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7 November 2017

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by spokespersons for the United Nations Office of the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Organization for Migration, the World Health Organization, the UN Refugee Agency, the International Labour Organization and the World Trade Organization.


Jens Laerke, for the United Nations Office of the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that there had been dramatic developments in Yemen over recent days. Humanitarian operations were currently blocked as a result of the closure of air and sea ports in Yemen ordered by the Saudi-led coalition. The coalition had requested the United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism to inform all commercial vessels at Hudaydah and Saleef ports to leave. Movement was also restricted and humanitarian flights to and from Yemen had been on hold since the previous day. Reports had been received that in some areas the blockade had already begun impacting the daily life of Yemenis. For example, the price of fuel had jumped by 60 per cent overnight and the price of cooking gas had doubled. Long lines of cars were reported at petrol stations.

OCHA was very concerned about the likely rapid negative impact of the closure of entry ports on the already dire humanitarian situation in the country, where 7 million people were fighting against famine-like conditions and were completely reliant on humanitarian aid to survive. If supplies came to a halt, food insecurity would deepen and the world would be confronted with an even greater humanitarian crisis. It was vital that food, fuel and medicine imports should continue to enter the country.

Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR was deeply concerned by a series of attacks in Yemen over the previous week that had killed dozens of civilians – including several children – and he appealed to all parties to respect international law governing armed conflict. Civilians never had to be put in harm’s way during any conflict. International humanitarian law prohibited attacks against civilians and civilian objects, indiscriminate attacks, and it obliged all parties to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians and civilian objects.

On 1 November, two airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition had hit the Al Layl market in the Olaaf area of Sahaar district in Saada governorate, killing 31 civilians, including six children, and wounding 24 others. The victims were Qat sellers and guests at the Al Layl hotel. The coalition was investigating the incident.

On 2 November, seven members of a farming family, including the farmer himself and three of his children, had been killed in a coalition airstrike on their home in Al Islan area in Baqim district of Saada governorate. There was no known military objective in the area.

Also on 2 November, in Taizz, five children had been killed and two wounded as a result of shelling carried out by the Popular Committee affiliated with the Houthis and the army units loyal to former President Abdullah Saleh. Based on the accounts of the victims' family, obtained by UN human rights monitors, the children had been playing in the street of the residential neighbourhood when a rocket from a Houthi-controlled area had fallen on them.

On 4 November, a missile had been fired from Yemen towards the Saudi capital Riyadh. The missile had been intercepted over the city and fragments reportedly landed in the airport area. Some media reports said the missile was targeting the airport. The international airport was prima facie a civilian facility, and as such, any attack against it was forbidden under international law.

Since that missile launch, there had been at least nine further airstrikes on the Houthi-held city of Sana’a, including one that hit Celebration Square injuring three civilians. While the targets of the strikes were not clear, there was concern that airstrikes in densely populated areas put civilians and civilian objects, including infrastructure, at great risk. Parties to the conflict had to take constant care to spare the civilian population.

OHCHR was also very concerned indeed that humanitarian aid destined for innocent civilians caught up in the three-year long conflict could be adversely affected by the coalition’s decision to close all land, air and sea ports into the country. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein had said that he would soon be appointing the members of the Group of Eminent Experts, recently established by the Human Rights Council and mandated to carry out a comprehensive examination of all alleged violations and abuses of international human rights and international law committed by all parties to the conflict and, where possible, to identify those responsible.

A UN Human Rights team from OHCHR Headquarters in Geneva had recently visited Yemen to meet with the de-facto authorities in Sana’a and Government officials in Aden to reiterate the concerns raised by the High Commissioner in his recent report to the Human Rights Council and to prepare the ground for the Group of Eminent Experts.

The total number of civilian casualties since March 2015 stood at 14,168, including 5,295 people killed and 8,873 injured. The numbers were based on the casualties individually verified by the OHCHR Yemen Office. The actual numbers were likely to be far higher.

Responding to questions, Mr. Laerke said that OCHA would continue to push for the delivery of humanitarian supplies via any and all entry points. Even before the crisis, 80 to 90 per cent of food in Yemen had had to be imported, so the consequences of the blockade would be devastating. The situation in Yemen was catastrophic and currently represented the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Seven million people were on the brink of famine and were only being kept alive thanks to humanitarian operations. That lifeline had to be kept open and it was absolutely essential that the operation of the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) be allowed to continue unhindered in order to ensure that medicines, other supplies and humanitarian staff could continue to gain access to the country.

