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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
6 September 2013

Alessandra Vellucci, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by the Spokespersons for the United Nations Children’s Fund, United Nations Refugee Agency, United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and International Organization for Migration.

Syria

Marixie Mercado, for the United Nations Children’s Programme (UNICEF) gave an update on the education situation for Syrian and Syrian refugee children in neighbouring countries. Almost two million Syrian children had dropped out of basic education, or about 40 per cent of all pupils registered in grades 1 to 9. Around half of those children had fled the violence in Syria to neighbouring countries. Most of the children were not in school.

For a country that was on the verge of achieving universal primary education before the conflict started, the numbers were staggering, Ms. Mercado said. As schools were set to re-open in Syria and neighbouring countries over the coming weeks, the task of bringing children back to some form of learning would be nothing short of monumental.

In Lebanon, the public education system had capacity for 300,000 Lebanese students, but the government estimated there would be close to 550,000 school-aged children Syrian children in the country by the end of the year. In 2013, just 15 per cent of Syrian refugee children were studying in formal or non-formal systems.

In Jordan, around two-thirds of approximately 150,000 Syrian school-aged children were out of school. There were about 30,000 school-aged children in Za’atari camp, but space for just 14,000. Attendance was low, even among registered students, especially among girls.

In Iraq, nine out of 10 refugee children living in host communities were out of school. The past weeks had seen over 50,000 new refugees to the Kurdistan region, around half of whom were children who would need support to keep learning.

Most children could not go to school for a whole host of reasons – intensifying violence inside Syria, language challenges, access, security, poverty, and tensions within communities. Thirty months into the conflict, children were becoming increasingly afraid, angry and frustrated. The risk of a lost generation became more acute with each day that they were out of school.

In Syria and across the region, UNICEF was supporting efforts to bring children back to continuous learning. In Syria, that included a home-based self-learning programme for conflict zones. In Lebanon, that included schools set up in buses that reached both Lebanese and Syrian refugee children. In Jordan, imams and community leaders were helping to promote a return to learning. In Iraq, learning spaces were being set up as quickly as possible to accommodate the most recent wave of refugees.

UNICEF was also supporting nationwide community mobilization campaigns in all the countries; a massive distribution of education and teaching materials; recruiting teachers; and setting up prefabricated classrooms.

However, far more attention and financial support was needed to provide more Syrian children with access to education. Of UNICEF’s $470 million appeal for Syria and the region for 2013, education was least funded, with just $51 million received out of $161 million requested.

Answering questions from journalists, Ms. Mercado spoke about the reasons for the low school attendance of girls in Jordan, and said the reason was safety concerns. Za’atri refugee camp was huge; therefore the distances children needed to travel to school were large. To tackle the problem UNICEF and UNHCR were working together to meet students at different parts of the camp and accompany them to school.

Answering a question about the possibility that armed groups were interfering in school curriculums, Ms. Mercado said she had no information on that. What she could say was that the education system in Syria had certainly been given a beating. Where schools were operating, there were not enough teachers, not enough classrooms, not enough resources. It was incredible that some children were still learning in that environment, which showed the extraordinary priority that Syrians placed on education. Parents spoke about the risks they incurred when they sent their children to school. UNICEF could say that children were going to learn wherever and however they could, and it was absolutely incumbent upon the international community to ensure they got the education they deserved.

Ms. Vellucci, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, highlighted a new press release from United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA) which stated that over half of its schools in Syria for Palestinian refugee students had closed, affecting 45,000 children, and of the Agency’s 118 schools in Syria, only 49 would reopen for the new school year.

Central African Republic

Melissa Fleming, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that a joint mission by UNHCR and Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to northern Central African Republic had reported burned and abandoned villages, massive displacement and evidence of widespread human rights violations.

UNHCR and OCHA staff travelled to the town of Paoua, 500-kilometres north of the Central African Republic capital, Bangui, last week. They found seven villages burned to the ground and deserted – and an eighth village partially burned - with villagers hiding in the bush.

