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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

11 September 2015

Ahmad Fawzi, Director a.i. of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was also attended by spokespersons for the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the United Nations Human Rights Council, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the United Nations Refugee Agency and the World Health Organization.

Geneva Activities

The Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families will today publish its concluding observations for the four States reviewed this session – Cabo Verde, Guinea, the Seychelles and Timor-Leste – on its website. The Committee closed its session in a meeting on Wednesday 9 September and UNIS had issued a round-up press release, which could be accessed here.

The Committee on Enforced Disappearances will next meet in public at 3 p.m. on Thursday, 17 September, to discuss the Convention on Enforced Disappearances with States parties, United Nations organizations and specialized agencies, Intergovernmental Organizations, National Human Rights Institutions, non-governmental organizations and civil society. The Committee would close its ninth session next Friday, 18 September. A background release with more details can be found here.

The Conference on Disarmament would next meet in public at 10 a.m. on Tuesday,
15 September, in the Council Chamber when it will hear a statement by the newly elected President of the First Committee of the General Assembly, Ambassador von Oosterom from the Netherlands. The Conference on Disarmament’s 2015 session officially concludes on 18 September.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child would begin its seventieth session on Monday, 14 September, at Palais Wilson in Geneva. The Committee would review nine country reports during the session: United Arab Emirates, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, Poland, Brazil, Chile, Timor-Leste, Madagascar and Cuba. A background press release was available here.

The United Nations Human Rights Council would start its thirtieth regular session at
9 a.m. on Monday, 14 September in Room XX of the Palais des Nations. The session would last for three weeks, until Friday, 2 October. More information can be found in the summary of Human Rights Council spokesperson Rolando Gomez’s briefing and in the UNIS background press release here.

Catherine Huissoud, for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) announced that UNCTAD Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi would give a press conference proposing four new action packages to eradicate global poverty, contained in the Report of the Secretary-General of UNCTAD to UNCTAD XIV. The press conference would take place on Monday, 14 September at 12.30 p.m. Press Room 1, and the new report would be sent out to the media by email today, she noted.

The United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) would hold a press conference on Thursday, 17 September at 11 a.m. in Press Room 1 on the subject of the International Forum on Public-Private Partnerships for Sustainable Development. The unique forum, to be held in Annemasse from 29 to 30 October 2015, would explore how public-private partnerships could serve as a tool to achieve sustainable development locally. The following people would be speaking: Ms. Elisabeth Laurin, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations Office in Geneva, Ms. Sally Fegan-Wyles, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General, Executive Director of UNITAR, and Mr. Christian Dupessey, President of the Urban Agglomeration of Annemasse and Mayor of Annemasse.

Syria

On behalf of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, Mr. Staffan de Mistura, Mr. Fawzi said he would like to clarify recent comments made by the Envoy regarding the refugee situation in Europe.

During his last press encounter in Brussels, Mr. de Mistura said that the influx of refugees into Europe was due to the existence of Da’esh and the ongoing conflict in Syria.

The Special Envoy said that more than 230,000 deaths had been recorded so far, due to the use of indiscriminate weaponry by all parties to the conflict. He therefore reminded the international community of the urgent necessity to join forces in finding a political solution to the conflict and putting an end to the bloodshed.

Mr. Fawzi, in response to questions about political efforts to end the conflict in Syria, reminded the press that the Special Envoy was making serious efforts to achieve a political resolution to the Syrian conflict and was in touch with all parties, not only Governments but also humanitarian agencies and civil societies. Just two days ago,
Mr. de Mistura made the point that the ongoing conflict in Syria was pushing Syrians out of the country.

The Special Envoy was currently occupied in putting together working groups, implementing an idea for an international contact group, and would soon be traveling to New York to brief the Secretary-General. Mr. de Mistura was in regular contact with all the humanitarian coordinators, including in Damascus. He constantly emphasized to Member States that were involved in the pursuit of a resolution how vital it was that they united and came together to find a way out of the mess. Everyone in the United Nations system was involved in trying to end the conflict – nobody was sitting on their hands.

Refugee crisis in Europe

William Spindler, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), spoke about the proportion of refugees arriving in Europe from Syria. More Syrians were arriving into Greece than Italy, where the proportion was around 70 per cent, UNHCR estimated. Of the 381,000 people who had crossed the Mediterranean this year, landing in Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain, 50 per cent were Syrians, 13 per cent were Afghans, eight per cent were Eritreans, four per cent were Nigerians and three per cent were Somalis. All five of the biggest national groups crossing the Mediterranean came from countries – Syria, Afghanistan. Eritrea, Nigeria and Somalia –that were suffering from conflict and/or human rights abuses.

Mr. Spindler also briefed on the European Commission’s proposals to relocate refugees in Europe, saying UNHCR welcomed them and called for their full and swift implementation. The proposed relocation scheme for 160,000 refugees from Greece, Italy and Hungary would go a long way to address the crisis. UNHCR initial estimates indicated even higher needs but the focus must now be on ensuring that all Member States took part in the initiative and that it was swiftly implemented. When being relocated, refugees’ needs, preferences and specific qualifications should be taken into account to the extent possible.

