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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

6 June 2017

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service at the United Nations Office at Geneva, chaired the briefing attended by the spokespersons for the United Nations Refugee Agency and the World Health Organisation, and the representatives of the International Labour Organisation, the United Nations Development Programme, and the United Nations Children’s Fund.

Situation in Sri Lanka

Christophe Boulierac, spokesperson for United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), introduced Tim Sutton, Representative for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Sri Lanka, who briefed on the alarming emergency in Sri Lanka, particularly with regards to children.

Tim Sutton explained that the monsoon that had recently struck Sri Lanka had been excessively heavy. It had most probably created the worst natural disaster that Sri Lanka had had for a number of years. At this stage, there were 212 deaths while 79 people remained missing. As much as 694,000 people had been affected across fifteen districts. In addition, 2,500 homes had been destroyed while 15,890 had been seriously damaged. As of 5 June, nearly two weeks after the onset of the emergency, 22,000 were still displaced in two emergency shelters. The condition these people were living in was extremely serious. UNICEF was working with the government of Sri Lanka and its international civil society partners to mobilize a response, as well as a long-term response.

At this stage, water and sanitation supplies had been delivered, and the agencies and authorities were currently working on delivering education supplies. The health system was also being strengthened and basic health services were being rehabilitated. In view of the rapidly rising numbers of diarrhoea and dengue, which were getting out of control, one of the priorities was disease control.

Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon

Summarising the situation in Jordan and Lebanon, Andrej Mahecic, spokesperson for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said critical gaps in these two countries spelled looming destitution and despair for Syrian refugee families.

UNHCR warned that without urgent additional funding, some 60,000 Syrian refugee families would be cut from monthly cash assistance programmes in Lebanon and Jordan as early as July.

Vital parts of UNHCR’s response to the needs of Syrian refugees were critically underfunded. Additional contributions were urgently required to avoid dramatic and deep cuts to both basic and life-saving services to Syrian refugees in the second half of the year. Despite generous pledges, humanitarian programmes in support of Syrian refugees and communities hosting them were quickly running out of resources. The situation was most dramatic in Lebanon and Jordan where a number of direct cash assistance activities could dry up in less than four weeks.

In Lebanon, where 70 per cent of Syrian refugees were living under the national poverty line, it was unclear how they would survive. For many, cash assistance was the only means of buying medicines for sick family members and paying off their bills and fast-accumulating debts. Refugees had told UNHCR that every month they struggled to pay their rent and faced the threat of eviction.

Those who fled to Jordan faced equally stark challenges. Refugees had told UNHCR that monthly cash support meant a meal a day, a better roof, and their dignity. Now they feared losing everything. Many said they preferred to go back to Syria to die if they stopped receiving this assistance. For every third family in the cash assistance programme in Jordan, this was their sole source of income, making them particularly vulnerable to any cuts.

UNHCR had scaled up and pioneered new approaches in the delivery of cash assistance programmes in 2011 to assist the massive number of Syrian refugees in the neighbouring middle-income countries. Well-established infrastructure and services meant that UNHCR could work with banks to deliver cash to refugees, reducing overheads and fraud, and giving a choice to refugees to buy what they needed, avoiding the stigma of distribution queues. These allowed vulnerable families to cope with hardships of displacement and helped them to restore their dignity. They were key in helping refugee families avoid destitution, exploitation or abuse and to evade resorting to child labour, early marriages, survival sex or other negative coping practices.

Mr. Mahecic warned that in Lebanon, where UNHCR urgently needed USD 116 million, direct cash assistance programmes for refugees would be affected first. These included a lifeline multi-purpose cash assistance for 30,000 Syrian refugee families, a winter cash assistance for two months for another 174,000 families and protection cash assistance for 1,500 refugee households to help them overcome periods of hardship. The funding gap also jeopardised 65,000 life-saving secondary health care interventions and support to UNHCR’s and the Lebanese Authorities’ capacity to issue and renew documentation for refugees, following a recent decision to waive the residency renewal fees most refugees could not afford.

