REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
25 July 2014
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was also attended by Spokespersons for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, United Nations Children’s Fund, United Nations Refugee Agency, World Food Programme, World Health Organization and the International Organization for Migration.
The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was still in the Middle East region, Ms. Momal-Vanian said. He was currently in Cairo, where he met yesterday with Secretary of State John Kerry. The Secretary-General would probably meet again with Secretary of State Kerry and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Egypt today. It was likely that he would depart Cairo today to return to New York, said Ms. Momal-Vanian, however she noted that the Secretary-General’s programme could change at any time given the very fluid situation in the region.
The Secretary-General this morning spoke by video link to staff at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to thank them for their admirable and courageous work and express his solidarity with them, Ms. Momal-Vanian informed the press, adding that during the conversation a young staff member told the Secretary-General that there was currently no safe place in Gaza.
Ms. Momal-Vanian also noted that UNRWA figures as of 24 July showed the number of displaced people in Gaza was now nearly triple the peak number from the 2008 to 2009 conflict, and exceeded 141,000 in 83 schools.
Paul Garwood, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said the WHO was calling for the creation of a humanitarian corridor to help evacuate the large number of injured people from Gaza. The local WHO office had been discussing the creation of a humanitarian corridor, to reach various crossings, with the Israeli authorities over the last few days, and Mr. Garwood understood the consultations were being held with the Egyptian authorities as well.
Providing the latest injury figures, Mr. Garwood said that overall, between 6 and 24 July, 5,118 people had been injured in the conflict inside Gaza. That figure included 1,561 children, 1,700 women and 203 elderly people.
On the casualties, he said at least 788 people had been killed so far, which included 185 children and 93 women. The figures came from the Palestinian Ministry of Health on the ground and were verified by the WHO in the field, Mr. Garwood said.
The daily increase in the number of casualties was striking, and underscored the health situation, he said, recalling that by 15 July there were 91 casualties, by the next day the figure was 189, and more recently, by 22 July there were 489 casualties, by 23 July there were 526 and by 24 July the number of casualties was 599. People needed to be evacuated given the huge strains on the medical facilities in Gaza.
The attacks on health facilities and the impact on staff and patients underscored the need for health facilities, patients and staff to be protected – a requirement under international humanitarian law.
Mr. Garwood briefed on the funding gap for the health sector, saying that US$60 million had been requested. US$40 million of that was for health supplies and US$20 million to cover the health costs of patients referred to other health facilities. Of that US$60 million six per cent had been funded so far.
The World Health Organization statement and situation report (covering 23 July) were available at the back of the room, noted Mr. Garwood.
Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said on 24 July WFP reached over 160,000 conflict affected people in Gaza with emergency food assistance. That was an increase of 50,000 people in just two days. The distribution was in addition to the 285,000 people WFP reached regularly with food assistance.
The emergency relief included: emergency ready-to-eat food for 140,469 displaced people in Gaza who had taken refuge in UNRWA schools used as shelters and to 10,000 people who were sheltered in public school buildings. It also included emergency electronic food vouchers to 1,318 displaced families – approximately 7,908 people – who were living with host families. Further, a total of 2,039 patients and staff in hospitals continued to be assisted with emergency food rations.
Additional wheat flour, canned meat, milk and canned beans were currently being procured and were expected to arrive by the end of the week and early next week. To meet the increasing needs for fresh bread, WFP was in the process of contracting an additional fourth bakery in Gaza to cover the needs for the emergency distributions.
Regarding funding, Ms. Byrs said WFP urgently needed approximately US$10 million to reach conflict-affected people in Gaza. The latest WFP distribution report would be sent to the media this morning.
Questions on Gaza Emergency
Chris Tidey, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), answered a question about the reported targeting of children in Gaza. His latest update, which covered until 9.30 a.m. on 25 July, showed a further 10 Palestinian children had been killed in Gaza in the last 24 hours. Mr. Boulierac said he could not comment on targeting of children, and that UNICEF’s understanding was that the deaths were a result of injuries caused by the ongoing violence and shelling.
