REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
18 December 2012
Alessandra Vellucci, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by Spokespersons for the High Commissioner for Refugees, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Food Programme, and the World Health Organization and the International Organization for Migration.
Ms. Vellucci said a press conference was to be held tomorrow (19 December) at 13:00 in Room III on the joint launch of the Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan 2013 and the Syria Regional Response Plan 2013. Speakers were Mr. Radhouane Nouicer, United Nations Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria and Mr. Panos Moumtzis, Regional Refugee Coordinator, UNHCR, who would provide an update on the humanitarian situation and response to refugees in neighbouring countries and the Syria Regional Response Plan 2013.
Also present for questions on education, water and sanitation, Palestinian refugees and the activities of NGOs were Ms. Maria Calivis, Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa Region, UNICEF, Ms. Martha Myers, Regional Emergency Coordinator and Director of Social and Relief Services, UNRWA, Mr. Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop, Executive Director, ICVA and Mr. David Katruud, Director of Emergency Preparedness, WFP.
Adrian Edwards for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said embargoed materials ahead of that press conference would be released in the next few hours.
Tarik Jasarevic for the World Health Organization (WHO) said the health situation on the ground was very serious and deteriorating. Access to healthcare facilities for both patients and health-care providers remained the biggest obstacle to delivery and reports were still coming in of shortages of supplies and staff. The WHO remained concerned about the security of health facilities and called again on all parties to ensure safe access.
The polio and measles vaccination campaign aimed at reaching 2.5 million children had been extended, he said; 1 010 020 children under 5 years of age were vaccinated against measles between 26 November and 17 December; and 1 235 507 children under 5 years of age were vaccinated against polio between 26 November and 17 December had so far been reached.
Last week the WHO visited a Damascus hospital and found that between 70 and 100 patients with injuries were being received each day and the most common injuries, including burns, were from explosions and gunshots. As a result of the increasing violence more women and children were among the injured.
Supplies from international and local markets were short due to sanctions and currency fluctuations. Shortages were being felt in ointments for burns and equipment for anaesthesia. Severe and acute malnutrition were also being seen and a nutrition assessment was to be completed.
Answering questions he said healthcare was being provided in neighbouring countries using their national networks and work was being done to ensure supplies were available. He also said that locally some elements involved in the production of medical supplies, as well as local facilities themselves, were not available and this was fuelling shortages.
On another point he said it was only possible to get casualty figures from places that had been visited, and although he could not give overall numbers, he could share what he had been told from staff on the ground. He also mentioned that he had no figures on the cases of malnutrition.
News from the hospital visited was that their 30 intensive care beds were permanently full, he said, and the 12 beds for burns victims were being filled with people who could have been exposed to fire through being in the area of shelling. No evidence had been seen of the use of biological or chemical weapons.
Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said humanitarian needs, especially food, were growing, with serious bread and fuel shortages. WFP hoped to reach about 1.5 million people monthly in Syria with food assistance. However, the escalation of violence was making it more difficult to reach the country’s hardest-hit areas, especially in the north, and so around 1.3 million people were actually receiving assistance.
WFP had managed for the first time in many months to distribute assistance to hard-to-reach areas near the Turkish border including Ras el Ain and Tal Abyad. WFP distributed food assistance in the last few days to 11,500 people in Ras el Ain – the only humanitarian agency to have accessed the town in recent weeks.
A bread crisis was hitting various governorates across the country due to many reasons including insecurity, shortage of fuel necessary for bakeries, damage to bakeries and an increasing demand from new IDPs. In Aleppo, the majority of the population was now depending on private bakeries where the price of 1 kg of bread, if available at all, had reached 250 Syrian pounds, the highest in the country, and 40 to 50 per cent higher compared to other governorates.
There were reports of shortages of wheat flour in most parts of the country due to the damages to mills, the majority of which were in the Aleppo area, lack of fuel for delivery, road closures and difficult access, she said. Where fighting was taking place, food prices were reported to have almost doubled. A shortage of cooking gas was also observed.
