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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
29 October 2013

Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service, chaired the briefing which was also attended by the Spokespersons for the World Health Organization, United Nations Refugees Agency, World Food Programme and International Organization for Migration.

Syria – Polio

Glenn Thomas, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said WHO expected a Disease Outbreak Update later today or tomorrow morning on the polio outbreak in Syria. He confirmed that Wild Polio Virus Type 1 had been found in Syria. Mr. Thomas said that following reports of a cluster of 22 acute flaccid paralysis cases on 17 October, Wild Polio Virus Type 1 had been identified, as expected. Final genetic sequencing results were pending to determine the origin of the isolated viruses. Health authorities in Syria and neighbouring countries had already began the planning and implementation of the comprehensive outbreak response.

Oliver Rosenbauer, Communications Officer, Polio, for the World Health Organization (WHO), further confirmed that of the initial 22 acute flaccid paralysis (afp) cases being investigated, Wild Polio Virus Type 1 had been isolated in ten cases. The other 12 cases were still being investigated. The cases were in the Deir Al Zour province in the north-east region of Syria. Answering questions, Mr. Rosenbauer said there were no additional ‘hub’ cases that they knew of. The cases were initially reported on 17 October.

Mr. Rosenbauer replied to a question about symptoms of the virus, saying it was led by acute flaccid paralysis (AFP) symptoms. Many causes of those afp symptoms existed, and polio was one of them. That was why each case was virologically investigated to determine whether or not polio was the source. Out of 22 children diagnosed with the afp symptoms, the WHO investigation proved that in 10 cases polio was indeed the cause.

There were three strains of the Wild Polio Virus - Type 1, 2 and 3, he explained. Only Wild Polio Virus Type 1 had been found in Syria. Wild Polio Virus Type 2 had not been seen since 1999, and Wild Polio Virus Type 2 had not been seen since November 2012.

A journalist asked about the source of the outbreak and the dangers of onward transmission. Mr. Rosenbauer replied that the next step was to look genetically at the isolated viruses and see where they came from, which should give clarity on the origin. In terms of the danger, Mr. Rosenbauer said yes, of course, polio was a communicable disease and with population movements it could travel to other areas. There was a high risk of spread across the region.

A journalist enquired about the 22 children ‘behind the statistics’ and asked whether they were all paralysed. Mr. Rosenbauer replied that investigations were ongoing, but WHO knew that all child victims appeared to be very young, less than two years of age. All the children appeared to be under or unimmunized; some had received one dose of a vaccine and others had not received any vaccination at all. The children were paralysed, he said. They all came down with fever and then acute flaccid paralysis, which was what prompted the investigation, as it looked clinically very much like polio when 22 cases showed up in the same geographical area at the same time. That was all that was known at this stage.

Syria – UN Envoy Brahimi

Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service, answered a question about the format of next week’s tripartite meeting on Syria, between Russia, the United States and Lakhdar Brahimi, the Joint Special Envoy to Syria for the UN and the League of Arab States, scheduled for Tuesday 5 November. Ms. Momal-Vanian said that it would be followed by another extended meeting with the three other permanent members of the Security Council (United Kingdom, France and China). Mr. Brahimi and his team were currently on mission touring key Middle East countries in relation to the conflict, she said, and it was hoped a press briefing could be organized with Mr. Brahimi upon his return.

Nigeria

Dan McNorton for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said with the recent escalation of violence in Northeast Nigeria, UNHCR was today advising States against forced returns of people to the region. It was also urging that borders be kept open for Nigerians fleeing the country and who may be in need of international protection. UNHCR recommendations were contained in a newly issued Return Advisory, which sought to ensure that humanitarian and asylum principles were upheld in light of the worsening security situation in north-eastern Nigeria.

Conflict between the Nigerian army and insurgents in Nigeria's north-eastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe had led to deteriorating security and humanitarian conditions in the region, which had been under the a state of emergency since May. Violence was estimated to have displaced an estimated 5,000 people within the region, but as humanitarian access had been hampered by the attacks, UNHCR believed the actual number of people affected could be significantly higher.

Some 10,000 Nigerians had also crossed into neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger in recent months. Most - around 8,100 - had sought refuge in Cameroon, according to local authorities who said that Nigerians were continuing to arrive. The number of Nigerian refugees in Niger was 2,700, and in Chad 150.

