3 January 2014
Thierry Potvin, Officer-in-Charge of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the first briefing of 2014, which was also attended by the Spokespersons for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the United Nations Refugee Agency.
Central African Republic
On behalf of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Mr. Potvin informed that there was a note in the back of the room on the allocation of emergency funding to begin air evacuation of migrants affected by fighting in the Central African Republic. Migrants in that country were estimated to reach in the tens of thousands, with most originating from the neighboring region, including Cameroon, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Niger, Nigeria, and the Sudan. Some USD 200,000 had been allocated to start the operation.
Babar Baloch, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), stated that the humanitarian situation in the country remained dire, as insecurity was making the delivery of humanitarian relief ever more difficult and as the number of people now displaced within the country had surpassed 935,000.
Targeted attacks against civilians, looting and the presence of armed elements at some displacement sites had severely limited humanitarian agencies’ access to those in need of urgent assistance. UNHCR staff reported that people were hiding in the bush, fearing fresh attacks. The deteriorating situation, coupled with the long distances between internally displaced persons’ (IDPs) sites outside Bangui and poor road infrastructure, made it increasingly difficult for UNHCR to reach people displaced by the conflict.
Mr. Baloch specified that some 512,672 people were currently sheltering in 67 sites in the capital, Bangui, or living with host families. That represented more than half of Bangui’s total population. Some 60 per cent of those displaced were children.
Access to 45,367 IDPs living with host families in Bangui was very difficult under the current circumstances and made it difficult for UNHCR to assess their needs and provide assistance. In the previous week, the number of IDPs arriving at the airport had almost doubled, and now there were some 100,000 people there. Distribution of shelter material and other relief items had become more challenging and it was difficult to put a distribution system in place. Humanitarian agencies were working on a rapid 30-day interagency response for people displaced at that site.
Continued clashes in Bossangoa, 300 km north of Bangui, had also led to an increase in the IDP population and two nearby sites known as Archbishop and École Liberté.
Mr. Baloch stressed that improved security was essential for humanitarian workers to reach the displaced and provide humanitarian aid to hundreds of thousands who desperately needed UNHCR assistance. More troops and effective operational coordination was needed for the African Union peacekeeping force (MISCA), which might reach 6,000 soldiers with the arrival of Congolese and Rwandan troops.
Despite those challenges, UNHCR and its partners were continuing to distribute relief items at sites where access was possible. Since 5 December, humanitarian supplies had reached about 23,000 people from over 4,600 households. UNCHR was leading the interagency cluster for protection, shelter and non-food items, and camp coordination and camp management in the Central African Republic.
UNHCR was also scaling up its presence in the country with the arrival or the emergency teams; 15 additional UNHCR staff had arrived since 14 December. In addition, UNHCR was hoping to expand its presence in the field by establishing a sub-office in Bossangoa and two field units in the coming weeks. Those were in addition to Kaga-Bandoro, Paoua, Bambari and Zemio, which were already operational.
Since the previous Sunday, UNHCR had been organizing airlifts of relief items, vehicles and office equipment from its regional warehouses in Nairobi, Accra, Dubai and Douala. Three planes had arrived so far in the current week, with three more due to land over the weekend. In all, 205,871 metric tonnes of assistance would be flown in, which would be enough for 75,000 individuals of 15,000 families. Airlifted items included tents, blankets, plastic sheets and other supplies. More details were available in the UNHCR note distributed to the journalists.
Asked if all of 935,000 thousand IDPs were newly displaced as a result of the recent turmoil, Mr. Baloch said that the last figures seen in 2013 showed some 710,000 IDPs, so the current numbers showed a great increase. He could provide exact details later.
On the question of what was happening around the airport which was supposed to be secured by the French military and if people displaced there were being reached, Mr. Baloch said that UNHCR had not been able to put in place a fully effective distribution system. Whenever aid agencies were trying to go in there to distribute aid, there were complete breakdowns in law and order; it was insecurity and the chaos around the site which was preventing UNHCR from conducting distribution. Mr. Baloch confirmed that there was an international military presence in the area, but the military had not been able to secure conditions for the humanitarian agencies to do their job effectively. Efforts were underway to talk to those in the area to ensure that everyone needing assistance would be able to receive it.
Answering a question on a statement on the brutalization of children, Mr. Baloch referred to a UNICEF statement on that truly terrible situation, which reflected a breakdown in law and order, including revenge attacks, sometimes even in health centres. Patrick McMormick, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), referred to the press release issued on 30 December, which dealt with the issue of brutalization of children, and said the overall situation was getting worse.
Asked how UNHCR managed to have such a precise figure of IDPs, Mr. Baloch said the figure had been acquired through the cooperation of all the humanitarian agencies on the ground and the UNCHR - who leads the protection cluster - has a mechanism with authorities on the ground and all the humanitarian agencies.
Tarik Jasareviæ, for the World Health Organization (WHO), referred to a note which the WHO had sent out the previous day, on vaccination campaigns against measles at two sites in the country. He said that at the airport, WHO had confirmed three cases of measles, and, at the Don Bosco Centre, five cases had been confirmed by the Bangui Pasteur Institute.