Asked a question about the impact of the blockade on the current cholera epidemic in Yemen, Mr. Laerke said that the blockade and the fact that the prices of basic goods was spiralling out of control would affect all aspects of the humanitarian situation, including that of health care. He hoped that the duration of the blockade would be extremely short.

Responding to questions, Mr. Colville said that OHCHR had seen reports suggesting that the blockade was to be a short-term measure, and he hoped that it would be reversed immediately. For as long as the blockade lasted, he was concerned that it would aggravate what was already a dire humanitarian emergency with appalling consequences for the civilian population. However, more facts were required before it could be determined whether or not it amounted to a form of collective punishment or other serious violation of international humanitarian law or human rights law. He had heard no explanation from the Saudi-led coalition for the imposition of the blockade. Details were sketchy but he understood that it was linked to the 4 November missile attack against the Saudi capital Riyadh.

Mr. Colville also said that OHCHCR still had a functioning office in Yemen and the visit of the Group of Eminent Experts of the Human Rights Council was still expected to go ahead. When it did so would depend on how long the blockade lasted.

Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that progress had been made in tackling the current cholera outbreak in Yemen, although problems in gaining access to all regions of the country necessarily had an impact on efforts to provide treatment and assistance. Cholera cases had been reported in 22 governorates or 96 per cent of the country. Fatality rates were low. To date, there had been 908,702 suspected cases of cholera, with the total number of reported deaths standing at 2,194 as of 6 November. WHO was also advocating for the reopening of access to Yemen to allow staff and supplies to enter the country.


Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that between 10 August and 3 November, 1,947 cases and 143 deaths – mostly of pneumonic plague – had been reported to WHO by the Malagasy Ministry of Health. Most of the increase was due to enhanced surveillance and only 41 new cases and 3 deaths had been reported during the previous week. Following concerted efforts of the Ministry of Health and partners, there was a visible decline in reported plague cases, in the number of people hospitalized with plague, and in geographic districts reporting new cases.

As of 6 November there were 27 people hospitalized with plague. That figure compared with 106 on 29 October. This decline in new cases was encouraging and showed that the quick steps taken to support the Malagasy Government to contain the outbreak had been effective. However, it was important to remain vigilant, and the possibility of future flare-ups could not be ruled out until the end of the usual plague season in April 2018. More funding was urgently needed to sustain WHO's support for the plague response.

Responding to questions, Ms. Chaib confirmed that WHO required an additional US$4 million of funding to sustain the efforts it was making on several fronts in Madagascar. It was collecting samples from sick persons and people in contact with the sick and sending them for laboratory testing. At the same time, it was training more than 5,000 contact tracers who travelled around areas affected by the plague. As of 6 November WHO-trained teams had followed up on 6,000 contacts. Logistical help also had to be provided to hospitals and health centres, and communities had to be encouraged to collaborate. Current indicators were encouraging but it was important to remain vigilant until the end of the plague season. There had been no reported cases outside Madagascar but WHO was working with neighbouring States to enhance their border surveillance and to increase their preparedness to respond to possible cases of plague.

Responding to another question, Ms. Chaib said that the WHO Director-General had attended the G-7 Health Ministerial Meeting, which had taken place in Milan, Italy, on 5 and 6 November. The Meeting had discussed topics such as climate change, mother and infant mortality and the Sustainable Development Goals. She was did not know if it had also considered the famine in Yemen or other humanitarian crises, or the issue of antimicrobial resistance.


Duniya Aslam Khan, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that UNHCR had just completed the first phase of Rohingya refugee family counting. More than half a million refugees from Myanmar had so far been counted. The exercise, conducted jointly by UNHCR and Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC), took place in the Kutupalong camp, makeshift and extension areas and Balukhali makeshift areas and was currently extending further south. Going from shelter to shelter, more than 100 UNHCR-hired enumerators had so far gathered data on 120,000 families comprising 517,000 refugees.

In an innovative and revealing family counting exercise, UNHCR teams had found that one-third of families were vulnerable. As many as 14 per cent were single mothers holding their families together with little support in harsh camp conditions. Others were struggling with serious health problems or disabilities. There was also a high proportion of elderly people at risk, unaccompanied and separated children – some of them taking care of younger siblings. Children made up 54 per cent of the total population; women 52 per cent.

