Human Rights Office was seriously concerned by the arrest and imprisonment of several prominent human rights defenders, journalists and political activists in the Islamic Republic of Iran in the past two weeks. This appeared to reflect a further severe clamp down on critical voices in the country.

In particular, his office was concerned about the 29 September arrest of Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, a prominent human rights lawyer and co-founder (with Shirin Ebadi) of the Centre for Human Rights Defenders. Mr Dadkhah was now beginning a nine-year jail sentence previously imposed on him after he was charged with “membership of an association seeking to overthrow the government and propaganda against the system.”

The prison sentence was coupled with a 10-year ban on legal practice and teaching. Mr Dadkhah had been involved in defending many high-profile cases, and the case against him was widely believed to be linked to his work as a human rights defender.

Mr Dadkhah's case was reminiscent of those of other jailed human rights defenders in Iran, in particular that of the lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, whose case had been raised in the past by the High Commissioner, he said. Ms Sotoudeh was one of the three final nominees for the prestigious Martin Ennals human rights award, which was being awarded this evening here in Geneva, despite the fact she was serving a six-year jail term.

Last Wednesday (26 September), the authorities closed down an independent newspaper, the Daily Shargh, for publishing a cartoon, and arrested its director, Mehdi Rahmanian. A summons was also issued against the cartoonist.

Mr Ali Akbar Javanfekr, the press advisor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and head of the state-run news agency (IRNA), was arrested on the same day to serve a six-month jail sentence issued previously for insulting the Supreme Leader. The Reuters bureau chief in Iran, Ms. Parisa Hafezi, had also been charged with spreading lies and propaganda, and the wire agency's entire operation had reportedly been suspended. The ongoing arrest and detention of media professionals and intimidation of media organizations was deeply worrying, especially in the run-up to the June 2013 Presidential elections.

Also in the past ten days, Ms Faezeh Hashemi, and Mr Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani, the daughter and son of Mr Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former President of Iran, were both arrested by the authorities. Faezeh Hashemi was arrested on 22 September to serve a six-month jail sentence, apparently linked to her participation in an opposition rally in February 2011. Her brother, Mehdi, was taken into custody at Tehran airport two days later, on Monday 24 September, after returning from 36 months exile in London. He was facing charges related to his role in the 2009 post-election unrest.

Lawyers, human rights defenders and independent media make a key contribution in democratic societies and must be allowed to carry out their work without facing intimidation, harassment, arrest and prosecution, he explained. The arrests and harsh sentences imposed on such figures reflected a disturbing trend apparently aimed at curbing freedom of expression, opinion and association, which were guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran was a State party.

He then called on the Government of Iran to promptly release all those who have been arrested for peacefully exercising their fundamental rights.


Democratic Republic of the Congo

Adrian Edwards for the High Commissioner for Refugees said UNHCR had helped more than 25,000 Congolese return to their homes in northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) from neighbouring Republic of Congo under a voluntary repatriation programme that was launched in May.

The 25,000 mark was passed last Friday (the current total of those helped back by UNHCR was 25,696). UNHCR hopes to repatriate a further 24,000 more refugees, mostly from Equateur province, across the Oubangui River to the DRG by the end of this year, plus a further 32,000 next year.

Currently, there were more than 100,000 Congolese refugees still in Republic of Congo. They have been living in isolated areas along the river since fleeing ethnic clashes in Equateur province in 2009.

At the height of the crisis, about 143,000 Congolese fled their villages for safety in neighbouring countries.

Statelessness

Adrian Edwards for the High Commissioner for Refugees said Ecuador, Honduras and Portugal had become the latest States to accede to the Statelessness Conventions, joining the growing ranks of countries that were taking concrete steps to address the problem.

All three states became parties at a special event in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Ecuador became a party to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, Honduras to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and Portugal became party to both conventions.

The action by these three states demonstrated a growing awareness about statelessness and, more importantly, the political will to address it. Statelessness affects up to 12 million people worldwide. Most had no secure residence in the countries where they resided, were denied the legal right to work and had limited access to education and health care.

UNHCR believed that the international community was at a turning point in this field. Fifteen states have become parties to the Conventions in the past 18 months and we know that many more were preparing to do so — and this level of action was unprecedented.

Addressing statelessness was a UNHCR priority, and yesterday at the opening of UNHCR's annual Executive Committee meeting High Commissioner Guterres appealed to States to help end the problem of Statelessness within a decade.

IOM activities

Chris Lom for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said IOM in Thailand, in partnership with UNHCR and the IFRC, had now moved 100,000 Myanmar refugees from camps on the Thai border. A documentary on the work being done was in development, though stock footage was already available to download from the IOM website. He responded to an inquiry on the refugees on the Thai border saying the group helped at the start of the programme was mostly made up of Laos Mong, after an agreement made with the United States to deal with the long-standing problem where people had remained in the camps for up to 20 years. Many of those involved had never lived in Myanmar and so were effectively stateless and had a very restricted life.

Mr. Lom added that IOM had been coordinating shelter efforts in Pakistan as the extent of recent flooding became known. They were thought to be serious, though perhaps not as bad as those seen in the last two years. IOM was currently distributing contingency stocks from its warehouses, primarily to people in Sindh Province but also in Punjab and Balochistan. These supplies were now very close to being exhausted and so additional funding was needed. The appeal put out earlier this year for funding for the Early Recovery Framework has asked for more than $439 million, but was currently only 10.6 per cent funded.

He also gave details of a major meeting in Quito, Ecuador to discuss return migration in Latin America, primarily from Spain. Several countries were now seeing large influxes of people coming back, he said, many of which found it difficult to reintegrate.

Mr. Lom also mentioned an appeal for funding for sub-Saharan African migrants stranded in Morocco. These groups were being returned on flights funded by the Moroccan Government but money was now needed to pay for their reintegration through either training or entrepreneurship. Answering questions he said the migrants in Morocco were part of a group that had requested help to return after they became stranded in the country en route to Europe. Previous IOM projects which would have offered travel assistance of this type had been stopped due to funding issues and the focus now was on helping those offered flights by the Moroccan government.

Geneva activities

Ms. Momal-Vanian welcomed participants of the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalists Fellowship Programme to the briefing, noting how the programme for journalists had been renamed to commemorate a former journalist and staff member killed in the bombing of a UN building in Baghdad in 2003.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women yesterday opened a three-week session. It looked today at the report of Chile, on Thursday it was to consider the report of Togo and on Friday that of Equatorial Guinea. Reports from Comoros and Turkmenistan were to be discussed next Wednesday and Thursday.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child was to finish its session on Friday and so was meeting in private this week, mainly to adopt its concluding observations on the reports reviewed during the session.

Two press conferences were announced. The first was planned for Thursday (4 October) at 9.30 in Press Room 1 by the GAVI Alliance. The topic was helping to save lives and tackling the health equity gap through the power of vaccines and the speaker was the Chief Executive Officer of the GAVI Alliance.

On Friday (5 October) at 12:30 in Room III the High Commissioner for Refugees was to give his annual post-Executive Committee briefing to journalists.