As immediate immunization was required, the campaign was starting today. It was being conducted by WHO, UNICEF, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) and other partners. MSF was operating at the airport and had already prepared 13 vaccination teams at three sites in that camp and had mobilized 50,000 doses. Measles vaccines were given to all children between six months and 15 years old.
WHO was hoping to stop the spread because measles was a viral infection that could spread very fast, especially in the conditions where people lived in an overcrowded area. WHO expected that it would take three to five days to complete the campaign. There was a communication officer in Bangui who could be reached and provide further information on that matter.
Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), referred to a statement by Toby Lanzer, Humanitarian Coordinator in South Sudan, who said that over the previous two weeks, violence in South Sudan had displaced around 200,000 persons from their homes and affected many hundreds of thousands of people indirectly.
Aid agencies were scaling up their work, especially in towns which had seen struck by violence and in rural sites where civilians had sought safety. The largest site of civilians was in Awerial, Lakes State, where up to 76,000 people had gathered. Aid agencies were providing food, non-food items and basic healthcare there and stepping up efforts to make clean water and latrines available.
Mr. Laerke said that the Humanitarian Coordinator in South Sudan had called on all parties to facilitate aid agencies’ access to civilians, and to protect and respect humanitarian activities, workers, and property at all times.
Humanitarian partners in South Sudan had issued a plan which would enable increased assistance to the most severely affected people. It would also help people who had left Sudan and sought refuge in South Sudan’s Unity and Upper Nile states. The plan included provision of protection, water, food, shelter and healthcare.
The plan targeted 628,000 people over the following three months, and agencies needed USD 166 million from international donors to implement it.
Mr. Laerke also informed that the previous day, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos had expressed her deep concern about the ongoing reports of disturbing, gross violations of human rights, and the lack of protection of civilians in South Sudan. Ms. Amos had stressed that aid organizations needed access to affected communities to provide healthcare, shelter and clean water. People's lives depended on that.
Mr. Laerke specified that OCHA’s planning took into consideration that the number of IDPs might double in the coming three months.
Mr. Baloch informed that UNHCR had issued a position paper urging States participating in the Dublin Regulation to temporarily suspend transfers of asylum-seekers back to Bulgaria. UNHCR had concluded that asylum-seekers in Bulgaria faced a genuine risk of inhuman or degrading treatment due to systemic deficiencies in reception conditions and asylum procedures.
UNHCR's assessment showed that asylum-seekers in Bulgaria routinely lacked access to basic services, such as food and healthcare; faced lengthy delays in registration which subsequently deprived them of their basic rights; and were at risk of arbitrary detention. In addition, there were serious challenges to access fair and effective asylum procedures alongside ongoing reports of push backs at the border.
Mr. Baloch explained that the Dublin Regulation provided for a system to determine responsibility for examining asylum claims lodged in European Union Member States and other States that were party to the Dublin Regulation according to specific criteria. It aimed to ensure that each claim was fairly examined by a State to deter multiple applications and enhance efficiency.
UNHCR had concluded that, despite progress in recent years, and improved reception conditions over the previous few weeks, there were significant gaps in the implementation of laws and policies on international protection in Bulgaria. Those gaps had worsened with the increase in the numbers of asylum-seekers arriving in recent months, particularly those fleeing the conflict in Syria. In 2013, over 9,000 people had sought asylum in Bulgaria, up from an annual average of 1,000 asylum-seekers since its accession to the European Union in 2007.
UNHCR also urged the Bulgarian authorities to take immediate steps to improve those deplorable conditions to ensure respect for the rights of asylum-seekers and people in need of international protection. UNHCR proposed to re-assess the situation as of 1 April 2014. The three-month period would provide an opportunity for the Bulgarian authorities and their partners — including the European Commission, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), NGOs and UNHCR — to work together to improve the reception conditions and asylum procedures. In the meantime, refraining from transferring asylum-seekers would also represent an important demonstration of solidarity.
Asked if many transfers were actually happening, and which countries were sending people back to Bulgaria, Mr. Baloch responded that for 2013, some 70 people had been effectively transferred to Bulgaria under the Dublin Regulations, but the number could prove to be higher. An exact breakdown by the country could be provided subsequently.
On the question of whether that was the first time that UNHCR had made such a call for a country under the Dublin Regulation, Mr. Baloch said that UNHCR was acting under its monitoring rules in line with the 1951 Refugee Convention. UNHCR had already done so for Greece and Hungary for example.
Mr. Potvin said that a note with the calendar of meetings for 2014 had been distributed the previous day. The first meeting would be the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which would start on 13 January, while the Conference on Disarmament was to commence the week after.
Regarding the International Conference on Syria, which would take place in Montreux and Geneva, a note had been issued on 31 December with information on registration and accreditation procedures. More information could be found on the Information Service's webpage.
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The representative of the International Labour Organization also attended the briefing, but did not brief.
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There is no webcast for this briefing for technical reasons.