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14 November 2017

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the World Health Organization, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Humanitarian situation in Yemen

Jamie McGoldrick, Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen invited by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), speaking by phone from Amman, said that the blockade by the Saudi-led coalition of Hudaydah and Saleef ports on the west coast of Yemen was complicating an already difficult humanitarian situation. Yemen had become the site of the world’s largest food insecurity crisis as a result of the previous two and a half years of conflict, which had seen deplorable attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure.

Systems were collapsing and 21 million people were in need of assistance, with 7 million of those in famine-like conditions and completely reliant on food aid. An unprecedented cholera outbreak had affected more than 900,000 people and more than 2,200 associated deaths had been recorded. The continued closure of seaports and airports was aggravating an already dire situation which posed a critical threat to millions of people already struggling to survive.

Humanitarian supplies were dangerously low: UNICEF had only three weeks’ worth of vaccines left and there were only 20 trauma kits the in country. WHO and UNICEF boats carrying medicines and essential vaccines were stuck in Djibouti and required access to cold storage. A new outbreak of diphtheria had also been identified in the south of Yemen.

Two-thirds of the country’s population relied on commercially imported commodities, the continued availability of which was essential in preventing an unprecedented famine. Prices also needed to be kept low, as more than 1 million civil servants were not receiving their salaries. Commercial stocks currently only held enough wheat for three months for the entire population of 28 million and enough rice for some 120 days. The needs of the population could not be met by humanitarian supplies alone: ports also needed to remain open to commercial imports.

Previously, 80 per cent of humanitarian and commercial imports had arrived through Hudaydah and Saleef ports. Aden and other ports were now open but neither those nor Jizan in Saudi Arabia had the necessary capacity for offloading and milling. Diverting supplies through those locations would cause delays as a result of security and logistics issues and would increase the cost of supplies by US$30 dollars per metric ton. The humanitarian response plan was only 57 per cent funded, and increased spending on logistics would undermine UN’s ability to address the needs of the population.

OCHA called upon the coalition to open all seaports as a matter of urgency and to allow the movement of humanitarian supplies and aid workers. Earlier aid efforts had been successful in mitigating the likelihood of famine and the import blockage risked reversing those gains.

In response to questions from journalists, Mr. McGoldrick said that he had received no indication of when the blockaded ports might reopen. It was his understanding that the Saudi Arabian authorities wanted to institute new procedures in Hudaydah and Sana’a and had requested discussions on those with the United Nations. While he welcomed the reports that e.g. Aden had been reopened, the use of those locations could not replace Hudaydah and Saleef in reaching people in the north of Yemen, who accounted for 70 per cent of the population in need in the country.

In response to further questions, he said that the UN operated a verification and inspection mechanism in Hudaydah for vessels over 100 metric tons. Any discussions that might take place between the United Nations and Saudi Arabia regarding the expansion of that mechanism must not be used as a justification for delaying the reopening of the blockaded ports to humanitarian aid. The UN did not have oversight of small vessels arriving in Hudaydah and other ports on the west coast from Somalia and Djibouti.

Asked about fuel stocks in Yemen, Mr. McGoldrick said that 10 days’ worth of petrol and 20 days’ worth of diesel remained in the north of the country. Without a supply of fuel, wheat could not be milled, goods could not be transported and water pumps could not be operated. Shipments of food and medicines were already programmed and diverting those would cause logjams in the supply system. The United Nations had planes ready in Djibouti and Amman to transport personnel and small-scale goods.

Asked whether the actions of the Government of Saudi Arabia were killing people in Yemen and breached international law, he said that millions of people had died from illness or malnutrition as an indirect consequence of the conflict. It was his understanding that the High Commissioner for Human Rights was examining whether international humanitarian laws had been violated.

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that an upsurge in suspected diphtheria cases had been observed in Yemen, although no laboratory diagnoses had yet been obtained. As of 8 November, 118 suspected cases and 11 deaths had been detected, the majority of them in Ibb Governorate as a result of reportedly patchy coverage by the national childhood immunization programme. WHO intended to launch a vaccination campaign for children under the age of five years on 18 November.

Diphtheria was transmitted from person to person through respiratory and close physical contact but could be treated with antibiotics. The onset of illness was usually acute, and symptoms included a sore throat, fever and swollen glands. Diphtheria was fatal in between 5 and 10 per cent of cases, with higher rates in young children. Prior to the outbreak, the last case of diphtheria in Yemen had been reported in 2012. Although the disease was endemic in the country, the geographical spread and the case fatality rate of the current outbreak were unusual.

William Spindler, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that even before the closure of the entry points, the situation in Yemen had been dramatic and had impacted negatively on the civilian population.

With commercial traffic flows hampered, prices for essential commodities including food, trucked water, household gas and fuel were all skyrocketing. In Sana’a, for instance, fuel prices had reportedly increased by 60 per cent and trucked water by 133 per cent. As a result, the Agency’s staff and that of its partners were seeing an increase in the number of civilians seeking humanitarian help. Vulnerable populations including internally displaced people, refugees and asylum seekers were especially hard-hit.