A journalist asked what the purpose and duration of a humanitarian corridor would be. Mr. Garwood responded that WHO staff in Gaza were communicating with the Israeli authorities daily about the possibility of enabling the wounded to leave Gaza, but the public call for a humanitarian corridor only came out yesterday focussing on the health needs, on getting people evacuated who had medical needs. Whether the corridor would be permanent or not, Mr. Garwood said no timeframe had been set, the corridor was needed urgently. As long as the need persisted there should be ability to gain access.
A journalist asked whether the request for a humanitarian corridor was solely a WHO initiative, and whether all United Nations humanitarian agencies were working together on it. Mr. Garwood responded that the term ‘humanitarian corridor’ was being used in lots of contexts, and for WHO it was the term it was using to gain access for healthcare reasons.
Ms. Momal-Vanian responded that all United Nations agencies, under the leadership of the Secretary-General, who was currently in the region, were asking very strongly for all parties to stop the violence and to provide access for humanitarian aid, and any help people needed, health-wise or other.
Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), agreed that it was a very fluid and confusing situation. The United Nations humanitarian system was calling for humanitarian pauses. Of course everybody was calling for an immediate ceasefire, and had been doing that for some time. People were dying at a very alarming rate. Localised ceasefires were called for, where wounded people could be evacuated, and accessed with healthcare and other sort of relief. Those who were wounded needed care, and needed to get out.
A journalist asked about the response from the Israeli and Egyptian authorities in response to the WHO request for a humanitarian corridor? Were WHO Director-General Dr. Chan or Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon making direct calls with the request? He also asked how many people had died through lack of access through border points, for example in ambulances that needed to cross Israel to get to Jordan.
Mr. Garwood responded that he was unaware of any responses so far to the call for a humanitarian corridor. It was difficult to say how many people had died as a result of lack of access across border crossing, but the situation report showed that a very, very small number were even making it to border crossings, let alone getting through.
A journalist asked about the reported targeting of medical facilities in Gaza, and whether WHO knew how many ambulances, hospitals and medical facilities had been destroyed and how many were viable. Mr. Garwood replied that he was unaware of targeting of health facilities, but as they were located within the conflict zone they had been impacted by it. He confirmed that four hospitals out of 20 had been damaged and two had been closed, 12 Ministry of Health/UNRWA clinics been damaged, and 20 out of 75 Ministry of Health UNRWA clinics had been closed. The facilities were suffering from shortage of supplies, such as bandages and gauze, and had great need of other similar materials. Medical supplies were getting into Gaza when possible, he said, confirming that a shipment of medical equipment, at a value of US$1.4 million to treat more than 400 to 500 people, was due to be shipped into Gaza today, from Amman. But just yesterday nearly 600 people were injured - the needs were huge and WHO would continue to advocate for more support.
A journalist recalled that last week an UNRWA spokesperson said the United Nations had given the GPS code of hospitals and schools in Gaza to the Israelis, and asked if it could be said Israel was targeting hospitals and schools intentionally.
In the case of the UNRWA school hit yesterday, the UN could only say that UNRWA had confirmed it had provided the Israelis with the coordinates for that school, as it had for others, responded Ms. Momal-Vanian.
A journalist asked whether UNRWA facilities were still considered safe for the people of Gaza.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said everything was relative in terms of safety. UNRWA, in a statement issued by its Commissioner-General yesterday, confirmed that the school hit yesterday had been designated as an emergency shelter and its coordinates had been formally conveyed to the Israeli authorities. He also noted that it was the fourth time in the past four days that an UNRWA school had been struck by explosive projectiles.
Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said WFP was concerned about the possibility of famine in South Sudan and had been working actively with UNICEF in order to avoid a catastrophe.
Since the very start of the conflict, WFP had said that it needed two things to stave off a disaster – humanitarian access to the people in need and the financial resources to reach them with assistance. But WFP had not had enough of either. WFP was urgently requesting both more funds and more access in order to continue its operations, as WFP and its partners need to provide sustained assistance to avert a hunger catastrophe.
The Chiefs of UNICEF and WFP were on the ground in South Sudan, visiting the camps in Malakal in order to draw attention to this risk of hunger catastrophe in the region. WFP knew from previous experiences – in South Sudan, Somalia and elsewhere - that if the world waited to respond until famine was declared, then it would be too late.
Despite donors responding, WFP faced a funding shortage that would make it next to impossible to carry out its operations through the coming months without an immediate influx of US$143 million to keep food assistance flowing until the end of August.
