10 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 Children’s Fund, the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the World Food Programme and the World Health Organization.
Meritxell Relano, Representative for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Yemen, speaking via telephone from Amman, Jordan, said that Yemen was currently facing the largest humanitarian and food crisis in the world. Seven million people did not know where their next meal was coming from and their survival depended entirely on humanitarian assistance. In that context, the continued access of fuel, medicines and food was essential. Yet, the blockade on all land, air and sea traffic – by preventing the movement of aid personnel and the delivery of vital assistance to children in desperate need – had worsened what was already a catastrophic situation. It was essential that the port of Hudaydah be reopened as that was where most humanitarian supplies came into the country.
Fuel was vital in order to keep health centres, vaccine storage units and water treatment plants operating. The risks of running out of fuel were unimaginable but current stocks would last only until the end of November. The blockade had led to panic buying and a price rise of 60 per cent. If fuel did not come in immediately, UNICEF’s ongoing water and sanitation response to the cholera epidemic could be affected, potentially impacting up to six million people.
The blockade also prevented vaccines from reaching Yemen, leaving at least one million children under the age of 1 more exposed to diseases such as polio and measles. Current stocks would run out within a month. The shortage of medical supplies was even more serious in the light of 87 recent suspected cases of diphtheria. A further consequence of the blockade was that already high levels of malnutrition were likely to increase. UNICEF called on all parties to the conflict to allow and facilitate safe, sustainable and rapid humanitarian access to all children and families in need. It was important for international media to give voice to what was happening in Yemen.
In response to questions, Ms. Relano said that all the fuel entering the country was imported by sea and that, even before the blockade, restrictions had been imposed and supplies had been scarce. Failure to reopen the ports immediately would also affect UNICEF’s humanitarian operations, which were already hindered by internal problems caused by both sides to the conflict. The blockade was an additional challenge. She had heard that the port at Aden had reopened but was not aware whether supplies had entered that way.
In response to another question, Ms. Relano said that children made up half of the population of Yemen. Consequently, it was probable that at least half of the seven million people currently facing famine were children. In addition, 2.2 million children were suffering moderate acute malnutrition. Of them, almost 400,000 were in a state of severe acute malnutrition. UNICEF was striving to provide the necessary assistance, but it was vital to keep the supply pipeline open. Currently there were containers stacked up in Djibouti that were unable to enter via Hudaydah.
In answer to a question, Bettina Luescher, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said that it was not currently possible to undertake airdrops in Yemen. Airdrops would require approval and were difficult to operate in areas where there was, in any case, no other form of access, by land, sea or air.
Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that for the fifth consecutive day WHO operations in Yemen had been severely hampered due to the closure of all land, sea and air access points. WHO and other humanitarian agencies needed immediate humanitarian access to Yemen. The country was still facing the world’s largest cholera outbreak and seven million people were on the brink of famine, including some two million severely malnourished children.
The supplies of WHO were critically low. On 8 November, WHO had been prevented from delivering 250 tonnes of medical supplies via sea. The supply ship, which had not been able to leave Djibouti as previously planned because of the closure of Hudaydah port in Yemen, had been carrying surgical kits, anaesthesia machines, infant incubator sets, water purification tablets and other essential supplies.
The WHO representative in Yemen, Dr Nevio Zagaria, had said that he was particularly worried about low stocks of trauma kits. Currently, there were enough to carry out 2,000 surgeries; however, because of the escalating conflict, more trauma patients were to be expected. If the hostilities continued and the ports remain closed, WHO would not be able to perform life-saving surgeries or provide basic health care.
Between 27 April and 5 November, more than 900,000 suspected cases of cholera and 2,192 deaths had been reported in 22 of the country’s 23 governorates. Progress had been made but it could come to a halt unless the blockade was lifted within a few days. Providing emergency health services in Yemen was a top priority for WHO but it needed access in order to continue to combat cholera and provide trauma treatment.
In response to questions, Ms. Chaib said that WHO had made progress in tackling the cholera epidemic, and cholera deaths were in decline; however, a major setback was looming it, if the Agency did not have full access to all affected areas. Cholera had, in fact, spread throughout the country and was present in 22 governorates. Unlimited access was vital in order to provide assistance and channel medical aid to hospitals, and to enable staff from WHO and the rest of the United Nations community to move around the country freely.
