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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

1 April 2016

Ahmad Fawzi, Director a.i., United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing attended by spokespersons of the United Nations Refugee Agency, the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations Mine Action Service, the World Trade Organization, and the World Health Organization.

UN Secretary-General

Mr. Fawzi announced that the Secretary-General was in Washington, D.C. today to participate in the High-Level Nuclear Security Summit convened by President Obama, where he would bring attention to the vital role of the UN in thwarting the threats posed by the growing ability of terrorist networks to acquire weapons of mass destruction, as well as the ability of organizations to promptly respond to any serious emergency involving the use of weapons of mass destruction.  The Secretary-General had attended a working dinner last night at the White House hosted by President Barack Obama, as part of the Nuclear Security Summit that the President had convened.  The Secretary-General had highlighted a few specific areas related to the nuclear security agenda, such as the necessity to sustain high-level political momentum, the nexus between nuclear terrorism and cyber-security, and the urgent need to brief the gap between nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.

Yemen

Mr. Fawzi announced that preparations were underway for Yemeni-Yemeni peace talks to be held under the auspices of the UN in Kuwait, starting on 18 April.  The talks would aim to reach a comprehensive agreement which would end the war and allow the resumption of inclusive political dialogue in line with Security Council resolution 2216 and other relevant Security Council resolutions.

Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, said that he had been looking forward to the active participation of relevant parties to the talks, and that delegations should seize this opportunity to provide a mechanism for a return to a peaceful and orderly transition based on the GCC initiative and the outcomes of the National dialogue conference.  Preparations were moving at full speed.  UN experts had already been deployed to Sana’a and Riyadh, in order to welcome the delegations.   Another team was on its way to Kuwait to finalize preparations there.  A Note to Correspondents had been issued.

Geneva activities

Conference on Disarmament and Committees

Mr. Fawzi said that the Conference on Disarmament (CD) had ended the first part of its 2016 session.  The Conference would hold its next public meeting on 17 May, at 10 a.m.  The second part of the session would last until 1 July.  Then, the third (and last) part of the 2016 session would take place from 2 August to 16 September.

The Human Rights Committee had closed on 31 March its 116th session.  The concluding observations it had adopted on the seven State Parties reports reviewed during the session (South Africa, Namibia, Sweden, New Zealand, Slovenia, Costa Rica and Rwanda) were available on the OHCHR website.

The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities would end in the morning of 1 April its review of the report of Chile.  It would begin its review of the report of Slovakia in the afternoon on 1 April.  Other countries whose reports were to be reviewed during the session were: Serbia, Lithuania and Uganda.

Press conferences and other announcements

Mr. Fawzi announced a press conference held by the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre (UNCCT), on 5 April at 9:45 a.m. in Room III, in preparation for the Geneva Conference on Preventing Violent Extremism – The Way Forward (7-8 April 2016).  The speakers would be Stephan Husy, Ambassador-at-large for Counter-Terrorism, Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Switzerland, and Jehangir Khan, Director, Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force - United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre.

Keith Rockwell, for the World Trade Organization (WTO), said that on 7 April the Organization would be releasing its figures on the projections for trade expansion in 2016 and 2017, as well as the final trade figures for 2015.  Journalists were invited to come at 10 a.m. to the Centre William Rappard, Salle D on the 3rd floor, to review the press release and speak with economists, who would be available for questions.  At 11 a.m. that day, a press conference would take place with Director-General Roberto Azevêdo and the WTO Chief Economist Robert Koopman.

In response to a question, Mr. Rockwell said that next week’s report would contain figures related to agricultural trade.  He also specified that, regarding cotton, an agreement had been reached at the ministerial conference in Nairobi regarding two key aspects: the banning of export subsidies for all agricultural products, including cotton, and measures to improve market access for products from the least-developed countries, specifically the export of cotton to developed and emerging countries.  The question of domestic subsidies remained unsolved, but was included in broader agricultural negotiations as part of the Doha round.

