REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
17 August 2012
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was also attended by Spokespersons for and Representatives of the World Health Organization, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the World Food Programme, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the United Nations Refugee Agency, and the International Organization for Migration.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination this week considered the reports of Senegal, Fiji and the situation in Belize in absence of a report. The Committee was meeting in private today. Next week, the Committee would be taking up the reports of the Republic of Korea, Austria and Finland.
The Conference on Disarmament would be meeting on Tuesday, 21 August, exceptionally at 3 p.m. It would be holding a thematic discussion on the revitalization of the Conference.
The Palais des Nations would be closed on Monday, 20 August. The next briefing would be on Tuesday, 21 August as usual.
World Humanitarian Day
Ms. Momal-Vanian said available at the back of the room was a media advisory on World Humanitarian Day. The United Nations General Assembly had designated 19 August, the day of the 2003 bombing targeting the United Nations in Iraq, as World Humanitarian Day to honour those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and those who continue to help others. On 21 August, the United Nations family and its humanitarian partners in Geneva would come together at the Palais des Nations to mark the day. This year, it would highlight the role and importance of journalists reporting from disaster and crisis areas. In a televised debate from the Palais, top international reporters and United Nations Principals would discuss the current and future role of mass media in crises.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said the debate would be moderated by Darius Rochebin of Radio Television Suisse. Participating would be the Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, the High Commissioner for Refugees, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross and a number of senior journalists. The debate would be held from 4:30 p.m. to 5:50 p.m. in Room XX of the Palais des Nations. It would be followed by the unveiling of the repositioned plaque honouring those who died in the 19 August 2003 bombing targeting the United Nations in Iran (outside room XIX).
Concerning World Humanitarian Day and the social media campaign, the United Nations aimed to reach 1 billion people by 19 August through the www.whd-iwashere.org link. Around 100 million people had so far been reached. All messages would be stored until 19 August and then they would be automatically sent out as one voice, along with a special World Humanitarian Day performance by Beyoncé.
Mr. Jens Laerke of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that the General Assembly resolution that instituted the World Humanitarian Day indicated that it was to commemorate those who lost their lives and who put their lives at risk. So the commemoration was also to acknowledge those who carried on the work as well as pay respect to those who had perished. And the commemoration raised general awareness about humanitarian action in the world. It was very much in that vein that this ambitious plan had been developed for this year’s World Humanitarian Day, where they were trying to reach 1 billion people with a message. Social media was a very good way to do so and they were keeping it simple and asking people to sign up to it and express support or pledge a good deed on that day. So the Day had a three-fold message, to commemorate, to acknowledge those who carried on the work, and to mobilize more people to do it.
Mr. Laerke added that according to the numbers provided by non-governmental partners, around 26 national and international humanitarian actors had died around the world so far in 2012.
Elizabeth Byrs of the World Food Programme, responding to another question about the number of victims, said WFP was the biggest operational agency and over the past year, 12 WFP staff, contractors or partner staff, had been killed while working on the front lines of hunger in Somalia, Sudan, Haiti, South Sudan and Côte d’Ivoire. On 1 August in South Kordofan, a WFP driver was killed. He had a wife and five children. The staff member who was with him in the car was badly injured and had just been released from hospital. It was unacceptable that humanitarian workers faced such physical violence, intimidation and attacks in their daily struggle.
Fadela Chaib of the World Health Organization said she wanted to introduce the Director of the Emergency Risk Management and Humanitarian Response Department at WHO.
Richard Brennan, Director of the Emergency Risk Management and Humanitarian Response Department, said he was pleased to be meeting the press for the first time and that his visit coincided with World Humanitarian Day, which was an important observance across the United Nations system and humanitarian agencies generally. WHO had recently gone through a reform process concerning humanitarian work, including some restructuring and development of new systems and structures.
In response to a question on humanitarian work in Africa, Mr. Brennan said the areas for substantial concern for WHO and many of the humanitarian agencies, particularly the health agencies, included North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where cholera was an issue and WHO was playing an important role in coordinating the response and collecting the appropriate information to allow the humanitarian agencies to prioritize and direct the response. Other areas were the Sahel area, with the ongoing food security crisis there and high rates of malnutrition, and the health consequences of this. WHO had a regional strategy across nine countries in Africa and it was harmonizing its approach, playing the same important role around coordination, information management, distribution of supplies, technical expertise, and supporting Member States. Another substantial challenge right now was Somalia. WHO was the lead agency of the health cluster in Somalia and it had made substantial progress in improving access to services over recent months. Those were just three examples of WHO’s humanitarian work in Africa.