In Jordan, UNHCR urgently required USD 71 million to provide monthly cash assistance for 30,000 Syrian refugee families, to support the estimated 60,000 Syrians stranded at the Syria-Jordan border, to secure 115,000 primary health consultations and 12,000 referrals to secondary health care services for refugees in camps and urban areas, as well as to ensure timely support this winter for 35,000 Syrians.

More than five million Syrians lived as refugees in neighbouring countries. This made Syrians the largest refugee group in the world. Another 6.3 million were displaced inside Syria.

Mid-way through 2017, the 2017 inter-agency appeal (USD 4.6 billion) to meet the immediate humanitarian needs of Syrian refugees across the Middle East and North Africa was only 18 per cent funded. Given the challenges of responding to humanitarian needs at such a scale and across the entire region, early and adequate contributions were vital to ensure timely and planned delivery of refugee protection and aid programmes.

In response to a question on how much cash assistance was distributed to refugees in Lebanon, Mr. Mahecic said the aid depended on the size of the family and its vulnerability. A monthly system had been put in place whereby ATMs had the built-in IrisGuard software - a biometric technology to ensure cash assistance reached the refugees who needed it.

Referring to a question on the responsibility of the Lebanese Government for its policy of not setting up formal camps for its 1.5 million Syrian refugees, Mr. Mahecic added that Lebanese households had been generous to Syrian refugees over the years, and that over 20% of the Lebanese population had opened their homes to them. Many of the Syrian families lived within families, and not in camps. About 1,600 to 1,700 sites where Syrian families lived together were scattered across the entire country. These had been given land and had erected makeshift shelters.

In response to a follow up question on whether the Lebanese government should be encouraged to establish permanent camps, Mr. Mahecic replied that only 10% of Syrian refugees lived in camps, and that these were not the solution. The solution was peace and stability in Syria and the ability for people to return to their home country. In the meanwhile, funding was needed for the host communities in order to feed these refugees while peace and stability was awaited. Camps themselves were not a lasting solution.

In reference to a follow up question on how much the funding was being affected by the United States, he stated that the current commitments had been made earlier. No one could speculate on what the funding would be in the future, but the United States was traditionally a strong supporter of refugees.

Addressing a question on camps officially recognized by UNHCR, Mr. Mahecic stated that there was a perception that most refugees were being taken care of in camps. However the fact was that most Syrian refugees were living in rural areas. Most of the time they were living alongside acquaintances and relatives. In terms of the ratio of refugees living in camps versus refugees not living in camps, he informed that only 1 in 10 refugees (or 10%) lived in camps.

Situation in Raqqa, Syria

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service at the United Nations Office at Geneva, made a statement on behalf of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, about the situation in Raqqa. Ms. Vellucci said that the United Nations continued to be deeply concerned for the safety and protection of over 400,000 men, women and children in the Raqqa Governorate, who continued to be exposed to daily fighting and airstrikes. She explained that on 3 June 2017, three internally displaced people (including a pregnant woman) had been reportedly killed by a landmine. On 4 June 2017, airstrikes on the al-Mashlab neighbourhood in Raqqa city had reportedly resulted in the destruction of two schools while mortar shelling in the vicinity of another school injured several people.

Ms. Vellucci said the displacement situation on the ground had remained fluid. Over 160,000 people had been displaced since 1 May. Of these, 87,234 displacements had occurred in the Raqqa Governorate, 36,184 in Aleppo, and 33,448 in Idlib with smaller numbers in Hama, Deir-el Zor and Homs.

Concerning the returns, Ms. Vellucci said that about 4,000 of the 20,000 persons who had been displaced within Raqqa from Al-Mansoura and Hudaydah had reportedly returned to Al-Mansoura. Additional returns to Al-Mansoura were expected, if the route continued to be safe.

