REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
10 December 2013
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by Spokespersons for the United Nations Refugee Agency, the United Nations Children’s Fund, World Food Programme, Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs, International Organization for Migration, International Labour Organization, United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, World Economic Forum and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Central African Republic
Adrian Edwards for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said over 100,000 people were now displaced in Bangui due to fear of sectarian and armed attacks in the wake of heavy fighting between ex-Seleka rebels and self-defence forces on Thursday 5 December in the capital of the Central African Republic. That brought the total number of people displaced within Central African Republic to more than half a million since the crisis began in December 2012.
As of late Monday 9 December, an estimated 108,000 people were staying in 30 locations across Bangui where they felt safer than at home. The sites were mainly churches, mosques, public buildings and the airport. In addition, an unknown number of people had also moved to the mostly Muslim neighbourhood called Kilometre 5, in the northwest of Bangui, from their homes in other parts of the city to stay with relatives or friends whose houses they felt to be more secure. Mr. Edwards said that it was difficult to estimate their numbers because they had not regrouped in sites but were scattered.
Living conditions at the sites for internally displaced persons were appalling, particularly at the airport, because people there were sleeping in the open and it was raining. Many of the displaced returned home during the day but because they feared nightly attacks by armed groups they returned to the sites before the 6.00 p.m. curfew. Mr. Edwards emphasized that the situation remained volatile in Bangui. Armed clashes and sporadic gunfire were reported yesterday afternoon until 2.00 a.m. today.
Displaced people that UNHCR staff spoke to in Bangui said that they were hoping to see disarmament took place in their neighbourhoods to be able to return to their homes. They said that they planned to leave the sites as soon as ex-Seleka and anti-Balaka militiamen in their areas were disarmed and security restored. Meanwhile, there had not been any further movement of people from Bangui to Zongo, across the Oubangui River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, due to the border closure by Central African Republic authorities. Mr. Edwards informed that on Thursday 5 December, before the border had been closed, some 800 people Central African Republic citizens had managed to cross.
Jean Yves Clemenzo, for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that although there was relative calm this morning in Bangui, the situation remained very tense, according to his colleagues on the field. There were very few private cars in the streets and very little economic activity in Bangui. ICRC’s main priority was health, as only two hospitals were functioning and they lacked medical staff. Health infrastructure and the medical staff needed to be respected. In the provinces, the situation also remained tense and the population continued to live in fear.
Since Saturday 7 December, ICRC had distributed food to 27,000 displaced people, mainly on the site next to the airport in Bangui. ICRC yesterday began, with assistance from Red Cross volunteers, to bury dead bodies. At least one hundred people were buried yesterday in Bangui. ICRC was also working to improve water sanitation and build toilets. An information report would be published today on what had been done in Central African Republic since last Saturday.
Answering a question on whether the ICRC was had any contact with prisoners in the Central African Republic, Mr. Clemenzo said the ICRC had not had access to any information on potential prisoners yet, and therefore it was very difficult to take measures. However, ICRC had delivered food assistance to one of Bangui’s prisons. ICRC repeated its request to all parties to grant it access to all prisoners. Over the last few days the situation had been further complicated by security issues and ICRC could not work as it wanted.
Marixie Mercado, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said that UNICEF would bring medicine and emergency supplies to around a 108,000 people displaced in about 20 sites across Bangui and to the two main hospitals that were also treating the injured. That figure of 108,000 had been reached this morning. Up to 60,000 people had been displaced inside Bangui in the last two days. As of two days ago the two main hospitals had identified at least four children killed and 29 injured with machete and bullet wounds. Ms. Mercado said those figures were extremely preliminary and UNICEF assessment teams had seen additional numerous injured children at the displacement places across the capital and were bringing them to the hospital for treatment whenever possible.
Surgical teams and trauma specialists were urgently needed along with more medicine supplies and fuel. In Bossangoa where UNICEF continued to provide safe water and emergency supplies the number of displaced had swollen in recent days, as had the reported population of internally displaced persons in other parts of the country. UNICEF was working with partners to reach children and families with emergency assistance where security access permitted, but it was known that tens of thousands of children and families had been hiding in the bush, totally beyond reach, for months.