In concluding remarks, Ms. Byrs emphasized the gravity of the crisis, which too often tended to be forgotten given the multiplication of crisis around the world at this time. The situation in South Sudan was on a dramatic path, but the risk of starvation could be avoided if WFP received the resources and access it needed.
Ms. Momal-Vanian also referred journalists to statements made to the press in New York yesterday by John Ging, Operations Director for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in which he described the situation in South Sudan as a “mega crisis” and said “we are on a trajectory to a real catastrophe because of the huge internal displacement in South Sudan”.
Ebola in West Africa
Paul Garwood, for the World Health Organization (WHO), gave an update on Ebola in West Africa. He said WHO and partners on the ground continued to work closely with local authorities to try to contain the spread of the disease and treat people affected by the outbreak. The latest disease outbreak news report, as of 24 July, showed there were 660 recorded deaths and 1093 cases reported. He noted that that was more a trend than an overall picture, giving a sense of the challenges on the ground.
WHO was providing additional support to hospitals and clinics, but many of those facilities simply did not have enough staff to provide the levels of care needed. WHO also worked closely with partners, particularly Médecins Sans Frontières, to control the outbreak on the ground.
Regarding personnel on the ground, there were currently 126 people deployed to West Africa from the World Health Organization and the related network, said Mr. Garwood. They included 58 staff in Guinea, 28 in Liberia and 44 in Sierra Leone.
A journalist asked about a reported case of a Liberian man in Nigeria. Mr. Garwood said WHO understood from the Ministry of Health of Nigeria that the man had arrived into Lagos by plane. He initially departed on the plane with no symptoms, but reported symptoms of vomiting upon arrival. He made it known that he felt unwell. The Nigerian health authorities took him, and he was currently being cared for in isolation. There was no laboratory confirmation that he had Ebola as of yet, said Mr. Garwood.
Migrants crossing the Mediterranean
Chris Lom, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said many would have seen the statement issued by the United Nations Refugee Agency yesterday on the situation of migrants voyaging from Libya across the Mediterranean to Italy, and how many were dying at sea in horrible circumstances. Although the statistics were useful, IOM felt it was also helpful to look at the bigger picture of the humanitarian crisis represented by those very large numbers of people trying to reach Europe and dying within the process. There were a lot of very strong reasons why countries of destination, transit and sending countries all needed to act together to find some sort of resolution to the problem, said Mr. Lom.
Mr. Lom introduced his colleague Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesperson for IOM Rome, who had interviewed survivors of the horrific incident reported last week in which 569 migrants were rescued from a boat voyaging from Libya to Italy, on which IOM believed as many as 180 migrants may have died.
Flavio Di Giacomo, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said he came to Geneva last night from Sicily, where he had interviewed some of the survivors of last week’s boat tragedy who had come from sub-Saharan Africa. They were people who were fleeing wars, religious persecution and collapsing economies; people who were trying to seek a better life, with dignity, he said.
Mr. Di Giacomo said the testimony of the people he had spoken with was moving, because they recalled how they had escaped their own countries and come to Libya. Huge numbers of people traffickers, or smugglers, worked in the harbour of Libyan city Zwara, reported Mr. Di Giacomo, and migrants were often tricked by the smugglers’ mediators into paying for passage to Italy. The cost of the passage varied depending upon the nationality of the migrant. It could be around €500 to €700 for a sub-Saharan African, and around €1,500 for other nationalities. The migrants were gathered in collection centres in Zwara where they had to wait for days or even weeks before the smugglers organized their departure.
Once the boat was ready to depart, the African migrants told Mr. Di Giacomo that they were forced to sit in the hold of the boat, close to the engine, which was a very dangerous and painful position because there was extreme heat and little air. They had no choice, many said once they had paid, there was no way back. The migrants were forced into the hold at knifepoint and not given life jackets, although some migrants of other nationalities were, Mr. Di Giacomo said.
The smugglers did not travel with the migrants, the boats were driven by the migrants themselves, Mr. Di Giacomo explained. A migrant would be asked to drive the boat, and given free passage, a GPS and a satellite phone, and pointed in the direction of Italy. Nationalities were segregated into two different areas, the hold and the two upper decks. The sub-Saharan African migrants had to travel in the hold, and the other nationalities were allowed to travel on deck; they included Syrians, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Moroccan and other nationalities.
