REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
4 October 2013
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by the Spokespersons for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations Refugee Agency, World Food Programme, World Health Organization, International Organization for Migration, Economic Commission for Europe, World Trade Organization and the World Meteorological.
Melissa Fleming, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), stated that, following the tragedy involving a boat carrying Eritreans, the efforts were focused on helping survivors. The most recent information reported 155 survivors, one Tunisian national and the rest Eritrean. Among them were 40 unaccompanied boys aged between 14 and 17, and six women. They were exhausted and in a state of shock. Some 111 bodies had been recovered thus far. Others were still missing, presumed trapped inside the boat. Those who had died presumably either could not swim or had been trapped in the boat’s crammed lower deck.
Ms. Fleming informed that the survivors had been moved to a nearby reception centre, already overcrowded and holding some 1,000 people from other recent boat arrivals, including some Syrian and Palestinian nationals. UNHCR would be meeting the survivors of this latest accident later in the day, and they would be provided with advice on asylum procedures. UNHCR had additional staff arriving from Rome while a Red Cross psychologist would be providing counselling.
According to the survivors, the boat had left from Libya 13 days earlier carrying 500 people. Most had boarded in Misrata, but others joined them further west in Zuwara. As they had approached the Italian coast early on 3 October, the boat’s engine had stopped. They had been hoping to be seen and rescued but, they said, fishing boats had passed without helping. After they had set fire to clothing and blankets to attract attention, the vessel was finally spotted by a tourist boat which sounded the alert, after which the Italian coast guard came to their rescue.
High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres commented: “There is something fundamentally wrong in a world where people in need of protection have to resort to these perilous journeys. This tragedy should serve as a wake-up call. More effective international cooperation is required including a crack-down on traffickers and smugglers while protecting their victims. It shows how important it is for refugees to have legal channels to access territories where they can find protection.”
Jumbe Omari Jumbe, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), shared the statement of the IOM Director General William Lacy Swing: “I am deeply saddened by the tragic shipwreck that that took place on Thursday between Sicily and Lampedusa, in which at least 111 migrants died and over 200 are still missing. These migrants, many of whom were fleeing war and persecution in countries including Somalia and Eritrea, hoped to find a better life. They ended up entrusting their lives to human smugglers, risking everything aboard an unseaworthy boat that caught fire, capsized and sank at night. Entire families drowned. Despite the excellent work of the Italian coast guard and port authorities, who have saved thousands of lives in the Mediterranean over the past two decades, at least 20,000 people have died since 1993. Much more must be done to prevent this humanitarian crisis and IOM stands ready to work with its European Union, North African and other partners to improve migration management and combat people smuggling.”
Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that the High Commissioner for Human Rights was deeply shocked and saddened by the latest horrendous boat tragedy off Lampedusa which had claimed the lives of hundreds of mainly Eritrean refugees and migrants. OHCHR was offering its condolences to the families of those drowned in the incident.
OHCHR welcomed efforts by the Italian authorities to address the issue in line with international human rights norms and respect for the dignity of every human being – and in particular the day of mourning declared by the Government and the minute of silence which would be held in all Italian schools on 4 October. Mr. Colville stressed that this marked a very big and welcome change of attitude on the part of the Italian authorities. OHCHR particularly praised the leading role played by the Minister of Integration, Cécile Kyenge, and President of the Lower House of Parliament, Laura Boldrini, in helping steer this change in official attitude despite strong and sometimes vitriolic opposition in other quarters.
OHCHR was asking the Italian authorities and the international community, especially the European Union, to strengthen their efforts to prevent a repeat of this situation. States should also ensure that they were honouring their commitments under international refugee law.
OHCHR was concerned about the increasing rates of smuggling and trafficking of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean and elsewhere, for example in the Gulf of Aden. That indicated the desperation of the people living in areas of Eritrea and also other countries, including Somalia, stricken by insecurity and conflict as well as the lack of enjoyment of basic economic, social and cultural rights. It was critical that the international community engaged further in improving the human rights situation on the ground, to address the root causes so that there was sufficient improvement that people would not feel the need to put their lives at risk by undertaking such dangerous journeys.
