REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
19 August 2014
Alessandra Vellucci, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section of the Geneva United Nations Information Service, chaired the briefing, which was also attended by spokespersons for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the World Health Organization and the International Organization for Migration.
Iraq and North East Syria
Adrian Edwards of the United Nations Refugees Agency (UNHCR) said that in response to the deteriorating situation in Iraq, UNHCR was launching one its largest aid pushes aimed at helping close to a half million people who had been forced to flee their homes.
Barring last minute delays, an air, road and sea operation would begin tomorrow with a four day airlift using Boeing 747s from Aqaba and Jordan to Erbil. That would be followed by road convoys from Turkey and Jordan, and sea and land shipments from Dubai via Iran over the next 10 days. The major focus of this push was on improving living conditions for the displaced in the region, particularly people without shelter or housing. Conditions remained desperate for those without access to suitable shelter, people struggling to find food and water to feed for their families, and those without access to primary medical care. Many were still coming to grips with the tragedy they had been through in recent weeks, fleeing homes with nothing, and many were trying to cope with the loss of loved ones. Included in the aid shipments were 3,300 tents, 20,000 plastic sheets, 18,500 kitchen sets, and 16,500 jerry cans. Support for that and for further aid deliveries was coming from a significant number of countries: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the USA, the UK, Japan, Denmark, Kuwait, Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden, as well as from IKEA – one of UNHCR’s corporate partners.
Meanwhile, inside Iraq, UNHCR was already working closely with regional authorities in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region where at least half the displaced had settled, some 200,000 of them since early August when the city of Sinjar and neighbouring areas were seized by armed groups. The number of displaced people flowing currently into Duhok across the Peshkabour border had slowed in the previous week from thousands per day to a few hundred, but all still required UNHCR’s support. Iraq’s current humanitarian challenges were immense; while most of the displaced were still living in schools, mosques, churches, unfinished buildings and elsewhere, UNHCR had been pitching hundreds of family tents every day.
There were currently eight camps in Dohuk and Erbil governorates open or about to open in the following days, as soon as water and sanitation facilities were installed. Those were expected to be boosted by additional camps being set up by the International Humanitarian Partnership – with contributions from a number of emergency response agencies; of the Swedish, German, Danish, Norwegian, British and Estonian governments. UNHCR envisaged there being 12-14 sites in all with capacity for 140,000 people, and the technical staff were currently assessing additional possible camp sites identified by the Kurdistan Regional Government to determine their suitability and to prioritize locations. Mr. Edwards reminded that the needs were not confined to the Kurdistan Region. There were other camps or sites in other governorates where displaced people had gathered including in Sulaymaniyah, Diyala, and Kirkuk. The Iraqi government had also set up three caravan centres for the displaced in Baghdad.
UNHCR had now provided shelter and relief items to more than 210,000 people. It had also provided over 80,000 displaced people with protection monitoring and needs assessments, and nearly 3,500 individuals had been approved for cash assistance, with some already receiving it. Legal assistance would be provided to vulnerable families to ensure they could access their rights as Iraqi citizens and that those who had fled without documents obtained new ones.
Across the border in northeast Syria, UNHCR continued to help Yazidi people fleeing the Sinjar area and as of today there were an estimated 8,000 people at the Newroz camp, about 60 kilometres from the Iraqi border, plus an estimated 3,000 who had moved to nearby Yazidi villages. Others who were staying at the Newroz camp last week had returned to Iraq to reunite with their families. UNHCR was continuing to help with providing transport for the refugees to and from the camp and was flying in more aid from Damascus. The first of six flights arrived in Qamishli last night from Damascus, and the mattresses and electric fans were being delivered to the refugees today, to hopefully help improve their living conditions.
Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service Geneva, said that the World Food Programme had issued a press release on Iraq and that yesterday the United Nations Children’s Fund had provided information on the situation of Iraqi children.
In response to a number of questions, Mr. Edwards said that the aid was being destined to the most needy, notably those without any accommodation. Aid was indeed coming in from different places, according to the location of stocks. He added that this was not the first delivery of humanitarian aid to the region: Iraq was a country with a long-existing displacement problem and UNHCR had stockpiles in the Kurdistan region already. This was a very significant aid push and all available routes - by land, air and sea - were being used to deliver the items as rapidly as possible. Mr. Edwards said that people were fleeing via Syria to get to safety, which indicated just how desperate and difficult the situation in Sinjar mountains was; he also stressed the importance of protection and safety of those who were fleeing.
