17 March 2017
Alessandra Vellucci, Director, United Nations Information Service, chaired the briefing attended by the spokespersons for the Human Rights Council, the United Nations Children’s Fund, The United Nations Refugee Agency, the International Organization for Migration, the World Meteorological Organization and the World Trade Organization.
Human Rights Council 34th session
Rolando Gomez, for the Human Rights Council (HRC), said that the Council was currently engaged in a panel discussion on racial profiling and incitement to hatred, including in the context of migration. A concept paper on the topic had been shared with the press on 16 March. Speakers on the panel included Rokhaya Diallo, filmmaker and journalist, and Mutuma Ruteere, the Special Rapporteur on racial discrimination, among others. Peggy Hicks, representing OHCHR, had noted in her opening remarks how the “dominant public discourse on migration today relies largely on myths and prejudice, and feeds false narratives about threat posed by migration and migrants.”
That panel would conclude by noon, after which the Council would hear the adoption of the last two reports for the Universal Periodic Review, Haiti and South Sudan, marking formally the end of the second cycle of the UPR, with all 193 UN Member States having been reviewed twice. The Council would then move on to the general debate on items 5 and 6, which spoke to subsidiary bodies and the Universal Periodic Review.
On 20 March, the Council would hear from the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Michael Lynk, which would be followed by an interactive discussion with States and NGOs, as well as a presentation of reports from OHCHR and the Secretary-General on the same issue, followed by a general debate. Afterwards, the Council would move on to another general debate on racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia.
Mr. Gomez also said that 36 draft resolutions had been tabled so far on 16 March, speaking to a wide range of issues and themes including Sri Lanka, South Sudan, DPRK, human rights defenders, freedom of religion and belief, Myanmar, Iran and others. All of them would be considered on 23 and 24 March. There were a few pending drafts which would be received on 20 March, including on Syria, the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Haiti.
Asked about comments from the United States State Department spokesperson as well as a recent letter from the US Secretary of State on the United States participation in the Human Rights Council, Mr. Gomez said that the letter in question had not been addressed or copied to the HRC, so he could not speak to the specifics of it. He said that it would be imperative for any State considering engaging or disengaging with the Council to weigh in on facts. The facts were that the Council was the only intergovernmental, international body which addressed all human rights violations and issues often not discussed elsewhere. It had adopted over 1,300 resolutions on 120 themes, including 630 country-specific resolutions mentioning 30 countries, had established 23 fact-finding missions and commissions of inquiry, and had held 26 special sessions.
Asked about the outcome of the discussion on Myanmar in the Council, Mr. Gomez said that a draft resolution had been tabled on 16 March on Myanmar. It had been revised to an earlier draft that had been circulated. It called for a fact-finding mission to establish circumstances country-wide, not just in Rakhine state, of the recent developments. He also noted that all resolutions which had been tabled could be amended before the vote took place the following week, and if there were any significant developments on those resolutions the press would be informed.
Ms. Vellucci added that Under-Secretary-General Jeffrey Feldman would brief the Security Council today on Myanmar. As stated yesterday by the Spokesperson of the UN Secretary-General, the hope was that recommendations contained in the report issued recently by the Rakhine Commission would be an opportunity for the Government and for the people of Rakhine state to work together on concrete measures to improve the lives of the community in that state. The UN would continue to encourage the Government to enable full humanitarian access to northern Rakhine state and fulfil its promises to establish an independent investigation on human rights violations.
Refugee and migrant children
Sarah Crowe, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said UNICEF was pointing out that one year on after the EU-Turkey statement the human cost to children was mounting - while there has been a major decrease in the overall numbers of children on the move into Europe since last March, there has been an increase in the threats and distress refugee and migrant children endured. She introduced Lucio Melandri, UNICEF Senior Emergency Manager for Refugee and Migrant Crisis who she had much relevant experience to from Za’atari Camp as well as numerous recent missions this year to Greece, the Balkans, Bulgaria and so forth.
Mr. Melandri said that on 18 March it would be one year since the EU-Turkey statement had been signed. There had been a significant decrease in terms of the general influx of refugees and migrants passing through the western Balkan route, but at the same time, a drastic increase in the human cost, particularly for children. It was necessary to acknowledge that the underlying causes which made families move had not gone away. The conflict in Syria, the situation in Iraq and other countries were still affecting millions of people. Syrians, Iraqi and Afghans were still the majority of the people trying to move across this route and who were stranded in several locations along this route.