Controlling the cholera outbreak posed very arduous challenges, she said, and many factors – not just the closure of borders – were influencing the evolution of the epidemic in Yemen. The health-care system was in a very poor state and the general situation in the country was extremely difficult. In such a context, the blockade was an additional, unwelcome and unhelpful obstacle. All sides had to come together to tackle the epidemic and save lives. WHO called on Saudi Arabia and other parties to the conflict to consider the fact that the epidemic was still raging, other major health problems also existed and access was urgently necessary. Denial of access was likely to result in more cases of cholera and more deaths. She was unable to say whether the actions of Saudi Arabia constituted a breach of its obligations as a member State of WHO.
In response to questions, Ms. Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva said that, as the spokesperson of the Secretary-General of the United Nations had stated, there had been intense diplomatic activity over the preceding 72 hours to put an end to the blockade, including a call between the Secretary-General and Adel Ahmed Al-Jubeir, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia.
She would contact the relevant offices in Headquarters for further information regarding issues that might arise under the Charter of the United Nations. However, the main point was that blockades were always entirely unacceptable, and particularly so in the current case where the country was so heavily reliant on imports. The blockade was placing an additional humanitarian burden on Yemen and interfering with the work of all the agencies that were striving to provide assistance to the people, and the United Nations was calling for it to be lifted immediately.
Circumstances in Yemen were so complex that no one was in a position to say that a particular outcome was directly attributable to the blockade or to any of the other multiple factors affecting the situation in the country. However, it was undeniable that, even before the blockade, that situation was dire, in terms of health care, sanitation, nutrition, etc. The blockade was making that state of affairs much worse and the United Nations had categorically condemned it and unequivocally called for it to be lifted.
As everybody knew, the Security Council had certain prerogatives, including that of taking action to resolve situations around the world that threatened peace, but she could not comment on any decisions it might be considering.
Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that worrying news was coming out of Cox’s Bazar. The number of suspected measles cases among the newly arrived Rohingya and their host communities in southern Bangladesh had increased. As of 4 November, one death and 412 suspected cases of measles had been reported among the vulnerable populations living in camps, settlements, and among the host communities. Of them, 352 cases were from Ukhia and 46 from Teknaf sub-districts, and 11 had been reported from the district hospital. The majority of cases – 398 – were among the new arrivals, with 14 among the host communities. As many as 82 per cent of cases were among children under five years of age.
The situation had prompted the Government and United Nations partners to step up immunization efforts in overcrowded camps and makeshift shelters close to the border with Myanmar. Beginning on 1 November, vaccinations against measles and rubella had begun to be administered at the border. In response to the situation, the authorities and partners were preparing to administer measles and rubella vaccine to nearly 360,000 people in the age group of six months to 15 years among the new Rohingya arrivals in Cox’s Bazar and their host communities.
Measles, a childhood killer disease which could be particularly dangerous among unimmunized and malnourished children, was one of the major health risks among the over 611,000 people who had crossed over to Bangladesh from Myanmar since late August. Between 16 September and 4 October, the Bangladeshi Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, with the support of WHO, UNICEF and other local partners, had rolled out a measles and rubella vaccination campaign that had immunized nearly 136,000 children between the ages of six months and 15 years.
More than 70 vaccinators from Government and partners had been trained to deliver routine vaccinations. Those vaccinations were administered at the same sites and with the same resources as those used by the Government, WHO and UNICEF to administer the measles and rubella vaccination. Half of the vaccines was being purchased by UNICEF, which was also involved in social mobilization campaigns to ensure that the children were actually taken to the vaccination sites. It collaborated with WHO in training vaccinators and provided them with a daily allowance.
In response to questions, Mr. Boulierac said that it was not possible to reach the conclusion that there was a measles epidemic in Rakhine State on the grounds that most cases had been recorded among recent arrivals. The information available tended to confirm what UNICEF already knew: that the health, nutritional and psychological condition of Rohingya children arriving at the border was extremely delicate. Their level of vaccination was not satisfying. The campaign to vaccinate 360,000 people would begin in coming days in the camps and settlements, but the fact that vaccinations against measles and rubella had begun to be administered at the border was a sign of how urgent the situation was.