Authorities at the national and sub-national levels should renew their efforts to put an end to smuggling and trafficking in persons in Eritrea and Somalia, with the collaboration of the international community and the United Nations.
Asked whether that boat could have been detected and stopped earlier, Ms. Fleming said that what was disturbing was that some other boats had reportedly passed the boat in distress. Mr. Colville stressed that rescue at the sea was a legal obligation under international law, in particular the Law of the Sea. At the European level, there were also numerous directives and regulations dealing with these issues.
On the question about smugglers, Ms. Fleming said the Tunisian national was presumed to be a smuggler, but possibly there were others. He was being investigated by the Italian authorities.
Ms. Fleming could not confirm the information that cellphones of the passengers had been taken away. In the past, there had been examples of successful rescues thanks to phone calls from people on boats in distress.
Asked about the number of migrants who had died in this area in 2013, Ms. Fleming said that the figure was likely around 100 persons, not counting those deceased in the latest incident. Mr. Jumbe confirmed that in 2013, about 100 people had died, in 2012, 500 people, and in 2011, as many as 1,500 people had perished at the sea. Year 2011 witnessed a lot of traffic, with some 63,000 people crossing the Mediterranean, during the Libyan crisis. Ms. Fleming said that during 2013, there had been some 30,000 arrivals to Italy, mainly Syrian, Eritrean and Somali nationals. Mr. Colville said that smugglers were sometimes used for denigration of those who were being smuggled.
The rights of these people were set irrespective of the ways they were traveling. One should recall that genuine refugees often could not move without the help of smugglers, like in World War II. It was important that victims not be tarnished. Mr. Jumbe explained that the trips were organized by the smugglers, and people were paying up to 2,000 euros for travel. Boats were taken from fishermen, and were rickety.
On the question on how the Libyan Government was dealing with the issue. Ms. Fleming added that more information efforts were being made in Libya. Libya had been becoming an increasing transit country, and was a priority for the international community. People fleeing conflict and persecution should not be forced to make long and perilous journeys. It would be good if they could find arrangements in the countries where they landed, rather than having to keep moving. Mr. Jumbe said that the IOM was conducting wide-range trainings for immigration officials in Libya, with the focus on clamping down on smugglers.
Ms. Fleming said the tragedy had happened during the UNHCR Executive Committee meeting and brought the issue to the fore once again. For UNHCR, this was a top priority. Some common initiatives with IOM were under way, and they were looking for ways for the wider region to address this issue. As long as there were conflicts and horrendous poverty, there would always be market for smuggling potential migrants. Root causes were still not properly addressed. Mr. Jumbe said that there was a more concentrated international movement to address the issue. Italy was doing a tremendous job, and the Coast Guard and the Government of Italy should be commended.
Mr. Jumbe informed that the IOM had started an evaluation to assess the needs of the displaced population (IDPs), returnees and host communities in 109 villages in the northern part of Mali. The assessment would evaluate the situation of the population affected following the occupation of the area by armed groups in 2012. That crisis had led to the displacement of more than 517,000 people, including 333,000 IDPs and 175,282 refugees.
The evaluation was an initiative of the Commission on Population Movement (CMP), an IOM-led working group within the Protection Cluster. The exercise was part of a wider IOM methodology approved by the CMP and constituted a first step in a comprehensive process to move forward towards a recovery phase for the affected population.
The assessment would be carried out in collaboration with the General Directorate for Civil Protection (DGPC), the National Directorate for Social Development and two local NGOs. It would be conducted in the regions of Gao and Tombouctou, which were hosting over 112,000 IDPs and 137,000 returnees, according to an earlier assessment conducted by IOM in June 2013.
The results of the assessments were expected in early November and would allow the Malian government and humanitarian organizations to better address the needs of the population affected by the crisis in the North.
Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said that until the end of 2013, WFP would aim to reach more than 680,000 people in Mali under its emergency operation, including 520,000 crisis-affected people in the North and more than 160,000 IDPs and host families in the southern regions, as well as fragile communities.