For example, at a UNHCR-supported centre for internally displaced persons in Sana’a, some 600 to 800 people were now arriving at the centre every day. Before the border closures, the centre had typically seen 400 to 600 people. People were saying that they were no longer able to meet basic needs or afford medical care. Some were facing the threat of eviction because they could not pay their rent.

In Aden, where there had already been shortages of fuel and gas before the border closures, displaced people were reporting that food prices had almost doubled. Some people now had no other choice but to eat less.

For at least 329 refugees who had been hoping to escape Yemen and return home to Somalia, supported by UNHCR and IOM through an Assisted Spontaneous Return programme, three boat departures from the Port of Aden to Berbera in Somalia had been postponed.

The conflict in Yemen, which had begun in March 2015, had produced the world’s largest humanitarian crisis with 21 million people affected. Two million internally displaced people, one million returnees and 280,000 refugees and asylum seekers were all struggling to survive through increasingly prolonged displacement.


Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that human trafficking and exploitation were rife among Rohingya refugees who had fled Myanmar to seek safety in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, according to interviews and community focus groups conducted by IOM in the district’s makeshift settlements.

Over 617,000 Rohingya refugees had settled in Cox’s Bazar since 25 August, but exploitation of the Rohingya population in the district had been occurring since well before the most recent influx of people.

IOM had identified cases reported by Rohingya refugees who had lived in Bangladesh for years, by those who had arrived within the past few years, and by those who had arrived since August. Some people had only been in the country for a few weeks before they had been targeted.

Desperate men, women and children were being recruited with false offers of paid work in various industries including fishing, small commerce, begging and, in the case of girls, domestic work.

With almost no alternative source of income, the refugees were willing to take whatever opportunities they were presented with, even ones that were risky, dangerous and that involved their children.

Once they started the job, they usually found that they were not paid what had been promised. They were often deprived of sleep, made to work more hours than had been agreed and not allowed to leave their work premises or to contact their family. Women and girls were often physically or sexually abused.

Some had reported being forced into jobs which they had never agreed to do. In one case, a number of adolescent girls who had been promised work as domestic helpers in Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong had been forced into prostitution. Others had reported being brought to locations different from the agreed destination.

In one case, a woman had reportedly gone to work for a family and had been brought back to the settlements dead. The family of the victim had received a settlement from the employers.

Many of the recruiters were Bangladeshi, while some were Rohingya, and many had been established in the area prior to the most recent influx. The number of criminals and trafficking gangs operating in the district had expanded with the population.

The abuse mainly occurred in neighbourhoods surrounding the settlements, but recruiters were also taking people to places as far away as Cox’s Bazar city, Chittagong and Dhaka.

IOM was also aware of cases where Rohingya had been trafficked to outside Bangladesh, and was assisting the victims. Most of the trafficking was taking place inside the country, which followed the pattern of trafficking globally.

Forced and early marriages were also taking place among the Rohingya population. For many families, they were a coping mechanism that offered protection and economic advancement for young Rohingya women and girls.

Kateryna Ardanyan, an IOM counter-trafficking expert currently deployed in Cox’s Bazar, had said: “In the chaos of a crisis like this, trafficking is usually invisible at first, as there are so many other urgent needs like food and shelter. But agencies responding to this crisis should not wait until the number of identified victims increases. Rohingya refugees need preventative and proactive action now to mitigate risks of human trafficking, and the survivors need help, before this spirals out of control.”

Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that the number of cases of acute watery diarrhoea among Rohingya children in Bangladesh had doubled between 29 October and 5 November among children and people older than 5 years old. Between 25 August and 4 November there had been a total of 27,087 cases, 42 per cent of which had affected children under the age of five years.

On 15 November, a nutrition action week would begin in Cox’s Bazar and would target between 140,000 and 160,000 children. A total of 70 6-person teams would be deployed across the camps and settlements to provide Vitamin A and deworming treatment to children and to screen them for acute malnutrition. Vitamin A was important in boosting the immune system, particularly in the light of the 419 cases of measles that had been detected in the area. Additional Information on the malnutrition status of Rohingya refugee children in Bangladesh would be made available around the end of November and early December.

UNICEF teams at the border with Myanmar were also seeing an increasing number of people arriving on makeshift rafts constructed from bamboo and jerry cans. Around 350 people, including sick and malnourished children, had arrived on eight rafts on 12 November. UNICEF had provided assistance including the distribution of biscuits and oral rehydration salts. A 30-year old woman had reported that she had walked for days to reach the border, crossing mountains and jungle while 9 months pregnant. She had given birth at the border without medical assistance and had crossed the Naf river on a makeshift raft with her as-yet unnamed 7-day old baby and other members of her family.