Joel Millman, for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said that since 25 August an estimated 613,000 Rohingya refugees had arrived in Cox's Bazar, fleeing violence in Myanmar. The total refugee population in the area was now 826,000. The makeshift sites where the Rohingyas had settled were desperately overcrowded and located on inhospitable, hilly terrain with insufficient drainage and little or no road access. The few roads that existed were impossibly congested, making it extremely difficult to reach refugees with the support and services they needed.
In the Kutupalong - Balukhali Expansion Site, which was currently home to an estimated 423,000 refugees, and where IOM was responsible for coordinating site management, many areas were extremely difficult to access. People hiked for hours under the scorching sun, often carrying heavy loads from distribution points, to reach their shelters. Steep hills and dangerous paths meant that children, the elderly and people with disabilities were often unable to move around the site.
In October, IOM had built some 850 metres of road into Balukhali to enable humanitarian agencies to deliver lifesaving assistance to at least 50,000 refugees. IOM was currently working on six other road projects, providing more access from main roads outside the sites, and inside the sites. It was also building five bridges, which would allow people and vehicles to cross canals and streams in different parts of the sites, which currently made access impossible.
IOM was also working to mitigate the threat of landslides on the newly de-forested land where many of the shelters perched on steep hillsides. IOM teams had been distributing bags that the refugees could fill with soil and use to create retaining walls and steps. They can also be used to raise shelters off mud floors, helping to keep them dry, especially when flash floods occurred.
Mediterranean refugee crisis
Joel Millman, for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said that the original figure of 82 casualties in a recent sinking of a migrant vessel off Libya had been revised downwards and the total number of fatalities among migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean between 1 January and 8 November 2017 currently stood at 2,961. Although the threshold of 3,000 had not yet been reached, it probably would be before the end of the year.
The number of migrants crossing from Libya to Italy during October 2017 had been very small and, of the approximately 6,000 arrivals, more than half had been Tunisian and Moroccan. Numbers of migrants from countries such as Nigeria, Eritrea and Bangladesh – which, for nearly three years, had been among the largest groups arriving in Italy – had fallen away to almost nothing in October 2017. In fact, between January 2015 and the end of October 2017, 77,250 Nigerians, 65,619 Eritreans, 22,067 Bangladeshis and 22,236 Somalis had arrived in Italy.
Syrians arriving in Italy over the same period numbered 10,832, which was a small figure if compared with the 40,000 Syrian migrants who had passed through Libya in 2014. Since January 2015, numbers of Syrians passing through Turkey into Greece and the Balkans had also fallen sharply. He did not know if the reason for the substantial halt in the flow of Syrian migrants lay in conditions in Turkey, the amounts of aid available or the progress of the war in Syria.
Finding solutions for refugees: a UNHCR call for action
Andrej Mahecic for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that the final round of discussions on a global compact on refugees would take place in Geneva the following week (14 and 15 November) with UNHCR seeking concrete suggestions on how to more equitably share responsibility for refugee situations globally.
The aim of the conference was to produce concrete suggestions to be included in the programme of action section of the refugee compact, which would underpin the comprehensive refugee response framework and provide a platform for cooperation for more equitable and predictable sharing of responsibility for large refugee movements. The High Commissioner for Refugees had been given the task of proposing a refugee compact by the UN General Assembly in last year’s New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants.
The following week’s meeting would take place in room XIX at the Palais des Nations. The main proceedings would be streamed live at www.webtv.un.org between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., and 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. A limited number of seats would be available for accredited media.
Geneva events and announcements
Ms. Vellucci said that Ambassador Amandeep Gill of India, who had been due to attend the press briefing that morning, would meet with journalists that day at 12.15 p.m. Ambassador Gill, who was due to chair the forthcoming (13-17 November) meeting of the Group of Governmental Experts set up by the 125 States parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, was going to speak on emerging technologies related to lethal autonomous weapons systems.
Ms. Vellucci said that 10 November was World Science Day for Peace and Development, which highlighted the significant role of science in society and the need to engage the wider public in debates on emerging scientific issues.
She read an announcement by UNCTAD that their Least Developed Countries Report 2017 would be launched on 27 November, the Handbook of Statistics 2017 on 5 December and the Commodities and Development Report on 11 December, with an embargoed copy available in Geneva from 6 December.
Conference on Disarmament / Group of Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) - Lethal autonomous weapons systems
Friday, 10 November at 12:15 p.m. in Press Room 1
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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog101117