REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
7 January 2014
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was also attended by the Spokespersons for United Nations Children’s Fund, United Nations Refugee Agency, International Organization for Migration, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the International Telecommunications Union.
Melissa Fleming, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that UNHCR was noticing an increasing trend of people fleeing from South Sudan to neighbouring countries. Some 20,000 refugees had already crossed into Uganda, and were still crossing at a daily rate of 2,500 people.
UNCHR was grateful to the Government of Uganda for recognizing all of them, as a group, as refugees. UNCHR and the partners were struggling to provide enough water and adequate sanitation at meeting points on the border and at reception centres. UNHCR operations in Uganda had to be stepped up.
Smaller, but growing numbers of South Sudanese refugees were also fleeing to other neighbouring countries: more than 5,000 refugees had been registered in Ethiopia, although their number was likely higher as the remote border area was challenging to access. In Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, there were as many as 300 South Sudanese arriving daily.
Ms. Fleming said that there was also many national of neighbouring states, who had been residing in South Sudan and were now also fleeing back, numbers of whom were somewhat harder to establish. The situation in South Sudan continued to be very unstable with thousands displaced sheltering in UN compounds across the country, and UNCHR was stepping up its efforts to provide them with cooking pots and other kitchen equipment, blankets and other necessities.
UNHCR was continuing to supply services to some 250,000 existing refugees in refugees camps in the north of the country, which UNHCR was trying to maintain.
Christiane Berthiaume, for the International Organization on Migration (IOM), said that IOM had been expanding its assistance to people displaced by the ongoing conflict in South Sudan and had issued an appeal to the international community for further support. IOM Director General William Lacy Swing had arrived in Juba on 5 January.
The crisis had forced nearly 200,000 people to flee their homes. An estimated 62,000 people had sought shelter and protection in UN peacekeeping bases and 100,000 others had gone elsewhere. The figure of raped and dead people was unknown, but it was surely significant. Shelter, non-food items, food, healthcare, water, sanitation and hygiene services were urgently needed. IOM had been leading the registration of displaced persons in UN bases in Juba to distribute adequate shelter and essential household items, including plastic sheets, blankets, sleeping mats and cooking kits, which were vital for improving the living conditions of those displaced by the current crisis.
Ms. Berthiaume said that the economic situation of the country was deplorable, as many shops had been destroyed, and there was hardly any trade ongoing. South Sudan was a poor country to which two million people had returned following the end of the war in 2007. For many decades, that country had survived thanks to the humanitarian aid.
IOM had issued an appeal to the international community to provide a total of USD 23.2 million in support of the organization's humanitarian response to the South Sudan crisis.
Patrick McMormick, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that UNICEF, UNHCR, Save the Children, World Vision and other partners had called for governments, aid agencies and members of the public to become champions for the children of Syria and support the “No Lost Generation” strategy, which aimed to provide those affected by the conflict with the chance to shape a more stable and secure future.
Through the USD 1 billion strategy, the organizations were focusing donor and public support on critical education and protection programs to lift Syrian children out of misery, isolation and trauma. The strategy was being publically unveiled one week ahead of a major donor conference in Kuwait for humanitarian aid for Syria.
Mr. McMormick emphasized that more than one million Syrian refugees were children, of whom more than 425,000 were under the age of five. The vast majority of those refugees had fled either to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq. Among them, nearly, 5,000 children had been identified as being separated from their families. The situation for the over three million displaced children inside Syria was even more dire.
Ms. Berthiaume announced that some Syrian refugees were leaving Beirut for temporary resettlement in Germany. On 7 January, IOM had organized the fifth charter flight from Beirut to Kassel in Germany for 160 vulnerable Syrian refugees, as part of the German Government’s Humanitarian Admissions Programme. Ms. Berthiaume underlined that Germany’s initiative and gesture of solidarity were highly appreciated and added that it would be a very positive development if other countries could follow their example.
Ms. Berthiaume stated that the refugees leaving on 7 January would join 643 other refugees and stay until the end of the Syrian conflict or until other durable solutions were found. The Humanitarian Admissions Programme would resettle a total of 3,500 Syrian refugees through June 2014. Nonetheless, that number represented only a tiny percentage of Syrians in Lebanon, which stood at well above 850,000.
Syrian refugees accepted for the Humanitarian Admissions Programme were identified by UNHCR in Lebanon. Priority was given to refugees with special needs, including vulnerable women and children, people with urgent medical needs and/or close family ties to Germany. Before their departure, IOM had provided cultural orientation sessions for adult refugees in order to facilitate their integration in Germany.
On the question on how exactly the USD 1 billion was planned to be used in practical terms, Mr. McMormick said that the main thrust of the campaign was on access to education through both formal and non-formal approaches. It was expensive to construct temporary learning places, repair schools or employ teachers, when the infrastructure was often completely collapsed. He stressed that awareness was needed of real danger of having a lost generation, which was not a slogan, but a reality.
