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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

27 October 2017

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing attended by the spokespersons for the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Health Organization, the World Food Programme and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Bangladesh

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that a total of 817,000 Rohingya refugees were now living in the southernmost district of Bangladesh. That figure included the 604,000 who had crossed over the border from Myanmar since 25 August 2017 but was in addition to the more than 200,000 people who had sought safety in Cox’s Bazar following previous outbreaks of violence. The majority of new arrivals lived in crowded makeshift settlements, with only 46,000 people living among the host community.

It continued to be challenging to get donated materials to the people who needed it, not least because of the recent heavy rains. Efforts must focus more on building roads and basic infrastructure so that the refugee population could receive services as quickly and effectively as possible. So far, some 741,000 litres of water had been trucked into the settlements with limited access to water; it sometimes had to be hand-carried up steep hills to reach children and the elderly.

Medical needs in the camps were extremely high, especially considering that many of the refugees had walked long distances to reach Bangladesh, with many having experienced physical and sexual abuse along the way and now living in overcrowded sites that were not prepared for inhabitation by over 800,000 people. IOM health teams had provided emergency and primary health-care services to 53,000 patients. They had also set up child delivery facilities and a patient stabilization unit in Kutupalong. To address sanitation needs and prevent disease outbreaks, IOM had constructed 660 emergency pit latrines and 100 mobile toilets. Twelve deep tube wells had been dug to provide settlement residents with clean drinking water.

Babar Baloch, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that the UN Refugee Agency had relocated some 1,700 new refugees to a government-allocated site in south-eastern Bangladesh, thereby decongesting existing facilities in Kutupalong and giving them a home after weeks on the move.

Most of the affected refugees were among the thousands of refugees who had trekked for about a week to cross the Bangladesh border, only to be stranded in a border village for four days before being allowed to proceed inland during the previous week. UNHCR had opened up a transit centre and some refugee schools in Kutupalong refugee camp to temporarily accommodate the most vulnerable refugees caught in the sudden influx. The relocation had started on Tuesday in an effort to decongest Kutupalong’s schools and resume classes, and to free up the transit centre for further arrivals. In total, 13 schools had been reopened in Nayapara and Kutupalong camps, but there were still some 400,000 children in need of education services.

A total of 5,000 refugees would be moved to the newly-opened site, which was part of a larger 3,000-acre piece of land known as Kutupalong Extension designated by the Bangladesh government to host the new arrivals. Ahead of the move, UNHCR had developed a site plan for the hilly area and had started building latrines and digging tube wells. Space had also been demarcated for partners to build facilities like community centres, health posts, schools and child-friendly spaces. UNHCR was partially funding the construction of a road near the site to improve access to refugees and speed up the delivery of assistance.

Since Tuesday, volunteers had been helping vulnerable refugees to carry their belongings to the new site. UNHCR was distributing household items and shelter kits containing plastic sheets, bamboo poles and rope. Save the Children was hiring workers to help with shelter construction for the most vulnerable refugees. Local NGOs were doing medical screenings while Action Against Hunger was offering food and water until the refugees could cook for themselves.

Marixie Mercado, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that UNICEF was conducting a nutrition survey to shed light the extent of acute malnutrition among Rohingya child refugees; data should be available in November. What was already clear was that the combination of malnutrition, sanitary conditions and disease in the refugee settlements was potentially catastrophic for children.

During the recent mass influx, when thousands of refugees had been stuck at the border from 16 to 18 October, UNICEF had screened 340 children as part of a rough and rapid exercise to identify children who needed immediate, life-saving treatment. Of the 340 children screened at the border, 33 had been found to be severely acutely malnourished. Screening conducted on sick children who were brought to a Médecins Sans Frontières clinic had found 14 severe acute malnutrition cases among 103 children. Such samples were extremely small, so the numbers were not representative; however, it was clear from them that some children were close to death by the time they made it across the border.

Among refugees who had arrived in Bangladesh since August 25 2017, UNICEF and partners had screened 59,604 children as of 25 October, resulting in the identification of 1,970 children as severely acutely malnourished and of 6,971 children as moderately acutely malnourished. Those numbers roughly corresponded to the pre-crisis malnutrition rates – which had already been above the emergency threshold – of 21.2 per cent global acute malnutrition and 3.6 per cent severe acute malnutrition, according to a survey conducted in May 2017 in makeshift settlements.