UNICEF observed a very worrying trend of children being put in detention because of their migration status. In many countries children were being detained for long periods of time, which was an unacceptable situation. Also, it was clear that there were many unseen scars that would last a life time - the psychological distress of those children who remained stranded, without the opportunity to join their families. UNICEF was calling on member States, in particular in within the EU, to consider there were broken promises in regards to those people. Linked to the EU-Turkey deal there had been a framework for the relocation of people stranded in Greece and Italy. As of today, the number of people and especially unaccompanied children who had been relocated in EU member States was very small.
Mr. Melandri emphasized that those children were escaping conflict and trying to survive. There was a human cost and an actual cost -the operation in Greece and in the Balkans was very expensive operation, as far as the financial implications in supporting the Governments in dealing with populations that remained stranded in the long term, with little hope of integration and future perspectives. UNICEF was working in Greece together with the Government to strengthen the capacity to include all the refugee and migrant children in the education system, to provide them with shelter and to have a better monitoring system.
Since the EU-Turkey statement there was less visibility on the people who were moving, and obtaining data as well as reaching out to children on the move was extremely difficult. Those children were becoming invisible. In order to try to move, many had to rely on criminal organizations. That situation would lead to major consequences for the children’s lives. It was necessary to rethink the current framework and potential implications of this agreement, and take into consideration the opportunity to provide people, especially the most vulnerable, like children, with safe and legal passage, the right to seek protection and an environment where they could survive.
In response to questions, Mr. Melandri said collecting data was very complex as there was not a harmonized system among the European countries. It was difficult to obtain disaggregated numbers. The total commitment of the EU member States in terms of relocation was initially to relocate 120,000 people. As of two days ago, only a total of 14,412 had been relocated. The countries which had relocated the most people from Greece were France and Germany, followed by the Netherlands. From Greece, a total of 9,900 people had been relocated since the beginning of the plan. Very few unaccompanied children had been relocated: only one from Italy and a few dozen from Greece. When a child was alone and intending to move ahead, if not given a safe route, he or she would try alone to contact smugglers and would cross borders at night. Also, there was an increasing trend in migrants including children being simply pushed back at the borders, which created a vicious circle. Safe passage was a priority. Outside Europe there was a resettlement plan managed by UNHCR, as well as other initiatives managed by organizations who identified particularly vulnerable children and families and developing agreements with Governments to facilitate legal entry.
Also, in many cases, there was little capacity in countries to respond to the protection needs of the children. There were more and more reports of “missing children” - and not getting education, protection and basic services, trying to find alternatives for their future. Those children needed to be considered first and foremost as children and provided protection under the Convention of the rights of the child. Mr. Melandri also specified that all individuals under the age of 18 were children and were protected by the Convention. UNICEF used the term of children “unaccounted for” rather than “missing children”, as they had been registered in reception centres but had left as they did not see any opportunities ahead of them. Only in 2016, there were 390,000 children who had applied for asylum in Europe, including 261,000 only in Germany. Many of them were under five years of age. The concern about children leaving centres was mainly related to the group between 14 and 17 years of age.
In response to further questions, Mr. Melandri said that as of March 2017, there were still 178 children remaining in closed facilities in Greece, of whom 16 were under protective custody. In Bulgaria, only in 2016 every child intercepted by police forces had been placed in detention for an average of eight days. But this year the length of that detention period had doubled, to an average of 17 days over the first three months of 2017. In Hungary, a new billed ratified by the Parliament had been signed yesterday by the President, mandating that refugees and migrants be accommodated in containers at the border, in closed detention centres. Every single asylum seeking and migrant child over the age of 14 would be subjected to the same treatment. Unfortunately, in today’s political and electoral context in Europe, there was an increasing association that every migrant was a potential criminal or terrorist, which was absolutely not corroborated by data.
Asked about the case of Hungary and potential sanctions, Mr. Melandri referred to recent judgement by European Court of Human Rights. However, he observed that today, the links between decisions made at a central level in the EU did not always translate into action by the Member States, as was the case with the relocation scheme. Regarding the EU-Turkey statement, Mr. Melandri said that refugees and migrants, particularly the most vulnerable, such as children, should never be used as bargaining chips. Mr Melandri acknowledged the efforts by Turkey where almost three million refugees had fled the conflict in Syria.