Ms. Fleming added that there was a paper outlining in each country what the money would be used for; 60 per cent of the funds were part of the Regional Refugee Response Plan as well as the Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan - the funding plan for inside Syria. These were projects that had already been very specifically worked out and identified. Education and psychological support to families so that their kids did not have to work were essential. Ms. Fleming said that school systems were overwhelmed in Lebanon and Jordan, where schools were already doing double shifts in order to accommodate Syrian refugee children. Already half of the children in Syria were no longer going to schools, and a large proportion of schools in the country had been destroyed. Efforts were underway to repair and expand the existing infrastructure. Supporting Syrian children was a huge project in dire need of funding.
On the donor meeting for Syria in Kuwait the following week, Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that the pledging conference would take place on 15 January, would be chaired by the UN Secretary-General and hosted by the Emir of Kuwait. The conference would give a chance to the countries to pledge funds against the appeals from mid-December.
Ms. Fleming added that half of the money pledged in Kuwait would go to children, who represented fifty percent of victims.
Asked what UNICEF would do differently with the one billion USD and whether it would be able to reach children in the opposition-held areas, Mr. McMormick said that UNICEF would not do anything differently, but it would rather do more activities. Efforts would be made to access as many areas as possible. Refugees situations like the one in Syria were incredibly expensive, and the current call was for money, but also for awareness, as Syria seemed to be falling off the screen given all other emergencies in the world. The world could not afford to forget about the children of Syria, and every effort should be made to rebuild their lives inside and outside of the country.
On whether OHCHR was still providing figures of casualties in Syria, Mr. Colville said it was very difficult to provide updated numbers. It had been always difficult to guarantee the veracity of the figures , but now OHCHR no longer felt to be in the position to guarantee that the numbers were truthful and complete.
Mr. McMormick did not have a number of children victims of incendiary bombs, but would check and revert.
International Conference on Syria
A question was asked whether the preconditions were in place at all for peace talks to take place in Geneva, and why there was no more insistence on humanitarian access. Ms. Momal-Vanian said that the Secretary-General had sent out invitation letters for a conference which would take place in Montreux on 22 January, and the continuation of talks between the Syrian delegations would go on in Geneva from 24 January.
Asked whether Iran had been on the list of those invited, Ms. Momal-Vanian said that the letters of invitation had been sent. While the position of the Secretary-General in this regard had been made clear, no agreement had been reached on the question. It was hoped that agreement could be reached when US Secretary of State Kerry has met Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in the coming days. As that meeting was not being organized by the UN, any questions should be addressed to the two representatives of the two countries.
On the upcoming meeting of Syrian women, Ms. Momal-Vanian confirmed that a meeting, organized by UN Women, would take place on 12-13 January, and would be followed by a press conference at the end. Ms. Momal-Vanian said that Joint Special Representative Brahimi would address the meeting. There were no more details at the moment, but would be provided to the media once available.
Ms. Fleming stated that on 5 January, the Syrian-Iraqi border at Peshkhabour had opened and 2,519 Syrians had crossed by barge. Border crossing points between the Kurdistan region of Iraq and Syria had been closed since mid-September in the wake of an exodus of some 60,000 Syrians. Aid workers and local authorities had worked overnight on 5 January to process the group.
The arrivals from Syria had to use small barges which carried about 10-30 persons and took about 20 minutes to cross from Simelka, on Syria side of the river. The pontoon bridge was not in use at present and was moored on the Syrian side of the river.
Most Syrians appeared to be intent on returning to Syria. On 6 January, UNHCR staff had witnessed some 350 of the new arrivals load barges and go back to Syria with generators, kerosene heaters and other supplies.
Authorities in the Kurdistan region of Iraq had told UNHCR that they had adopted a flexible approach and those Syrians who said that they did not want to stay as refugees could visit for up to seven days or approach the local authorities to legalise their stay.
Ms. Fleming informed that, at present, there were 13 refugee Syrian camps or transit sites located in the Kurdistan region of Iraq and Al Obeidy camp in western Anbar Province. Iraq hosted some 210,000 registered Syrian refugees.
Meanwhile, insecurity was creating new internal displacement in central Iraq. UNHCR was working with UN partners and the Government to try to assess the needs of displaced persons from the recent upsurge in violence in Fallujah and Ramadi.
The latest wave of displacements added to the over 1.13 million internally displaced persons inside Iraq who had fled their homes amidst the 2006-2008 sectarian violence, mostly residing in Baghdad, Diyala and Ninewa Governorates.
Answering a question, Ms. Fleming said that UNHCR had quite a sizeable operation in the country. It was dealing mostly with IDPs, but also with Syrian refugees and Camp Ashraf. UNHCR stood ready to provide any assistance that the displaced populations might need, including shelter, kitchen sets, sleeping mats, blankets, hygienic supplies, etc. Very often, people had been suddenly uprooted, and could be very much in need of supplies.
