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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
14 August 2012

Corinne Momal-Vanian, the Director of the UN Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was also attended by Spokespersons for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the UN Refugee Agency, the World Food Programme, the International Organization for Migration and the World Health Organization.

Iran earthquakes

Ms. Momal-Vanian indicated that the Secretary-General was deeply saddened by the loss of hundreds of lives and the destruction caused by the earthquakes that struck northwestern Iran on Saturday afternoon. The Secretary-General extended his sincere condolences to the Iranian Government and people and underlined that the United Nations stood ready to lend its assistance to efforts to respond to humanitarian needs created by the disaster.

Jessica Sallabank of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), providing an update about the situation following the earthquakes, said that the IFRC had been in daily contact with the Iranian Red Crescent, which was playing a lead role in this relief operation. It had been relatively difficult to get regular updates from the affected area – this was only Day 3 of the emergency.

Around 300 people were believed to have been killed but it was still too early to establish that as a final figure. The majority of those killed were in the remoter, rural areas where buildings were less sturdy and generally made of mud and bricks. The degree of damage to the specific geographical areas was visible from the information bulletin and the map available at the back of the room.

The Iranian emergency services said around 4,500 people had been injured; about 1,200 of these had been taken to hospitals, and the remaining 3,300 had been treated as outpatients and released. The search and rescue operation had been officially called off yesterday, but numbers relating to missing persons were not yet established.

The focus now for the Iranian Red Crescent was on helping people made homeless or temporarily evacuated. According to new information provided by the Iranian Red Crescent overnight, the organization had provided over 45,000 temporary shelters to people in the affected area. This did not necessarily mean 45,000 people were homeless – it could mean they were temporarily evacuated, or too frightened to go back. But over 45,000 people were currently are in temporary shelters. The Iranian Red Crescent had set up 9,674 tents for families in a local sports stadium and providing the basic essential such as water, food, cooking utensils kitchen sets and blankets.

The Iranian Red Crescent was a very strong national society, and were very experienced and well prepared when it came to dealing with earthquakes as Iran was an earthquake-prone country. At this point in time, and as far as the IFRC was aware of, there had been no request from Iran for outside assistance.

The Federation had not launched an appeal, Ms. Sallabank said. It was possible that National Societies in various countries could offer support bilaterally – including the Turkish Red Crescent which had sent in emergency supplies and heating equipment – or offer donations but it was incumbent upon the Iranian Red Crescent to accept or refuse these. The Federation and the Red Cross Red Crescent network had offered assistance and would continue to be in touch.

Syria

Jens Laerke of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs confirmed that Valerie Amos, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, had arrived in Syria this morning on a three-day mission to review the situation on the ground and to discuss ways of scaling up the response. In Damascus, Ms. Amos was scheduled to meet Government officials, including the Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and affected families.

Elisabeth Byrs of the World Food Programme said that since the beginning of July, and until 13 August, WFP had provided food assistance to 60,000 people in Aleppo. WFP initially planned to reach 125,000 people there but recent violence had hampered the efforts of partner organizations working with the Syrian Red Crescent. In Dara’a governorate, WFP had dispatched 500 food rations covering the needs of 2,500 beneficiaries on Thursday, thus starting the August cycle of dispatches. Despite the difficulties, and funding permitting, WFP hoped to be able step up its efforts and reach 1 million people by the end of September.

Adrian Edwards of the UN Refugee Agency said that with hundreds of people fleeing Syria daily to surrounding countries, UNHCR was scaling up its capacity for registering Syrian refugees. Registration was important because without it people might have difficulties in accessing basic help and services. In Tripoli, north Lebanon, on Monday UNHCR had opened a new registration facility. This would allow processing of up to 700 people per day. Currently, northern Lebanon had around 20,000 registered refugees. Thousands more were waiting to be registered even as new people arrived.

The centre’s opening followed an information campaign in Lebanon to encourage people to register. Many displaced Syrians had been reluctant to register. While refugees were receiving some humanitarian assistance pending registration, registration was critical to receive medical care and to enrol children in Lebanese public schools. Overall in Lebanon, and including those in the north, 37,740 Syrians had registered, with another 1,700 receiving assistance while they awaited registration. Of the registered population, most were in the North. Smaller numbers of refugees were in Beirut, Mount Lebanon, and the south of the country. Registration continued in the Bekaa valley and Beirut.

Meanwhile, the security situation for refugees in the northern border areas of Lebanon was deteriorating. Northern parts of the Wali Khalid area, where several hundred refugee families resided, were targeted by shelling from the Syrian side of the border two-three times per week. Despite this situation, many families preferred to stay in the unsafe border areas where they had found refuge with host families.

Over the past two days there had been a marked drop in the number of Syrians crossing into Jordan. Only 283 Syrians had crossed the border on Saturday night compared to what had been a steady average of about 400 people arriving each night since July. Refugees had reported being fired upon by artillery and small arms while travelling to the border.

Some 6,000 people were now residing at the Za’atri camp, with some 7,269 staying in other collective sites for refugees across the north of Jordan. While the desert wind continued to wreak havoc with the tents and life was tough for the refugees, UNHCR and its partners were working hard to improve conditions in the camp. The Moroccan field hospital was now in operation and the French hospital was being established, boosting medical facilities in the camp.

