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ACCESSIBILITY AT UNOG A A A A The United Nations in the Heart of Europe


3 July 2018

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service, United Nations Office at Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by spokespersons for the United Nations Refugee Agency, the International Organization for Migration and the World Trade Organization.

Joint Bangladesh/UNHCR verification of Rohingya refugees

Charlie Yaxley, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), read the following statement:

“The Government of Bangladesh and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, have launched a joint verification exercise for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

The exercise, which began at the end of June and is expected to take up to six months to complete, will help consolidate a unified database for the purposes of protection, identity management, documentation, provision of assistance, population statistics and ultimately solutions for an estimated 900,000 refugees who have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh in successive waves of forced displacement. Most of them - more than 720,000 – fled since August last year in what was one of the largest and fastest growing refugee emergencies seen in the region in decades.

The verification will play a key role in establishing refugees’ identities and their declared places of origin in Myanmar. It will help preserve their right to voluntarily return home, if and when they decide that the conditions are right to do so. The verification exercise will also help to enhance the accuracy of data on refugees in Bangladesh, helping the Government and humanitarian partners enhance their understanding of specific needs amongst the refugee population, better plan and target delivery of protection and assistance and avoid duplication of services.

Biometric data, including iris scans and fingerprints as well as photographs, are used in the exercise to confirm individual identities for all refugees over the age of 12. At the end of the process refugees are provided with new identity cards. For many of the refugees, this will mark the first time they have possessed an individual identity document.

These credit card-sized plastic IDs, contain a number of anti-fraud features. They are issued jointly by the Government of Bangladesh and UNHCR.

Some 4,200 refugees have been verified since the start of exercise on 21 June. Despite heavy monsoon rains in recent days, most refugees continue to attend their verification appointments, aware of the significance of having an identity card.

UNHCR has conducted information and awareness campaigns, including through consultations with the refugee community, on the purpose and the actual process of verification. Refugee committees are also supporting and encouraging refugees to participate and attend their appointments.

UNHCR is providing laptops, servers, wireless routers, biometric hardware and printing equipment, while also making available our biometric registration software. In addition, together with NGO partners, 150 staff are currently working to support government officials and community organisers.

Following his visit to Bangladesh this week, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said greater resources must be found to develop education, healthcare and infrastructure to build a more sustainable life for Rohingya refugees and their hosts.

Ten months into the Rohingya refugee crisis, the response continues to remain focused on addressing the massive humanitarian needs, and on mitigating the impact of the monsoon rains in the refugee settlements. But as the High Commissioner highlighted during his visit, additional international support is needed to step up the assistance from purely humanitarian and day-to-day support towards medium-term and developmental assistance.

To date, the UN’s Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya refugee situation in Bangladesh is only 26 per cent funded. UNHCR is grateful for the generous support of multilateral, state and private donors so far, but more funds are urgently needed to support refugees and their host communities in Bangladesh.”

Responding to questions from journalists, Mr. Yaxley said that the memorandum of understanding signed recently between the Governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh, as well as by UNHCR, had not yet been officially released. It provided an initial framework for future cooperation and a legal basis for UNHCR to work with the Government of Myanmar on improving the human rights situation and creating the right conditions for the Rohingya refugees to return to their homes, voluntarily and in safety. Those conditions did not currently exist and, until they did, UNHCR would continue to advise against returns to Rakhine State. Nonetheless, the memorandum was an important first step to improving conditions, also for the communities that had remained, and it addressed issues such as livelihoods, basic services, documentation and freedom of movement.

The memorandum also contemplated a pathway to citizenship for Rohingya refugees in due course. In the meantime, it provided a basis for UNHCR to advocate for them to be issued with identity documents as equal members of Myanmar society, with their human rights fully protected and upheld. Only under such conditions could UNHCR support their return. Most refugees wished to go back to their homes and had the right to do so when they chose. Returns could only take place on a voluntary basis and with the refugees’ free and fully informed consent. Even though the memorandum was geared towards the eventual return of Rohingya refugees, in the meantime infrastructure needed to be put into place in Cox’s Bazar, where their humanitarian needs were still immense right across the board.

Responding to further questions, Mr. Yaxley said that, as part of the process of verification, individual refugees would be interviewed and asked to supply any available documentation they might have such as existing identity cards and birth, marriage or divorce certificates. The primary purpose of the verification exercise was to help the Bangladeshi authorities achieve a better understanding of how many people it was dealing with and what their needs were. UNHCR and other UN agencies recognized the right to self-identification and had consistently used the term Rohingya to refer to persons who had been forcibly displaced and were currently located in Cox’s Bazar.

Mediterranean refugees

Charlie Yaxley, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), read the following statement:

“”Forty-five thousand seven hundred asylum-seekers and migrants have reached European shores after crossing the Mediterranean Sea in the first six months of 2018, a sharp decline compared to previous years. When compared to the peak of the arrivals in the first half of 2016, the number is five times lower, and represents a return to pre-2014 averages.