As a result of these shortages, households were reducing the number of meals, consuming cheaper or lower quality food, cutting portion size, taking children out of school, sending children to work, selling livestock and other assets, and cutting back on medical and education expenses.
She also explained that WFP food was reaching most of the country through Syrian Arab Red Crescent distributions. However, a significant fuel shortage throughout the country was affecting the agency’s ability to move food on time - from the port to packaging facilities as was finding trucks to dispatch food for distribution.
On funding, she said that to feed 1.5 million people, WFP requires 15,000 metric tonnes of food each month at a cost of $22 million and WFP needed an additional $132 million to continue feeding 1.5 million people until June 2013. Around $117 million had already been contributed by donors including UN-CERF, Australia, Canada, the European Commission, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Kuwait, The Netherlands, Russia, the UK and the US.
Answering questions she said that in November 76,000 refugees were helped in Lebanon by WFP, mainly through food vouchers, and that food voucher distribution continued. She added that 75 per cent of these refugees were women. She also explained that attacks on convoys had increased in recent weeks which complicated operations.
Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) answered a question saying a recent request from OCHA head Valerie Amos for more involvement by ten NGOs was not related to the withdrawal of non-essential UN staff. Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) reiterated that from her side more support was needed on the ground to scale up WFP operations.
Democratic Republic of Congo
Adrian Edwards for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said the security situation at the Mugunga 3 camp for internally displaced people near Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo continued to be a serious concern. Soldiers and unidentified armed men continue to be present in and around the camp, fuelling worries among the IDP population.
The presence of armed men at Mugunga 3 and other IDP sites around Goma was a threat to the civilian character of the camps, something they had repeatedly urged all sides to respect. In addition, it exposed IDPs to risks of violence in violation of their fundamental rights, including the right to physical safety and integrity.
UNHCR repeated its appeal for such sites to be kept strictly off limits for all armed groups and actors. Civilians needed to be kept out of harm’s way and any deployment of armed men in densely populated areas had to be avoided.
The most recent incident UNHCR was aware of was on 14 December when four armed men entered Mugunga 3, apparently looking for aid items. Two people were injured by gunfire.
On the night of 9-10 December, gunmen looted several homes around Mugunga 3 and demanded goods or money. Three people were also shot and wounded on this occasion. These incidents were in addition to those recorded during the night of 1-2 December.
The wider security situation around Goma itself remained difficult, with government troops, M23 fighters and other armed groups still present close to the city. The tension was being stoked by uncertainty over the progress of current peace talks in Kampala, Uganda between the DRC Government and the M23.
Separately, fighting further north in eastern DRC had caused about 4,000 people to flee across the border into South Sudan following operations by the Congolese military to get armed groups under control. The refugees crossed from Agorobo village over the past five days. Most of the new arrivals were women with small infants and separated or unaccompanied children. Prior to the latest influx there were 18,408 DR Congolese refugees in South Sudan.
Marixie Mercado for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said staff on the ground were reporting that women and girls separated from their families as a result of conflict were living in fear of rape.
In November UNICEF partners provided care to 278 women and 117 girls who had been sexually assaulted in North Kivu and child protection partners have so far reunified 84 children with their families. Meanwhile, in North Kivu measles cases have risen to over 650, six times more than in December 2011.
In the past week over 27,000 displaced children in North Kivu were vaccinated against measles within a joint immunization campaign of the Ministry of Health, Merlin, Medecins Sans Frontieres and UNICEF. Cholera cases were also increasing.
Over 1,000 tons of supplies including tarpaulins, blankets, sleeping mats, basins, cooking sets, soap, female hygiene kits, jerry cans and clothes for over 20,000 displaced families were ready for distribution though security conditions meant they could not be distributed as it would put families at risk of looting or worse.
Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said Tropical Cyclone Evan had passed over Samoa and the western coastline of Fiji, a densely populated area, and OCHA was receiving initial reports of extensive damage and breakdown of water and power supplies. However, information was still sketchy as communication systems were also affected.
