REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
22 May 2012
Corinne Momal-Vanian, the Director of the UN Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by Spokespersons for the World Health Organization, the UN Environment Programme, the UN Children’s Fund, the International Organization for Migration, the World Food Programme and the UN Refugee Agency.
Food and nutrition crisis in the Sahel region
Elisabeth Byrs of the World Food Programme (WFP) said that the WFP had launched a regional emergency operation alongside UNHCR in response to the specific food needs of hundreds of thousands of people who had fled conflict in Mali and crossed the border into neighbouring countries. There had been a rapid deterioration of conditions in this region and the refugee crisis was worsening, warned Ms. Byrs.
The new WFP regional emergency operation aimed to assist 300,000 internally displaced people and 255,000 refugees this year. UNHCR would serve as WFP’s primary partner in this response, which would cost around USD77 million. Preventing and treating acute malnutrition amongst 3.5 million children and pregnant and nursing mothers was at the core of this Sahel-wide response. WFP’s plans to scale up emergency operations to reach 9.6 million people during the peak of the lean season could be derailed unless sufficient funding is secured to help bridge a shortfall of around USD 360 million, Ms. Byrs underscored.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said that the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos, was currently visiting Burkina Faso and would be in Senegal as of Wednesday 23 May. The aim of the visit was to review the current level of response to the food and nutrition crisis in the Sahel region. During her four-day visit, Ms. Amos was scheduled to meet with Government authorities in both countries to discuss the ongoing response to the food security and nutrition situation. She would also discuss ways to support the efforts of the Burkina Faso and Senegalese Governments to strengthen preparedness and early action, as well as community resilience.
In Burkina Faso, Valerie Amos was visiting Djibo in the north of the country, where she was meeting local authorities and families receiving help in nutrition centres. Communities in Djibo were also hosting refugees from neighbouring Mali. In Senegal, Ms. Amos was scheduled to travel to Diourbel in the west to see how humanitarian programmes were helping to address the immediate food and nutrition needs of affected people.
Marixie Mercado of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said that UNICEF was warning that the instability in northern Mali was raising the health risks for mothers and children. More than half of health facilities had been vandalized, only about a quarter of health professionals were able to come to work, and water supplies were being hit by lack of fuel.
The major risks included increases in vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and polio, unsafe births, and, with the impending rainy season, an increase in the number of cholera cases. Last year, the region had endured one of the largest cholera epidemics in recent years, and in Mali, the north had been hardest hit.
UNICEF had delivered emergency health, water and sanitation supplies to partners in the north. Immediate priorities now were to pre-position more supplies, increase chlorine levels in water, and raise prevention awareness within communities.
It was also important to underline that the instability in the north was happening within a context of an acute malnutrition crisis in Mali and across the region. In Mali alone, there were 560,000 acutely malnourished children, including 175,000 who needed specialized treatment this year. And these numbers could well go up. UNICEF's USD 33 million funding appeal for Mali was about half met, but the organization already knew it would need an extra USD 4 million for cholera alone.
Asked about reports of child recruitment and sexual violence, Ms. Mercado said that the Executive Director of UNICEF had released a statement condemning such outrageous acts that violated international humanitarian law and that could constitute crimes against humanity. UNICEF was working with partners to monitor rights violations, but access remained extremely restricted, said Ms. Mercado.
Jean-Philippe Chauzy of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said that IOM was launching a USD 3.5 million appeal to assist both the persons who were internally displaced in Mali and their host communities, which often faced food insecurity themselves. An estimated 147,000 people were currently displaced in the country, including 45,000 in Mali’s southern regions.
The funding was also essential to provide aid to the tens of thousands of people displaced in the country’s northern zones, Mr. Chauzy added. Access remained limited there, and IOM was working with the Malian Red Cross and local associations to reach the needy. The organization would further attempt to implement a system to monitor population movements and facilitate the appropriate pre-positioning of aid.
The situation was extremely grave, said Mr. Chauzy, adding that IOM and its partners urgently needed further funding to cope with the displacement-related challenges in Mali.
Asked to comment on reports that food distributions had stopped following fighting in Tripoli, northern Lebanon and the Akar region, Mr. Mahecic said that the situation was difficult and tense at the moment. Due to security restrictions, the movement of UNHCR staff was considerably restricted. However, UNHCR was working with partners on the ground to provide assistance where possible.