Jens Laerke of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, updating journalists on the situation in Abyan in the south of Yemen, said OHCA had launched a separate response plan for the south that followed the fighting that took place last May. Around 320,000 people now required urgent assistance in Abyan and southern Yemen, including internally displaced persons, host families and war affected people. It was estimated that the fighting in May displaced 237,000 people, and some of the displaced persons had now returned home but rebuilding their livelihood was a daunting task. The people in Abyan faced significant food, shelter, health, water, sanitation, education, and protection needs. The latest estimate of projects for Abyan within the Abyan and south Yemen plan stood at $ 92 million. OCHA had managed to get that funded at about 25 per cent. This was relatively quick and well funded for an appeal that came on top of the regular consolidated appeal for Yemen. That appeal was revised at mid-year, it now targeted 6 million persons throughout Yemen with assistance through the end of 2012, and that was a 52 per cent increase from the number of beneficiaries at the beginning of the year. The funding requested for the global appeal for Yemen was $ 584 million and it was currently funded at 45 per cent.
Marixie Mercado of the United Nations Children’s Fund said UNICEF was raising the alarm over the recruitment of children in northern Mali. UNICEF had received credible information that armed groups in the north were increasingly recruiting and using children for military purposes. While it was difficult to establish precise figures, reliable sources had stated that the numbers involved were in the hundreds and appeared to be escalating. In July, UNICEF reported that at least 125 boys aged between 12 and 18 were directly associated with armed groups in the north. UNICEF was calling on all parties to the conflict as well as leaders and community members to make sure that children were protected from the harmful impact of armed conflict and did not participate in hostilities. The recruitment and use of children under the age of 18 by armed groups was prohibited by international law, and constituted a war crime and crime against humanity if children were recruited under the age of 15. UNICEF had received 28 per cent of its $ 58 million appeal for 2012.
Adrian Edwards of the United Nations Refugee Agency said journalists may be aware that in Australia a panel of experts early this week issued recommendations, which had now been approved by parliament, under which asylum-seekers would be processed in offshore camps. As things stood, the proposals raised many complex legal, protection, policy and operational issues. There was value in those parts of the proposals as they related to regional capacity building in South-East Asia, which UNHCR had long supported. However, the strong deterrent elements reflected in the re-establishment of offshore processing in the Pacific raised concerns and many questions. UNHCR’s preference remained an arrangement which would allow asylum-seekers arriving by boat into Australian territory to be processed in Australia, which would be consistent with general practice. UNHCR did not want to see a return to lengthy delays in remote island centres for asylum seekers and refugees before durable solutions were found. UNHCR was also concerned about the psychological impact for those individuals who would be affected. It was essential that any arrangement involving the transfer of asylum-seekers contained, in both the formal arrangement and its practical implementation, the fundamental human rights and protection safeguards that were owed by Convention States. UNHCR hoped to discuss the details of the changes with the Australian Government in the near future.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said that available at the back of the room was a note by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the same topic. In the note, High Commissioner Navi Pillay welcomed recent efforts in Australia to institute more comprehensive regional cooperation on migration, but expressed concern that some aspects of the proposed changes could place at risk the human rights of migrants and asylum-seekers.
In response to a question, Mr. Edwards said this had been an issue in Australian politics for a number of years. Asked if the Australian move was a breach of the Convention, he said that technically, it was not, but they had to look at how the recommendations would be implemented. Their concern related to the notion of putting asylum-seekers and refugees in an offshore location where they may be kept for very long periods of time before solutions were found.
Ecuador and Assange
A journalist noted that Ecuador had granted asylum to Julien Assange, and the United Kingdom was saying that they would not grant him safe passage out of the country. If the United Kingdom carried this out, would it be in breach of international law? In response, Mr. Edwards of UNHCR said that this was a case of diplomatic asylum that was being offered by an individual State, which was not the same as asylum for refugee populations in general, which was why it fell outside of the UNHCR mandate. This was a question for the British and Ecuadorian authorities.
