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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

22 December 2017

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

Decision of the High Commissioner for Human Rights not to seek a second term

Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR wished to clarify the situation regarding the High Commissioner’s decision not to seek a second four-year mandate.

While the High Commissioner and his colleagues appreciated the many compliments about him and the way he had stood up so strongly for human rights, the Office was concerned that the decision was being over-dramatized.

Some press articles, including one entitled “2017.The year even the U.N. human rights commissioner gave up on human rights,” had been very misleading indeed. It was absolutely not the case that the High Commissioner was giving up on human rights. Contrary to much of the reporting on the story, he was not standing down or resigning. In fact, he had a four-year mandate and would carry it out at full steam, without fear or favour, until the very last day, 31 August 2018, which was more than eight months away.

There was nothing unusual in a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights serving only one term. In fact, only two of the six High Commissioners so far had served more than four years: Mary Robinson’s mandate had been extended for one year and Navi Pillay had served a two-year partial second term. Serving one term was normal, serving more than that was unusual.

Asked whether not seeking a second term would give the High Commissioner greater freedom to speak frankly about human rights, Mr. Colville said that the High Commissioner had been plainspoken throughout his term to date. His mandate was to protect and promote human rights, and that involved pointing out when things were going wrong. Such criticism was sometimes received unfavourably by Member States.

Asked whether a single term would become the norm for the position, Mr. Colville said that the High Commissioner and many of his staff were of the opinion that a single six-year mandate would be preferable to a renewable four-year one.

In response to further questions, Mr. Colville said that it was likely that the process of selecting a successor would begin soon. The Secretary-General would examine the candidates and make a proposal to the General Assembly. The current High Commissioner would retain his moral authority until the final day of his mandate.

Malnutrition, anaemia and disease plague amongst Rohingya refugee children in Bangladesh

Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that a comprehensive picture of the nutritional status of Rohingya children in Cox’s Bazar was now available. Unfortunately, UNICEF’s worst fears had been confirmed: refugee children who had already endured unimaginable suffering in fleeing their homes were now facing a public health crisis.

According to three health and nutrition surveys conducted between 22 October and 27 November 2017 in refugee camps and makeshift settlements, up to 25 per cent of children under the age of five were suffering from acute malnutrition, far exceeding the WHO emergency threshold of 15 per cent.

Nearly half of the children surveyed had anaemia, up to 40 per cent had diarrhoea and up to 60 per cent had acute respiratory infections.

The surveys had covered the refugee camps of Kutupalong and Nayapara and informal settlements in Ukhia and Teknaf and had included a sample size of more than 1,700 newly arrived refugee children as well as refugee children who had already been registered. The findings showed that 1 in 4 children in Kutupalong were acutely malnourished, nearly half were anaemic, 40 per cent had diarrhoea and more than half had acute respiratory infections.

Among newly arrived children in Nayapara camp, 16 per cent were malnourished, close to 50 per cent were anaemic, 40 per cent had diarrhoea and 1 in 2 had acute respiratory infections.

In the makeshift and informal settlements, 1 in 5 children were malnourished, almost 1 in 2 had anaemia, 2 in 5 had diarrhoea and close to 3 in 5 were suffering from acute respiratory infections.

The nutrition crisis was most pronounced in Kutupalong refugee camp and the makeshift settlements, which had both the highest rate of acute malnutrition and the largest number of newly arrived Rohingya refugees. Severe acute malnutrition rates were highest in Kutupalong at 7.5 per cent, followed by 3 per cent in the makeshift settlements and 1.3 per cent in the Nayapara refugee camp.

Fewer than 16 per cent of children were consuming the minimum acceptable diet that was critical for their optimal growth and development and 30 per cent of children below six months were not exclusively breastfed.

The combination of malnutrition, diarrhoea and infection could make children especially vulnerable. Humanitarian organizations on the ground had already expanded capacity to treat children with acute malnutrition, but efforts needed to be ramped up to ensure that these children had access to suitable diets, clean water and health care.

Jorge Galindo, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that in response to the ongoing diphtheria outbreak, IOM, in conjunction with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and WHO, was supporting a vaccination campaign for children under six, with community workers and support for vaccination teams on the ground.

IOM had also constructed three 40-bed isolation and treatment centres to urgently increase case management and bed capacity and was supporting contact tracing at several locations.

