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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

21 April 2017

Rhéal LeBlanc, Chief, Press and External Relations, United Nations Information Service, chaired the briefing attended by the spokespersons for the United Nations Children’s Fund, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, and the World Trade Organization.

United Nations Secretary-General

Mr. LeBlanc said the UN Secretary-General would be in Switzerland the following week, arriving on 24 April and meeting in Bern that day with the President of the Swiss Confederation Doris Leuthard, the Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, and the leadership of the External Relations Committees of both chambers of Parliament.  On 25 April, the Secretary-General would preside, together with the Foreign Ministers of Switzerland and Sweden, over the High-Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen.  He would address the press in Geneva and more details would be provided shortly.  On 26 and 27 April he would be meeting with the UN System’s Chief Executive Board for Coordination (CEB).

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), introduced Tajudeen Oyewale, UNICEF Representative a.i. in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Mr. Oyewale had just come back from a field mission to Kananga, the capital of Kasaï Central, to support the UNICEF local team on the ground responding to the crisis. Speaking from Kinshasa by phone, Mr. Oyewale said the impact of the crisis in Greater Kasai was devastating.  Together with its partners on the ground, UNICEF estimated that the crisis affected directly 1.5 million children, including 600,000 children who were displaced.

Violence and instability in the Kasai Central and Kasaï Oriental provinces, among the poorest regions of the country, had begun in August 2016 after a traditional leader, Kamuina Nsapu, had been killed in fighting with security forces. UNICEF was particularly worried that the crisis was compounding the vulnerability of children and was impacting the rights of children. An estimated 2,000 children were being used by the militias in the affected region and were yet to return to their homes. These children were being killed or injured in the fighting, and were often arrested and imprisoned. At least 300 children had been seriously injured in the violence since the beginning of the crisis in August 2016. More than 4,000 children had been separated from their families.

Those children should be safe in their homes, schools and playgrounds, not forced to fight on the battlefield or wounded or killed in the violence.

The violence in the region had also had a devastating impact on education and health systems in the region.  More than 350 schools had been destroyed in the provinces of Kasaï Central and Kasaï Oriental. In the Province of Kasaï Central 1 in 3 health centers were no longer functional, putting children at an increased risk of disease.  The immunization cycle of tens of thousands of children had been interrupted.  Children were at risk of health epidemics.

UNICEF had a structural presence in the area with two offices in Kananga and Mbuji Mayi.  UNICEF was scaling up its programmes to respond to the needs of the children greatly affected by this situation. UNICEF now has eight ongoing projects targeting 173,000 people in three provinces (Kasai, Kasai Central and Kasai Oriental) in health, nutrition, protection, education, WASH and Non-food-items (NFI).  UNICEF was also using multipurpose cash assistance scheme to support the affected population.  As of the end of March, more than 23,000 children had been reached.  Thus far, UNICEF had obtained the release of 384 children detained or held, previously enrolled in the militias.

UNICEF needed USD 20.6 million to be able to put in place the emergency response for children in the Greater Kasaï. Only USD 3.5 million had been secured.  Now was the time to show our solidarity with the children and families affected by the crisis in the DRC.

In response to questions, Mr. Oyewale said the children he had met in Kasaï were between 14 and 17 years old and had been involved in militias.  Those children should be in schools and with their families.  The long-term implications of this kind of exposure needed to be taken seriously, and a lot more had to be invested in mental health to help those children go through this kind of exposure and be reintegrated into society.  Girls were also part of this population.

Access and tracking of the children were challenging.  The estimate for now was that 2,000 children were being used in militias but the number could be higher.  The immunization cycle that had been planned for the region had been interrupted, and child illnesses would be on the rise: incidence of malaria would be an issue and so would the treatment of pneumonia.  As the dry season approached, the problem of malnutrition would intensify.

UNICEF had managed to secure the release of 384 children held by the militia groups or who had been rescued by the authorities from militias and then detained.  The children were now placed with UNICEF partners who were providing them with psychosocial care and support services.  The involvement of children in armed conflict and in militia groups in any ways or forms was completely unacceptable.  This was a violation of the rights of the child.