Most of those counted (72 per cent) had arrived in Bangladesh after violence erupted in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state in late August, whereas the rest had sought refuge in Bangladesh prior to the latest influx. The majority (70 per cent) had come from Maungdaw township, with smaller numbers from Buthidaung and Rathedaung. The mobile data collection had been designed in such a way that data could be collected with GPS even when the team had no network coverage. As soon as the mobile device was on the network, the collected data was automatically uploaded to a secure server. That design had allowed UNHCR to collect the necessary data and consolidate, analyse and visualise it quickly.

The RRRC-UNHCR exercise would quickly extend its coverage further south into Teknaf in the coming weeks. The geo-tagged data of each family and the barcoded RRRC Family Counting Card had given a shape to Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh in terms of demography and location. The design and methodology of the family counting exercise were somewhat unique in UNHCR's emergency registration history. Because the refugees were still on the move and site zoning was still in progress, the enumerators visited their shelters individually, meaning that refugees did not have to queue in order to be counted.

The information collected in the ongoing exercise would be useful not only for UNHCR and the Bangladeshi authorities, but also for all humanitarian partners in their planning and “actions” for the benefit of the refugees.

Joel Millman, for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said that 2,250 Rohingya refugees had arrived in Cox’s Bazar over the three days up to the morning of 7 November. That brought the total number of Rohingya refugees who had arrived there since 25 August to 611,000. According to an IOM representative on the ground, Rohingya refugees once trapped in their homes in Myanmar far from the border were finally reaching safety in Cox’s Bazar. From 2-6 November, approximately 4,500 Rohingya refugees had arrived in the Balukhali zone. IOM was providing site management support to the Government of Bangladesh over an area that housed more than 25,000 families.

Responding to questions, Ms. Khan said that the families enumerated in the counting exercise comprised both new arrivals and those who had arrived earlier. Situations of vulnerability that had been identified included single mothers maintaining their families without male support, older siblings looking after younger ones, elderly persons looking after children without support from other family members, separated children and persons with disabilities. Persons categorized as vulnerable needed immediate specialized support. The information gathered was being made available to other humanitarian agencies, particularly those specialized in targeting assistance to specific categories, such as women and children or persons with disabilities. It was also being shared with government ministries. To that end, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Mr. Volker Türk, was currently meeting with representatives of the Ministry of Social Welfare, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The GPS coordinates would facilitate the delivery of aid in the camps, some of which were even more densely populated than Dhaka.

The family counting exercise was being conducted jointly with the Bangladesh Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission. At the same time, the Immigration and Passport Department of Bangladesh was undertaking a separate biometric registration exercise in which it collected data on individuals rather than on families. UNHCR was mindful of the need to protect the data it collected that would not be in the public domain.

Mediterranean refugee crisis

Joel Millman, for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said that the bodies of 26 women, all believed to be Nigerian, had been recovered in two rescues over the weekend. One of those incidents was particularly worrying as 23 women, some of them minors, had been found dead in a single dinghy. News had also come in of the sinking of a migrant vessel off Libya, which could potentially add another 82 victims to the casualty figures. If those figures were confirmed, the current total of 2,925 fatalities for 2017 would rise to above 3,000.

Numbers of deaths had fallen steeply in recent months and IOM had hoped that the threshold of 3,000 would not be reached at all during 2017; however, the previous five days had seen a remarkable increase in the numbers of migrant arrivals and of deaths. IOM was concerned that the approach of winter and the worsening weather conditions might herald a further increase in casualty figures. As a comparison, over 718 migrants had lost their lives in the Mediterranean in November 2016 and more than a thousand in the last two months of 2015.

In response to questions, Mr. Millman said that all the 26 female victims were believed to be sub-Saharan migrants. In the dinghy incident, the fact that all the victims were female of the same nationality and on the same vessel could point to homicide. Murders were not unprecedented; however, it was important to await further evidence before making a judgment. The bodies were currently being examined by authorities in Italy for evidence of foul play. Although the majority of the 2,560 migrants rescued over the previous four days were from West Africa, there were also Bangladeshis, Eritreans, Egyptians, Sudanese, Moroccans, Syrians and Libyans. One Syrian man rescued by a German vessel was 89 years old. It was rare to see Syrians on that route any more. One Nigerian woman had given birth on a Spanish vessel.