The Syrian refugees in Tripoli had been affected by tensions and violence there. Some were living in neighbourhoods that currently faced tensions, and UNHCR had heard that a number of refugees had opted to move to other neighbourhoods where they felt safer, with some even considering moving to other towns and villages.
Responding to another question, Ms. Momal-Vanian added that the UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Hervé Ladsous, had arrived in Syria late last week for a four-day visit during which he had met with both Government authorities and members of the opposition. Asked about the purpose of the visit, she indicated that Mr. Ladsous was in Syria to assess progress made on the ground by UN military observers.
Uganda: Surge in Congolese influx as fighting worsens in eastern DRC
Andrej Mahecic of the UN Refugee Agency said that fighting late last week between Congolese government forces and renegade troops had forced a new influx of displaced people into southwest Uganda. According to Ugandan district officials a further 13,000-15,000 people had crossed the border over the past few days.
UNHCR staff, accompanied by government officials handling refugees, had visited the border town of Bunagana on Friday and found some 6,000-7,000 Congolese camping in the area, using local shelter and open space. They came from villages in North Kivu’s Rutshuru territory. Many had already been displaced by earlier clashes in May.
On Friday UNHCR had started to transport people from the border to a transit centre at Nyakabande. It had taken about 1,000 people on Friday and Saturday, while others had made their own way. As of Sunday night, there were about 6,000 at Nyakabande, where capacity was increasingly stretched. On Monday morning, the organisation had moved 1,471 people by convoy to Rwamwanja, and it planned more convoys on Thursday and Sunday, with each one taking 1,000-1,500 people.
The recent fighting had also caused displacement inside North Kivu province, with at least 12,000 people registered as internally displaced in Jomba and Bwesa in Rutshuru territory between 10 and 15 May. Most of the displaced were staying with host families or living in school buildings.
In Rwanda, smaller numbers of Congolese continued to cross and make their way to the overstretched Nkamira transit camp, which currently hosted 9,006 people. 107 people went back to Congo over the weekend and UNHCR was keeping an eye on this trend, said Mr. Mahecic.
Since 27 April, when the current wave of clashes between Congolese armed forces and supporters of former rebel commander Bosco Ntaganda had broken out, tens of thousands of people had been displaced within North Kivu or to Uganda and Rwanda. Ntaganda had joined the armed forces under the 2009 peace deal, but he was sought for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. UNHCR feared further mass displacement unless the rival sides were able to agree on peace.
Amid all this, the UN Refugee Agency had suffered the loss of a cherished colleague, Rocky Makabuza who had been shot by assailants at his home in Goma late on Friday and died later. The motives for his killing had not been established. In a statement yesterday the UN High Commissioner for Refugees had expressed his hope that the matter would be properly investigated and that those responsible would be brought to account.
Boat tragedy off Indian Ocean island of Mayotte
Mr. Mahecic said that more than 20 people were dead or missing after a small motorized boat carrying around 40 people sank on Saturday off the French territory of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean. The boat had set sail from the island of Anjouan in the Comoros Islands. The bodies of two children and a baby were among those that had been found so far. According to the French Ministry of Overseas Territories, 19 people had been rescued and taken to the hospital in the capital of Mayotte, Mamoudzou.
The incident was a further tragic illustration of the dangers faced by people who took desperate measures to escape poverty, conflict and persecution. As in the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Aden, the seas around Mayotte were the scene of irregular movements of migrants and refugees searching for a better life or protection from persecution and war.
For decades, people had been using small open vessels known as “kwassa-kwassa” to sail from the State Union of the Comoros into the more prosperous French territory of Mayotte. Many of these movements took place without the requisite documentation and involved considerable risk to those attempting them. Figures for these irregular movements were not available. Asylum seekers accounted for a small proportion of these movements and their numbers had been increasing in the last two years.
Last year, there had been some 1,200 applications for asylum in Mayotte, 41 per cent more than in 2010. The largest proportion of applicants came from the State Union of the Comoros (90 per cent), with citizens from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Rwanda and Burundi accounting for the rest. Last year some 20,000 people, including failed asylum seekers, had been sent back from Mayotte to the State Union of the Comoros and Madagascar.