Asked about the figures of refugees and displaced in Iraq and the situation of those who were still in the areas under the control of the Islamic State of Syria (ISIS), Mr. Edwards agreed that different numbers had indeed been given over the past several weeks, which was partly a reflection of extraordinary dynamic of the situation and the difficulties in getting reliable information, particularly from the Sinjar mountain area. UNHCR considered that today 1.2 million people were displaced in Iraq. Most of the people in the ISIS controlled areas had already fled, but there was a need for more access to reach those still in need. It was unknown how many Yazidis remained in Sinjar, considering that there were still about 300 persons crossing the Peshkabour border every day. Mr. Edwards was unable to confirm the allegation of the massacre of 200 Yazidis in Sinjar or the reports on some 1,000 women being kidnapped to be sold as sex slaves.
Coordination with other actors on humanitarian aid delivery was ongoing and UNHCR was pleased with the donors’ response to this crisis. The aid coming from the outside aimed to cover the needs of the most vulnerable persons, who at the moment were those without any shelter. Clearly, much more aid would be needed because this was a major humanitarian crisis which continued to affect a large number of persons.
On the situation in Iraq, Ms. Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR was following the situation very closely with a team on the ground whose report was forthcoming.
Asked whether the OHCHR had any information confirming the massacre in Sinjar and the atrocities committed in Iraq, she said that the team was not able yet to verify allegations because of the difficult security situation in Iraq. The team on the ground was trying to verify reports and to cross them. The OHCHR had different reports on children being recruited as child soldiers, summary executions, women being subjected to extremist interpretation of Islamic law and being severely punished if not following these new ethics. The OHCHR was waiting for the team on the ground to be able to provide them with verified reports which would be publicized.
South Sudanese Refugees in Ethiopia
Adrian Edwards of the United Nations Refugees Agency (UNHCR) said that Ethiopia had overtaken Kenya to become the largest refugee-hosting country in Africa, sheltering 629,000 refugees as of the end of July. Kenya was still of course a major hosting country, with 575,000 refugees and asylum seekers. The main factor in the change in the situation was the increased numbers of refugees fleeing the conflict in South Sudan, which erupted in mid-December and had sent 188,000 refugees into Ethiopia since the beginning of 2014. At present, there were a quarter of a million South Sudanese refugees in the country, making them the largest refugee population in the country, followed by Somalis and Eritreans. Over the previous seven months, nearly 15,000 Eritreans and more than 3,000 Somalis had also arrived in Ethiopia.
Together with the Ethiopian government and other partners, UNHCR were providing protection and humanitarian aid across 23 refugee camps and five transit sites around literally all sides of the country. Three of the camps and three transit sites were new – having been opened since the beginning of the year to handle the growing number of refugees fleeing the fighting in South Sudan. All three camps were at capacity and UNCHR was developing two more. While refugees waited to be moved to the new camps, more than 18,000 were sheltered in three temporary sites in the western region of Gambella.
In previous weeks heavy rain had flooded those three low-lying sites, as well as Leitchuor Camp, where the situation was most serious. Some 10,000 refugees – more than a fifth of Leitchuor’s population of 47,600 – had been hit by flooding. Many tents and shelters were under water and latrines had collapsed, which was a serious health concern and threatened to undermine gains made in preventing the outbreak of water-borne diseases. With the rainy season set to last at least two more months, UNHCR was working with its partners to drain the accumulated rainwater into a nearby small stream as quickly as possible, and was was also speeding up development of the new Nip Nip camp some three kilometers from Leitchuor, which would be able to accommodate 20,000 refugees. In the meantime, UNHCR was moving affected refugees from the roadside to drier spots. Most of the Gambella region was at a low elevation and flood-prone. UNHCR continued to work with the government and the federal and regional authorities to identify additional sites that were less susceptible to flooding.
Asked about the number of refugees arriving to Ethiopia from South Sudan per day, Mr. Edwards said that presently there were close to 190,000 refugees meaning that about 25,000 a month crossed the border. People were still arriving despite the difficult conditions and most of them were children who had particular vulnerabilities. UNHCR had stepped up the measures to contain Hepatitis E among the South Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia, which had spread across South Sudan in the last few years and had appeared in camps in Ethiopia. A decline in infections had been recorded, and there had been twelve deaths among the refugees since April. Heavy rains affecting the water and sanitation situation in the camps created additional complications in efforts to prevent and contain outbreaks of diseases. There had been no evidence that heavy rains reduced the movement of the population.
Fadéla Chaib from the World Health Organisation (WHO) said that between 14 and 16 August a total of 113 new cases of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) and 84 deaths were reported from Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. The response was continuing in the four countries to reduce the likelihood that those who were affected would carry the disease outside their communities. The governments had set up quarantine zones in areas of high transmission, including severely affected cities such as Guékédou in Guinea, Kenema and Kailahun in Sierra Leone and Foya in Liberia. This prevented people living in these areas from moving to other parts of the country and potentially increasing Ebola transmission. However, barriers to travel also limited access to food and other commodities and necessities and it was therefore essential that people in these zones had access to food, water, good sanitation and other basic supplies.