There were millions of people affected by the Syrian conflict and millions of people inside Syria who were stopped from leaving the country, stranded at the Syrian borders. That situation was leading to increased child mortality. UNICEF’s operation targeting hundreds of thousands of children in Turkey was constantly monitoring the situation together with other agencies, and had made contingency plans. UNICEF called on all the parties to take into consideration the protection of children.
Asked about the use of the term refugee versus migrant, Mr. Melandri said that generally, children are children first and foremost and should always have the possibility to apply for asylum and protection.
In response to final questions, Mr. Melandri said that UNICEF had a presence in all the concerned countries, and had already had a significant programmatic presence in Turkey, Serbia, FYROM, Bulgaria and others. UNICEF had expanded its presence in Greece, Slovenia, Austria, Germany and Italy because of a request by a number of Governments to support their capacity to respond to children’s needs. Just in Greece, it had a number of locations where jointly with the Ministry of Education and a number of partners it was providing access to informal education while supporting the Ministry of Education on a programme to include all the children in Greece in the public education system. UNICEF was leading a number of activities in refugee sites like camps and urban areas, called Blue Dots. Together with UNHCR and ICRC, UNICEF was providing psychosocial support, legal advice, corners for breastfeeding mothers, recreational activities and informal education. UNICEF teams are working to strengthen systems with governments and providing a specific response to children’s needs.
Mr. Melandri also said that it was necessary to strongly acknowledge the commitment of Turkish authorities and society in hosting the largest refugee community in the world. Turkey needed support in hosting those populations and the level of support needed to be increased. He also reiterated that children should never be used to bargain.
Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that this week, a milestone had been passed in Greece with a total of over 10,000 asylum seekers who had been relocated from Greece to other EU States. Just in the month of March, 367 people had left Greece for Belgium, Estonia, Germany, Malta, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain. That brought the total number of people relocated from both Greece and Italy since the scheme started in October 2015 to 14,439.
The IOM Chief of Mission in Brussels had said that at this rate, 15,000 to 18,000 relocations from Greece were expected by the end of the programme. The largest recipient countries were Germany, France and the Netherlands. IOM had also assisted over 400 group relocation movements to 24 European countries participating in the programme.
In response to comments from a journalist stating that too much time during the briefing had been dedicated to this topic, Ms. Vellucci said that the ACANU was the place to raise those kind of topics. The ACANU also commented that the topic should have been the object of a separate briefing or press conference. Ms. Vellucci said that she was reluctant to cut short questions from journalists, which was what made the briefings last so long.
In response to a question regarding the numbers of Latin American migrants deported from the United States over the course of the past month, Mr. Millman said that he would try to obtain the numbers and get back to the press.
Asked to comment on announced US budget cuts to UN funding, Ms. Vellucci said that that the blueprint of the budget that had been presented by the White House was the beginning of the budgetary process, and referred the press to the statement from the Secretary-General released on 16 March.
In response to a comment from the press regarding the fact that the UN and its agencies had been reluctant earlier in the year to take a position on the US administration’s immigration policies or announcements regarding the border wall with Mexico, whereas now that the UN was being targeted with proposed funding cuts a statement had immediately been released, Ms. Vellucci clarified that in the past there had been press reports on what was supposed to happen, and the UN did not comment on what was not factual. The presentation of a budget blueprint to Congress was a fact and the UN could comment on facts. Also, she pointed out that when the Trump administration had issued executive orders on immigration issues, there had been a number of comments from the UN Refugee Agency, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as the Secretary-General. Every time there had been something factual, the UN had reacted, on one side pointing out potential dangerous effects of the policies and on the other side reiterating its commitment to working in good cooperation with the US administration. She also said the UN commented on potential effects of decisions on, for example, the resettlement of refugees, or on UN activities destined to help people around the world, and not to defend the UN’s budget.
Asked about the percentage of UN funding contributed by the US, Ms. Vellucci said that it was 22 per cent of the regular budget and 28 per cent of the peacekeeping budget.
Migrant deaths and disappearances worldwide
Mr. Millman also said that IOM was releasing today a report on the total statistical picture of migrant deaths and disappearances worldwide in 2016. The number was well over 7,000. The report also contained maps and interesting anecdotal information. Notably, a sidebar pointed out that Chile had restored a visa restriction impacting nationals of the Dominican Republic. Consequently, several deaths of Dominican nationals had been observed for the first time in many years on that route. Frank Lasko, who had authored the report, was available for interviews in Geneva today.