UNHCR assisted the local authorities and civil society in France, including its overseas territories, to deal with the challenges posed by mixed flows of irregular migrants and asylum seekers. UNHCR insisted that any border controls and measures must ensure that those who seek protection from persecution and conflict are properly identified and have access to procedures to assess their needs.
Report on radiation doses resulting from the Fukushima power plant incident
Gregory Härtl of the World Health Organization (WHO) said the independent expert group asked to establish the radiation doses resulting from the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident would publish its report tomorrow. (The document would be available from the WHO website.) These findings would feed into further analysis conducted by a second panel of independent experts who would assess the health risks related to these radiation doses. This second report was due this summer.
World Health Assembly
Fadéla Chaib of the World Health Organization (WHO) said that this year the plenary was meeting at the same time as Committee A, which was continuing its discussion of questions related to non-communicable diseases, to be followed by exchanges on early marriage and early pregnancies.
Today’s World Health Assembly programme featured two events that were interesting for journalists - the technical briefing (12.30 p.m. to 2 p.m.) and a side-event on “Building Global Solidarity to Counter the Tobacco Industry’s Attacks” (from 6 p.m. to 7.30 p.m.). The latter event would be opened by WHO Director-General Margaret Chan and be chaired by Oleg Chestnov, Assistant Director-General at WHO. It would include featured speakers such as Jane Halton, Secretary, Department of Health and Ageing of Australia, Richard Nchabi Kamwi, Minister, Ministry of Health and Social Services of Namibia, and Jorge Venegas, the Minister of Public Health of Uruguay.
Ms. Chaib said that at 2.30 p.m. the World Health Assembly plenary would be addressed by Her Royal Highness Lalla Salma, WHO goodwill ambassador and wife of King Mohammed VI of Morocco, as well as by Jonas Gahr Støre, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Norway.
UNICEF report on children living in poverty in the world’s richest countries
Ms. Mercado said that UNICEF was launching the latest Report Card by the office of research in Florence – Measuring Child Poverty in the World’s Rich Countries – at the Press Club Brussels Europe at 10.30 a.m. on 29 May. The report brought together the latest internationally comparable data available in the world’s most advanced economies, examining child poverty and child deprivation in two entirely different ways – the child deprivation index developed by UNICEF, and relative income poverty. Taken together, these two measures offered the best currently available picture of deprivation and poverty among children across the world’s wealthiest countries.
Report Card 10 compared and ranked country performances, showing that some countries were doing much better at tackling child deprivation, arguing that it is possible to address poverty within the current fiscal environment, and that failing to protect children from today’s economic crisis is one of the most costly mistakes a country can make.
The report and the press release at the back of the room were under embargo until 8.30 a.m. GMT on 29 May.
Isabelle Valentiny of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said a UNEP workshop which was part of the programme “Territorial Approach to Climate Change” was opening today in Ukraine in order to sensitize and train local authorities in climate change. More information would follow this afternoon.
Also today, a meeting was being held in Montreux, Switzerland, on an initiative aimed at strengthening the links between the numerous multilateral environment agreements. A press release would be issued later today.
On Friday UNEP would publish the Russian version of the Green Economy Report at a Forum organised by UNDP, UNEP and the Russian Institute for Sustainable Development. Further information would follow.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said that the Conference on Disarmament was holding a public meeting this morning to examine a proposed schedule for the public meetings it would hold during its 2012 session. If the schedule was adopted, the Conference would hear from delegations on questions related to nuclear disarmament as early as this morning.
The Committee against Torture had this morning started to examine the report of Cuba. This afternoon Canada would reply to the questions posed yesterday by Committee Members, and tomorrow Cuba would tomorrow answer the questions asked this morning. The remainder of the session, until 1 June, primarily consisted of private meetings.
Mr. Hartl announced that there would be a press conference on the launch of the Global Polio Eradication Emergency Action Plan on 24 May at 12.30 p.m. in Room III. The focus would be on the emergency efforts that countries and partners were making to complete the eradication of polio. Participants in the press conference included the WHO Assistant Director-General Bruce Aylward and representatives of Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.