In Rakhine State, malnutrition rates in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships, where the vast majority of refugees came from, were also already above emergency thresholds – global acute malnutrition rates of 19 per cent in Maungdaw and 15.1 per cent in Buthidaung, and severe acute malnutrition rates of 3.9 per cent in Maungdaw and 2 per cent in Buthidaung. Since August 25, UNICEF had had to stop treating 4,000 children with severe acute malnutrition in northern Rakhine because of lack of access to the area.

Measles, which was an extremely contagious disease, had been reported both among the settled population and new arrivals. And despite a cholera vaccination campaign that had exceeded its target of 650,000 people, the risk of diarrhoeal disease and dysentery remained exceptionally high.
UNICEF, together with partners, was focusing on establishing additional nutrition treatment centres. Almost 2,000 children with severe acute malnutrition were currently receiving treatment. UNICEF had procured ready-to-use therapeutic food to treat severe acute malnutrition and more supplies were on the way. The agency was working with health partners to identify and treat diarrhoea and pneumonia – which worsened malnutrition – and to vaccinate children. It was also working to support mothers so that they could properly feed their infants and young children. Crucially, UNICEF continued its efforts to make safe water and sanitation accessible to more refugees.

Funding remained a constraint – the USD 76 million appeal by UNICEF was still only 18 per cent funded.

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that according to the latest mortality and morbidity data for the period from 16 to 20 October 2017, acute respiratory infections were the most common types of disease found among the vulnerable populations in Cox’s Bazar, with a significant burden on diarrhoeal and skin diseases as well as fever.

WHO had supported the Government of Bangladesh in setting up a water quality testing laboratory. On 20 and 21 October, the water and sanitation teams had provided training to 12 newly recruited engineers. Drinking water testing results indicated that only 35 per cent of the samples collected and tested from various settlements during the reporting period met Bangladeshi and WHO standards. As a result, the shipping of additional water supplies into the area was being considered.

The first phase of the oral cholera vaccination campaign had been conducted from 10 to 18 October and had reached over 700,000 people over 1 year old, comprising both new arrivals and people from host communities. The second phase involved administering a second dose of the vaccine to those between 1 and 5 years old, or 180,000 children, and would begin on 4 November. In addition, and also with the support of WHO, a measles, rubella and polio vaccination campaign had been conducted from 16 September to 4 October, targeting newly arrived refugees aged 6 months to 15 years.

Responding to questions, Mr. Baloch, for UNHCR, said that UNHCR had repeatedly appealed for access to Rakhine State, without any substantial progress thus far. Bettina Luescher, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said that WFP had very recently been given the green light for resuming food assistance in Rakhine State; the details, including the number of people targeted and the time line for reaching them had yet to be worked out. She would make available the figures concerning the number of people reached in Rakhine State before restrictions on access had been imposed.

Asked about the status of the Rohingya having fled Myanmar for Bangladesh, Mr. Baloch, for UNHCR, said that UNHCR had always referred to them as refugees, as should be all people fleeing war and persecution. The agency had made repeated efforts to have all parties refer to them in the same way. He also clarified that the so-called Extension Site was merely an extension of the already-established Kutupalong camp. Duniya Aslam Khan, also for UNHCR, added that it was yet too early to commit to any plans for large additional refugee camps. Mr. Millman, for IOM, added that IOM responded quickly to emergencies all over the world no matter how the people in need were designated.

Asked about the measles situation in particular, Ms. Mercado, for UNICEF, said that as of 25 October, there had been 34 confirmed measles cases; 3 clinical measles cases had been reported and 7 were pending. Most cases were among young children. Suspected cases of measles had also been found among children who had just crossed the border or who were at border crossings. Five children had been sent to mobile health clinics for treatment.

Responding to questions about funding, Ms. Mercado, for UNICEF, said that it was very worrying that only 18 per cent of the UNICEF appeal (USD 76 million) had been met thus far; that figure included the funding pledged at the conference held on 23 October. The agency’s response to the Rohingya crisis was being partly financed by internal funds; for example, USD 8 million in internal funds had made possible the purchase of ready-to-use therapeutic food, a stable supply of which was crucial. Mr. Baloch, for UNHCR, said that 54 per cent of the appeal it had made to cover the period from September 2017 to February 2018 was funded; UNHCR had benefitted from substantial private donations. Mr. Lindmeier, for WHO, said that of the USD 10.2 million needed to support critical health interventions in Cox’s Bazar, some USD 1m had been mobilized thus far, from the WHO contingency fund, the Emergency Response Fund, and other sources. Mr. Millman, for IOM, said that of the USD 120 million requested by IOM, some USD 26.5 million, or 22 per cent, had been received.