UNHCR had been alarmed at reports of the attempted forced return of 111 people from Cameroon to Nigeria on 5 October. They were expelled from the village of Amchidé, in the Far North region of Cameroon, to Adamawa state in Nigeria. During the incident 15 people were killed and another seven wounded. The remaining 89 individuals immediately fled back to Cameroon and were detained. UNHCR was working with the Government of Cameroon to assess whether there were people in the group in need of international protection.

In light of the security situation in north-eastern Nigeria, people fleeing were likely to meet the criteria for refugee status as outlined in the 1951 Refugee Convention and the OAU Convention. UNHCR's Return Advisory would remain in effect until the security and human rights situation in north-eastern Nigeria had improved sufficiently to permit a safe and dignified return.

Answering questions about forced returns from journalists, Mr. McNorton said UNHCR information at present was that forced returns were only in Cameroon. It went back to the general chronic insecurity in the area, and UNHCR was working with the Government to ascertain the details. Mr. McNorton noted that UNHCR was not actually present in the regions in question, due to the prevailing insecurity, which made it very difficult to assess the situation.

Zimbabwe

Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said Zimbabwe’s food security situation was deteriorating and was the worst since 2009. The Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee rural livelihoods assessment estimated that one quarter of the rural population would need food assistance in the pre-harvest period early next year.
The high food insecurity levels were due to a combination of factors, including weather conditions, the high cost or lack of availability of fertilisers and seeds, and the prospect of high food prices due to the poor harvest.

Ms. Byrs highlighted the figure of 2.2 million people who it was estimated would require assistance during peak period, Jan-March 2014. The national maize harvest was less than last year’s 1 million metric tons, and less that the country’s requirement of 2.1 million metric tons, she added. WFP was launching a relief programme in the worst-affected areas this month and would gradually scale up assistance over coming months.

The Government of Zimbabwe had requested international support for food assistance to meet the growing needs. This month, WFP and partners would begin food distributions in the worst affected areas, and would gradually increase the number of districts and number of people being assisted until the end of March when the next harvest comes. Three distributions would start in three districts of Midlands and Matabeleland North provinces, and be scaled up to 19 districts in November, 38 in December; then 41 districts from January to March.

Grain prices were currently 23 per cent higher than this time last year. Matabeleland North and South, Masvingo and Midlands were the worst-affected areas. Zvishavane district was projected to have the highest proportion of food insecurity at 51 per cent of the population, followed by Binga (49.7 per cent) and Mangwe (49.4 per cent). Many people had exhausted their personal stocks and were relying on buying cereals from the market. Furthermore, Ms. Byrs said, job opportunities were scare and cash flow was a major challenge.

Regional Committee on Mixed Migration for the Horn of Africa and Yemen

Christiane Berthiaume, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) announced that the Regional Committee on Mixed Migration for the Horn of Africa and Yemen was holding its third meeting in Nairobi, Kenya from 30 to 31 October 2013. The meeting aimed to improve collaboration between governments in the Horn of Africa and Yemen, and with international partners, to better manage migration and improve the well-being of migrants.

The hosting of the meeting in Nairobi showed Kenya’s increasing significance as a transit and destination country for mixed migration flows from the Horn of Africa via the southern route, passing through Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe to South Africa. The meeting would focus on three key issues: migration and security; assisted voluntary return and reintegration; and labour migration.

The meeting would be attended by representatives of the governments of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Puntland, Somaliland and Yemen, as well as from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the African Union. Representatives from the Federal Government of Somalia would attend as a committee member for the first time. Observer states would include representatives of the governments of Saudi Arabia, Sudan, South Sudan, and Egypt.

Providing background information, Ms. Berthiaume said that limited economic opportunities, environmental degradation and conflict continued to drive large numbers of migrants from the Horn of Africa to Yemen, in the hope of reaching Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. Every year, thousands of migrants risked their lives crossing the Arabian Sea or Red Sea in overcrowded and unseaworthy boats. If they survived the journey, many subsequently fell victim to exploitation, violence and sexual abuse in Yemen, said Ms. Berthiaume.