UNICEF repeated its appeal to leaders of all armed groups to stop attacks on civilians to protect hospitals and displacement camps and to provide the space needed for humanitarian workers to reach people with critical assistance. It also urgently appealed to the international community for funding, as it had only received half of the US$32 million asked for.
Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said that according to the latest information received this morning, the situation was tense and volatile. People were constantly moving, so it was difficult to have accurate figures.
Despite security constraints World Food Programme had continued its food distributions. In Bossangoa, WFP provided 30 tons of food in three locations to 2,000 people, although WFP staff were forced to suspend their activities for two days while they hid. Now they were continuing food distribution. Already this year, WFP has reached 35,000 displaced persons in the Bossangoa area. WFP provided food assistance to more than 19,000 people in Bangui during the first three days.
Christiane Berthiaume, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM)
confirmed that the situation in the Central African Republic was very dangerous, disastrous and volatile. The local team said access was difficult and the lack of resources was significant. The estimated 60,000 displaced persons were crammed into spontaneous settlements in churches, mosques and at the international airport. The settlements grew much bigger at nights because people were scared. In those places IOM found injured people who needed medical assistance and non-accompanied children, in some cases orphaned by the fighting.
The situation really was a disaster for those people who needed every thing: protection, access to shelter, sanitation, health and food. IOM needed funding to react as fast as it could, and was asking for an initial sum of US$8 million.
Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) answered a question from a journalist about the total sum needed by all United Nations agencies. He said that the consolidated appeal launched earlier in the year had asked for US$195 million. It was currently 45 per cent funded. That appeal did not take into account the latest displacement and humanitarian consequences, he added.
Adrian Edwards for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said that in Syria, and since the start of 2013, UNHCR had brought relief supplies to more than three million people, including internally displaced people and other vulnerable individuals. Although the Syrian crisis had passed the 1,000 day mark, the amount of aid UNHCR was able to deliver was still nowhere near enough.
UNHCR’s assistance had reached all of Syria’s 14 governorates, and each week saw a further approximately 250 trucks dispatched. Mr. Edwards announced that UNHCR had participated in more than 40 inter-agency cross-line missions into conflict zones. Over 35 per cent of UNHCR assistance had been to displaced persons in hard-to-reach or “hot spot” areas.
Aid deliveries were managed by UNHCR with the support of local partners. Recent supply efforts focused on helping civilian populations in Aleppo and Rural Damascus, the two governorates hosting the majority of internally displaced persons. Aid had also been delivered to Idlib province, which was one of the most difficult areas to reach, and Hama province, where security had previously prevented UNHCR from delivering any assistance between May and the end of November.
Mr. Edwards said UNHCR had a presence in most governorates in Syria and had 370 staff on the ground. UNHCR aid supported families in looking after their own daily needs and typically included blankets, mattresses, sleeping mats, diapers, sanitary napkins, plastic sheeting, jerry cans, kitchen sets and hygiene kits. So far in 2013, UNHCR had procured, stored, transported and delivered over 7.3 million separate relief items, working with selected local non-governmental organization partners and the Syrian Red Crescent (SARC).
Despite the scale of the efforts over the past months, the needs remained immense, Mr. Edwards said, and insecurity routinely prevented access to many areas. With an estimated 6.5 million people now internally displaced and many more in need of help, UNHCR had been working to provide additional support including healthcare (971,000 beneficiaries), legal protection and community services (155,000 beneficiaries), shelter rehabilitation (70 shelters) and financial assistance for the most vulnerable (175,000 beneficiaries). UNHCR had also been involved in the inter-agency effort led by WHO and UNICEF to vaccinate children against polio. Vaccines for 538,000 children were recently airlifted to Al Hassakeh and other hard-to-reach locations in north-eastern Syria.
Mr. Edwards introduced his colleague Mr. Amin Awad, UNHCR’s Syria Refugee Response Coordinator and Director of the Middle East and North Africa Bureau which was leading UNHCR’s Syria response.