In response to questions from journalists, Mr. Boulierac said that hygiene promotion remained essential to fight against acute water diarrhea. Faecal sludge management continued to be a challenge for the Water Sanitation sector with an increasing number of latrines already filled up-

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that WHO, UNICEF and health partners were preparing for a possible increase in cases of acute watery diarrhoea. WHO had mapped diarrhoea treatment centres, oral rehydration points and existing supplies and was working with the Government to identifying sites where a minimum of two additional diarrhoea treatment centres could be located. WHO had also ordered additional acute watery diarrhoea kits to bolster contingency supplies. Test results had indicated that only 17 per cent of the samples of drinking water collected from around the camps and settlements met the standards set by WHO and Bangladesh.

Responding to questions from journalists, Mr. Lindmeier said that the completion of the cholera vaccination campaign, which had ended on 9 November, had drastically reduced the risk of the spread of that disease. However, other forms of acute watery diarrhoea caused by malnutrition remained a risk.

Detention and ill-treatment of migrants in Libya

Jeremy Laurence, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR was dismayed at the sharp increase in the number of migrants being held in horrific conditions at detention facilities in Libya and remained concerned about the European Union’s policy of assisting the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and return migrants in the Mediterranean.

According to the Department of Combatting Illegal Migration in Libya, 19,900 people were currently being held in facilities under its control, up from about 7,000 in mid-September when authorities had detained thousands of migrants following armed clashes in Sabratha, a smuggling and trafficking hub about 80 kilometres west of Tripoli.

Between 1 and 6 November, United Nations human rights monitors had visited four facilities controlled by the Department of Combatting Illegal Migration in Tripoli, where they had interviewed detainees who had fled conflict, persecution and extreme poverty in states across Africa and Asia. The monitors had been shocked by what they had witnessed: thousands of emaciated and traumatized men, women and children piled on top of each other, locked up in hangars with no access to the most basic necessities and stripped of their human dignity. Many of those in detention had already been exposed to trafficking, kidnappings, torture, rape and other sexual violence, forced labour, exploitation, severe physical violence, starvation and other atrocities in the course of their journeys through Libya, often at the hands of traffickers or smugglers.

The European Union and Italy were providing assistance to the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept migrant boats in the Mediterranean, including in international waters, despite concerns raised by human rights groups that more migrants would be condemned to arbitrary and indefinite detention and exposed to abuses. Those detained had no possibility of challenging the legality of their detention and no access to legal aid. The increasing interventions of the European Union and its member states had so far done nothing to reduce the levels of abuse suffered by migrants. Monitoring conducted by OHCHR had shown a rapid deterioration in the situation of migrants in Libya. The international community must not continue to turn a blind eye to the unimaginable horrors endured by migrants in Libya and to pretend that the situation could be remedied by improving conditions in detention.

In response to questions from journalists, Mr. Laurence said that the main concern of OHCHR was that the approach being taken to migrants was not a human rights-based one. Whether they were on land or water, migrants had rights and they should be protected.

Asked about the position of OHCHR in relation to the situation in Yemen, he said that by the end of the year a group of experts would be appointed by the Human Rights Council to examine alleged violations and abuses of human rights and of international law committed by all parties to the conflict and, where possible, to identify those responsible.

Asked about the claims made in the report released by the military authorities in Myanmar, Mr. Laurence said that OHCHR had no access to Myanmar, but was sending its own team to Bangladesh to speak with Rohingya refugees. The work of the fact-finding mission was also ongoing.

World Diabetes Day (WHO)

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that 14 November was World Diabetes Day.

Since 1980, the number of people living with diabetes globally had increased fourfold, to 422 million. WHO was supporting global efforts to raise awareness of the need for improved prevention and control of diabetes in women. Approximately 205 million women around the world were living with diabetes, with more than half of them in the Western Pacific and South-East Asia. The Eastern Mediterranean region had the highest proportion of women living with diabetes, standing at 12 per cent compared to the global average of 8 per cent.

Diabetes was a major cause of blindness, kidney failure, heart attack, stroke and lower limb amputation. In 2015, diabetes had been the direct cause of 1.6 million deaths. Additionally, 2 million people died each year from high blood glucose. Diabetes could be treated and its consequences avoided through a healthy diet, physical activity, medication and regular screening for complications.

Geneva Events and Announcements

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, speaking on behalf of Rolando Gomez for the Human Rights Council, said that the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review was reviewing the human rights record of Japan that morning. That afternoon, it would adopt the reports of Guatemala, Switzerland, the Republic of Korea and Benin. The reports would be shared with journalists in advance.

Press Conferences

Ninth edition of the annual global Measuring the Information Society Report
Wednesday, 15 November at 10:30 a.m. in Press Room 1

Conference on Disarmament / Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons / Group of Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS)
Lethal autonomous weapons systems
Friday, 17 November at 2:00 p.m. behind Room XX

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog141117

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