After a few hours the migrants traveling in the hold were suffering badly, they were sick from the fumes of the engine, but they were prevented from coming out of the hold for fresh air by the migrants traveling on the upper decks – it became a real battle of survival, said Mr. Di Giacomo. Many migrants were stabbed or kicked during their attempts, and some were thrown into the sea during clashes between the different ethnic groups. Many of the survivors had knife wounds which substantiated their accounts. Other migrants died from asphyxiation. Further, some migrants died by falling into the sea during the rescue operation. The boat initially had 750 people but had only 569 on board when it arrived into Italy.
The same thing had happened a couple of weeks ago, in a similar situation, said Mr. di Giacomo, noting that the smugglers were characterized by their very racist behaviour towards people coming from sub-Saharan Africa. They were subject to violence and threats while they were in Libya and whilst on the boat. Their lives were considered less valuable by the smugglers.
Responding to a question about the origin of the migrants, Mr. Di Giacomo said when he visited Italian reception centres [in Sicily] he found mainly African migrants and some Asian migrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh. According to reports, there had been 200 African migrants on the boat concerned, from Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire and Gambia. They were very young people – between 18 and 24 years of age – who were seeking a better life, first in Libya, and then in Europe. They had many stories of fleeing violence in their home countries. For instance some Nigerians said they were fleeing from Boko Haram and others had fled the violence in Mali a year ago.
It was tragic that many of the survivors were not aware that their brothers or friends were missing, and that IOM had to break the news that they were probably missing at sea and presumed dead. They had been sent like lambs to the slaughter and they were traumatized, said Mr. Di Giacomo. It was a terrible story of racism, suffering and pain.
Mr. Di Giacomo spoke about the money paid for the trip by the migrants, and how the smugglers would have earned approximately half a million Euros [€500,000] for just that one boat. The migrants were young people who never imagined they would find themselves in such a terrible situation, amid all the pain, blood and death.
Replying to another question, Mr. Di Giacomo said he had spoken personally with around 25 migrants, all who had presented asylum requests which were being processed by the Italian Government. Next they would be moved to another Italian reception centre where they would be given clothes and phone cards to call their families.
Dan McNorton, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), answered a question on refugees and displaced persons in Ukraine. He said as of 18 July the figure was 95,473 internally displaced people in Ukraine, as per the Ukrainian authorities.
Regarding the numbers of refugees from Ukraine, Mr. McNorton said the 18 July figure, from the Russian authorities, was around 130,000 people. He noted that they were not all applying for refugee status, the people often applied for some other form of entry or status.
The internally displaced people were mainly people moving from the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, and their numbers had risen in recent weeks. As reported before, a variety of security concerns and other reasons had prompted people to decide to leave their homes.
The United Nations Refugee Agency did not have a physical permanent presence in Ukraine but it did have a number of missions on both sides of the border, Mr. McNorton added.
Central African Republic
Myriam Dessables, Chief of Public Information, United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), took the floor to introduce herself as the new contact for the new Central African Republic assistance mission. Ms. Dessables said she would be moving there soon, and would be in touch with her new contact details.
Ms. Momal-Vanian informed that the Human Rights Committee would conclude its session today after adopting its concluding observations and recommendations on the reports reviewed this session; Chile, Georgia, Ireland, Japan, Malawi and Sudan. A round-up press release would be issued this afternoon.
The Conference on Disarmament would start the third and last part of its 2014 session on Monday 28 July, concluding on 12 September. The first plenary would be held at 10 a.m. on Thursday 31 July, Ms. Momal-Vanian announced.
The Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) would launch a new report on the human rights situation in Ukraine at a press conference on Monday 28 July. The press conference would take place at 10 a.m. in Press Room III. Gianni Magazzeni, Chief of the Americas, Europe, and Central Asia Branch, would be speaking.
Correspondents should note that next week, Tuesday, 29 July and Friday, 1 August, are holidays, Ms. Momal-Vanian said, and the Palais des Nations will therefore be closed, so there will be no regular press briefing on those days, although one could be held on another day if it was deemed necessary.
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The spokesperson for the International Labour Organization also attended the briefing but did not speak.
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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/1xbqfkI