As part of its ongoing response to gender-based violence and to combat human trafficking, IOM and its partners were offering group support, including information about trafficking risks. IOM social workers had already identified 14,340 extremely vulnerable individuals. Some 409 individuals who had faced gender-based violence had received assistance through IOM’s case management, 3,720 had received psychological first-aid and 1,666 had been provided with health referrals.

In response to questions from journalists, Tarik Jašarević, for the World Health Organization, said that 345 doses of diphtheria antitoxins had been carried by hand from India to Cox’s Bazar. A further 2,000 doses were on their way to the area and were due to arrive in late December 2017.

Health Situation in Yemen

Tarik Jašarević, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that the number of suspected cases of cholera in Yemen since late April 2017 had just passed 1 million, with a total of 1,001,428 suspected cases and 2,227 associated deaths.

The weekly average of cases had decreased significantly over the last three months, but the epidemic was not yet over. More concerted efforts needed to be deployed to ensure that it was controlled in the immediate term and prevented from reoccurring in the near future.

WHO was still supporting dehydration treatment centres all over the country and continued to collect stool samples for lab testing, transport them to labs, meet operational costs and make available supplies and reagents. It was also continuing to undertake continued surveillance, detection and treatment work.

Since the beginning of the cholera outbreak, WHO had saved tens of thousands of lives by establishing treatment centres, delivering supplies, distributing public health guidance, training health workers and working with communities on prevention.
In Yemen, 99.7 per cent of people who became sick with suspected cholera and who were able to access health services survived.

Since late October 2017, Yemen had also experienced a rapidly spreading diphtheria outbreak that had affected 18 of its 22 governorates, with 333 clinically diagnosed cases mostly in Ibb and Hodeida governorates.

Diphtheria was a highly infectious but vaccine-preventable disease. It could be treated with antitoxins and antibiotics, both of which were in short supply in Yemen.

WHO was working with the Yemeni health authorities and partners to contain the outbreak. The Organization’s priority was to strengthen surveillance, detection, treatment and prevention.

On 21 December 2017, colleagues from UNICEF had delivered nearly 6 million doses of essential vaccines to protect millions of children at risk of preventable diseases, including the current diphtheria outbreak.

WHO, UNICEF and the Ministry of Public Health were discussing a vaccination campaign targeting all districts that had reported cases in the past month. In November 2017, WHO, UNICEF and partners had vaccinated 8,500 children under five years in al-Saddah and Yarim districts in Ibb governorate, where the majority of cases had been reported.
WHO had delivered USD 200,000 worth of antibiotics and 1,000 vials of life-saving diphtheria antitoxins to affected governorates. More medicines were under procurement.

The disease outbreaks were occurring in a complex emergency setting. Recent clashes had severely impacted WHO operations and compounded the already critical health situation in Sana’a. WHO staff were unable to travel to affected governorates or to government buildings due to security concerns.

Despite restrictions, including the recent blockade, WHO continued to fill critical gaps in hospitals and health facilities across the country. A WHO-chartered aircraft carrying more than 70 tons of essential medicines and surgical supplies had landed at Sana’a Airport on 19 December. The shipment had contained trauma kits sufficient to meet the needs of 2,000 patients requiring surgical care, as well as various types of rapid diagnostic tests and laboratory reagents to cover the urgent needs of central laboratories and blood banks.

The previous week, two other planes had delivered 26 tons of emergency inter-agency health kits. During 2017, WHO had provided nearly 1,500 metric tons of essential medicines and medical supplies to 96 health facilities that were struggling to keep their doors open.

As the fighting intensified and the need for trauma care increased, stocks of life-saving supplies to treat the injured were running dangerously low. Laboratories were also struggling to procure the reagents and rapid tests that were crucial to accurately diagnosing emerging infectious diseases.

WHO demanded unhindered and sustained access to all areas of Yemen to stop these unconscionable deaths from malnutrition, cholera and now diphtheria. The recent blockade of air and sea ports had seriously impacted WHO’s operations and limited its ability to re-stock supplies. If it could not bring in medicines and medical supplies, it could not save lives. It was critical that Sana’a airport and the port of Hodeida remained open.