The UNHCR team confirmed widespread lawlessness in the region. Local people spoke of physical assaults, extortion, looting, arbitrary arrest and torture by armed men. The villagers said their actions may have been in retaliation for a clash last month with self-defence groups who were trying to protect their families and property.

UNHCR was, in general, increasingly worried about the civilians caught in the middle of the fighting and who were at the mercy of anyone with a gun. In the village of Bedengui, 65 kilometres outside the Northern city of Paoua, UNHCR staff found people mourning the kidnapping and murder of four family-members. In Paoua, residents and displaced people living there said they spent the night in the bush for safety and returned to their homes only during the day. People were keeping away from roads to avoid detection. And the rains were making living conditions even worse.

It was difficult to say exactly how many people in northern Central African Republic had fled their homes, in part because of the insecurity there and restricted access. Before the Seleka alliance seized power in Bangui in March, almost 160,000 people lived in the affected area. With the outbreak of violence there late last month, thousands of people had fled.

As of Wednesday morning, UNHCR staff had registered 3,020 displaced people in the region – adding to the estimated total of at least 206,000 displaced people across the country since December. UNHCR repeated its call to the authorities in Central African Republic, and to all armed groups, to protect civilians and make sure aid agencies could reach people in need.

Ms. Fleming noted that the fighting and violence had also driven thousands across borders into neighbouring countries, and said the briefing note contained those figures and more details.

Answering questions from journalists, Ms. Fleming replied to a query about how UNHCR was delivering aid to affected areas and said access was a serious issue. The roads were notoriously difficult it and it had been an 11-hour drive to reach the affected area. Coupled with the security vacuum, staff just did not know what they might encounter. International aid agencies had to proceed with extreme caution; UNHCR, UNICEF, World Food Programme (WFP) and others were courageously trying to venture out and deliver aid, shelter, and everything needed for survival, to the affected communities. UNHCR were distributing supplies such as tarpaulins, mosquito nets and kitchen sets to displaced people. There were reports of a huge malaria problem, so the mosquito nets were especially vital.

Marixie Mercado, for the United Nations Children’s Programme (UNICEF) added that UNICEF was primarily delivering health supplies.

Answering a question about vigilante groups, Ms. Fleming said that with the complete lack of security, people were taking it upon themselves to defend not only their own properties but also their communities. There had been a proliferation of arms. There were many types of armed groups, and it was very difficult for UNHCR to point out who was responsible. What she could say was that there had been a complete breakdown of any semblance of security for civilians in the Central African Republic. There was a huge element of lawlessness that had fostered the emergence of other armed groups, other than the ones currently in power, groups that were less concerned with politics than with their own survival and local situation.

Asked how UNHCR guaranteed the safety of its staff in that environment, Ms. Fleming replied that she could not get into the specifics of security arrangements, for security reasons. However, it was important to acknowledge how heroic UN humanitarian actors sometimes were in being willing to work in such conditions. The UN had a very vigorous security system that would not allow staff to venture forward when it believed the security situation was too dangerous to operate in, although there was always some level of risk.

European Union - China Migration

Jumbe Omari Jumbe, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said this week IOM was hosting a joint European Union and China seminar on migration and mobility in Beijing. Migration flows between China and the European Union had been steadily increasing in recent years, with rising numbers of Chinese tourists, students and business people visiting EU Member States. At the same time China was becoming an increasingly attractive country of destination for Europeans.

IOM Director General William Lacy Swing opened the session yesterday, which was being attended by over 100 senior Chinese and European Union officials including Elvinas Jankevicius, Lithuania’s Vice Minister of Interior and Zhang Ming, Assistant Minister at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The seminar, which would end today, was funded by the European Union and was held under the framework of IOM’s ongoing: “Capacity Building for Migration and Management in China” project.