The relocation scheme could only succeed if it was accompanied by large scale emergency reception, assistance and registration efforts in the countries most impacted by arrivals, particularly Greece, Hungary and Italy. When disembarking in Europe or entering the European Union, refugees must find a welcoming environment and immediate response to their basic needs, said Mr. Spindler.

More information could be found in the briefing note, available here.

A journalist who had recently returned from reporting on the camps in eastern parts of the European Union, including Hungary, asked why UNHCR did not appear to be present there. Mr. Spindler replied that UNHCR had 25 staff present at the Hungarian border where it was running a collection centre for new arrivals. UNHCR was also present at the main station in Budapest and at the border with Austria. UNHCR’s presence was mainly small monitoring units, but it was being stepped up.

UNHCR was very concerned about the conditions in the camps and reception centres for asylum seekers, which were appalling, said Mr. Spindler in answer to another question. The conditions were slowly getting better but were still far from meeting international standards, and UNHCR wanted to help the authorities in that endeavour. UNHCR had offered 300 prefab refugee housing units to accommodate refugees who were waiting to be registered, and yesterday (Thursday, 10 September) Hungary had accepted the offer. The units were now being delivered. UNHCR was also sending emergency aid for 95,000 people to the region, to countries including Hungary, Serbia, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Greece.

Asked whether UNHCR was concerned about the mobilization of the Hungarian army along the border, Mr. Spindler said UNHCR Director for Europe, Vincent Cochetel, had been in Budapest this week discussing the matter with the authorities. In fact UNHCR had called for armies to be mobilized in affected countries in order to help the refugees, as seen in Germany. Mr. Spindler said he was unsure what the role of the Hungarian army would be. UNHCR was closely following the situation and expected the Hungarian authorities to respect the rights of refugees, whether it was the army, the police or the civilian authorities.

Mr. Spindler said UNHCR was publishing a document today which called for the establishment of centres where people could receive assistance the moment they entered European Union territory, whether in Greece, Italy or Hungary, and where they could be screened and interviewed. Those deemed to be in need of international protection could then be relocated within the European Union. UNHCR hoped the European Union would seriously consider its proposals at its meeting on Monday.

Child refugees in Syria and Europe

Christophe Boulierac for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), introduced Peter Salama, UNICEF Regional Director for Middle East and North Africa, who briefed via telephone from New York about unmet humanitarian needs in Syria and the child refugee crisis in Europe.

In the past few weeks the focus had been on the number of Syrian refugees in central Europe, said Mr. Salama, and given more than a quarter of the people crossing into Europe this year were children – some 100,000 – UNICEF welcomed that. However, it was important to remember that countries such as Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon had already taken in ten times the total number of asylum seekers reaching Europe this year – an estimated four million Syrian refugees.

Life in Syria was a living hell, said Mr. Salama. He urged the media not to forget the root causes of the refugee crisis, saying given the ongoing conditions there for the last five years it was no surprise that the war in Syria was making its way to Europe’s shores and the majority of the refugees coming to Europe (70 to 80 per cent) were Syrian.

Millions of people in Syria were living under siege. Water supplies to population centres were being deliberately cut off. Education and health facilities and their personnel were regularly targeted. Large numbers of children had been killed or maimed by area bombardments, rockets, mortars, vehicle-born improvised explosives, booby-traps, landmines, and cluster munitions. Boys, at increasingly young ages – some as young as eight years old – were being forcibly recruited into fighting forces. Mass abduction had become a common feature of the conflict. Cases of sexual slavery and early and forced marriage carried out by fighting forces were well documented.

The future of Syria’s children was being taken away from them in many ways. A UNICEF report ‘Education Under Fire’ published last week showed that an estimated two million children were unable to reach their schools. A quarter of Syria’s schools had been destroyed or repurposed by the military as training or detention camps. Around 20 per cent of Syria’s school children had to cross active frontlines just to get to school and take their exams, and 50,000 teachers had left their posts. There was a risk that an entire generation of Syria’s children and young people would be lost.

We shouldn’t be surprised that people were leaving Syria to salvage a future for themselves and their families, said Mr. Salama. Given the current outlook, the situation for Syria and the surrounding refugee-hosting countries could only get worse, as Syria transitioned from a failing State to a failed State.

UNICEF was calling on Europe to ensure that refugee children had access to health care and protection services and that asylum policies took into consideration the best interest of the child. It had to be ensured that children were not exploited at any point of their journey, from country of origin to final destination. Libya was a place of specific concern in that regard, said Mr. Salama, as it was close to being a failed State itself and it was an important staging post for trafficking and migration to Europe.

UNICEF called on all parties in Syria to respect the laws of war, and to allow humanitarian assistance in all areas. UNICEF called on the donor community to ensure that refugee-hosting countries, their partners, and humanitarian programmes in Syria were fully funded. “We have to recall that the international community itself has failed Syria and that ultimately none of this will stop until a political solution is found for Syria”, concluded Mr. Salama.