Last year, some 187,000 migrants from Ethiopia and other Horn of Africa countries arrived in Yemen. This year the number had fallen to 53,000, following the closure of the Saudi-Yemen border and a clamp down on irregular labour migrants by the Saudi authorities. At the same time growing numbers of migrants from the Horn of Africa were dying at sea while attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach Italy and Malta via North Africa. And migrants from the Horn of Africa continued to be smuggled to South Africa via Kenya, with 2009 IOM figures suggested at least 20,000 migrants were smuggled along that route annually.

Jumbe Omari Jumbe, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) answered a question about the numbers of migrant boats that sank on the Red Sea, saying that the latest statistics were from 2011, when 80 people died crossing the Red Sea. He hoped that the meeting would provide solutions to the three main issues: safety and security for migrants, assisted return and reorganization of labour migration.

‘I Am A Migrant Too’ campaign

Christiane Berthiaume, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said that IOM, in partnership with the City of Johannesburg and UNHCR was launching a second “I am a Migrant too” campaign to raise awareness about the positive contributions of migrants in South Africa.

The campaign, which would run through International Migrants Day on December 18, included a poster competition, and would promote dialogue on the positive impacts of migration on South Africa’s country’s social and economic wellbeing. A booklet featuring a selection of inspiring stories highlighting the positive contribution of migration in South Africa would also be launched.

Ms. Berthiaume said it was often difficult to discuss migration in times of crisis and high unemployment. Migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, were often portrayed negatively in the press and were used as scapegoats for social and economic problems.

Health in South Sudan

Christiane Berthiaume, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said that on Friday IOM concluded a two-day workshop in Juba, South Sudan, which brought together government officials from the Ministries of Health, Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Labour, Public Service and Human Resource Development and Education, as well as international experts and other stakeholders to develop an action plan for engaging the country’s diaspora.

The workshop was part of IOM’s Enhancing South Sudan’s Human Resources for Health through Strengthened Engagement of Health Professionals in the Diaspora project, launched in February 2013 with the support of the IOM Development Fund. Through the initiative, IOM provided technical support to the Government of South Sudan to develop a national diaspora engagement strategy for the health sector.

South Sudan had some of the lowest health indicators in the world. Less than 50 per cent of the population had access to health care, and the country had only 1.5 medical doctors and 2 nurses for every 100,000 people – far below the WHO-recommended standard of 250 health workers per 100,000 people, Ms. Berthiaume said. IOM aimed to identify members of the South Sudanese diaspora with health skills and explore ways for involving them, both individually and through diaspora associations, in the transfer of knowledge and skills to South Sudan’s health care system, specifically health training institutes and medical colleges.

Geneva activities

Ms. Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service, announced that the Committee Against Torture on Monday began a four-week session to consider the reports of nine countries, starting with Mozambique. The reports of Uzbekistan, Poland and Latvia would also be considered this week.

Ms. Momal-Vanian said that the Human Rights Committee had now completed its reviews of the reports of Bolivia, Djibouti, Mauritania, Mozambique and Uruguay and would meet mainly in private this week, before closing the session on Friday 1 November.

Looking ahead, Ms. Momal-Vanian announced that the Committee on Enforced Disappearances and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights would start new sessions on Monday 4 November. Background press releases would be distributed on Thursday afternoon.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) would hold a press conference on Wednesday 30 October in Press Room 1 at 10 a.m. to launch the annual State of the World Population Report, this year entitled ‘Motherhood and Childhood: facing the challenge of teenage pregnancy’.

The United Nations Environment Programme and the Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions would hold a joint press conference on Wednesday, 30 October, at noon in Press Room 1. The subject would be the outcome of the ninth meeting of the Persistent Organic Pollutants Review Committee of the Stockholm Convention.

The Human Rights Committee would hold a press conference to launch its Concluding Observations on Bolivia, Djibouti, Mauritania, Mozambique and Uruguay on Thursday, 31 October, at 1.30 p.m. in Press Room 1. Sir Nigel Rodley, the Chairperson of the Committee would be speaking.

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The representatives of International Labour Organization, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the United Nations Children’s Fund attended the briefing but did not speak.
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The webcast for this briefing is available here: webtv.un.org/media.