Ms. Vellucci explained that the humanitarian situation in Raqqa Governorate remained dire, with the majority of the population reportedly facing critical problems in meeting their immediate needs. Of particular concern was the situation in Raqqa City with reports of an increased shortage of food and medical supplies. She specified that since March 2017, United Nations agencies, through their local partners, had continued to provide multi sectoral humanitarian assistance including food, hygiene kits, nutrition, medical treatment, vaccinations for people in need throughout the governorate of Raqqa, including internally displaced persons in camps. Ms. Vellucci reiterated the United Nations’ call for unconditional, unimpeded and sustained access to those affected by the fighting in Raqqa, and more broadly to the 4.5 million who are still in hard-to-reach areas across Syria.


Announcements

Tarik Jasarevic, spokesperson for the World Health Organization (WHO), announced a virtual press briefing on 6 June at 3 p.m. at the WHO about the new updated Essential Medicines List (EML). A media advisory had been sent regarding this on 5 June. The Essential Medicines List was one of WHO’s core products and was used by many countries to increase access to medicines and to guide decisions about which products they should make available for their population. Mr. Jasarevic said the EML was updated and revised every two years by the WHO Experts Committee on the Selection and Use of Essential Medicines.

Several speakers would participate in the press briefing on 6 June: Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO Assistant Director General; Dr. Suzanne Hill, WHO Director for Essential Medicines, and Dr. Marcus Sprenger, WHO Director of Antimicrobial Resistance. As mentioned in the media advisory, the press release and executive summary were available under embargo.

Mr. Jasarevic noted that the event would be of importance as it would be the first time that WHO issued a new list on which antibiotics to use for common infections and which antibiotics should be preserved for more serious circumstances.

Speaking on behalf of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Hans von Rohland, announced the visit of the Presidents of Malta, Mauritius and Nepal. The three women presidents will attend this year’s World of Work Summit at the International Labour Conference on 15 June which will discuss innovative ways to overcome gender equality gaps in the world of work . The day before, the ILO will launch its World Employment and Social Outlook for Women Report which highlights the economic and social benefits of bringing more women into the labour market.

Answering a question from a journalist on alleged labour violations in China, the ILO spokesperson said that he could only comment on cases the ILO supervisory bodies have already dealt with. He reminded journalists that the ILO’s Conference Committee on the Application of Standards would select 24 cases of alleged violations of labour rights to be discussed during the Conference.

Geneva Events and Announcements

Rheal LeBlanc, Chief, Press and External Relations of the United Nations Information Service at the United Nations Office at Geneva, reminded the press of a press conference at 2:00 p.m. today in Press Room 1, by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Report to the Human Rights Council (35th session) of the Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Speaking at the press conference would be the Independent Expert, Mr. Vitit Muntarbhorn.

Today, at 3 p.m. the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) would hold a meeting with partners, and on Wednesday, on 7 June at 3 p.m.it would review the periodic report of Liechtenstein.

The Conference on Disarmament (CD) was holding a plenary session this morning under the presidency of Slovakia (who would ensure the presidency until 25 June).

Mr. LeBlanc also announced a press conference on Wednesday 7 June at 10.30 a.m. in Press Room 1 by Dainius Pûras, the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health. He would share with the media his latest report to the Human Rights Council: “There is no health without mental health and no mental health without human rights”.

On Thursday, 8 June there would be a press conference at 10.30 a.m. in Press Room 1 by Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons. She would discuss her report on trafficking in supply chains, and the efforts of multi-stakeholder initiatives and industry coalitions to address the issue. Ms. Giammarinaro had identified and analysed main challenges in adopting voluntary standards and certification schemes to detect trafficking in companies’ supply chains, and would provide information on her analysis on these as well as recommendations to strengthen voluntary standards and the certification processes to improve detection and remediation of cases of trafficking in persons. The report would be presented to the Human Rights Council on Friday 9 June.

Finally, also on Thursday, 8 June, at 11:30 a.m. in Press Room 1 of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, the Committee on the Rights of the Child would discuss its Concluding Observations on Antigua and Barbuda, Bhutan, Cameroon, Lebanon, Mongolia, Qatar, Romania and USA. The speakers would be Mrs. Renate Winter, Committee Chairperson, as well as Mr. Benyam Dawit Mezmur, Mrs. Kirsten Sandberg and Mrs. Suzanne Aho Assouma, Committee Experts.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog060617


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