A UNICEF press release urging European leaders turning new commitments to refugees and migrants into action for children was released today and can be read here.

Responding to a question about whether the estimated seven million internally displaced people in Syria would also become refugees, Mr. Salama said it was difficult to predict concretely how many people would be on the move crossing borders, but it was true that there were millions of displaced people in Syria and as life increasingly became intolerable there and Syria became a failed State, more people would decide to flee and seek refuge in surrounding countries, in Europe and beyond.

A journalist asked about reports that chemical weapons were being used widely in Syria, and how that would affect the numbers of people fleeing the country. Mr. Salama said he couldn’t comment on specific reports of chemical weapon use by parties to the conflict in Syria but grave violations of international humanitarian law by all parties were very well documented. UNICEF called on parties to refrain from grave violations against children in particular, especially the recruitment, killing and maiming of children.

A journalist asked about UNICEF’s response to reports that the Danish Government had placed an advert in a Lebanese newspaper to discourage refugees from traveling to Denmark. Mr. Salama responded that in all likelihood such an advert would not affect a refugee’s decision-making process because their ultimate goal was to flee persecution, conflict and life or death situations. They were fleeing because they no longer saw a future for themselves and their family. They would not be easily put off and it was unlikely a newspaper advert would stop this incredible flow of people, the largest movement of people since World War II.

Mr. Salama responded to another question saying that UNICEF did not have concrete data but it estimated that 10,000 unaccompanied children had crossed the border alone from Syria into neighbouring countries. The real number could be much higher. Those children were very vulnerable, and UNICEF was calling for immediate family reunification programmes, which were critical to return the children either to their immediate family or extended family. UNICEF was offering to support child welfare experts and counselling services to assist the many children who were extremely traumatized following what they had experienced in Syria itself and on their journey to Europe.

Asked whether UNICEF was able to provide humanitarian assistance in ISIS-controlled areas, Mr. Salama said UNICEF had a large programme across Syria with 700 staff and large scale operational programmes in even the most difficult parts of the country. UNICEF programmes included water, healthcare, education, child protection, maternal and child health and national scale immunization programmes. The provision of water was vital as there were many attempts to deliberately cut off water supplies to major population centres in Syria. As the conflict was now five years in, UNICEF was trying to provide medium-term measures such as groundwater wells in place of underground water pipelines which were vulnerable to attack. So far UNICEF water programmes had reached five million Syrians.

Children must be protected, they must be treated with dignity and we must remember what they have been through for the last few years. UNICEF called on all parties involved to remember that the best interests of the child must prevail, concluded Mr. Salama.

Women, Child and Adolescent Health

Margaret Harris, for the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that a new global strategy entitled “Saving more lives and improving the health of women, children and adolescents – a new global strategy for 2030” would be released next week. On Monday, 14 September the British Medical Journal would publish a supplement written by global health experts highlighting the critical investments and actions that would have the greatest impact on saving women’s, children’s and adolescent’s lives.

A press conference on the new strategy would take place at 2.30 p.m. on Monday, 14 September in Press Room 1. The briefing will provide an overview of the progress made in reducing maternal and child mortality over the last 15 years as part of the Millennium Development Goals, and an opportunity to hear new evidence and lessons learned concerning vulnerable population groups, such as women, children and adolescents in conflict settings. The following people would be speaking at the press conference: Dr. Flavia Bustreo, Assistant Director-General, Family, Women’s and Children’s Health, World Health Organization and Dr. Marleen Temmerman, Director, Department of Reproductive Health and Research, World Health Organization.

Human Rights Council

Rolando Gomez, for the Human Rights Council (HRC), said the Human Rights Council would open its thirtieth session at 9 a.m. on Monday 14 September in Room XX of the Palais des Nations. The session would last for three weeks, until Friday, 2 October, and would cover a wide range of issues included many of those featured at the briefing.

Human Rights Council President Ambassador Ruecker would open the session with short remarks, followed by a substantive statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein at around 9.15 a.m. As usual the High Commissioner’s speech would touch on themes and country situations around the world and copies would be shared with the media under embargo beforehand. The High Commissioner’s speech would be followed by a general debate with statements from States and non-governmental organizations.

The Council would be addressed by three dignitaries on Monday: Mr. Mangala Samaraweera, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka, Mr. Roberto Campa, Undersecretary for Human Rights, Ministry of the Interior of Mexico and Mr. Hugo Swire, Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom. At 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Her Majesty Queen Mathilde of Belgian would give a keynote speech on gender integration at an event which would also include the participation of UNOG Director-General Michael Møller and High Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein.

Mr. Gomez highlighted a side event on Monday organized by the Permanent Mission of Argentina, a film screening of ‘True Truths’ about The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Asociación Civil Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo) which would take place at 6.15 p.m. in the cinema room at the Palais des Nations.

All speeches made in the plenary would be uploaded onto the Human Rights Council extranet, noted Mr. Gomez. More information about the session, including the full programme of work, can be found in UNIS background press release here.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog110915