Mr. Millman also said that IOM had received reports of a helicopter attack against a boat leaving Yemen apparently for Sudan, full of Somali migrants. The boat was not an IOM evacuation vessel. The number of 31 deaths which had been advanced might actually prove higher. More than 80 survivors had been brought to hospitals in Hudaydah including 24 critical cases. The vessel was believed to have left Hudaydah and have been headed for Sudan, but Mr. Millman mentioned that the Yemen to Sudan route was not a usual one. There were a number of forces operating in Yemen and IOM could not confirm who the helicopter belonged to. The incident had happened in the past 24 hours. The incident would push the annual total number of migrant deaths for 2017 to 1,000, and it was rather early in the year to have reached 1,000 global migrant deaths already.
Babar Baloch, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that eight months after fresh violence had erupted in South Sudan, a famine produced by the vicious combination of fighting and drought was now driving the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis.
Total displacement from South Sudan into the surrounding region was now 1.6 million people. The rate of new displacement was alarming, representing an impossible burden on a region that was significantly poorer and which was fast running short of resources to cope.
No neighbouring country was immune. Refugees were fleeing into Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Central African Republic. Almost half had crossed into Uganda, where in the country’s north, the situation was now critical. Until recently UNHCR was seeing new arrivals there at a rate of around 2,000 people daily. The influx had peaked in February at more than 6,000 in a single day. In March, the peak in a single day had been more than 5,000 with the current daily average of over 2,800 arrivals.
A result of the rapid influx was that transit facilities in northern Uganda set up to deal with the newly arriving refugees from South Sudan were becoming overwhelmed. Recent rains in the area had not helped matters, and were adding to the misery.
Today’s situation in Uganda was proving to be the first and major test of commitments made at the September 2016 Summit for Refugees and Migrants in New York, including a key commitment to apply a game-changing approach to refugee situations worldwide - known as the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF).
Uganda was a frontline state for that new approach. Along with five other countries it had agreed to champion the CRRF by taking actions to integrate humanitarian efforts with developmental ones. Those included providing land to refugees, including refugees in national development plans, and allowing them to access job markets.
Those efforts were at grave risk of failing unless there was urgent and large-scale additional support. At present funding for South Sudanese refugees in the region was at just 8 per cent out of the required USD 781.8 million. UNHCR’s own funding appeal for Uganda was short by more than a quarter of a billion dollars (USD267 million).
In response to questions, Mr. Baloch said that around 800,000 South Sudanese refugees were now in Uganda and 86 per cent of that refugee population were women and children. They were coming in a quite desperate situation, affected by instability, fighting and famine. Food security was an issue. They arrived into settlements in northern Uganda. All the structures which UNCHR was trying to put in place with the Government of Uganda were overstretched. For example, in Bidibidi settlement, there were 272,000 refugees. With a low level of funding, and host communities and the host Government not having enough resources, it was becoming quite an impossible task to help those desperate refugees, which was why UNHCR was sounding the alarm. Mr. Baloch also stressed that the situation in South Sudan was not getting enough attention and resources.
Mr. Baloch said that as displacement from Western Mosul continued unabated, UNHCR was opening two new camps and asking donors for additional funding to help protect and shelter those forced to flee.
Around 255,000 people had been displaced from Mosul and surrounding areas since October 2016, including over 100,000 since the latest military campaign in western Mosul had begun on 19 February. The past week had seen the highest level of displacement yet, with 32,000 displaced between March 12 and 15.
For 2017, UNHCR needed USD 212 million, currently barely funded, to continue providing urgent assistance to IDPs from Mosul and for Iraqis who had crossed to Syria. The appeal included a new request for an additional USD 7 million in the next 10 days and USD 30 million in the next two months, totalling USD 37 million.
In response to questions, Mr. Baloch said that UNHCR’s focus was on the humanitarian aspects and quite often UNHCR was left to deal with the impact of political decisions. It was quite urgent that the people who were being affected received the required help. The rate of displacement was increasing and the level of funding that was needed was not there. For the whole Iraq IDP situation and for those fleeing into Syria, USD 578 million were needed, whereas the current funding level was at 4 per cent. Mr. Baloch would check on the number of persons still in areas under ISIL control in western Mosul and would get back to the press. Inside Syria, there were about 16,000 new arrivals who had gone into Al Hol camp, where they were receiving shelter, water and food assistance. Mr. Baloch would provide more details to the press on this after the briefing.