In northern Mali (Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal), WFP had further increased its emergency school feeding coverage as more schools have re-opened in Gao and Timbuktu regions. A total of 576 schools were being assisted with more than 120,000 students in Gao and Timbuktu. Nutrition activities (where health centres were functional) were being increased in northern Mali, and WFP had launched food-for-work activities, consisting mostly in rehabilitation of irrigated plots, in one district of Timbuktu region. In order to prevent acute malnutrition, WFP was providing supplementary feeding for children 6-59 months, pregnant women and new mothers.
In southern Mali (Mopti, Kayes, Koulikoro, Sikasso, Segou and Bamako), WFP was providing food assistance to IDPs, host households and vulnerable communities recovering from last year’s drought. WFP was supporting more than 160,000 IDPs and host families in the southern regions. Beneficiaries in Bamako and in Mopti were receiving cash transfers for the first time. WFP also reached 425,000 people with programmes relating to urban and rural development, resilience, health and education to increase the food security of poor households in southern Mali.
WFP was working to connect Malian farmers to markets through the Purchase for Progress (P4P) initiative. P4P aimed to reinforce the capacities of small-holder farmers to improve procurement practices, food processing and commercialization as a means to increase their daily incomes.
The assessment in the North identified four major risks for those regions that could negatively impact food security:
i) The results of the 2013 – 14 harvest were uncertain; rains were erratic at the beginning of the agricultural season and many people either did not have access to their land or the means to purchase the seeds and fertilizer to plant their crops.
ii) Livestock had been depleted over the last 18 months, affecting the food security and livelihoods of farmers and herders.
iii) The return of internally displaced people and refugees, which had started spontaneously, might put further strain on the already-limited resources in these areas.
iv) Although trade between the North and South had resumed, the continued insecurity in Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, still affected the local economy and cross-border exchanges, resulting in high prices and a lack of goods on local markets.
WFP estimated that, in the course of 2013, it had reached some 1 million people in Mali. However, around USD 67 million were still needed for the continuation of the WFP emergency interventions in Mali until the end of 2013.
Asked whether the problem of malnutrition was also caused by the inability of UN agencies to access the population in need because of security risks, Ms. Byrs answered that the adverse security situation was certainly slowing down food distribution activities, but the key challenge at the moment was financing, where the shortfall was USD 67 million.
On UN humanitarian presence in the north, Ms. Byrs said that there was physical presence of WFP in the north, along with a number of partner NGOs. At times, when security tensions were high, the staff had to be temporarily withdrawn, after which they would return to the area.
Mr. Jumbe informed about a new IOM report: “Iraq - The Impact of the Syrian Crisis”, which said that the continuing influx of Syrian refugees and Iraqi returnees from Syria into Iraq was impacting the whole country, but more specifically the Kurdish Region, causing growing social, economic and demographic challenges.
The report further noted that the Syrian crisis may have had both immediate and long-term socio-economic effects on Iraqi host communities, including a growing shortage of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs, and a growing inability of host communities and returnees alike to secure sufficient income to provide for their families. The report followed an assessment conducted from May to July 2013 by IOM’s Rapid Assessment and Response Team (RART) reaching 1,440 Syrian refugees and 1,126 Iraqi returnees.
The majority of Syrian refugees were located in the northern and western Iraqi governorates of Sulaymaniyah, Dahuk, Erbil, with smaller numbers in Ninewa, Anbar and Kirkuk. A few refugee families were also located in other areas of Iraq. Iraqi returnees were dispersed nationwide, often living with relatives.
The study had been designed to explore the immediate and long term consequences of the Syrian conflict on Iraq and to provide a better understanding of the composition of Syrian refugees and Iraqi returnees and their needs.
The assessment team, which conducted 592 household interviews, 61 key informant interviews and 19 focus group discussions, had noted that at 220,000, the number of Syrian refugees in Iraq was lower than in neighbouring countries. Having said that, there were also 50,000 Iraqis who had returned from Syria and the overall impact on Iraq’s stability and security might be at least as high as the impact on other countries in the region.