Jessica Hermosa, for the World Trade Organization (WTO), announced that starting on 4 April, Saudi Arabia would be undergoing its second  trade policy review.  On 5 April, WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo would be attending a Heads of agencies’ meeting in berlin, Germany, to be hosted by Chancellor Angela Merkel. Also on 5 April, five regional trade agreements would be under consideration: between Canada and Korea, between Japan and Australia, as well as agreements of the European Free Trade Association with Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.  Those meetings would continue on 6 April.

Tarik Jasarevic, for the World Health Organization (WHO), reminded the press of the 6 April press briefing at 11 a.m. for World Health Day (7 April), and of the first-ever report on diabetes, available under embargo until 6 April at 9 p.m.  On 5 April, the WHO would be launching its humanitarian response plan, saying what the needs of the WHO and its health partners were in some 22 acute and protracted emergencies.  At 11:30 a.m. on 5 April, a press conference on the topic would take place in Room III with Dr. Rick Brennan, WHO Director of humanitarian emergencies.

The WHO’s representative for Syria could potentially be in Geneva in the week of 4 April, and a press briefing with her could be organized.  Also, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan would be visiting Angola on 4 and 5 April, as the country was facing a yellow fever outbreak.  She would meet with health authorities regarding the response plan.

On behalf of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Mr. Fawzi announced that humanitarian and development partners, including UN agencies, were joining thousands of Palestinian and international runners today in the annual Palestine Marathon in the city of Bethlehem, in support of Palestinians’ right to freedom of movement.  Freedom of movement was not only a right in itself, but was essential for the enjoyment of many other human rights.  However, the restrictions on freedom of movement imposed by Israel on the occupied Palestinian territory permeated almost all facets of everyday life and continued to separate Palestinians and fragment the territory.  The UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Aid and Development Activities, Robert Piper, who was running part of the Marathon himself, said “As many of us join this celebratory event, we remain acutely aware of the many barriers to freedom of movement faced by Palestinians every day. I am sorry to hear that Gazan runners, including last year’s Marathon winner Nader al Masri, have not been granted permits by the Israeli authorities to participate in today’s event for example.”

Mine awareness

Bruno Donat, for the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS), announced that on 4 April was the 11th anniversary of the International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action.  Landmines killed at least 10 people a day around the world and severely maimed countless more.  Some 40 per cent of those casualties were children.  In 2015, 64 square kilometres of land had been cleared of landmines. 

On 4 April an exhibition at the Palais would be launched at 1 p.m. at the Serpent Bar, showing art and photographs from several country programmes and youth in Geneva.  There would also be a “digital minefield” activity allowing participants to experience the feeling of walking in a minefield, with the use of their smartphone. On 5 April, there would be live 30-minute video link sessions allowing the public to interact with UNMAS country programmes and ask questions to those in the field.  The Secretary-General’s message for the International Day was available to the press.  A social media campaign around the 2016 theme of the International Day, “Mine Action is Humanitarian Action”, would also be launched on several platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, using the hashtag #MAHA.  Finally, in the week of 4 April UNMAS in Geneva would be launching the latest safety handbook on landmines, explosive remnants of war and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

In response to questions, Mr. Donat clarified that UNMAS was an operational agency working in the field upon a mandate which could come from the General Assembly, the Security Council, or the Secretary-General.  UNMAS was also the chair of the Inter-agency Coordination Group on Mine Action, regrouping 42 UN agencies, and the global coordinator of the mine action area of operation under the UNHCR-led global protection cluster.  UNMAS’ work focused on advocacy, mine-risk education, long-term policy-shaping and victim assistance, as well as emergency interventions in case of explosives-related hazards.

Migrants/refugees

Melissa Fleming, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that UNHCR was urging the parties to the recent EU-Turkey agreement on refugees and migrants to ensure all safeguards were in place before any returns began.  That was in light of continued serious gaps in both countries.  UNHCR did not object to returns of people without protection needs and who had not asked for asylum, providing that human rights were adhered to.