WHO asked the Yemeni authorities and all parties to the conflict to facilitate the importation and distribution of medicines and medical supplies, as well as clearances for health cluster partners to reach and treat affected communities.

Mr. Jašarević added that health workers were not getting the support they needed. Around 30,000 critical health workers had not been paid regular salaries for more than a year. There were no doctors left in nearly 20 per cent of Yemen’s districts. Yemen’s health system was on the verge of collapse. More than half of all health facilities were closed or only partially functioning. Shortages in medicines and supplies were persistent and widespread. People with chronic diseases were dying because they could not access life-sustaining treatment.
WHO called on the warring parties to bring hostilities to an end and to cease all attacks on civilian infrastructure, including health facilities.

In response to questions from journalists, Mr. Jašarević said that while it was true that the WHO presence on the ground had been downsized, he was unaware how many members of staff remained in Yemen.

In response to further questions, he said that despite the fact that many health workers had not been paid for more than a year and that WHO was paying incentives for help with the cholera response, there was no reason to believe that the figures for the number of cholera cases were inaccurate. Health facilities in Yemen recorded data both manually and electronically and that data was accessible in real time. At the beginning of the outbreak, the number of fatalities had been high, but the rate had declined as rehydration and treatment facilities had been rolled out. Cholera bacteria could survive in water for a long time, making good waste management a critical factor in tackling an outbreak of the disease. The rate of new cases had slowed over the past three months, but it was necessary to remain cautious and ensure that treatment infrastructure was kept in place.

Jorge Galindo, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that since the start of December, IOM had provided nearly 20,600 medical consultations to internally displaced people and other conflict-affected Yemenis via 22 mobile health teams and two permanent health facilities. These provided life-saving emergency health care. Some 3,231 people had received psychosocial support through IOM individual and group sessions. IOM’s mobile health teams had also been able to reach children and lactating women in the remote areas where services had been destroyed or were absent.

As part of the humanitarian community’s cholera response, IOM had treated 25,324 suspected cholera/acute watery diarrhoea cases so far in the last five months of this year. IOM was supporting 13 Diarrhoea Treatment Centres and 66 Oral Rehydration Points in seven Governorates.

Over the past three weeks, IOM had been able to distribute shelter and relief kits that included materials to build or reinforce shelters, ensuring that over 5,600 families in the northern Governorates of Taizz, Ibb, Hajja and Amran had a roof over their heads. In December, IOM had also helped 45 displaced families relocate from 11 schools and build safe shelters to live in. It had then renovated the schools so that they were back in use by teachers and students.

Although Yemen was facing one of the gravest humanitarian crises in the world, around 80,000 migrants had entered the country between January and October this year. These migrants usually hoped to transit through Yemen to reach the countries beyond, but often found themselves trapped at the conflict’s front lines and in dire need of protection and lifesaving assistance.

Over the past three weeks, more than 4,100 migrants had received medical assistance through IOM health facilities, while a further 1,100 migrants had received psychosocial support.

The previous week, IOM, in coordination with UNHCR, had helped 150 Somali refugees return home through the port of Aden. On 23 December, IOM expected to help an additional 100 Ethiopian migrants leave Yemen through the port of Houdaida.

IOM report on Migrant Vulnerability to Human Trafficking and Exploitation

Jorge Galindo, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that on 21 December, IOM had released a report entitled Migrant Vulnerability to Human Trafficking and Exploitation: Evidence from the Central and Eastern Mediterranean Migration Routes. The report was based on quantitative analysis of data on vulnerability factors, as well as personal experiences of abuse, violence, exploitation and human trafficking collected over the past two years from 16,500 migrants in seven countries.

The report identified predictors of migrants’ vulnerability to abuse and exploitation along migration routes. For example, West Africans were more vulnerable to human trafficking and exploitation than migrants from other countries. In general, the presence of conflict in the country of departure predicted a higher vulnerability to exploitation and human trafficking on the journey. Individuals who travelled alone were more vulnerable than migrants who travelled in groups. Furthermore, the longer or costlier their journey, the more likely it was that migrants would be exploited along the way. Male migrants were more likely than female migrants to experience forced and unpaid labour or to be held against their will.

The report also found that the factors that predicted child migrants’ vulnerability to human trafficking and exploitation were similar to the factors associated with adult migrants’ vulnerability. In addition, migrants reported that Libya was particularly unsafe and that that factor was a major driver of onward migration towards what they perceived to be safer destinations.