WHO was working with the United Nations, especially with the World Food Programme, to ensure people in the quarantine zones received regular food, aid and other non-medical supplies. The World Food Programme was at this moment scaling up its programme to distribute food to around one million people living in the quarantine zones in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Food had been delivered also to hospitals where patients were being taken care of and to people under quarantine who were not able to leave their homes to purchase food. Providing regular food supplies was a very important means of limiting necessary movement.
Ms. Chaib said that as of 16 August 2014, the total number of cases was 2,240 with 1,229 deaths and also that trends in Ebola in Nigeria and Guinea showed some encouraging signs. A document detailing those trends would be made available later today.
Answering a question about the encouraging signs in Nigeria, Ms. Chaib said that only one transmission chain had been identified, originating with a Liberian-American man who had travelled from Liberia to Nigeria and infected other people on his way. Several measures taken by Nigerian authorities showed hopeful effects. As for Guinea, it was the first country touched by the disease and therefore was developing some experience in the containment of EVD.
Concerning the travel ban and quarantine zones, Ms. Chaib recalled the 8 August recommendations of the Ebola Emergency Committee and stressed that WHO itself did not recommend any ban on international travel or trade. However, the countries affected by Ebola should take any necessary measures to contain the outbreak in certain zones. It was important that the rights of people in quarantine were respected and that they were provided with food, water and non medical items they need. For this, Dr. Margaret Chan, Director General of WHO was in constant and regular contact with the United Nations agencies, especially the World Food Programme.
Answering a question, Ms. Chaib said that WHO was encouraging countries to scale up their response to the Ebola outbreak; it was requesting them to help with medical teams, equipment and financial resources, and had made an appeal for more than 100 million dollars, of which about 70 per cent was funded. Ms. Chaib stressed the need to scale up the response to Ebola in the four countries concerned and highlighted the need for coordination with the Ebola Emergency Committee in order to avoid duplication of work.
Concerning the situation in Liberia, and in Monrovia specifically where many clinics had been shut down, Ms. Chaib said that in Liberia there were 834 cases including 466 deaths and stressed that the situation in Monrovia was of concern to WHO. Referring to the recommendations by the Emergency Committee, Ms. Chaib reiterated that the countries should take the necessary measures to control the spread of the disease and then provided an account regarding the events of the previous days at West Point which was a very crowded and poor area close to Monrovia. Communities in Liberia were encouraged to set up temporary facilities in schools and other places in order to provide care for people who might be infected with Ebola and so avoid infecting their families, prior to the move of Ebola patients to specialized clinics. Such a centre had been set up in West Point but rumours spread that it was a health clinic and many people came to seek medical assistance, causing the anger among the youth of West Point and the violence. WHO had information only about one accident caused by young people that attacked the centre.
Answering questions concerning about temporary facilities, Ms. Chaib explained that people who had been in contact with a confirmed Ebola case had two possibilities: they could stay home or go to the “triage” centre, until the period of 21 days ended. In quarantined zones people were allowed to stay in their homes having a normal life, “triage” centres were not camps with sick people only: there were people who could be sick or who had been in contact with a confirmed case. A WHO staff was working on mapping the quarantine zones.
A person who was confirmed with Ebola or who was in contact with a confirmed Ebola case should not travel; this should be the rule. Currently people were being screened for Ebola-like illnesses at airports and land crossings, and a high vigilance occurred in almost all countries.
Responding to another question, Ms. Chaib said that Ebola could be mistaken with other illnesses such as malaria, typhoid or simple fever. It was important to remember that the health systems of the affected countries were rather weak and it was not possible to confirm all cases with laboratory tests. To be really efficient, one needed to be able to observe the person during a few days and if he/she showed first signs of Ebola, he should be taken care of. Ebola was the first thing the health services or the nurses in the field had to think about, but symptoms could also be those of other diseases.
Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), expressed serious concern about the prosecution and harsh sentences handed to people under the lèse-majesté law in Thailand. Such measures were a part of a larger pattern of increased restrictions on freedom of expression in the country. Since the 22 May coup, at least 13 new lèse-majesté cases had been opened for investigations, Ms. Shamdasani said, while other cases where charges had not been laid had been revived. Last week, on 14 and 15 August, two university students were arrested for acting in a play in October 2013 that depicted a fictional monarch who was manipulated by his advisor. Arrest warrants for them had been issued on 6 June. The arrests came after a number of convictions and harsh-sentences were handed down, including that of Mr. Plutnarin Thanaboriboonsuk who was sentenced under Lèse-majesté Law and the Computer Crime Act on 31 July to 30 year in prison, reduced to 15 for his guilty plea. The sentence had come less than two months after charges had been laid on 16 June even though the investigation had remained pending for more than two years. Ms. Shamdasani also mentioned the case of a taxi driver who was sentenced to two years and six months in jail on 14 August and expressed deep concern that more charges would be filed on pending cases, and harsh verdicts would be issued in the coming weeks.