UNECE Activities, Exhibition on Post Disaster Housing

Jean Rodriguez, for the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), said that journalists were invited to the opening ceremony of an exhibition of post-disaster housing at the Palais des Nations at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, 10 September. The event would take place at the exhibition site, in the park of the Palais des Nations, outside Door 23, near the Bar de la Presse. Mr. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva would open the ceremony which would also feature speeches from Sven Alkalaj, UNECE Executive Secretary, the permanent representatives of Canada and Estonia, Ms. Elissa Golberg and Mr. Jüri Seilenthal, and Mr. Szilard Fricska, Senior Humanitarian Coordinator for UN-Habitat.

The exhibition featured model prefabricated houses provided by the Governments of Canada and Estonia that showcased some of the most recent developments in low-cost, quick-build, short-term housing for people displaced by disasters, would be on display from 10 September to 10 October 2013. The exhibition also marked the beginning of a series of important activities for the UNECE Housing and Land Management Programme, including World Habitat Day (7 October), the 74th session of the Committee on Housing and Land Management (7 and 9 October) and the Ministerial Meeting for Housing and Land Management (8 October). A press release was available at the back of the room.

Mr. Rodriguez also briefed on the agenda of Executive Secretary Sven Alkalaj, who would be in Prague on 11 September to give the key-note address at the opening session of the 21st Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Economic and Environmental Forum on "Increasing Stability and Security: Improving the Environmental Footprint of Energy-related Activities in the OSCE Region".

Geneva activities

Ms. Vellucci said the Human Rights Council would open its 24th regular session on Monday 9 September. The spokesperson for the Council, Rolando Gomez, with Public Information Officer, Cedric Sapey, would give an informal press briefing on the agenda of the upcoming session, at midday today in Press Room I.

Ms. Vellucci also said that the Committee on the Rights of Migrant Workers would open a new one-week session on Monday 9 September, during which it would review the reports of Burkina Faso and Morocco.

The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities would this morning complete its review of the country report of El Salvador. This afternoon and next week it would meet in private, aside from Tuesday 10 September when it would hold a meeting with States parties at 10 a.m. The Committee would then close the session with a public meeting on Friday 13 September at 3 p.m.

The Conference on Disarmament would hold a plenary session on Tuesday 10 September when it would seek to agree its annual report to the General Assembly. The session would close on Friday 13 September.

A press conference with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict would take place on Tuesday 10 September at 9.45 a.m. in Press Room III, in which Special Representative Ms. Leila Zerrougui would brief the press on her presentation to the Human Rights Council, how children's rights to education had been affected by conflict, as well as situations of concern such as Syria, Central African Republic and Mali.

A press conference to launch the IOM World Migration Report 2013: Migrant Well-Being and Development, would take place on Tuesday 10 September at 11.30 a.m. in Press Room III. Gervais Appave, Special Advisor to the IOM Director General and Frank Laczko, Head of Research, would speak at the event. Journalists should note that the report was under strict embargo until noon on 13 September 2013.

The Permanent Mission of Italy would host a press conference on Tuesday 10 September at 2.15 p.m. in Press Room 1 to present the European Project: South-East Transport Axis (SETA), about regional development in South-East Europe. The press conference was a part of the UNECE Working Party on Transport Trends and Economics, in session from 10 to 12 September 2013. Ms. Debora Serracchiani, President of the Italian Region of Friuli Venezia Giulia and Ms. Silvia Altran, Mayor of Monfalcone (Gorizia, Italy) would speak at the event.

Catherine Sibut, for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), announced that the UNCTAD Trade and Development Report would be launched on Thursday 12 September in a press conference at 10 a.m. in Press Room 1. The report, issued every year for the annual session of the Trade and Development Board, analysed current economic trends and major policy issues of international concern, and made suggestions for addressing those issues at various levels.

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In the room but not briefing was the spokesperson for the World Health Organization.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/15IXi1j