Mr. Awad said that everything that Mr. Edwards had said also applied to several of the surrounding countries. This winter was forecast to be one of the harshest in one hundred years, meteorologists were saying, and so UNHCR had started its winter programme earlier this year. ‘Winterization kits’ had been distributed in Syria and surrounding countries. Insulation for tents, plastic sheeting, water-proofing and cash for fuel schemes had been implemented.
UNHCR was ahead of the schedule in many areas, on schedule in some areas, and behind schedule in areas where it did not have access, Mr. Awad said. One of the most difficult areas to reach was Ashaka, Kamblishi in the north and northeast of Syria, where colleagues on the Iraqi side, with the permission of the Syrian government and the cooperation of the Iraqi government, were working on an airlift of winter supplies from Erbil in the Iraqi Kurdistan to north and north-eastern Syria. The price tag for the ‘winterisation programme’ was US$195 million dollars of which US$77 million dollars would be earmarked for inside Syria.
Mr. Awad informed that there were existing challenges in neighbouring countries also. In Lebanon, a snow storm was forecast for the highest areas of the country. The Ministry Of Social Affairs had put out an alert, and the Government had mobilised the military to help in distributing relief items. Other challenges UNHCR faced including the shift of populations from refugee camps to host communities. UNHCR provided community-based support at three levels, for displaced communities, for local governments and for host communities.
Answering a question on access inside Syria given by the authorities, Mr. Awad said UNHCR now had more access than before, but sometimes even when access was authorized areas were not accessible due to fighting or other security incidents. UNHCR staff had been shot at, harassed at checkpoints, experienced checkpoints moving, or a change in the personnel controlling checkpoints. UNHCR had to negotiate in every step of the way as UNHCR delivered and went across lines. Furthermore, UNHCR did not only depend on the Government but also on the collective goodwill, political awareness,
support and orientation of the armed groups controlling diverse areas in Syria today.
In response to a question on the number of planned flights involved in the airlift, Mr. Awad said that it would involve seven flights over the next few days, with the possibility of more in the near future.
A journalist asked Corinne Momal-Vanian whether the Geneva II conference scheduled for 22 January 2014 would take place in Montreux rather than at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. Ms. Momal-Vanian replied it probably would and an announcement was expected shortly. Although wherever the ministerial conference took place it would only be the launch of the process, which would in any case be very Geneva-centred.
Christiane Berthiaume, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said that Lebanese who had fled the conflict in Syria faced conditions that were broadly similar to those of Syrian refugees, as most came back to Lebanon without their belongings, were unemployed and were either renting accommodation or being hosted by Lebanese families, while some lived in collective centres and tents. These were the findings in a new joint IOM and Lebanese High Relief Commission (HCR) report titled “The situation and Needs of Lebanese Returnees from Syria” which would be officially launched on Wednesday 11 December in Beirut. Approximately 17,510 Lebanese individuals were registered across the country, but until now there had been very little information about them as they weren’t considered to be refugees.
Lebanese families, most of who had been in Syria for decades, had joined the flow of refugees entering Lebanon from 2011 onwards, Ms. Berthiaume explained. IOM had to recognize that the impact of million or Lebanese refugees - Lebanon was a country of only 4.2 million people - had a great impact. The majority came from the Syrian province of Homs and settled in parts of North Lebanon and the Bekka valley where the opportunities of work were scarce and public services were overstretched due to an already huge presence of refugees. IOM hoped that the report would give more attention to that section of the Lebanese population.
Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that United Nations and non-governmental organization humanitarian partners would today present a new appeal – or strategic response plan – to respond to the needs of people affected by the Haiyan typhoon. It was an update of the initial appeal that was launched on 12 of November, increasing the sum asked for from US$348 million to US$791 million, with a 12 month timeline.
Mr. Laerke updated journalists on OCHA’s response in the Philippines, where over 4.1 million people had received food assistance in the affected areas and 245 thousand shelter solutions had been distributed to people affected, who were also being helped to rebuild damaged and destroyed houses. Furthermore thousands of families had received aid in terms of non-food items and other interventions.
