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11 April 2017

Alessandra Vellucci, Director, United Nations Information Service, chaired the briefing attended by the spokespersons for the International Organization for Migration, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and the World Health Organization.


On behalf of the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria (OSE), Ms. Vellucci said that the Special Envoy was in New York, where he was meeting with the Secretary-General. He would be in Washington D.C. on 11 April and would be briefing the UN Security Council on 12 April in open consultations.

In response to a question, she said that the Special Envoy would have several meetings in Washington, including with representatives of the administration.

Asked about the taskforce meetings on 13 April, Ms. Vellucci said that she would confirm during the day. [A note was sent out to correspondents after the briefing, indicating that the International Syria Support Group's Humanitarian Access Task Force would meet on 13 April at 11.00 a.m. at the Palais des Nations. The Cease-fire Task Force would also meet on the same day, at 2:00 p.m. Media opportunities, if any, will be announced later on.]

In response to questions regarding the OPCW investigation in Syria, Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that she did not have updates on that but that most of the WHO experts were in the region and that WHO’s main task there was to make sure that health personnel had the training required to respond to chemical attacks and that the needed medicines, like atropine, were available. Ms. Chaib also said that she would ask WHO’s Tarik Jasarevic to get back to the press regarding the situation. Once WHO experts would be back from the region, they could give a press briefing in Geneva to talk about what they had witnessed and WHO’s role in the aftermath of such attacks.


Leonard Doyle, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that IOM had recently reinforced its presence in Libya, and introduced Othman Belbeisi, IOM Chief of Mission for Libya. Mr. Belbeisi said that migrants in Libya were being caught between smugglers, a lack of job opportunities, detention and very limited resources, as many had lost their jobs. Migrants were also being sold on markets as a commodity, in addition to the other hardship they were facing in arbitrary detention and due to the lack of services and support provided to them. Migrants were being killed and often buried without identification. Many families did not know what had happened to their family members, who had left their countries towards Libya and Europe. Selling human beings was becoming a trend among smugglers, as smuggling networks in Libya were growing. More information was available in the press release.

In response to questions, Mr. Belbeisi said that the numbers of deaths that IOM had were the numbers from the Central Mediterranean where, as of 9 April, more than 812 migrants had died crossing the sea. However there were no detailed statistics on deaths related to the slave trade, beyond testimonials and information from Libyan human rights activists. He also said that the trade of human beings had being going on for some time but had amplified over the past year. In terms of nationalities, those were mainly migrants from Nigeria, Senegal, Gambia. They were usually employed in construction and agriculture. There were many abuses and forced labour. It was generally very hard labour.

Asked about the details of the situation, Mr. Belbeisi added that in Libya one could go to a market and pay between USD 200 and 500 for a migrant. Many of those migrants then escaped, many were kept in bondage, some were imprisoned inside an area where they were forced to work on a daily basis. People could be imprisoned between two and three months. Women were being forced into prostitution and there had been accounts of rape and mistreatment.

Drought and famine / Global funding update

Aurélie Lachant, for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), introduced David Hermann, ICRC’s Operations Coordinator for Somalia, who had recently come back from Somalia. Mr. Hermann said that he had been to the north of Somalia, in the village of Tukaraq near the border between Puntland and Somaliland. He had visited the village and three IDP camps, and had had the opportunity to follow an ICRC team responding to the situation. There was currently a severe drought in Somalia, adding to the difficulties of a country already affected by a protracted conflict. Mr. Hermann had visited IDP camps with people who had had to move from their areas several dozens of kilometres away, by walking in the sun. They were mainly women and children from pastoralist families. There were few men as they were focusing on saving their few remaining animals. Those were IDP settlements with between 100 and 300 people in dire situation, without access to food and drinkable water, and children in a very preoccupying condition. Elders had said that they had never experienced such a severe drought and people did not know what their immediate future would be, as they had lost the few assets they had, mainly livestock.