In Samoa, at least four people had died and almost 8,000 people were in evacuation centres, many of which were run by churches. Seven schools had been completely destroyed and the Government of Samoa had declared a State of Emergency for the next month.
In Fiji, evacuation centres were now hosting almost 8,500 people. The Fijian Government had requested international assistance and asked for help with areal assessments and evacuations of people affected by the cyclone and flooding.
Aid organisations in the Pacific Humanitarian Team had contingency stocks available for relief response in Fiji and Samoa. Information was still being gathered and assessed so the best response could be provided.
Jean Philippe Chauzy for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said conditions in Mindanao remained extremely difficult for families left homeless by Typhoon Bopha and so far only ten per cent of IOM’s appeal for $7 million had been met.
Funds had been promised from the Government of Canada and the United Nations emergency relief fund on top of the direct donation of $100,000 from IOM’s central emergency fund which had ensured rapid construction of storm-proof wooden houses for homeless families. Work had also been done to get essential non-food items to groups in hard to reach places.
Somali refugees in Kenya
Answering a question Adrian Edwards for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that UNHCR as a policy opposed detention, which needed to be a last resort and instead urged that refugees are seen as a part of the local community in which they reside.
Turkey boat tragedy
Jean Philippe Chauzy for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) answered a question about an incident where 20 people lost their lives after a boat sank off the coast of Lesbos by saying he believed that a clampdown on unsafe vessels and people smugglers was not the answer. Instead the solution was allowing people a suitable way of accessing a place where they felt secure.
Jean Philippe Chauzy for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reminded correspondents that today (18 December) was International Migrants Day. He explained that it was hoped that this year the commemoration could draw attention to the plight of migrants caught up in the impacts of the crises, and populations forced into continual relocation, that needed better protection and reintegration back into their home community.
He said the message from IOM was that migration issues needed to be considered in the first days of a crisis, whether that be due to conflict or, increasingly, natural disasters, such as the recent hurricane in the Philippines. He also highlighted the work done recently to return third country nationals, such as domestic workers in Libya, which needed ongoing funding yet had struggled to attract the attention of donor countries. As a general comment he explained cases were becoming more and more difficult, as well as more frequent.
Ms. Vellucci added that a French version of the message from the Secretary-General to mark the day was available at the back of the room.
She also announced International Human Solidarity Day was on Thursday (20 December) and the message from the Secretary-General on this Day was also at the back of the room.
Ms. Vellucci then mentioned that the global launch of the annual economic report, “World Economic Situation and Prospects 2013” was scheduled for today (18 December) at 17:00 Geneva time. The press release and first chapter were available, though under embargo until the same time. Regional launches of the report were scheduled for the week of 15 January.
Today (18 December) at 11.30 in Room III a press conference was to be held by the Human Rights Council’s working group on the use of mercenaries. Speakers were Faiza Patel (Chair of the Working Group) and group member, Anton Katz. This press conference was following their recent mission to Somalia and would offer preliminary observations and recommendations.
Ms. Vellucci also announced that a contact list for press enquiries over the festive period was being prepared, and should be sent out by tomorrow or Thursday.
Finally Ms. Vellucci said that the extraordinary session of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) General Assembly was expected to approve a decision this morning to convene a diplomatic conference in 2013 to complete negotiations on a treaty to improve access to copyrighted works for the many visually impaired and people with print disabilities around the world.
The plenary met on Monday morning and heard general statements which were all supportive of completion of negotiations. Member states held informal consultations on Monday afternoon, through early evening, to agree on wording of a decision statement. They were expected to adopt the decision statement at a plenary session this morning, which begins at 10am.
They will then convene the “Preparatory Committee of the Diplomatic Conference to conclude a Treaty to facilitate Access to Published Works by Visually Impaired Persons and Persons with Print Disabilities” to consider the venue and modalities for the diplomatic conference. Morocco had officially offered to host the diplomatic conference in Marrakesh.