Answering a question from a journalist about why the initial budget had been doubled, Mr. Laerke replied it was because the original plan had a timeline of six months and the new plan has a timeline of 12 months. He explained that the original plan provided for urgent life saving assistance within a relatively short timeline, but now they were looking at longer term projects for rehabilitation and reconstruction. He added that the US$791 million dollar appeal was 25 per cent funded.
Adrian Edwards for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) announced that UNHCR had released new guidelines on dealing with claims for asylum by people seeking to avoid recruitment by state armed services and non-state armed groups. Mr. Edwards said that the updated guidelines provided advice to governments, legal practitioners and other bodies when considering claims to refugee status in accordance with the 1951 Refugee Convention. UNHCR hoped those policy guidelines would facilitate a consistent and principled approach to the adjudication of such cases by all states.
UNHCR recognized that all countries had a right to self-defence under both the UN charter and customary international law, and that States could require their citizens to perform military services. However, Mr. Edwards said that right was not absolute.
UNHCR’s recommendations were that a claim for international protection – i.e. refugee status – should be considered in the following five situations: first, where there was a punishment that amounted to persecution for objecting to military service for reasons of conscience; second, if a person had objected to military acts that violated standards prescribed by international law; third if a person objected to State military service in which the conditions amounted to torture or other cruel or inhumane treatment; fourth if a person was fleeing forced recruitment by a non-State group and where a State was unable to protect a person against such recruitment; and fifth, cases involving unlawful recruitment of children into military service or being forced into hostilities.
Mr. Edwards explained that UNHCR had issued these new guidelines in view of a number of changes in the practices of States and several restrictions placed on military service by international law.
WEF Energy architecture report
Desirée Mohindra, Associate Director of the World Economic Forum (WEF), announced the launch of the New Global Energy Architecture Performance Index Report 2014, which was under an embargo until 8.00 a.m. on Wednesday 11 December. The report was designed to help countries spur their efforts to meet energy challenges and opportunities in innovative ways, the Index assessed regions and 124 countries according to economic growth, environmental sustainability and energy security performance, analysing the complex trade-offs and dependencies that affected country efforts.
Jean Rodriguez for the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) said UNECE congratulated the World Trade Organization on its new Trade Facilitation Agreement signed in Bali at the weekend and said UNECE Executive Secretary Sven Alkalaj had today confirmed that the UNECE would provide its full support to countries to help them implement the agreed measures, especially the Trade Facilitation Implementation Guide, which UNECE launched at the WTO earlier this year. The Trade Facilitation Implementation Guide was a web-based interactive tool, a one-stop shop where policy-makers implementers could find the most essential trade facilitation information. The guide was available in English, French, Spanish and Russian and was currently being translated into Arabic.
Mr. Rodriguez said that the UNECE had held tens of regional conferences and training workshops this year to explain the main features of the guide to public authorities and trade actors in different regions, including in the Balkans, Asia and Latin America. UNECE had also contributed to the realisation of a trade facilitation strategy for Greece, which was realised by a European Union-mandated task force. It was adopted by the Greek authorities by the end of 2012 and was available online.
Over the next two years the UNECE would hold seminars with the Network of Experts for Paperless Trade (UNEXT), with the cooperation of regional commissions. More details were in the press release.
Hans von Rohland for the International Labour Organization (ILO) announced a new version of the International Labour Organization's KILM (Key Indicators of the Labour Market) biennial report, noting that it was under embargo until midnight today Geneva time. The eighth edition of the KILM - an online reference tool offering data and analysis on the world's labour market - included information about the dynamics of job losses and job creation in 70 developed and emerging economies.
Ms. Momal Vanian announced that the specialized cancer research agency of the World Health Organization, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) will hold a press conference to launch the new online cancer database, GLOBOCAN 2012, on Thursday, 12 December at 10.30 a.m. in Press Room III.
Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) announced a press conference for 11.45 a.m. on Monday 16 December at which the OCHA Humanitarian Strategies and Requirements 2014, previously known as the Consolidation Appeal Proccess (CAP), would be launched. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos would be speaking, in addition to other panellists, details of whom would be confirmed later this week.
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The representative of the World Health Organization also attended the briefing but did not speak.
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The webcast for this briefing is available here: webtv.un.org/media