UNHCR is concerned that despite this reduction, men, women and children continue to die at sea, and in proportionally larger numbers. Already in 2018, the bleak milestone of dead and missing has reached over 1,000 for the fifth year in a row, despite the lower numbers crossing to Europe. In June alone, one person died for every seven who crossed the Central Mediterranean, compared to one in 19 in the first half of this year and one in 38 in the first half of 2017.

The high loss of life illustrates the urgent need to strengthen search and rescue capacities in the region. UNHCR thanks all those involved in rescue operations, but with so many lives at stake, we reiterate the absolute importance, aligned with the obligations under the law of the sea, to permit efforts to respond to people distress at sea.

UNHCR is especially concerned about the impact of a more limited search and rescue capacity if boats are discouraged from responding to distress calls through fear of being denied permission to disembark people rescued. NGOs in particular have voiced their concerns at restrictions being placed on their abilities to conduct search and rescue as a result of limitations on their movements and the threat of potential legal actions.

NGOs play a critical role in rescuing people in distress at sea, carrying out around 40% of rescue operations from January to April this year for those disembarked in Italy - including people first rescued by military and commercial boats and later transferred to NGO vessels.

As we enter the peak season for attempted crossings, saving lives must be the key priority. Any reduction in search and rescue capacity will almost certainly lead to further unnecessary loss of life, as unscrupulous smugglers, with little regard for human life, continue to organize sea crossings using flimsy and unseaworthy vessels.

Any vessel with the capability to assist search and rescue operations should be allowed to come to the aid of those in need and subsequently allowed to disembark at the nearest appropriate safe port.

If vessels are denied permission to disembark, shipmasters may delay responding to distress calls while considering the possibility of being left stranded at sea for days on end.

UNHCR reiterates our call of recent weeks, issued together with IOM, for a collaborative, regional approach to Mediterranean Sea crossings that provides clear and predictable guidelines for search and rescue, and disembarkation.”

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that, over the first half of 2018, arrivals in Italy from Libya had been much lower – up to 9 or 10 times lower – than in previous years. At the same time, arrivals into Spain for the first half of 2018 were already higher than for all of 2015 and 2016 put together

Responding to questions from journalists, Mr. Millman said that most migrants following the central route from Libya to Italy came from the North African countries. The increase in the numbers pursuing the western route into Spain was largely made up of Sub-Saharan migrants from countries such as Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Guinea and Gambia, who in past years had followed the central route

Answering journalists’ questions, Leonard Doyle, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that IOM considered the issue of migration towards Europe to be a political crisis not a migrant crisis. The actual numbers of migrants were not very significant but that did not, of course, mean that it was not an extremely serious issue for those directly affected.

Answering journalists’ questions, Mr. Yaxley said that, given the clear decline in migrant numbers with respect to previous years, the question at issue was evidently one of political will. A small number of countries was bearing a disproportionate responsibility for receiving new arrivals. European States had to come together to share that responsibility among themselves and establish a fair and equitable distribution of refugees and asylum seekers. The recent European Union agreement was a welcome first step that pointed to a desire to develop a collaborative and harmonious approach to migration. UNHCR reiterated its call to the European Union to allow access to its territory, to grant asylum, and to establish a fair and efficient distribution mechanism to support the countries in the forefront of the migrant wave. The key priority had to be saving lives at sea and keeping people out of the hands of unscrupulous traffickers.

In answer to further questions, Mr. Doyle, said that the recent agreement seemed to open the way to greater burden-sharing and solidarity among European States. Closed detention centres for refugees and migrants already existed all over the world, including Europe. Currently, the chief concern of IOM was the possibility that “offshore” migrant processing centres would be set up in North Africa.

In answer to further questions, Mr. Yaxley said that UNHCR urged States only ever to detain asylum seekers or migrants as a last resort. In addition, any detention had to be accompanied by safeguards including strict time limits. There were numerous alternatives to detention, which were not only more respectful of the rights of the persons concerned, but also more cost-effective and conducive to integration. As far as he was aware, Germany and Austria had not yet taken any action on their proposed transit centres for migrants. NGOs played a vital role in search and rescue operations at sea. It was critical that they, or any other actor with the relevant capacity, should be able to respond to distress calls without fear of potential repercussions or threats of legal action. Otherwise the very principle of rescue at sea risked being undermined.

Conflict in Syria

Answering a question posed by a journalist, Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service, United Nations Office at Geneva, said that, according to the figures she had available, 325,000 persons had been displaced by recent fighting in the governorate of Daraa in southern Syria.

Visit to Libya by IOM Director-General

Leonard Doyle, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that IOM Director-General William Lacy Swing had recently returned from Libya where he had made a direct appeal to the Libyan Prime Minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, that migrants intercepted or rescued by the Coast Guard not be placed in detention centres. Not all migrants were placed in detention, but some were and IOM was calling for the practice to stop. Mr. Swing had also raised the same concern with the Migration Working Group, a mixed body that brought together the Libyan authorities, UN agencies, the European Union and accredited diplomats. In addition, Mr. Swing had visited a detention centre where survivors of a tragedy at sea the previous Sunday were being held. One had lost his wife and three children while two children, aged 8 and 12, had been orphaned. There were some indications that the Libyan authorities were ready and willing to consider the Director-General’s appeal, principally by speeding up the programme of voluntary repatriation. IOM was supporting that programme and, although the repatriation process was complex due to problems in identifying and documenting migrants, charter repatriation flights departed the country almost every day.