Across Greece, which had been compelled to host people because of closed borders elsewhere in Europe, numerous aspects of the systems for receiving and dealing with people who may need international protection were still either not working or absent.  There were currently around 51,000 refugees and migrants in the country, 5000 on the islands and 46,000 on the mainland.  Recent arrivals had spiked on 29 March at 766 after several days of arrivals averaging about 300 people a day.

On Lesvos, conditions had been deteriorating at the Moria “hotspot” facility, which since 20 March had been used to detain people pending a decision on deportation.  There were now some 2,300 people there.  This was above its stated capacity of 2,000.  People were sleeping in the open, and food supply was insufficient.  Anxiety and frustration was widespread.  Making matters worse, many families had become separated, with family members now scattered across Greece – and presenting an additional worry should returns begin.  On Samos, at the Vathy hotspot, reception conditions had also been worsening. Sanitation was poor, there was little help available for persons with special needs, and food distributions were chaotic.  There were currently up to 1,700 people staying at the Vial hotspot on Chios, which had a maximum capacity of 1,100.  UNHCR was very worried about the situation there.  Rioting on 31 March had left three people with stab injuries

In line with its global policy on promoting alternatives to detention, UNHCR had had to suspend services at all closed facilities, with the exception of protection monitoring and providing information on asylum procedures.

On the mainland, where people who had arrived before 20 March were staying, the situation was equally difficult.  Refugees and migrants were spread across some 30 sites, many awaiting the chance of relocation.  Conditions at the port of Piraeus and around Eidomeni near the border with former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia were dismal.

The risk of panic and injury in those sites and others was real in the current circumstances.  There had been further incidents reported in local media of fighting in the week of 28 March.

On 31 March, a boat carrying 22 Syrian and Somali nationals had been reported to have arrived at Otranto in South-eastern Italy, having travelled from Greece.  In response to a question, Ms. Fleming said that the boat arrival from Greece to Italy had been the first reported so far.

Without urgent further EU support, the limited capacity of the Greek asylum service to register and process asylum claims would create problems.  Limited hours of registration, daily ceilings on registrations, a lack of access to the Skype system for registration set up by the Asylum Services, were at present adding to the anxiety.

In Turkey, UNHCR had requested access to people returned from Greece, to ensure people could benefit from effective international protection and to prevent risk of refoulement.  UNHCR hoped that the Temporary Protection regulation required for granting or reinstating temporary protection status for Syrians readmitted from Greece would be adopted soon.

UNHCR had set out the safeguards that would be required for safe readmission from Greece to Turkey, most recently in a paper of 23 March: http://www.refworld.org/docid/56f3ee3f4.html

In response to questions, Ms. Fleming said that the Greek authorities were providing services inside the hotspots or detention facilities.  UNHCR monitors were present in the centres, but with an advisory and monitoring role.  The focus was on monitoring how the process was working and speaking to people to explain that they could seek asylum, but that that would not necessarily prevent them from being returned to Turkey.  There had been a lot of help promised by the European Union to Greece, and that help was strongly needed.  UNHCR’s concern was that the proper safeguards be put in place, and UNHCR had asked Turkey for access to people if and when they were being returned.  In response to another question, Ms. Fleming said that UNHCR did not have first-hand information about refoulement (following some reports of Afghans being sent back to their country from Turkey) but was seeking information from the authorities and other sources.

In response to other questions, Ms. Fleming said that the Secretary-General was very much in line with the need for safeguards to be put in place in order for people to be readmitted.  She also said that the situation in the hotspots was deteriorating as large numbers of people were being put in closed facilities, with little personnel and discouraging news being announced.  UNHCR was advising on what needed to be put in place, and hoping for rapid change after issuing the current public warning.

In regards to what was needed for the required safeguards to be put in place, Ms. Fleming said that in some cases laws would need to be passed in Greece and in Turkey.  Other safeguards included having enough capacity and legal expertise: judges and lawyers who could give people the individuals hearings promised in the EU-Turkey deal.  On the Turkish side, returning Syrians would have to come under the temporary protection regime despite having left.  It was difficult to put all of those safeguards in place within a few days. 