Situation of refugees and migrants on Greek islands

Cécile Pouilly, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that UNHCR remained very concerned at the situation of refugees and migrants on the Greek Aegean islands, in particular Lesvos, Chios and Samos. The Agency welcomed important efforts to speed up transfers to the mainland over the past weeks.

Since mid-October, some 6,000 asylum seekers had been moved off the islands by the Greek Government with UNHCR’s support. This was part of efforts being made to ease conditions in overcrowded reception centres and to transfer the more vulnerable to safety as winter set in.

However, some 10,000 asylum seekers were still crammed into government-run facilities on the islands, double the intended capacity. The situation continued to be critical in the reception centres of Moria on Lesvos and Vathy on Samos.

Time was of the essence and the accelerated pace of departures for asylum seekers authorized to move needed to be maintained. UNHCR called on the Government to continue easing pressure on Lesvos, Chios and Samos by further shortening procedures for people eligible to move and urgently improving conditions for those who remained there.

In particular, the current restrictions keeping people on the islands needed to be reviewed to allow for the quick transfer of vulnerable asylum seekers and others who could continue the asylum procedure on the mainland.

Tension in the reception centres and on the islands had been mounting since the summer when the number of arrivals began rising. That had coincided with the Government taking over responsibility for infrastructure and services in the centres, facing problems that still needed to be addressed.

In some cases, local authorities had opposed efforts to introduce improvements inside the centres. On some islands, local reluctance had also hampered efforts to secure small numbers of temporary and exceptional accommodation in apartments and hotels for the most vulnerable. UNHCR hoped that these problems could be solved quickly.

In light of the difficult situation on several islands, since October UNHCR had handed over some 240,000 relief items to authorities to improve the situation at reception centres, including winter kits, blankets and sleeping bags. The Agency had also recently installed 18 accommodation units in the Kara Tepe site, which was managed by the Municipality of Lesvos, in addition to 242 installed earlier in the year.

More than 1,700 people had reached the Greek Aegean islands so far in December, continuing a trend of higher arrivals – some 19,800 since July 2017. That included large numbers of families and many people needing specific support. Over 70 per cent of all arrivals this year were Syrian, Iraqi or Afghan, and four out of ten were children.

In response to questions from journalists, Ms. Pouilly said that discussions were ongoing regarding the scheme to relocate refugees and migrants to other European countries. A fair reallocation system was required, in combination with more solidarity from other countries. In the specific case of Greece, UNHCR was asking for people to be transferred from the islands to the mainland, where conditions were much better. On the mainland, the Agency was operating an accommodation scheme with a target of 22,000 available places by the end of 2017, and it was confident of meeting that target.

Situation on Manus Island

Cécile Pouilly, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that in light of the ongoing perilous situation on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island for refugees and asylum seekers abandoned by Australia, UNHCR had again this week called on the Australian Government to live up to its responsibilities and urgently find humane and appropriate solutions.

Since the closure of Australia’s “offshore processing” facility on 31 October 2017, approximately 800 refugees and asylum seekers had remained in a precarious situation. Some 700 were now accommodated in the three sites. Over the past four weeks, at least five security incidents had been reported by refugees and asylum seekers, security personnel, local police and members of the local community.

The forced removal of refugees and asylum seekers on 22 November from the now decommissioned Australian facility had inflicted further trauma on people who had already suffered greatly: firstly from violence and persecution in their own country, followed by four years in detention on Manus Island.

The cessation of critical services including the support for victims of torture and trauma had only added to the harshness. Such support was vital for those with acute needs.

A recent medical report commissioned by UNHCR also showed that the cumulative effect of uncertainty about the future, the lack of prospects for solutions, cessation of services, substandard living and hygiene conditions and inadequate medical care posed a growing risk of deteriorating physical and mental health, violence and self-harm among refugees and asylum seekers on Manus. The report also noted the obvious strain that was being placed on the host community and local resources, especially on the health system and hospitals.

UNHCR had this week reiterated its call to the Australian authorities to secure long-term solutions for all refugees and asylum seekers whom Australia had forcibly transferred to Papua New Guinea and Nauru, and to permanently settle those refugees who had already been transferred to Australia on medical or other grounds.

