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12 December 2017

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the spokespersons and representatives for the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Health Organization and the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

Avoiding famine in Somalia

George Conway, United Nations Development Programme Country Director for Somalia, speaking by phone from Mogadishu, said that at the beginning of 2017, the United Nations had issued a famine alert for Somalia and the President of the country had declared a national disaster. Since then, the Government and its partners had been providing emergency assistance to 3 million people every month.

The Government had also been taking concrete steps to find ways to break the cycle of recurrent humanitarian emergencies and to take concerted action to prevent future drought situations turning into famines. The drought that had occurred in 2017 was worse than that of 2011, when famine had killed 250,000 people, but this time famine had been avoided through a combination of early action by the Government and the United Nations, a speedy response from international donors and a massive scaling-up of assistance.

Progress in the State- and institution-building agenda over the past five years, including more effective governance institutions and investment in stabilizing key regional capitals, had enabled a more robust response than had been possible in 2011. Nevertheless, the situation remained very serious for millions of Somalis following the failure of the rainy season for the fifth consecutive year. An estimated 6.2 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance, and the number of people considered to be living in pre-famine emergency conditions had increased this year from 80,000 people in January to 800,000 in December. During 2017, an additional 1 million people had been displaced due to drought and conflict, thereby doubling the number of internally displaced people in Somalia.

As well as continuing to provide lifesaving assistance, it was necessary for the international community to work to address the root causes of famine. Climate-related droughts were happening more often and becoming more intense, and Somalia and its international partners could not afford to keep spending on emergency situations. The Government was focusing its efforts on what was required in the medium and long term to reduce the impact of recurring droughts and avoid future famines, and was working to address the gap between humanitarian response and development.

The recent Drought Impact Needs Assessment carried out by the Government, the United Nations, the World Bank and the European Union had examined the cost of the ongoing drought conditions and what was needed to ensure an effective recovery and build long-term resilience. The impact of the current drought was estimated at more than USD 3 billion, including USD 1 billion in damage to farmers’ assets including livestock and crops. The Assessment had calculated that USD 1.7 billion would be required over the next three to five years to boost infrastructure, management of water resources, efforts to increase agricultural production and the expansion of urban services.

In response to questions from journalists, Mr. Conway said that the humanitarian response requirement for Somalia for 2018 amounted to USD 1.5 billion dollars, which was comparable to the amount that had been estimated for 2017. It was important not to create competition between lifesaving and development resources.

Launch of the joint UNHCR-UNDP 2018 Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan for Syria

Adrian Edwards, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that on 12 December, United Nations Agencies and NGO partners were releasing the 2018 Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP) for Syria, a USD 4.4 billion plan designed to support more than 5 million Syrian refugees and the vulnerable communities hosting them in neighbouring countries.

Amin Awad, UNHCR Bureau Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said that the crisis in Syria had forced 5.3 million people to flee the country and displaced a further 7 million within its borders. In addition, more than 500,000 people had been killed and another 10 million who had remained in their homes had been cut off from services and were in need of humanitarian assistance. Civilians were the losers in the war in Syria, with half of all displaced children not in school.

The Plan was designed as an umbrella facility involving 270 partners including United Nations agencies and NGOs. In Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt, 85 per cent of Syrian refugees were living in their host communities rather than in camps. Nevertheless, most of them were living below the poverty line in difficult conditions, without access to health, education or social protection services. There were also acute shortages of food. In 2015, the appeal for funding had not gained enough traction and had resulted in a surge of people moving towards Europe in search of better conditions. The funding response in 2017 had been limited and agencies had had to curtail the assistance they were providing to vulnerable displaced people and refugees.

In response to questions from journalists, Mr. Awad said that the 2017 appeal for USD 4.8 billion had so far only been 53 per cent funded, leaving refugees without food, schools and health services. There was also a gap in the provision of winterization equipment such as stoves and kerosene, blankets and insulation materials. Countries in the region had shown unprecedented generosity in taking in such large numbers of refugees, but huge amounts of material assistance were still required. While most Arab and Western donors had stayed the course, with Kuwait alone contributing USD 1.5 billion, the funding system as a whole needed fixing.