The Bangladeshis were not Rohingya refugees. The number of 8,870 Bangladeshis who had reached Italy up to the end of September was in excess of the number of arrivals over the previous two years. Almost all of them, however, had arrived before June 2017. He did not know the reasons for that phenomenon but it might be due to authorities in Asia cracking down on migrant smuggling routes.

To date in 2017, the Libyan coastguard had rescued or intercepted 19,333 migrants. That was more than in previous years; however, it was difficult to make exact comparisons as IOM had only recently become involved in compiling the figures and he was not aware that the Libyan coastguard had been rescuing or intercepting anyone in the previous two years.

ILO Governing Body sessions on Qatar and Venezuela

Hans von Rohland, for the International Labour Organisation (ILO), said that the meeting of the ILO Governing Body would take place on 8 November. It would consider a complaint lodged by delegates at the 2014 International Labour Conference that Qatar had failed to implement ILO Conventions 29 and 81, hold a discussion on ILO cooperation with the tobacco industry and examine alleged violations by Venezuela of ILO Conventions 26, 87 and 144.

Responding to questions, Mr. von Rohland said that he had circulated draft decisions concerning the complaint against Qatar and cooperation with the tobacco industry. The meeting of the Governing Body would decide whether and how to amend and adopt those decisions.

WTO Ministerial Conference in December

Fernando Puchol, for the World Trade Organization (WTO), said that the deadline for requesting media accreditation for the WTO Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires was 9 November. Accreditation did not grant entry into Argentina so persons wishing to attend should bear in mind the fact that they might need to request a visa from the Argentinean authorities.

Geneva events and announcements

Ms. Vellucci said that the President of the General Assembly of the United Nations was due to visit Geneva on 28 November. He would not give a press conference but interested media should contact her for one-on-one interviews.

From 13 to 17 November, the Group of Governmental Experts set up by the 125 States parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons was due to meet in the Palais des Nations to examine the issue of emerging technologies related to lethal autonomous weapons systems. The event, which was the first formal meeting of its kind to be held by the United Nations, would be chaired by Ambassador Amandeep Gill of India and attended by States parties and non-parties to the Convention, as well as by civil society, business leaders and experts. Ambassador Gill would be present at the beginning of the press briefing of Friday 10 November and would provide further details about the event.

Answering questions, Ms. Vellucci explained that the opening and closing meetings would be public. Meetings dedicated to intergovernmental discussions would probably be closed but she understood that expert meetings would be public. The Ambassador would make more information available on Friday.

In response to a complaint by the President of the Association of accredited journalists, Ms. Vellucci said that she was aware of the problem of conflicting figures provided by different United Nations agencies at the press briefings, particularly with regard to numbers of refugees, IDPs, stateless persons, etc. She said she would bring the matter to the attention of those concerned.

Ms. Vellucci said that the Syrian Humanitarian Access Task Force and the Ceasefire Task Force would be meeting on 9 November. The meeting of the Humanitarian Access Task Force would be followed by a press stakeout by Jan Egeland, Special Advisor to the UN Special Envoy for Syria at 12.30 in Hall XIV.

Ms. Vellucci said the Committee against Torture had opened yesterday its sixty-second session. During this session, which is taking place at the Palais Wilson until the 6th of December, the Committee is due to review the reports presented by Moldolva, Cameroon, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Italy, Mauritius, Bulgaria, Timor-Leste and Rwanda on the measures taken by these countries to implement the provisions of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that a virtual press briefing would be held on 7 November at 3 p.m. to launch WHO Guidelines on the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals. There would be three speakers: Dr Kazuaki Miyagishima, Director, Department of Food Safety, WHO; Dr Awa Aidara-Kane, Coordinator, Department of Food Safety, WHO; and Dr Marc Sprenger, Director, Antimicrobial Resistance Secretariat, WHO. The press release, report and executive summary had already been sent to persons who had so requested.

In response to a question, Ms. Chaib explained that the media material had been sent out on request rather than broadcast to all journalists in order to keep track of who had received it, also with a view to ensuring that the embargo was not broken.

Press Conferences

OHCHR / Human Rights Committee
Concluding Observations on Australia, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dominican Republic, Jordan, Mauritius and Romania
Thursday, 9 November at 1:30 p.m. in Press Room 1

Briefing by UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection VolkerTürk on his mission to Myanmar and Bangladesh
Friday, 10 November at 9:30 a.m. in Room III

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The webcast for this briefing was available here: http://bit.ly/unog071117

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