On why UNHCR was not calling for Iraq to keep its borders open for Syrian refugees, Ms. Fleming said that the appeal was in place to all countries, neighboring and around the world, including Iraq. Syrians were in a desperate need of protection, and the most generous thing a country could do would be to keep its borders open, which was a humanitarian gesture but also an obligation.
Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR was following with serious concern the ongoing violence in Cambodia. OHCHR was deeply alarmed by the disproportionate use of force by law enforcement officials in responding to demonstrations. On 3 January, five people had been killed when security forces had opened fire. A further 20 had been injured by gunfire and beatings. OHCHR was calling on the Cambodian authorities and security forces to exercise utmost restraint. Policing of demonstrations had to comply at all times with international human rights obligations and international standards in maintaining public order.
OHCHR was urging the Cambodian authorities to launch a prompt and thorough investigation and to ensure full accountability of members of security forces found to have used disproportionate and excessive force.
OHCHR noted the challenges faced by the authorities in maintaining public order and joined the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Professor Surya Subedi, in calling on all protesters to exercise maximum restraint. Acts of sporadic violence during public gatherings ought not to be used as an excuse to deprive others of their right to freedom of peaceful assembly, a right that had to be protected and promoted by the authorities.
Mr. Colville said that the whereabouts of 23 people, including at least one minor, who had been detained following the clashes on 2 and 3 January, remained unknown. OHCHR urged the Cambodian authorities to allow all those held incommunicado to have access to their families, legal representation and, if needed, medical care. Those individuals should be released immediately if they were not charged with a legally defined offence.
Mr. Colville said that OHCHR strongly condemned the shelling of a funeral procession which had killed 21 civilians and injured 30 others, including children, at Al-Dhalai Governorate on 27 December 2013.
OHCHR welcomed the establishment of a presidential investigation committee on 28 December 2013 and called upon the Yemeni authorities to ensure that the investigation was prompt, thorough and impartial and that its results were made public. OHCHR called upon the authorities to make sure that those responsible were held accountable.
OHCHR Office in Yemen was in regular contact with the authorities and would continue to closely follow up the outcome of the investigation.
On the question on situation in Egypt and the alleged lack of interest by the High Commissioner in recent developments there, Mr. Colville responded that OHCHR had been paying constant attention to Egypt. The High Commissioner had issued statements on the recent conviction of three Egyptian activists, raid on a human rights NGO and the arrest of its six members, and the situation involving journalists was also of concern. Mr. Colville stressed that OHCHR was consistently engaged with the Government on a number of issues, including the law on protests.
Mr. Colville said that OHCHR had no comment on filing of the brief with the International Criminal Court concerning Egypt.
Regarding the upcoming review of a report of the Holy See by the Committee for the Rights of the Child, Mr. Colville said that the session would be public, and referred the journalists to a colleague at OHCHR, Liz Throssell, who could provide further details.
Regarding a session by the Human Rights Council on the Central African Republic, Ms. Momal-Vanian said that the date had not been confirmed yet and no official announcement had been made, but 20 January was being mentioned as a possibility.
Asked about the position of UNHCR on asylum seekers in Israel, Ms. Fleming informed that a statement had been posted locally and would be circulated.
Ms. Momal-Vanian informed that the Committee on the Rights of the Child would start its session on 13 January, during which it would consider reports of Congo, Germany, Holy See, Portugal, Russian Federation and Yemen.
The Conference of Disarmament would commence on 20 January. The calendar of all major meetings in 2014 was now available on the UNOG website.
Sarah Parkes, for the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), announced that, between 8 and 10 January, the ITU would be hosting the Ferney Voltaire International Model United Nations (FerMUN). The opening of the event would take place at the Palais des Nations on 8 January, and was being organized together with UN Office at Geneva and the World Meteorological Organization. It would be a big event, with 550 students, age between 15 and 18, coming from schools in following countries: France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovenia, Switzerland, Turkey and the United Kingdom, and representing more than 80 nationalities.
Press conference at the opening of the event would take place on 8 January at 2:30 p.m. in Press Room I. Speakers would include Doreen Bogdan, Chief, Strategic Planning and Membership Department, on behalf of the Secretary-General of the ITU, Florence Baudry, FerMUN Co-ordinator, and Philippe Launay, President of the FerMUN Association.
The theme of the conference would be engaging youth on global climate issues.
On a question on the current number of candidates for the post of the ITU Secretary-General, Ms. Parkes said that there was only one candidate at the moment, but the closing date would be in September, so it was possible that others would announce their candidacies in the months ahead.
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The representative of the World Health Organization also attended the briefing, but did not brief.
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There is no webcast for this briefing due to technical reasons.