In response to further questions, he said that while Turkey had been very generous towards the 3.3 million Syrian refugees living there, many of them remained without employment and only 55 per cent of child refugees were in school. Neighbouring countries ought to keep their borders open to Syrian refugees and avoid cases of refoulement.

Determination of refugee status in Djibouti

Adrian Edwards, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that UNHCR welcomed the entry into force of new Refugee Laws in Djibouti that streamlined refugee status determination procedures and granted more opportunities for their socioeconomic integration.

The newly introduced laws also facilitated better access to social services such as health care, education and employment opportunities.

The new developments were part of the Presidential pledges made at the 2016 Leaders’ Summit, following the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. The changes were also part of Djibouti’s application of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework.

Humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Jean-Philippe Chauzy, IOM Chief of Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, speaking by phone from Kinshasa, said that IOM was launching an appeal for USD 75 million to provide assistance to the increasingly large numbers of Congolese who were facing a worsening humanitarian situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). There were already 4.1 million internally displaced people in DRC – the highest number in any country in Africa. 13.1 million Congolese are expected to be in need of humanitarian assistance and protection in 2018.

Donation levels were at their lowest for many years, with DRC seeming to have “fallen off the map” for many donors. The massive spike in internal displacements and the deepening levels of vulnerability were mostly the result of the ongoing political crisis, escalating conflict and widespread insecurity and had led humanitarian agencies to declare a Level 3 emergency for South Kivu, Tanganyika and the Kasai in October 2017. North Kivu remained the most affected province, where six new sites were hosting 20,000 people who were currently receiving no assistance. The new displacement was due to armed clashes and brutal attacks on civilians by armed groups and Congolese troops. IOM’s capacity to respond was at breaking point and vulnerable displaced people were being forced into negative coping mechanisms.

If funding was forthcoming for 2018, IOM aimed to provide multisectoral
assistance to internally displaced people and host communities and to protect women and girls from widespread gender-based violence, as well as focusing on water, sanitation and health. IOM also aimed to provide a better understanding of the dynamics and intentions of displaced people through its displacement tracking matrix.

In response to questions from journalists, Mr. Chauzy said that while some people were returning to the Kasai region, others were being displaced due to renewed attacks by armed groups. Many areas of Kasai, particularly around the border with Angola, remained difficult to access for security reasons. Some Congolese who had previously fled to Angola were now returning to DRC and finding that their homes and crops had been destroyed.

Asked whether the ongoing political crisis and the recent killing of United Nations peacekeepers had discouraged donors, Mr. Chauzy said that while it was understandable that donors might be reluctant to contribute funding to the electoral process, it was hard to see a rationale for not providing funds for humanitarian efforts. The remainder of 2017 might yet bring more difficulties in DRC, given that the elections that had been supposed to take place in December would not be held. Tensions were being exacerbated by the uncertainty surrounding the political process, with some armed groups now coalescing around a political agenda that had not previously been a rallying point for them.

Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that at least 400,000 children aged under five years in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo were suffering from severe acute malnutrition and could die in 2018 if they were not urgently reached with lifesaving health and nutrition interventions. The dire situation had largely been caused by violence, mass displacement and reduced agricultural production over the past 18 months.

While the security situation had stabilized in parts of the region and some displaced populations had begun to return to their homes and communities, humanitarian conditions remained critical. More than 750,000 children across the region were acutely malnourished, while 25 health zones in the Kasai region were now in a situation of nutritional crisis, with emergency thresholds on nutrition exceeded.

The violence and displacement of 1.4 million people in the Kasai region had led to food shortages, with two-thirds of households unable to work their land to grow crops. Severe food insecurity was now affecting large parts of the region, and conditions were not expected to improve before June 2018 because the 2017 planting seasons had been lost. Families had little to harvest from their own land and nothing to sell at the markets.

Health facilities had also been devastated, making it more difficult to provide treatment and care for severely malnourished children. Approximately 220 health centres had been destroyed, looted or damaged, leading to a weakening of the health delivery system, reduced access to health care and an increased risk of the spread of communicable diseases like measles.