She also said that UNHCR was encouraged by the momentum brought by the 30 March conference and the positive statements made, and believed that there would be now more sustained pressure to pledge places.  A combination was needed between efforts to stop the war, financial support to fund humanitarian organizations, and support for the host countries in the region, who were hosting the vast majority of the refugees, by sharing the responsibility.  The conference had also allowed to raise awareness of a menu of choices beyond resettlement (student visas, family reunification, humanitarian visa schemes).

Ms. Fleming also said that UNHCR had already identified people for resettlement and was matching them with the countries that would welcome them.  In response to another question, Ms. Fleming confirmed that 50 per cent of the funds pledged at the London conference had been allocated, and only 8 per cent of the funds had been received.  

Joel Millman, from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) gave an update on the Mediterranean migrant arrivals.  IOM believed that at least 170 000 migrants and refugees had entered Europe via seaborne routes through the first three months of 2016.  It was important to note that that was more than eight times the total at the same time in 2015, which was 20,700.  Mr. Millman said that it was after that point in 2015 that IOM had started seeing larger numbers coming to Greece.  There seemed to be no sign of flows slowing down although numbers to Greece had fallen dramatically recently.  Italy was becoming much busier.  A tragedy had been reported on 31 March when at least 89 people had gone missing off the coast of Libya when a dinghy sank.  Survivors had been brought to Libya and IOM had not yet had the chance to debrief them, but there were increasing signs of abuse of migrants who were forced onto boats in Libya.  IOM had been seeing this for quite some time.

Child deaths made up an alarming number of the missing at sea, principally on the Eastern Mediterranean route.  Mr. Millman said that there had been many claims from the press and articles that correlated the EU-Turkey agreement with the spike in activity to Italy.  However, the numbers from IOM did not show that at all.  IOM had not seen more than six Syrians on the Italian route since the beginning of 2016, but large numbers of sub-Saharan Africans had been seen.

In response to a journalist’s question, Mr. Millman said that in 2015, the overall numbers had dropped from 170,000 to 153,000, but it was important to note that that shortfall had been more than doubled by the number of Syrians who hadn’t followed that route, as much of that traffic had moved onto Turkey.  However, it had been more than made up for by new traffic from Nigeria, Gambia, Senegal, Mali, and other countries that were not usually identified with conflict or famine.  A middle-class migrant phenomenon was developing, with smugglers strongly marketing the service and the Libyan chaos providing opportunities for smuggling gangs.  New countries concerned included Togo and Burkina Faso, which had not been migrant centres on this route previously.  Mr. Millman emphasized that IOM had been doing a lot of repatriation of people stranded in Libya, who wanted to leave because of the deteriorating security situation.

IOM had been doing a lot of repatriation every year, over 40,000 in the last 10 years.  In Libya, it tended to be 200 to 300 people per event, with close to nine charters in 2016 so far.  On a day to day basis people were usually sent on commercial jets through Istanbul.

In response to another question, Mr. Millman said that the EU-Turkey deal could be responsible for the recent fall of Greece arrivals, but that there was no conclusive analysis on that point as of yet.

Mr. Millman indicated that Africans represented over 90 per cent of the 18,000 who had arrived in Italy in 2016.  They came from the Horn of Africa and from sub-Saharan Africa, with Nigeria being the biggest sender of migrants on this route.  The African migration routes were extremely risky.  IOM had a hot spot in Niger to talk to migrants and counsel them on what lay ahead.  There was speculation that there could be more deaths in the Sahara than what had been seen on the Mediterranean.  In the Horn of Africa, the police had said that out of the approximately 400 people a year who died trying to get to the Arabian peninsula from Djibouti, three quarters died in Djibouti either in car accidents or of dehydration crossing the arid terrain on the way to the coast.  IOM believed the same happened in the Sahara, probably in much greater numbers

He also said that the worst cases of mistreatment of migrants were in Sudan and in Yemen, with people coming from the Horn of Africa being kidnapped for ransom.  That was also happening to a certain extent in the Sahara.  IOM had repatriated people who had been held for ransom and mistreated in detention centres in Libya run by militias under contract with the authorities.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog010416