Responding to questions raised by journalists, Mr. Doyle said that IOM was concerned that the issue of migration could be blown out of proportion by toxic narratives, particularly if such rhetoric then had an impact on the ground; for example, by endangering existing migrant structures, notably the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. There was a mistaken perception, which could be quickly propagated by social media and seized on by politicians, that migration was out of control. People had to see migration for what it was: a necessary part of the modern world, one that needed to be managed.

In answer to further questions, Mr. Doyle said that most migrants leaving Libya departed from a coastal strip of around 150 kilometres either side of Tripoli. Nonetheless, IOM had 260 staff in place across the entire country, including in parts not under the control of the central Government. Seventeen out of an original 54 detention centres were still operational, and they too were located throughout the country. IOM Director-General William Lacy Swing had been the first international official to visit Libya after the fall of Colonel Gheddafi and his latest visit had been his third to the country. The authorities there seemed genuinely committed to controlling indiscriminate irregular migration, which profited only human traffickers. Levels of engagement were extraordinary and were already showing positive signs. The current situation in Libya was an example of how migration management was beginning to work.

Launch of IOM Holding On campaign

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that an exhibition had been organized to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. The event would begin at 1 p.m. that day in the Palais des Nations with an address by IOM Director-General William Lacy Swing.

Trade policy review of China

Dan Pruzin, for the World Trade Organization (WTO), said that the trade policy review of China would be taking place at WTO the following week. The trade policy report and the report submitted by China in response were both available under embargo on the WTO website. The trade policy review meeting would begin at 10 a.m. on Wednesday 11 July. Video footage of the opening remarks would be made available. A background briefing had been tentatively planned for Friday 13 July. On a separate front, negotiations were continuing on the issue of fishery subsidies.

Responding to questions regarding recent actions in regard to tariffs involving China and the United States of America, Mr. Pruzin said that WTO had no official definition for the term “trade war” and it did not comment on the specific actions of its members. It was up to those members to raise the matter in the relevant WTO council or committee, or to initiate dispute settlement proceedings, if they so chose. A number of dispute settlement cases had, in fact, been launched over previous months. With regard to the current situation, the WTO Director-General had stated: “The WTO's new report on G-20 trade measures indicates a disturbing increase in trade-restrictive activity by major economies. More than twice as many restrictive measures were applied during the period in question as in the previous six months. It's time for anyone who cares about the health of the economy to sit up and take notice. Importantly, the period covered by this report does not cover many of the large scale measures that have been applied in the last few weeks – and from recent developments it seems clear that more restrictive measures are on the way. Therefore, the deterioration in trade relations may be even worse than shown by this report. The fallout from these measures is already being felt – companies are hesitating to invest, markets are getting jittery, some prices are rising. With further escalation, the effects would only grow in magnitude, hitting jobs and growth in the countries involved and sending economic shockwaves around the world. I am urging all parties to sit down and discuss how to address the issues that are at the root of the tensions we see today”.

In answer to additional questions, Mr. Pruzin stated that the confidence of WTO members in the Organization’s dispute settlement system was amply demonstrated by the fact that many of them regularly chose to have recourse to the system, and they believed it to be functional and worthwhile. The United States was a very important member of WTO, which in large part owed its existence to the efforts of the United States and other countries. No US official had given any form of indication that the United States of America intended to withdraw from WTO. Outcomes of dispute settlement proceedings could not easily be disaggregated into winners and losers. In fact, the process was not intended to declare one party a winner and another a loser, but to find mutually acceptable solutions to disputes.

In answer to a further question, Mr. Pruzin said that trade policy reports were not intended to criticize or cajole. They tended to be factual overviews of the situation in the country concerned, based on information provided by the Government and data complied by the WTO country team. During the review process, members of WTO were free to take the floor to express their views regarding the trade policies of the country under review, and they could take that opportunity to make their concerns known.

HRC Update

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service, United Nations Office at Geneva, speaking on behalf of Rolando Gomez of the Human Rights Council, said that the Human Rights Council would take action on 11 remaining resolutions that morning. Ten resolutions had been adopted the previous day.

UN humanitarian chief to visit the Democratic People's Republic of Korea

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service, United Nations Office at Geneva, said that United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock was due to visit the Democratic People's Republic of Korea from 9-12 July, the first visit to the country by an Emergency Relief Coordinator since 2011. During the course of his mission, he would go to Pyongyang and southern Hwanghae Province.

In response to a question from a journalist, Ms. Vellucci said that Mr. Lowcock was scheduled to meet with government officials, humanitarian partners and persons receiving humanitarian assistance. He would also visit ongoing UN projects in order to see first-hand the impact that international funding was having on some of the most vulnerable people in the country. She had no information as to the names of the government representatives he would be encountering on his visit.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog060718

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