Since January 2017, UNICEF and its partners had provided nutritional care to more than 50,000 children with severe acute malnutrition. However, the Agency had received just 15 per cent of the funding it required for the year to respond to the nutritional needs of children.

In response to questions from journalists, Mr. Boulierac said that while it was estimated that around 50 per cent of displaced people had now returned, many homes and health centres had been destroyed and sources of income were scarce. Children in Kasai were direct and indirect victims of conflict – between 40 and 60 per cent of militia members were under the age of 18 years. Large numbers of children had died from malnutrition, malaria and other diseases during their displacement. UNICEF required USD 43.5 million, including USD 4.8 million for nutrition needs alone, but had so far received only USD 22 million.

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, informed journalists that following the killing of the United Nations peacekeepers in DRC, the UnderSecretaryGeneral for Peacekeeping Operations, JeanPierre Lacroix, would travel to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on 15 December to personally convey to the people and Government of Tanzania the deep gratitude of the United Nations for the sacrifices of their men and women and their continuing contributions over the years in the DRC.


Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that IOM had launched a major intervention to help halt the spread of diphtheria among Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

As a mass vaccination programme got under way, IOM was working to provide vaccination support and other services including community awareness-raising, tracing people who had come in contact with infected individuals to offer them preventative medical attention and providing observation facilities for people recovering from the disease.

On 6 December, the World Health Organization had warned that diphtheria was now spreading rapidly among the population in the over-crowded refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar. It was believed the numbers of those suffering from the disease may be considerably high, as victims might confuse their symptoms with mumps, sore throats or other flu-like illnesses.

IOM, which had been providing medical services to refugees and the local community in Cox’s Bazar since 2013, was now also set to expand its own in-patient capacity to 120 beds and offer support to help other organizations working on the ground to increase their in-patient facilities.

As part of its broader health efforts, IOM was also taking on additional non-diphtheria-related cases, including measles cases, to allow specialists from other organizations to focus on the most severe diphtheria cases.

Since 25 August, when a major upsurge in violence in Myanmar had sent a flood of refugees fleeing over the border into Bangladesh, an estimated 646,000 people had arrived, bringing the total number of refugees living in camps and surrounding areas to over 858,000, with more people continuing to arrive every day.

IOM, which last week had conducted its 100,000th medical consultation in 100 days, currently ran 23 health posts and one primary health-care centre. It also supported nine government health facilities and worked with over 350 community health workers, making it one of the largest health responders working on the ground. The community health workers would play a key role in sharing information about diphtheria, vaccination, prevention and treatment with the community and in ensuring that people received the support they needed to access vital follow-up medications and treatments.

Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that on 12 December, the Government of Bangladesh, with the support of UNICEF, the World Health Organization and GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, was launching a vaccination campaign against diphtheria and other preventable diseases for all Rohingya children aged between 6 weeks and 6 years living in 12 camps and temporary settlements near the Myanmar border.

Recent data from the World Health Organization’s Early Warning Alert and Response System and Médecins Sans Frontières showed 721 suspected diphtheria cases, including 9 deaths, in the camps and makeshift settlements hosting the refugees, as of 11 December.

The immunization campaign due to begin on 12 December would cover almost 255,000 children in Ukhiya and Teknaf sub-districts in Cox’s Bazar, while the Government and health partners continued to increase support for diphtheria treatment and prevention.

The children were being given pentavalent vaccines, which protected against a number of diseases, as well as pneumococcal conjugate vaccines and bivalent oral polio vaccines. During the week beginning 18 December, three rounds of tetanus and diphtheria vaccines would be provided to Rohingya children aged 7 to 15 years and to 10,000 health and development workers in Rohingya settlements. UNICEF was providing 900,000 doses of tetanus and diphtheria vaccines, which were due to arrive in Bangladesh on 12 December.

Diphtheria was a severe concern because it could spread quickly in crowded living conditions. Children were particularly vulnerable to the disease, which could be fatal if left untreated. The most effective way to prevent the diseases was to maintain high levels of immunization within a community.