In response to questions regarding whether the issue of detainees was still under the purview of the Office of the Special Envoy (OSE), or whether it had migrated to the Astana process, Ms. Vellucci said that there was a team of experts from OSE which had participated in the Astana meeting on 14 and 15 March. The UN team had provided technical advice and had actively engaged with the members of the Joint Group on a number of draft documents, notably on arbitrarily detained persons and the identification of missing persons, as well as humanitarian mine action and the protection of cultural heritage sites. Although the documents in question had not been adopted, the necessary groundwork had been laid that could hopefully be built upon in the next meeting of the Joint Group, as well as the intervening period.
Ms. Vellucci also said that for any questions regarding logistics of the resumption of the intra-Syrian talks next week the press should come to UNIS. Asked for a full briefing on the talks on 21 March during the press briefing, Ms. Vellucci said that she would ask the OSE whether the Special Envoy could hold a full-fledged introductory press conference on 22 March ahead of the resumption of the talks on 23 March.
Asked whether the talks really would resume on 23 March, Ms. Vellucci said that there was no indication to the contrary and that that was the date in view of which everyone was working.
Geneva Events and Announcements
Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said that on 21 March WMO would release its annual statement on the state of the climate in 2016. On that day, WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas would be in New York, meeting with the President of the General Assembly. On 23 March there would be a high-level event in New York on climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals. A press release and a link to the report would be sent to the press on 20 March.
In response to questions about Mr. Taalas’ upcoming meetings, Ms. Nullis said that on 20 March he would be in Washington D.C., meeting with the World Bank as WMO would be signing a new memorandum of understanding with the World Bank. She would check his latest schedule to see if he was planning to meet with US officials during his stay there.
Ms. Nullis also said that 23 March was World Meteorological Day, and the theme for 2017 was “Understanding Clouds”, to mark the release of a new International Cloud Atlas by the WMO. The Atlas was the authoritative single source to observe and identify clouds which drive our weather, climate and water patterns. It had last been updated in 1987, before the internet era. A new type of cloud called Asperitas would be recognized as a new classification, among others. A World Meteorological Day ceremony would be held on 23 March. Interviews on the topic could be organized.
Jessica Hermosa, for the World Trade Organization (WTO), said that there was a dispute settlement body meeting on 21 March. China was expected to request a panel to investigate the EU’s methods for determining whether prices of Chinese goods were fair or not. India was also expected to request a panel to investigate US subsidies for the renewable energy sector. The full agenda was available online and a briefing note would be sent.
Hearings for two disputes would be open for public observation in the following week: the US-Canada dispute over glossy paper, starting on 21 March, and the US-Mexico dispute over tuna, on 24 March. An email had been sent out about registration and restrictions for filming.
Regarding food safety, there would be meetings on sanitary and phytosanitary measures the following week. Israel would be raising a concern regarding US plans to further restrict insecticide levels on certain crops. A briefing note would be sent on this.
There would also be a lecture on globalization and jobs on 22 March, by Professor Muendler of the University of California - San Diego.
WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo would be speaking at a workshop on trade and investment and had several engagements with officials from the African region, a panel for the African CEO Forum in Geneva, and would be meeting with the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States Secretary-General, Patrick Gomez. He would also travel to Finland and Sweden for International Chamber of Commerce events.
Ms. Vellucci announced a press conference on 20 March at 11.30 a.m. in Press Room 1, by the World Bank Group, on the International Development Association (IDA) and its innovative investments in the world’s poorest countries. The speaker would be Axel van Trotsenburg, Vice President, Development Finance, World Bank Group.
Ms. Vellucci also announced a press conference on 21 March at 4 p.m. in Press Room 1, by the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine, on human rights defenders in Palestine. The speakers would be Rana Arrabi, Third Secretary at the Permanent Observer Mission of the State of Palestine, and Issa Amro, Human Rights Defender and activist.
Ms. Vellucci also congratulated the new ACANU Committee elected on 16 March, and its President Jan-Dirk Herbermann, with hopes for a continued fruitful collaboration.
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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog170317