Meanwhile in Amman, there had been a surge in the number of people applying to register with UNHCR with some 300 requests a day over the past few days, compared to an average of 200 a day in the previous week. UNHCR did not believe the real size of the refugee population in Jordan was reflected in registration figures, as many people had been reluctant to register.

The pace of new arrivals to Turkey increased over the weekend, and 59,710 Syrians had now fled to Turkey. Not all of these people had yet been registered by the Turkish authorities. Ten thousand of these people had arrived over the past four days. Fifty percent of the refugees were children. Only a thousand of the new arrivals could go to the Gaziantep camp due to a shortage of space, while others were being placed in boarding schools in Oguzeli and a few hundred people were being accommodated at a gym in Islahiye.

Iraqis were continuing to return to Iraq from Syria, said Mr. Edwards. Some 25,906 had returned since 18 July, including about 700 over the weekend. Most of these had returned through the Al-Waleed land border. At the same time, Syrians continued to flee to Iraq with 117 people arriving at Al-Qa’im on Saturday and 115 on Sunday. People were being directed to the newly opened camp at Al-Qa’im.

In Syria, the situation is becoming more precarious for the refugee population, Mr. Edwards underlined. The minibus of a Somali refugee family of 11 trying to flee Tal Mneed and heading to Hornah had been hit by arms fire. A group of Somali refugees had been relocated by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent on Sunday from Hurnah to Masaken Barzeh where they were temporarily hosted by Somalis. But host families were feeling the strain and some had been evicted by landlords for hosting displaced people. As of 13 August the number of formally registered Syrian refugees and in the process of being registered in surrounding countries was 157,577, said Mr. Edwards.

Ms. Momal-Vanian said that the final written report of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria was scheduled to be made public in the afternoon of Wednesday, 15 August. There would be no embargo on the report.

Asked about an update on the appointment of a successor for Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan, Ms. Momal-Vanian indicated that in a letter to the Security Council, dated 10 August, the Secretary-General said that he was consulting intensively with the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States with a view to a appointing a successor to Mr. Annan as soon as possible.

Sudan/South Sudan

Ms. Byrs said that WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin on Monday began a visit to Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan. After starting her trip in Khartoum, Ms. Cousin was in South Sudan today, where she would meet senior Government officials, WFP staff, representatives of donors and partner organizations. On Wednesday, she planned to travel to the town of Bor, Jonglei State, where WFP had been assisting 33,000 residents and returnees.

WFP had set up three logistics hubs (Abu Jebeeha, Kadugli and Talodi) with a total of 1,400 metric tons of food to enable quick and timely delivery to areas where access could be severely limited now that South Kordofan was in the thick of the rainy season. WFP’s plan was to provide food assistance to a total of 170,000 people in South Kordofan over the next weeks. Since 10 June, WFP had reached 110,000 beneficiaries, said Ms. Byrs.

Christopher Lom of the International Organization for Migration said that IOM had helped two teenage Kenyan victims of human trafficking to return home from South Sudan. In the first case of its kind handled by IOM South Sudan, the teenagers, who had been recruited in a rural Kenyan community for domestic servitude and later forced marriage, had escaped and were referred to IOM and UNICEF by the Kenyan community.

Human trafficking had been identified as a growing problem in South Sudan, with evidence that trafficking for forced labour and the sex industry were particularly prevalent in the country’s urban centres. According to South Sudan’s Ministry of Justice, the country had drafted an Anti-Trafficking Bill. But there were currently no policies or processes in place to combat the trade and prosecute traffickers.

IOM was working closely with the Ministries for Interior, Justice and Foreign Affairs and had trained immigration and police personnel in the past 18 months. The South Sudanese Government needed both technical assistance and public awareness campaigns.

Ebola situation in Uganda

Responding to a question, Fadéla Chaib of the World Health Organization said that there were 23 cases of Ebola to date, including 16 deaths. All people who had come into contact with probable and confirmed cases were being followed-up for a period of 21 days. Among the contact persons, 165 were still being closely monitored for any possible sign or symptom of the illness.

WHO was working with the Ministry of Health and partners including Médecins sans Frontières. For the time being no new cases had been signalled and the situation was calm. Meanwhile, social mobilization activities and awareness raising activities were being conducted.

Somalia

Mr. Laerke said that the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, Mark Bowden, had issued a statement today expressing his deep concern about reports of civilian casualties in Kismaayo, which had been caused by naval gunfire and airstrikes.

As fighting for control of the town appeared imminent, Mr. Bowden reiterated his call for all parties to the conflict to make every effort to minimize the impact of conflict on civilians and to allow full humanitarian access. The statement was available at the back of the room.

Conference on Disarmament

Ms. Momal-Vanian said that the Conference on Disarmament was this morning holding a thematic debate on new types of arms, the global disarmament programme and arming transparency. The last thematic debate would be held on Tuesday, 21 August when delegations would present their point of views on the revitalisation of the Conference on Disarmament. Thereafter, as of 28 August and until the end of the session on 14 September, the Conference will examine its 2012 report to the General Assembly.

Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

Ms. Momal-Vanian said that the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination would examine the report of Senegal this afternoon, that of Fiji tomorrow afternoon and Belize on Thursday afternoon.