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that she would gather and make available additional information on the funding situation, including details regarding the use of funds pledged at the pledging conference on 23 October, as soon as possible.

[Later on, the UN Information Service clarified the following, about the funding for the Rohingya refugee crisis:
- The Pledging Conference for the Rohingya Refugee Crisis (Geneva, 23 October 2017) resulted in a number of generous pledges from various donors, to whom the United Nations are very grateful. These announcements included money pledged and committed since 25 August as well as new announcements. In addition, several donors announced in-kind assistance worth more than $50 million. Public fundraising campaigns in several countries are also underway. The latest funding overview, for a total of $360 million, can be found at: http://www.unocha.org/sites/unocha/files/Pledge%20announcements%20Bangladesh%20Pledging%20Conference%2023%20Oct.pdf
- The United Nations Humanitarian Response Plan amounted to $434.1 million.
- Not all the funding pledged at the conference would go to the response plan, although the UN expected that the coverage of the plan would significantly increase because many donors had expressed support for UN agencies and for non-governmental organizations included in the plan. Some donors might choose to give money to organizations that were not included in the plan but that carried out important work (such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, Red Cross / Red Crescent national societies or other NGOs), or directly to the affected country government. Announcements also included large “decisions” and the recipients may not all be decided yet.
- More information could be found at https://www.unocha.org/rohingya-refugee-crisis/rohingya-refugee-crisis-pledging-conference
- An overview of individual agencies' and UN partners' funding requirements can be found at: https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/2017_HRP_Bangladesh_041017_2.pdf (annex III, pages 45 to 51)
- In the above framework, and as announced by the following UN agencies at the press briefing, their most recent funding figures were: IOM: Appeal $120 million; 22% received; UNHCR: Appeal: $71.5 million; 54 % received; UNICEF: Appeal: $76 million; 18% received; WHO: Appeal: $10.2 million; $1 million received; WFP: Appeal $77 million; received 30 %.]

Syria

Rupert Colville, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that the High Commissioner had described the situation of at least 350,000 besieged civilians in Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, as an outrage, and had recently called on the parties to the conflict to allow badly needed food and medical supplies to get into the area. The shocking images of what appeared to be severely malnourished children that had emerged in recent days were a frightening indication of the plight of people in Eastern Ghouta, who were now facing a humanitarian emergency.

Eastern Ghouta had been under siege by Government forces for more than four years. Residential areas, including those areas previously spared attack, were now being hit on an almost daily basis by ground-based strikes by government forces and their allies, with reports referring to scores of civilian casualties. That was despite the fact that Eastern Ghouta was considered one of the “de-escalation areas” brokered in May by Iran, Russia and Turkey under the Astana process, with the stated aim of putting a prompt end to violence and improving the humanitarian situation. The Astana memorandum on the de-escalation areas further added that rapid, safe, and unhindered humanitarian access had to be provided.

The UN Human Rights Office had also received reports of armed opposition groups conducting ground-based strikes on Damascus, including on 15 October when several mortars had hit Old Damascus and killed at least four civilians. In addition, various armed groups controlling Eastern Ghouta had restricted the work of humanitarian organizations, and clashes between those groups had limited civilians’ freedom of movement within the region for months.

The parties to the conflict must allow the free, regular and unimpeded passage of food and other humanitarian relief and not take actions that would deprive civilians of their rights to food and health. The United Nations had last reached Eastern Ghouta on 23 September with help for some 25,000 people in the besieged towns of East Harasta, Misraba and Modira. Between January and September, the Government had accepted only 26 per cent of requests to deliver assistance to besieged and hard-to-reach areas.

The High Commissioner reminded all parties that the deliberate starvation of civilians as a method of warfare constituted a clear violation of international humanitarian law, and might amount to a crime against humanity and/or a war crime. He also called on all those with involvement or influence in the conflict to facilitate the access of humanitarian workers so they could deliver the aid that the people of Eastern Ghouta so desperately needed.

Prices of basic goods had skyrocketed since Government forces had taken control of the eastern Damascus neighbourhoods of Qaboun and Barze in May and destroyed the network of tunnels used to smuggle aid and various goods into Eastern Ghouta. The cost of food had further soared following the recent complete closure on 3 October of Al-Wafideen checkpoint - the main access point for Eastern Ghouta - and a big rise in taxes imposed on traders by Government forces at the checkpoints. With the local economy destroyed, many people could simply no longer afford to buy food supplies even when they were available.