Mr. Oyewale also said there was severe acute malnutrition in the region, and as of January 2017, 28,000 cases of severe acute malnutrition had already been identified.

Asked about the context of the escalation of violence, Mr. Boulierac added that the situation of violence in Kasaï had deteriorated further during the first three months of 2017.  Prior to his killing, which had sparked the violence in August 2016, Kamuina Nsapu had used rhetoric calling the population to “regroup and defend the Congolese soil from foreign mercenaries and the government of occupation”.

Babar Baloch, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said a spike of violence in the Kasai Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo had now forced over 11,000 refugees to seek safety in Angola.  Border points and villages inside the Southern African nation had seen a sharp increase in refugee arrivals with over 9,000 arriving so far in April.  The brutal conflict in Congo’s previously peaceful Kasai region had already displaced more than one million civilians within the country since it had begun in mid-2016.

Those fleeing into Angola continued to arrive mainly in Dundo, the capital of north-eastern Luanda Norte Province.  Refugees had reported fleeing attacks from militia groups, who were targeting police, military officials, and civilians who they believed were supporting or representing the Government.  After running away from fighting rebel and Government forces, some refugees had had to hide in the forest for several days before fleeing to Angola.  Refugees were arriving in desperate conditions, without access to clean water, food or shelter.

The situation among children was dire, as many were arriving malnourished and sick - suffering from diarrhoea, fever and malaria.  Two children were reported to have already died from severe malnutrition.  UNHCR was concerned for the fate of others suffering from worrying levels of food insecurity and illnesses.

The new arrivals were terrified and still feared for their lives and mentioned they did not have any immediate plans to return home. Some parents had reportedly sent their children across the border, worrying they would be forcibly recruited by the militias if they had stayed in the DRC.

UNHCR was currently coordinating refugee response with the Government, local authorities and partners on the ground.  UNHCR was also negotiating with the Government for proper hosting sites as the current border locations were overcrowded and not suitable.  UNHCR was sending an additional emergency team to Dundo on 22 April to support relief efforts.  UNHCR was in the process of shipping family tents, kitchen sets, blankets, mosquito nets, sleeping mats and other essential relief items to the area.

Further aid was urgently needed, as refugees were forced to stay in makeshift buildings in the border villages.  Angola’s wet season peaks in April, and UNHCR was especially worried about the ongoing rains – which could further complicate living conditions and the health of refugees, especially the most vulnerable such as women, children, the elderly and the disabled.

UNHCR welcomed the response of the Government of Angola in keeping its borders open for continued refugee arrivals.  UNHCR hoped that this gesture of goodwill would continue as the situation remained dire in DRC’s Kasai region.  UNHCR was also underlining the importance of not returning people in need of international protection to the DRC.

In response to a question, Mr. Baloch said the OCHA update on displacement which he had in front of him, mentioned 1.09 million displaced persons.  He would look into how that number had evolved over the past month.

Mediterranean update

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said there had been a recent arrival in Italy of survivors rescued in the Mediterranean in the past 24 hours.  Witnesses were reporting 100 people missing following a shipwreck on 18 April.

Mr. Baloch added that UNHCR colleagues in Calabria had indeed heard reports of about 100 persons missing after migrants were rescued from the shipwreck, but those reports were unconfirmed so far.

Mr. Millman also said 43,000 people had arrived in Europe since the beginning of the year by sea, almost exclusively through the Libya to Italy route.  That was significantly less than over the same time in 2016, when over 200,000 people had come to Europe by sea; however, the vast majority of those at the time, some 179,000, had gone to Greece, and that route was now pretty much closed.  Over 1,000 migrants had died on the very deadly central Mediterranean route in the first three and a half months of 2017.  A wide variety of nationalities and ethnic groups had been arriving in Europe through the Libya corridor.  The aggregated numbers from 1 January 2015 to the present day showed that among the 300,000 migrants who had come through Libya, about one in every three was either a Nigerian or an Eritrean.  The flow of Eritrean migrants having slowed down considerably, currently most migrants coming through Libya were Nigerians.  Far from indicating a general “invasion” of Europe by African migrants as some had suggested, the strongest flow was coming from a very large country which was currently experiencing a lot of conflict.