The ICRC had been responding to the crisis for a while now and was scaling up its response, with an appeal launched on 9 March. Since January, the ICRC had assisted around 680,000 people with a multidisciplinary approach, and was aiming to reach 1.4 million people in total. Even with a scale-up of the response, it would be impossible for the ICRC to respond alone to the situation. The ICRC was very happy that the UN had mobilized the international community and was already responding with its implementing partners. The time to act was now, in order to avoid starvation deaths and disease, in this very dire situation.

In response to questions, Mr. Hermann said that by mid-February, the ICRC had distributed to the IDPs in Tukaraq emergency food rations and had been working on the water situation. ICRC was still working on the water access. In its first phase of the response, ICRC had targeted as many areas as possible, where other organizations could then continue to respond. In the current phase, ICRC was targeting areas in which it was more difficult for other organizations to respond, notably rural areas under control of the armed opposition. There were children who were not yet at the level of malnutrition rates that would reach the threshold of an imminent intervention, but it was not far off, and the quicker the response would be, the better. The second phase of ICRC’s response in Somalia would be based on the use of cash-transfer mechanisms in functioning markets so that people could choose to respond to their most pressing needs.

In total for Somalia, ICRC’s initial appeal had been for 72 million Swiss francs and had been increased to 94 million Swiss francs. So far, 55 million Swiss francs had been pledged.

Adrian Edwards, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that UNHCR was warning today that the risk of mass deaths from starvation among populations in the Horn of Africa, Yemen and Nigeria was growing. This warning was in light of droughts that were also affecting many neighbouring countries and a funding shortfall that had become so severe that an avoidable humanitarian crisis in the region, possibly worse than that of 2011, was fast becoming an inevitability.

Already displacement was rising, forcing UNHCR to upgrade its displacement estimates for 2017. In Sudan, for example, where UNHCR’s initial estimate had been for 60,000 arrivals from South Sudan in 2017, UNHCR was in the process of revising the expected total upwards to 180,000. Similarly in Uganda UNHCR was revising planning from 300,000 displaced to 400,000.

In all, some 20 million people in these countries were in areas affected by drought, 4.2 million of whom were refugees. Consecutive harvests had failed, conflict in South Sudan coupled with drought was leading to famine and outflows of refugees, insecurity in Somalia was leading to rising internal displacement, and rates of malnutrition were high, especially among children and lactating mothers. In the Dollo Ado area of southeast Ethiopia for example, acute malnutrition rates among newly arriving Somali refugee children aged between 6 months and five years were now running at 50-79 percent.

Children accounted for the majority of refugees (62 per cent, for instance, in the case of refugees fleeing South Sudan) and in common with other refugees nearly all were dependent on food assistance via UNHCR’s sister-agency WFP. With no money to buy food, rations however were being cut. In Djibouti rations had been cut by 12 per cent, in Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Rwanda by between 20 and 50 per cent, and in Uganda by up to 75 per cent. Many refugees were without full access to livelihoods and agriculture or food production and their ability to take matters into their own hands and help themselves was limited.

In this context, the risks to children could be particularly great. Already, many were dropping out of school. In Kenya, 175,000 students in drought areas had stopped attending school. In Ethiopia, almost 600 schools had closed. In all, some five million children could in the coming weeks and months see their educations being disrupted.

Inside Somalia, the internal displacement dynamics were shifting too. Of the half a million people displaced since November, 278,000 had been displaced in the first quarter of 2017. More than 72,000 of those had moved to the capital Mogadishu. Some 69,000 others had headed to Baidoa in the country’s southwest. Somalia continued to see a complex situation of both outflows and returns (mainly from Yemen).

In famine hit parts of South Sudan, where UN agencies had warned in February that fighting, insecurity, lack of access to aid and collapsing economy had left 100,000 people facing starvation in some parts of the country, a further 1 million people were now on the brink of famine.

In Yemen, which was experiencing the world’s largest humanitarian crisis with almost 19 million people in need of humanitarian help, around 17 million people were food insecure. Food needs were being cited as the lead factor in displacement at three quarters of all locations where there were internally displaced people.

In northern Nigeria, seven million people were now struggling with food insecurity and needed help. The situation was particularly bad in parts of Borno, Adamawa and Yobo states where by June it was expected that some 5.1 million people would be in Integrated Food Security Phase classification levels of between 3 and 5 (worst).