Unidentified attackers had reportedly stormed and looted a food warehouse in the Eastern Ghouta town of Hamourya on 19 October. The following day several hundred people had allegedly looted a second warehouse in the town in a possible sign of growing desperation.

The Government had also reportedly imposed severe restrictions on medical evacuations, which was said to have resulted in the death of several civilians. While a few isolated cases had been evacuated, the UN Human Rights Office had received a list of several hundred people in need of evacuation, including dozens of cases deemed urgent.

Just as food and medical supplies must be allowed in, sick and injured people must be allowed to access medical care whenever and wherever they needed it. The High Commissioner reminded all parties of their obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law to protect civilians at all times, and to care for the sick and wounded. If parties to a conflict could not meet the needs of the population under their control, they must allow and facilitate efforts by impartial humanitarian agencies to provide aid, including by granting them the right of free passage.

Responding to questions, Mr. Colville said that it was legally complicated to establish that a given act constituted a crime against humanity or a war crime, not least because intent must be proven. The investigations required for such a high threshold of proof were usually carried out by a court. In the meantime, the High Commissioner had indeed spoken of the possibility that deliberate starvation of civilians was being used as a method of warfare. He had said that such acts might amount to a crime against humanity and/or a war crime.

As for who was imposing or maintaining the sieges, in addition to government forces and militia allies, opposition groups in Eastern Ghouta were also making humanitarian aid difficulties, either because of internal clashes or in active opposition to the activities of certain organizations.

Madagascar

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO) said that since WHO had begun supporting the Ministry of Health in Madagascar and the contact tracing system in mid-October, more than 5,300 people had been identified as close contacts for the plague in Madagascar; all of them had received counselling and sufficient antibiotics to eliminate the bacteria in case they had been infected. The WHO team on the ground has visited them twice a day for a week to ensure that they were still feeling well, that they were taking their medication and to answer any questions. As of 26 October, more than 1,150 contacts were still being monitored.

Since the beginning of the expanded contact tracing exercise, nine had had symptoms and were now considered suspected cases. As at 25 October, of the 1,231 suspected and confirmed cases that had been cumulatively registered, 124 people had died, 881 had recovered and 200 remained under treatment.

Migration statistics for the Mediterranean

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that as at 25 October, some 149,000 migrants and refugees had entered Europe by sea in 2017; that was a significant drop as compared with the figure over the same period in 2016. In addition, fatalities along the same routes were down by about 1,000. Overall, the migration and refugee emergency, which was in its fifth year, was being managed better than had been expected as recently as 2015. That being said, although the number of total arrivals in Greece via the Mediterranean had declined from nearly 170,000 to just over 23,000 from October 2016 to October 2017 respectively, it was important to note that an increase had been reported over the past few months and would likely make for a total of 30,000 arrivals for 2017 as a whole.

According to recent data from the Turkish authorities, the latter had intercepted some 6,000 migrants over August and September 2017 and more than 15,000 in total since the beginning of 2017. Some of those people made additional attempts and eventually made it to Greece. For those that did not, following rescue, Syrians were registered in Turkey before they were let go; non-Syrians, were generally taken to removal centres, unless they petitioned for asylum.

Mr. Millman also said that so far in 2017, nearly 19,000 migrants had been intercepted in Libyan waters.

Worldwide, the IOM Missing Migrants Project had recorded the deaths of 4,826 people migrating in 2017 through 26 October – an increase of just over 400 since 3 October. That meant that over the past 23 days, an average of 17 migrants had perished every 24 hours. It was therefore important to note that despite what looked like a positive trend, at least in the Mediterranean, it was deplorable that dozens of migrants were still dying every week, and that those who did arrive successfully often experienced unacceptable levels of trauma.

Ghana

Babar Baloch, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, was working with the authorities in Ghana to support over 500 recently arrived Togolese asylum-seekers, fleeing the recent political unrest in their country. So far, 513 asylum-seekers had been registered by the Ghanaian authorities, after arriving in remote north-western parts of Ghana, including Chereponi, Zabzugu and Bunkprugu-Yunyou. The majority of them were being hosted by local families and some in community centres. A joint UNHCR/Ghana Refugee Board mission was currently on its way to those remote areas to assess the situation. Togolese seeking safety, including women and children, had told UNHCR staff that they had fled on foot, walking from their homes in Togo’s Mango region, bordering Ghana. They said that they had been fleeing human rights abuses after the recent political protests.