In response to questions from journalists, Ms. Pouilly said that although the Agency was engaged in a difficult dialogue with the Australian authorities, it could not afford to be discouraged. The situation was critical for people who had already suffered severe trauma and who now found themselves in uncertain circumstances. For their sake, the dialogue must continue.

In response to further questions, she said that since December 2016, UNHCR had referred 1,200 individuals to the relocation arrangement between Australia and the United States of America. There were currently 800 people awaiting assessment in Papua New Guinea and another 500 in Papua New Guinea and Nauru who were waiting for their refugee status to be reviewed.

Asked to comment on the ruling by a court in Papua New Guinea that asylum seekers could sue the Government there, she said that the Australian authorities bore responsibility for resolving the situation that they themselves had created by deciding to institute offshore processing.

Arrival in Uganda of refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Cécile Pouilly, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that UNHCR was witnessing a sharp rise in the number of people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) who were seeking safety in Uganda.

More than 2,650 refugees had crossed the border this week, fleeing fresh violence in DRC’s Ituri province.

The majority of refugees had crossed Lake Albert on fishing vessels to arrive at Sebagoro, a village some 270 kilometres north-west of the Ugandan capital Kampala. About 650 refugees had arrived in two boats that morning.

The route was being used by a large number of refugees for the first time since a tragic shipwreck in 2014 that had left over 200 people dead.

The new arrivals in Uganda were reportedly fleeing intercommunal violence in Djugu territory. Since 18 December, there had been reports of houses being burnt in the area and people attacked with machetes. More than 20 villages were reported to have been abandoned due to the fear of reprisals. Refugees reported that many more people were preparing to flee, despite the journey’s high cost.

Inside Uganda, UNHCR was stepping up its capacity to meet the refugees’ needs. The Agency was supporting the authorities to receive the new arrivals and transfer them to Kyangwali settlement, some 50 kilometres to the east. There, refugees were registered, medically screened and provided with hot meals and basic relief items.

However, with UNHCR’s operation in Uganda only 39 per cent funded, more resources were urgently needed to upgrade the reception capacity and assist the new arrivals.

In total, the number of Congolese refugees in neighboring countries had increased by almost 100,000 people in the space of one year.

Asked to give further details of the intercommunal violence, Ms. Pouilly said that her colleagues on the ground had indicated that the fighting was taking place between the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups. The latest wave of violence seemed to have been caused by socioeconomic factors.

In response to additional questions from journalists, Ms. Pouilly said that the majority of the refugees fleeing Ituri were travelling to Uganda, which was hosting the highest number of refugees in Africa. Of the 1.3 million refugees and asylum seekers in Uganda, more than 236,000 were from DRC. Refugees from other parts of DRC, including Kasai and North Kivu, were living in Tanzania, Rwanda, Angola and Zambia.

Voluntary humanitarian returns

Jorge Galindo, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that since the beginning of the voluntary humanitarian returns operation in Libya, 18,165 individuals had been evacuated to 26 destination countries. The most recent charter flight from Libya had arrived in Comoros on 21 December carrying 89 returnees.

On 22 December, IOM was publishing a report entitled Setting Standards for an Integrated Approach to Reintegration. The report, which had been prepared and conducted by the Samuel Hall think tank, outlined recommendations to support sustainable reintegration of migrants who returned to their home countries under the framework of Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) programmes.

Vote at the United Nations General Assembly

Asked by journalists to comment on the situation surrounding the General Assembly resolution adopted on 21 December, Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, recalled what the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General had said on 21 December. The vote had been an action by Member States and the Secretary‑General’s stance on the issue of Jerusalem had been made clear both to the Member States and to the media: it was a final status issue that needed to be negotiated between both parties. The Secretary‑General had repeatedly stood against what he called unilateral measures.

Answering further questions, Ms. Vellucci added another comment from the Spokesperson, saying that it was important that the general public understood the difference between the various components of the United Nations, including the Member States, the Secretariat, the Secretary‑General, the humanitarian agencies and the normative aspect.

Announcements

On behalf of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, announced that on the morning of 22 December, OCHA was opening the Centre for Humanitarian Data in The Hague, the Netherlands. The opening would be attended by the Secretary-General, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator and the Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development. A press release had been sent to correspondents about this.


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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog221217


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