UNHCR was scaling up efforts with its partners and reminded the international community that the Horn of Africa drought of 2011 had cost more than 260,000 lives, more than half of those children aged below five. A repeat must be avoided at all costs. UNHCR’s operations in South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen were today funded at between 3 and 11 percent. It was now urgent that the shortfalls be addressed.

In response to questions, Mr. Edwards said that the worst scenario was coming to life, and that the problems would reach catastrophic levels unless funding came in to address them very urgently. Displacement was already rising. Drought seldom caused famine on its own – what caused famine was politics and drought, and the combined effect of those factors was currently being seen. Concerted international action was required urgently to address the situation. Mr. Edwards also said that humanitarian crises in sub-Saharan Africa tended to be overlooked until it was too late. Much had been learned from the situation in 2011 in terms of prevention and coordination. But when funds ran dry and food ran out, there was a very difficult situation in need of addressing.

In response to further questions, Mr. Edwards reiterated that in the 2011 crisis in the Horn of Africa, 260,000 lives had been lost, and it was necessary at all costs to avoid that kind of cataclysmic loss of life. Funding had to come in but it was already very late.

Asked about the G7 Foreign Ministers meeting in Italy on 10 April and whether High Commissioner Grandi had spoken there, Mr. Edwards said that he was not aware of that, but that there would be a meeting on 12 April organized by the German Federal Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, and High Commissioner Grandi was invited along with other UN representatives, German NGOs, and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent. Mr. Edwards also said that this was not the first time that UNHCR had warned about the situation, but that now the level of alarm was becoming severe.

In response to further questions, Mr. Edwards said that there were dire situations in South Sudan, Yemen and the Lake Chad basin/northern Nigeria, where a combination of factors, including conflicts, were leading to food insecurity. The situation at present in Somalia was of a slightly different nature, and appeared to be more directly weather-related. The rainy season had started in Somalia and parts of east Africa, but that on its own would not end the situation of food shortages. Across the whole Lake Chad basin some 7 million people were struggling with food insecurity at present, and conditions were expected to deteriorate at least till the middle of 2017, which would continue to affect both displaced populations and host communities.

Asked about the causes of famine in Nigeria, Mr. Edwards said that one single factor in particular could not be identified, but that food insecurity which was becoming widespread because of the conflict there was a leading factor. Food insecurity was dramatically affecting northeast Nigeria. Food insecurity was becoming a dominant factor of flight in Yemen and with recent arrivals from South Sudan. Mr. Edwards would check on the factors of flight in Nigeria cited by those displaced and would get back to the press.

Asked about the situation in South Sudan, Mr. Edwards said that it had worsened. In the Equatoria region, until relatively recently, people had been moving through that region on their way to becoming refugees in neighbouring countries, notably Uganda, whereas people now were coming from that region.

Mr. Edwards added that people were already fleeing as refugees right now and there was acute malnutrition at very high rates. In response to final questions, Mr. Edwards said that there was a pernicious combination of situations across a very vast area: the world’s largest humanitarian crisis in Yemen, a huge displacement and conflict situation in Somalia, in South Sudan, the world’s third largest displacement situation, plus northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin. In terms of funding received by UNHCR, the numbers currently stood at 3 per cent for Nigeria, 8 per cent for Somalia, 8 per cent for Yemen and 11 per cent for South Sudan. In the face of this level of crisis, those were very low levels of funding. UNHCR would issue revised regional response plans in the coming days.

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that at the end of March, the Secretary-General had urged the international donor community to provide USD 4.4 billion as part of the special call for funding for the four countries in which there either were famine conditions, as was the case in South Sudan, or which were on the brink of famine (Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen). The UN had received 21 per cent of that amount, or USD 984 million. Fundraising efforts continued.

This came at a time when global funding requirements were at an all-time high. When the UN had launched the global appeal back in December 2016, it had been the largest ever, at USD 22.2 billion. Total requirements had now gone up to USD 22.8 billion across the world, to help nearly 100 million people in need, not least because of additional appeals which had been added, for example flash appeals for Kenya, for Madagascar, for Mozambique, and most recently for Peru.