Mr. Edwards of UNHCR said there had been a further sharp rise in the number of Syrians fleeing to Turkey. Between Tuesday and Wednesday, 3,400 people crossed into the provinces of Kilis and Hatay, according to local officials. With these latest arrivals, there were now almost 65,000 Syrians in the nine camps in Turkey, though not all were formally registered yet. Around 40 per cent of these people had arrived in Turkey during August. UNHCR was scaling up its humanitarian assistance in Turkey and would provide family tents, blankets, kitchen sets and other relief on an emergency basis to assist the Government of Turkey in addressing urgent needs.
In Jordan, Mr. Edwards said UNCHR was working to improve conditions for the Syrian refugees. There was now an offer of containers to replace the tents. More sanitation facilities were also being built. UNICEF was bringing in water daily, but plans were underway for a well as well. WFP was providing over 12,000 meals a day.
In Lebanon, UNHCR and its partners were urgently searching for alternative shelter for an increasing number of refugees staying in schools before enrolment started in September. In the north of Lebanon, UNHCR was looking for alternative shelter for around 30 families also staying in schools.
In Iraq, Mr. Edwards said UNHCR was helping the Iraqi authorities expand the camp in Al-Qaem further and was discussing a new camp in the Al-Kasak area to accommodate the growing number of Syrian refugees. This would be the fourth camp in Iraq for Syrian refugees.
In Syria itself, UNHCR’s operations continued, despite the shelling, explosions and armed clashes. Refugees were continuing to visit UNHCR offices for food, health, registration and counseling. UNHCR was continuing with its community visits, distributing relief.
The total number of formally registered Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq now totaled 170,116, although the real number of refugees was higher as not all refugees were registered.
Jumbe Omari Jumbe of the International Organization for Migration said IOM in Damascus had started to distribute non-food aid through non-governmental organization partners to internally displaced families sheltering in four Damascus schools. These facilities sheltered a great number of children and infants. The families fled fighting near their homes in Damascus in the third week in July. Thousands of them sought shelter in 330 schools nationwide. IOM was planning to distribute further hygiene kits to families. Concurrently, IOM continued to help stranded migrant workers to return home. IOM had already helped 606 third country nationals to fly home on commercial flights and another 269 were booked and a further 339 persons were registered. IOM was still receiving requests from embassies to assist another 3,690 individuals.
Elizabeth Byrs of the World Food Programme said that since the beginning of July in Aleppo, WFP had helped 100,000 persons. WFP was increasing its operations as the number of those in need of food assistance increased. WFP hoped to reach another 25,000 persons in Aleppo to reach their goal of 125,000 persons. WFP continued to search for local partners to develop its operations. WFP was nearing its goal of feeding 850,000 persons in Syria and by the end of September, it hoped to reach one million persons.
In response to a question on the humanitarian situation in Syria, Mr. Brennan (WHO) said WHO was very much involved in the humanitarian action in Syria at present. Everyone acknowledged what a difficult work environment it was there for humanitarian agencies. Big concerns around access remained. For the health sector, access was not the only concern but also the availability of drugs and supplies and the safety of health workers and health facilities. WHO played an important role in extending health services. Right now it was operating through local non-governmental organizations four mobile clinics. Each of the mobile clinics serviced an estimated 90,000 persons. WHO was looking to extend its partnership with additional non-governmental organizations to initiate more mobile clinics. WHO was also involved in distributing medicines and medical equipment and supplies and it was working to improve the availability of health information in Syria. WHO also played a coordination role, co-chairing the Health Sector Coordination Unit.
In response to another question about attacks on health facilities in Syria, Mr. Brennan said that WHO had heard through the Ministry of Health that an estimated 38 hospitals and 149 other clinics had been either substantially damaged or destroyed. This clearly worsened access to healthcare. There was also concern about damage to the broader public health infrastructure, water supplies, sewage systems and so on. That was why WHO was redoubling its efforts in monitoring the rates of disease. There was an early identification of increased rates of diarrhea in rural Damascus and WHO’s early investigations suggested that this was because of the contamination of the water supply due to disruption of the sewage system.
Mr. Jumbe of IOM said the International Conference on Immigration Inspection and Service would be held next week in Shanghai, China. IOM Director General William Lucy Swing would provide opening remarks.
Mr. Jumbe also spoke about how Argentina was using a MERCOSUR decision to regularize over one million migrants. There were more details in the briefing notes.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said she would like to announce on behalf of the World Meteorological Organization that in response to media queries about the current drought situation in the United States, one of WMO’s leading climate experts would hold a press conference at 11:30 a.m. after the briefing on Tuesday, 21 August.