Together with the Ghana Refugee Board and the National Disaster Management Organisation, UNHCR continued to monitor the situation and was working on a response plan in case of an increase of refugee arrivals, including the prepositioning of relief items. The Government of Ghana, with local authorities and host communities, was providing the recent asylum seekers with emergency humanitarian aid including food and non-food items.

There were also reports of nearly 30 asylum-seekers having recently arrived in northern Benin. It was not yet clear if their arrival was related to the current situation in Togo. There were no reports of refugees or asylum-seekers arriving in Burkina Faso so far. UNHCR was working with the authorities in Benin and Burkina Faso on emergency preparedness, including the development of contingency plans, in case of refugee influx in those countries.

Responding to questions, Mr. Baloch said that although the details of the situation were not yet clear, the countries that shared borders with Togo had expressed concern and had approached UNHCR to prepare themselves for further arrivals of refugees. The area in question was quite remote: UNHCR colleagues had experienced some delays in reaching them but would send further information about the situation once they had spoken with the group of refugees. The information provided so far was that the newly arrived refugees had claimed that they had fled various forms of human rights violations related to protests, which had been ongoing since August, about delayed constitutional reform, and specifically about the incumbent president’s stepping down. It was hoped that the situation would be resolved before becoming a crisis.

Ethiopia

Babar Baloch, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that UNHCR welcomed the launch of civil registration for refugees in Ethiopia. Starting 27 October 2017, all refugees in the country would be able to register their vital life events, including birth, death, marriage and divorce, directly with national authorities. It was a historic first and a ground-breaking development for refugee protection in Ethiopia, not previously realized over decades.

Civil registration for refugees had been made possible following an amendment to existing legislation prepared by the Government of Ethiopia with the collaboration of UNHCR and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). It had been one of the nine pledges made at the Leaders’ Summit held in New York in September 2016. Other commitments included granting work permits to refugees, strengthening access to education, allowing a significant number of refugees to reside outside of refugee camps and locally integrating long-staying refugees.

At the launch on 27 October, 11 refugees had been issued with certificates in Addis Ababa. Civil registration offices had also been established in each of the 26 refugee camps, as well as in the seven locations with a high concentration of refugees. More than 70,000 refugee children born in Ethiopia over the past decade whose births had not been registered would soon be issued with birth certificates. Children born before the new law came into force could also obtain a birth certificate retroactively. Birth registration was an important protection tool in ensuring basic human rights, particularly in situations of displacement. It establishes a child’s legal identity and can help prevent statelessness. Ethiopia currently hosted more than 883,000 refugees mainly from South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen.

Geneva events and announcements

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that the press briefing of Tuesday, 31 October 2017, would take place at 10.15 a.m., rather than 10.30 a.m., to facilitate attendance at the launching of the 2017 Emissions Gap Report of the United Nations Environment Agency, which was scheduled to take place in Room XIV of the Palais des Nations at 11.45 a.m.

The Human Rights Committee and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women continued to hold meetings in the context of their 121st and sixty-eighth sessions, which would conclude on 16 October and 17 November, respectively.

A transcript of the briefing of the Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, of the Security Council on the situation in Syria, on 26 October had been sent to members of the press; related queries could be sent to the Information Service.

Responding to questions, Ms. Vellucci said that the number of United Nations staff members from African countries by country was available, but aggregated data could also be made available if requested.

Press conferences

WMO - WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin
The World Meteorological Organization releases its annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin on concentrations of CO2 and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere
Monday, 30 October at 11:00 a.m. in Room III
https://www.unog.ch/unog/website/calendar.nsf/(httpInternal~Media~Daily~en)/B7D5C899C504B407C12581C40043D67A?OpenDocument

UNOG/Geneva Peacebuilding Platform
Geneva Peace Week (6-10 November 2017)
Monday, 30 October at 2:00 p.m. in Press Room 1
https://www.unog.ch/unog/website/calendar.nsf/(httpInternal~Media~Daily~en)/6F1ADC0CE234ED24C12581C3004642DF?OpenDocument

UNHCR - New UNHCR Report: “This is my Home” - Stateless Minorities and their Search for Citizenship
(Embargoed until Friday, 3 November 00:01 GMT)
Tuesday, 31 October at 2:00 p.m. in Press Room 1
https://www.unog.ch/unog/website/calendar.nsf/(httpInternal~Media~Daily~en)/313FF332AD93725FC12581C4004FED83?OpenDocument

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog271017


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