Tarik Jašareviæ, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that a diphtheria outbreak was a sign of low immunization coverage in the community. A bacterial disease that was spread through the air, diphtheria was characterized by a grey membrane that formed in the throat. The bacteria produced a toxin that affected the upper respiratory tract and other organs. Treatment involved antitoxins to neutralize the toxin and antibiotics to kill the bacteria. If left untreated, the disease was fatal in 5 to 10 per cent of cases, with children most at risk.

While all the cases in Cox’s Bazar to date had been clinically diagnosed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, USA were deploying experts to assist in providing laboratory confirmation and to train health professionals on how to diagnose the disease even in the absence of laboratory confirmation. That work was part of WHO’s wider disease prevention efforts, which had already included measles, polio and cholera vaccination campaigns.

In response to questions from journalists, Mr. Jašareviæ said that the incubation period for diphtheria was between 2 and 5 days. Patients were no longer infectious within 48 hours of the start of antibiotic treatment. The symptoms of the disease included a mild fever, a sore throat and a swollen neck, as well as a characteristic grey membrane.

In response to questions from journalists, Olivia Headon, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that during her visit to Cox’s Bazar the previous week, she had heard reports from refugees of ongoing violence against Rohingya in Myanmar. Some of the more recent arrivals had said that they had not fled sooner because they had not had enough money to do so or that they had waited until they could travel as part of a larger group. The drop in the number of arrivals was in part due to the fact that so many Rohingya had already made the journey into Bangladesh. Some people reported having walked for 5 days, while others had walked for as many as 14 days. The first people to arrive had been those who lived closest to the border, with those who lived further away only arriving now. The majority of people were arriving on foot rather than by boat.

Closing ceremony of the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development

Zoritsa Urosevic, for the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), said that UNWTO was pleased to extend an invitation to the closing ceremony of the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, to be held on 19 December.

The Madrid-based Organization was a specialized United Nations agency working on tourism issues. Tourism had become one of the fastest growing and most resilient sectors in today’s societies and economies, representing 10 per cent of global GDP and 1 in 10 jobs, and was frequently a sector that helped countries to rebuild. Annually, 1.2 billion people travelled as tourists, with that figure expected to grow to 1.8 billion by 2030, highlighting the need to maximize the benefits and minimize the impacts of tourism on people and the planet.

The designation of 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development recognized the role of tourism in development and the potential of the sector to contribute to reaching the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The aim of the International Year had been to promote the role of tourism in inclusive and sustainable economic growth, social inclusiveness, employment and poverty reduction, resource efficiency, environmental protection and climate change, cultural values, diversity and heritage and mutual understanding, peace and security.

The ceremony on 19 December, which would be led by Taleb Rifai, Secretary-General of UNWTO, and Marie-Gabrielle Ineichen-Fleisch, Switzerland’s State Secretary for Economic Affairs, would review the achievements of the past 12 months and examine the challenges that lay ahead, as well as ways of engaging with the public and private sectors, communities and the travelling public.

Geneva Events and Announcements

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, announced that the forty-second session of the Geneva International Discussions on the conflict in Georgia had begun on the morning of 12 December and would continue until 13 December. A press release would be issued at the end of the session.

Ms. Vellucci also announced that at 10 a.m. on 14 December in Press Room I, a security and safety briefing would be provided to journalists following the security incident that had affected a press room in the Palais des Nations a few weeks earlier. In addition, she said that arrangements were being made to provide a temporary rain shelter for journalists covering the arrivals and departures of delegations to the 8th Intra-Syrian talks at Door 17 of the Palais des Nations until a solution could be found to provide protection from the elements at Door 15.

Press conferences

OHCHR / UN Independent Expert on the promotion of a Democratic and Equitable International Order
The Independent Expert on the promotion of a Democratic and Equitable International Order, Alfred de Zayas, will give details of his first official visit to Latin America
Tuesday, 12 December at 2:00 p.m. in Press Room 1

Internet Governance Forum (IGF)
Briefing on 12th Annual Meeting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) on ‘Shape Your Digital Future!’
Wednesday, 13 December at 9:30 a.m. in Press Room 1

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/UNOG121217

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