In response to a question regarding the rescues which had taken place over the Easter weekend, and whether the migrants in question had been rescued or intercepted, Mr. Millman said that if it was a European vessel, it would almost always be considered a rescue, whereas for the Libyan coast guard it was not so clear, as those migrants, under the jurisdiction of Libyan authorities, were then brought to detention centres where IOM then frequently assisted them in repatriation to their countries.  It was a de facto interception, and in some cases those people would attempt that journey again.  Out of those who were being repatriated by IOM, about half came from detention centres. 

Asked about IOM’s repatriation programme, Mr. Millman said IOM had been doing AVRR (Assisted Voluntary Repatriation and Reintegration) for sixty years all over the world and that the programme had had more than 50,000 beneficiaries.  Mr. Millman did not have statistics on repatriation from Italy, but he said IOM was involved with resettlement from Italy.  IOM had repatriated more than 3,000 migrants from Libya since August 2014, and that number could reach a total of 7,000 to 10,000 in 2017.  IOM charters were almost weekly and more than half went to Nigeria.  Other countries to which charters had been sent were Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, the Gambia and Guinea.

Asked about a table provided in the IOM press release, Mr. Millman said it was updated twice a week and showed the number of migrants reported missing or confirmed dead, broken down into regions.  The Mediterranean region had in the past included boats that had departed Egypt (there had been a tragic case in Alexandria in 2014), but those were very rare and so were Egyptian victims.  Mr. Millman would find out how many of the deaths in the North Africa region concerned Egypt.

Venezuela

In response to a question about displacement numbers due to the crisis in Venezuela, Mr. Millman said he would check and get back to the press.  IOM had heard reports of large numbers of Venezuelans in the Dominican Republic, where they still didn’t need an entry visa.  All the Governments in the region were deciding now how to treat what they expected to be a large movement in the coming weeks and months.  Still, the exodus had not yet been seen as heavily as it had been expected.  Mr. Millman would bring to the attention of his team the request for a specific press briefing on the topic.

Mr. Baloch said recent developments in Venezuela had resulted in the arrival of an increasing number of Venezuelans in many countries in the region.  Between 2011 and 2016, more than 40,000 had applied for asylum in the Americas and beyond, including over 27,000 who had applied in 2016.  The number of those recognized as refugees had also increased.  In the Caribbean, given the small size of the island States, the arrivals of Venezuelans, even if the numbers were relatively small, had had disproportionate impact on the reception capacities.  More Venezuelans were trying to regularize their stay under bilateral or multilateral regional frameworks.  Brazil and Peru had granted Venezuelans temporary residence permits.  Uruguay and Argentina had facilitated their stay as well.

Mr. Baloch added that UNHCR called for the right of everyone, including Venezuelans, to seek asylum, and to have access to fair and efficient asylum procedures if they wished to do so.  As for those not seeking asylum or having already been denied asylum but wishing to regularize their status through alternative means, that may be available to them to be able to do so on humanitarian grounds.  There should be no enforced returns to Venezuela.

Asked about an incident in which children had allegedly been affected by tear gas inside a hospital, Mr. Boulierac said he would have to contact his colleagues with the question and get back to the press.

Mr. LeBlanc also said on 20 April the UN Spokesperson had issued a statement on the situation in Venezuela, expressing concern about the latest developments in Venezuela and urging that all efforts be made to lower tensions and prevent further clashes.  The UN called on the Government of Venezuela and the opposition to engage sincerely to reactivate dialogue efforts, especially around the critical issues that they had already agreed to place on the agenda, namely the balance of power among branches of the State, the electoral calendar, human rights, truth and justice and the socioeconomic situation.  The UN called for concrete gestures from all parties to reduce polarization and create the necessary conditions to address the country’s challenges for the benefit of the Venezuelan people.