In response to questions, Mr. Laerke said that in Nigeria, it was a combination of elements mutually reinforcing each other. In the country, efforts were focused on the response in northeast Nigeria in the sectors directly related to addressing severe food insecurity. In Nigeria, the requirements were more than USD 730 million, funded at nearly 16 per cent as of today, which was far from enough. A year ago in northeast Nigeria, there was almost no access. Access was now opening up, which was why the numbers had grown as more and more extreme needs were being identified, including extreme food insecurity.

Asked about the activation of the High Level Task Force on Global Food and Nutrition Security, Mr. Laerke said that he would check on the status of that mechanism and get back to the press. Mr. Laerke also said that starvation and famine were rarely the direct causes of death, and that people often died from disease as they were so malnourished that they could not fight back against those diseases. It was extremely urgent that the funds were received as soon as possible. The UN was not waiting until it received the full USD 4.4 billion to start responding, but responded immediately as it received funding. It was a flow of funds that was needed for the next four to six months, to get through the lean season and to prevent deaths. The funding and the ability to implement programmes were one aspect of the response; the other aspect, equally important, was to have access to the people in need of aid. In South Sudan for example, in the areas where famine had been declared, access was not unhindered. Another case in point was Yemen.

Geneva Events and Announcements

Ms. Vellucci said that Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), would try to organize shortly a phone briefing with Bastien Vigneau, UNICEF Regional Emergency Advisor and Senior Emergency Coordinator for Mosul, who would be speaking by phone from Erbil, Iraq. [After the briefing, an invitation was sent out to the press for a briefing today, 11 April at 3.30 p.m. in Room III.]

Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that in the week of 17 April, WHO would be hosting in Geneva a global partners’ meeting on neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). During the meeting, the 4th WHO Report on Neglected Tropical Diseases would be launched, and would recognize the achievements of the past decade and sustain the support towards achieving WHO’s target in terms of eliminating those diseases. Ms. Chaib also announced a press conference on 12 April at 2.30 p.m. in Press Room 1, on the launch of the report. The speaker would be Dr Dirk Engels, Director, Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases, WHO. The report and the press release would be under embargo until 19 April at 00.01 GMT / 02.01 CET.

In response to questions, Ms. Chaib said that the global partners meeting would be taking place in the EB room and would be open to the media. It was one of the WHO’s most important meetings. Representatives of Member States, donors, agencies, foundations, the private sector, academia and policy makers would attend. The meeting would run all day on 19 April. Spokespersons would be available for the press on 19 April and probably a closing press release would be sent out.

Asked whether Dr. Chan would meet with Bill Gates at the WHO headquarters on 19 April, Ms. Chaib confirmed that indeed Mr. Gates would be among the participants at this meeting and would meet with Dr. Chan and with the other partners of the NTD partnership. Asked about the presence of former US President Jimmy Carter, Ms. Chaib said that he would not be here but that a representative from his organization would attend. She said that President Carter had been a tremendous supporter for WHO work on NTD over the past decades.

Ms. Vellucci announced a press conference by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), on 13 April at 10 a.m. in Room III, on humanitarian crisis and resilience building in Somalia. The speaker would be UNDP Deputy Country Director, David Akopyan (via telephone from Somalia).

Ms. Vellucci said that the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), would meet in private until the end of its 17th session on 12 April (in Room XVII of the Palais des Nations), following which it would publish its concluding observations on the reports of the eight countries reviewed during the session: those of the Republic of Moldova, Iran, Cyprus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jordan, Armenia, Honduras and Canada.

The Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families would meet in private until the end of its session, which would run until 13 April, following which it would publish its concluding observations on the reports of Bangladesh, Jamaica and Nigeria.

The Committee against Torture (CAT) would open on 18 April its 60th session, which would run at the Palais Wilson until 12 May, and during which it would successively review the reports of Pakistan, Lebanon, Bahrein, Afghanistan, Argentina and the Republic of Korea.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog110417

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