The High Commissioner and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression had previously urged the Thai government to amend section 112 of the Criminal Code, stating that the section was too vague and prescribed long-maximum that were contrary to permissible restrictions on freedom of expression under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Thailand was a State Party. OHCHR reiterated its call to the military administration to ensure its compliance with Thailand’s obligations under international human rights law, especially the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The threat of the use of the lèse-majesté law would further add to the chilling effects on freedom of expression observed in Thailand after the coup, curbing critical debates on issues of the public interests.
Asked whether the use of Lèse Majesté Law could be regarded as a mean to suppress opposition, she said the situation was actually unclear. What the OHCRC was seeing was an acceleration of the pace since cases where accusation had begun but whose charges had never been laid were suddenly charged and sentenced. She added that those swift prosecutions concerned a variety of individuals, including from across the spectrum of opposition movement.
On the situation in the Maldives, Ms. Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that the OHCHR was concerned about the disappearance of Ahmad Rilwan Abdullah, a journalist with Minivan News, a web-based news outlet in the Maldives. Rilwan had not been seen or heard from since 8 August 2014, and there were reports that he was forced into a vehicle near his home in Male. Rilwan’s disappearance was of particular concern given that 15 journalists had reported receiving death threats through anonymous text messages early this month. All 15 journalists had published articles related to a sudden surge of gang-related violence and crime in Male. Rilwan had also covered these issues as well as the reports of death threats to journalists in recent articles. The Government had launched an investigation into Rilwan’s case, she said, which the OHCHR hoped to be resolved promptly. The OHCHR called upon all parties to refrain from threatening media activists for performing their professional duties; it also urged the relevant authorities to address any threats and intimidation directed at journalists and other civil society activists and to do their utmost to ensure that they would be able to operate without fear for their safety.
Christiane Berthiaume for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) briefed journalists on IOM latest activities and response in Libya. While Tripoli endured the continuation of the battle between different rival militias, about 10,000 families and many foreign nationals had already fled the fighting. The Libyan authorities warned of a humanitarian disaster if the battle continued between militias. The strikes lead to indiscriminate shelling of the airport and surrounding areas, which were mainly occupied by civilians. Fuel was still limited or unavailable, water and electricity supply to Tripoli remained problematic. Around 99 per cent of the shops in some parts of Tripoli remained closed and the prices had tripled for most items, which made life more difficult from day to day. Most roads allowing Libyans to reach Zawia and the Tunisian border crossing point at Ras Adjeer were still blocked with sand dunes and empty containers as barriers.
As the armed clashes in Tripoli and Benghazi had intensified, there had been a steady flow of Libyans and Egyptian nationals across the border through the two main land crossing points towards Tunisia. Egypt was evacuating his nationals through Tunisia. On the same day, Algerian authorities said they had re-opened the Debdeb border crossing with Libya – which was closed since last May. This happened on an exceptional basis in order to assist in the exodus of Egyptians from Libya (reportedly more than 1,500 over the past two days), enabling them to return to Egypt via Algeria’s south eastern Amenas Airport. More than 700 citizens of the Philippines had been reported to be repatriated. They were picked up from the Libyan ports of Benghazi and taken to Malta by ship on Thursday, where they caught chartered flights to Manila.
The UN and IOM conducted a joint assessment mission to the Libyan city of Zwara located 60 kilometers away from Libyan-Tunisia border. People were in urgent need of food, hygiene kits and medications. The authorities and civil society representatives were facing a lot of pressure to accommodate the increasing number of families who fled Tripoli and would not be able to extend the necessary support to the Third Country Migrants (TCNs) coming from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Congo and Togo who also fled the capital. IOM provided hygiene kits and psychosocial support to people but had still difficult access to Tripoli because of the security situation.
World Humanitarian Day
Angelita Mendy for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that the World Humanitarian Day was commemorated today, 19 August and announced that a ceremony would take place from 4 to 6 pm in Room XX. Ms. Mendy drew attention to the new report by Humanitarian Outcomes, available on ReliefWeb, which showed that in 2013, 155 aid workers had been killed, 171 seriously wounded and 134 had been kidnapped, representing a 66 per cent increase in numbers of victims compared to 2012.
Ms. Vellucci said that the Conference on Disarmament this morning held a public plenary, hearing from Japan. Malaysia presided the third and last part of the 2014 session of the Conference for the next four weeks.
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was going to conclude its review of the report of Cameroun this morning, and would consider the report of Iraq this afternoon. Tomorrow, it would review the report of Japan, followed by Estonia, the last State for the session. The Committee had previously examined the reports of El Salvador, United States and Peru.
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The representatives of the International Labour Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund also attended the briefing, but did not brief.
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The webcast for this briefing is available here: …http://bit.ly/XxiriU