Geneva Events and Announcements

Mr. LeBlanc provided more details on the High-Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen on 25 April.  The opening session would begin at 10 a.m. with an introduction by UNOG Director-General Michael Møller, followed by a statement by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, and statements by Didier Burkhalter, Foreign Minister of Switzerland, Margot Wallström, Foreign Minister of Sweden, and Stephen O’Brien, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.  From 10.45 a.m. till 1 p.m. there would be statements and announcements of pledges by participating delegates.  A thematic session on food insecurity in Yemen would run from 1.30 p.m. till 2.45 p.m., followed by more statements and announcements of pledges.  The closing session of the conference would take place at 4.45 p.m. till 5 p.m.  The press event would take place around 5.15 p.m., and more details on that would be provided.  The press was invited to follow the conference all day in Room XX.  The provisional programme was available on the OCHA website.

Catherine Huissoud, for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), announced a press conference today, 21 April at noon in Press Room 1 with Mukhisa Kituyi, UNCTAD Secretary-General, presenting the UNCTAD E-Commerce Week (24-28 April). The documents, including the week’s programme and the list of speakers, would be shared with the press after noon.  The private sector including major international companies would be represented.  Some 12 ministers would be present at the High-Level Segment on 25 April, which would be webcast live.  Civil society would also be well represented.

Fernando Puchol, for the World Trade Organization (WTO), announced that WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo would be meeting with Argentina’s Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra on 24 April at WTO.  It would be an opportunity to discuss among other things the preparation of the Eleventh Ministerial Conference, which would be taking place in Buenos Aires in December 2017.  On 25 April Mr. Azevêdo would participate in a ministerial meeting at the Palais des Nations, held by the Friends of e-Commerce for Development.  Also at the Palais des Nations, Mr. Azevêdo would participate in the high-level session of UNCTAD’s e-Commerce week entitled “Digital transformation for all: empowering entrepreneurs and small businesses”.  On that same day, the Director General would meet at WTO with Norway’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Børge Brende.

On 27 April, Mr. Azevêdo would meet with Liam Fox, UK’s Secretary of State for International Trade, and thereafter with Christine Bliss, the President of the Coalition of Services and Industries.

On 28 April, Mr. Azevêdo would speak at an event hosted by the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development and the Foundation Friedrich Ebert Stiftung to discuss the G20 and the evolution of the global trade and investment regime.

Regarding WTO’s regular schedule of meetings, Belize would undergo its trade policy review 24 and 26 April.  The Committee on Safeguards would meet on 24 April, the Committee on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures would meet on 25 April, while the Committee on Anti-Dumping Practices would meet on 26 and 27 April.  Finally, the Committee on Agriculture would meet on 26 April in a special session to formally elect the new Chairperson, Ambassador Stephen Karau of Kenya, replacing Ambassador Vangelis Vitalis of New Zealand.

To a question asking if there would be any photo opportunities or a press conference following the meeting with the Argentinian Foreign Minister, Mr. Puchol answered that he would check and get back to the press.

Mr. LeBlanc announced a press conference on 25 April at 12:00 p.m. in Room III by the Permanent Missions of the Friends of E-Commerce for Development (Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Uruguay), on “E-Commerce for Development: roadmap for e-commerce as a vehicle for development”.  The speakers would be H.E. Mrs. Susana Malcorra, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Argentina, H.E. Dr. Okechukwu Enelamah, Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment of Nigeria, and H.E. Engr. Khurram Dastgir Khan, Minister of Commerce of Pakistan.

Mr. LeBlanc also said that from 24 April to 5 May at the CICG in Geneva, the meetings of the conferences of the parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions would bring together 1,500 participants from 180 countries, to discuss and decide on measures aiming to protect human health and the environment from the harmful impacts of hazardous chemicals and waste.  Mr. LeBlanc said the contact for the press for the event was Charles Avis, charles.avis@brsmeas.org.

Mr. LeBlanc said the Committee against Torture (CAT), which had opened on 18 April its 60th session (running at the Palais Wilson until 12 May), would start this morning the review of the report of Bahrain, which it would complete on 24 April in the afternoon.  It would complete this afternoon its review of the report of Lebanon, started on 20 April in the morning.

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), would open on 24 April its 92nd session, which would run until 12 May at the Palais Wilson, and during which it would review the reports submitted by the following six States on their implementation measures of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination: Finland, Republic of Moldova, Armenia, Kenya, Cyprus and Bulgaria.

The press briefing next week, on 25 April, would take place exceptionally at 9 a.m.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog210417