In Governorates that were accommodating large Syrian refugee populations, the assessment findings suggested relations between Syria refugees and host communities were, although generally good, becoming more strained and could potentially deteriorate over time due to the negative impacts being felt at the local level.
Thirty eight per cent of the Syrian refugees reported that they had relatives already living in Iraq. Acute needs included shelter, food and access to work.
Following the assessment, IOM had recommended a comprehensive assistance package that will target immediate to long-term challenges and basic needs. That should be achieved with immediate emergency relief assistance, catering to the basic needs of the arriving population.
IOM was also proposing interventions to enhance immediate integration through livelihood support projects that would encourage self-reliance and awareness programs. Those should be implemented as soon as possible.
Asked if there was any positive response from the Syrian Government on facilitating humanitarian access, following the Security Council Presidential Statement, Ms. Fleming said that it was too early to judge. All UN agencies which were operating in Syria welcomed this statement, and hoped that soon there would be progress in granting more humanitarian access.
On the question of how much money had been given to UNHCR to deal with the refugees in Syria’s neighboring countries, Ms. Fleming responded that UNHCR had received 47 per cent of funding for the regional response, out of the appeal for USD 1.5 billion. Ms. Fleming said more detailed information on funding, including breakdown by the country, could be found on the UNHCR Syria portal.
Mr Colville said that OHCHR was seriously concerned by the conviction and sentencing of Mr. Le QuocQuan, a prominent human rights lawyer, by the People's Court of Hanoi for the charge of tax evasion, under Article 161 of the Criminal Code. Mr. Le QuocQuan had been sentenced to 30 months in prison and fined 1.2 million dong, the equivalent of almost USD 60,000.
Mr. Colville added that the conviction echoed that of Mr Nguyen Van Hai (a.k.a. Dieu Cay), a prominent blogger and founder of "Club of Free Journalists of Vietnam", who had also been initially charged and convicted in 2008 under tax evasion. That was raising concerns that such charges might be used to silence human rights activists and those who were critical of the Government's policies and practices.
OHCHR was alarmed by the fact that the conviction against Mr. Le QuocQuan had been handed down after only one day of trial, and there had been allegations of restrictions of access to the court by his family and supporters. That cousted doubts whether his right to fair trial and due process had been fully respected.
OHCHR urged the Government of Vietnam to review such convictions and trial proceedings which continued to seriously threaten and curb the right to freedom of expression, opinion and association in the country.
Ms. Fleming informed that the previous day, on 3 October, Ivory Coast had acceded to the international conventions on statelessness. That was one of key measures the Government was taking to reduce the number of stateless people in the country.
An estimated 700,000 people in Ivory Coast were currently stateless or lack documentation to prove their nationality. Consequently, they could not access services such as education and healthcare. Many of the stateless were children whose births had never been registered and often they were unable to enrol in school.
UNHCR welcomed the accession by Ivory Coast and its commitment to the protection of the fundamental right to nationality. For decades, proof of Ivoirian citizenship had been a controversial socio-political issue, while the right to land titles was particularly contentious, sometimes leading to communal conflict.
The Government was now working to clarify thousands of cases of individuals of undetermined nationality. It had recently approved a reform of the nationality law which would allow stateless people and others born in the country to apply for citizenship if they had resided there for decades.
Ivory Coast was the 20th State to accede to one or both stateless conventions since 2011 when UNHCR had begun a campaign to promote those legal instruments. The 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons had set out the rights of stateless people and had 79 States parties. The 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness had established safeguards to prevent statelessness which were to be included in each country’s nationality law, and it had 54 States parties.
Humanitarian action with FC Olympic Marseille
Ms. Byrs informed about the partnership of the football club Olympic Marseille and the WFP, which was launched in Marseille on 4 October. The action, called “Straight to the Heart against Hunger”, would last until 20 October. The Olympic Marseille would help raise money through auction sales of signed T-shirts and sports jerseys.
Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)
Glenn Thomas, for the World Health Organization (WHO), informed that the WHO would shortly announce a disease outbreak news on MERS, after six new cases – three men and three women – had been reported in the Riyadh region of Saudi Arabia. The total number of cases was now 136.
Budapest Water Summit
Mr. Jean Rodriguez, for the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE), informed that ECE Executive Secretary, Sven Alkalaj, would participate in the Budapest Water Summit, which would take place in Budapest on 8-9 October. Mr. Alkalaj would deliver a welcome address, and attend side events on the Protocol on Water and Health and on the Water Convention. Mr. Alkalaj would also hold bilateral meetings with the Minister of Rural Development of Hungary and the State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Hungary.
Ms. Momal-Vanian informed that the Committee on the Right of the Child would finish its activities later in the day. The Committee had examined reports of Sao Tome and Principe, Kuwait, Moldova, Tuvalu, Lithuania, Paraguay, China, Luxembourg and Monaco.
The Committee for Elimination of Discrimination against Women would examine the report of Andorra on 4 October, and on 7 October, it would hold a debate on rural women. Further on, report of Cambodia would be discussed on 8 October, report of Tajikistan on 9 October and that of The Seychelles on 10 October.
Mr. Colville announced that on 7 October, OHCHR was holding a special event on racism in sport with the participation of UEFA President Michel Platini. The event would take place as part of the 11th session of the Intergovernmental Working Group on the Effective Implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, and would focus specifically on football and racism. The event was an important one in the continuing engagement with regional sports bodies to encourage them to do more to combat racism in sport. The presidents of all regional football confederations had been invited, and Jeffrey Webb, the President of CONCACAF (The Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) would send a video presentation. Mr. Webb was also the FIFA Vice President and chairperson of the FIFA Task Force Against Racism. The UN Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on Sport for Development and Peace Wilfried Lemke would also participate. The event would be held at Room XXI from 3 p.m. until 6 p.m. and would be open to the public.
Melissa Begag, for the World Trade Organization (WTO), informed about the activities of WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo, who would be visiting New Delhi on 7 October, and attending the WTO General Council on 9 October. On 12 October, Mr. Azevêdo would attend the 2013 Annual Meeting of the Boards of Governors of the IMF and the World Bank Group in Washington, DC.
Ms. Begag further informed that the Working Party on State Trading Enterprises would take place on 7 October; Working Group on Trade, Debt and Finance on 8 October; General Council and Informal Committee on Government Procurement on 9 October; Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights on 10 and 11 October; Sub-Committee on Least-Developed Countries on 10 October; and Working Party on the Accession of Kazakhstan on 11 October.
Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said that the WMO would be issuing its next update on El Niño/La Niña on 7 October. It would be released under embargo until 11:00 a.m.
Mr. Rodriguez announced that the 74th session of the Committee on Housing and Land Management and its Ministerial Meeting would take place in Geneva on 7-9 October. The Ministerial Meeting, which would feature the participation of close to 30 Ministers, would take place from 10 a.m. on 8 October in Room XIX. The Meeting would examine the accomplished progress and the future problems in the field of housing and land management in ECE Member States. The Meeting would also adopt a strategy for sustainable housing and land management for the area of ECE for the period 2014-2020, which would, for the first time, include issues related to the prevention and reduction of the risk of disasters. These would be integrated in ECE’s “Housing country profiles”, and would include specific, country-tailored recommendations.
A press conference on post-disaster housing, on the occasion of the World Habitat Day, would take place on 7 October at 12:45 p.m. close to Door 23, or, in case of rain, in Room III. The media would be addressed by Mr. Alkalaj, Margareta Wahlstrom, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, Sylvain Labbe, Director-General of the Office for Promotion of Wooden Products of Quebec, and Ingrid Lampe, Marketing Manager of Palmako AS.
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The representatives of United Nations Children’s Fund, International Labour Organization, United Nations Conference for Trade and Development, and Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs also attended the briefing, but did not speak.
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The webcast for this briefing is available here: