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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

9 January 2018

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the spokespersons for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the United Children’s Fund, the World Health Organization, the World Food Programme and the International Organization for Migration.

USG for Humanitarian Affairs to visit Syria

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, had arrived in Damascus for his visit to Syria from 9 to 12 January. In Damascus, Mr. Lowcock would meet Government officials, humanitarian agencies and partners and other key stakeholders. He was also scheduled to visit Homs, where he would meet with people who had suffered from the effects of the crisis and needed life-saving assistance. Mr. Lowcock would assess the humanitarian response and discuss how to improve access and delivery with key stakeholders. The visit was Mr. Lowcock’s first to Syria in his current capacity. The last time an Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator had visited Syria had been in December 2015.

With the seventh winter of the conflict under way, more than 13 million people needed basic aid and protection in Syria. They faced daily deprivation and brutality. Some 69 per cent of the population was estimated to be living in extreme poverty and millions were in need of protection in addition to food, clean water, shelter and other emergency aid. While some parts of Syria were witnessing a welcome reprieve from hostilities, many others faced intensified military operations and conflict.

Asked to comment on the situation in Idleb Governorate, Mr. Laerke said that there were serious concerns regarding the safety and protection of tens of thousands of people in southern Idleb and rural Hama in north-eastern Syria where ongoing hostilities had reportedly caused of deaths and injuries of civilians. Tens of thousands of civilians, already in dire circumstances, had been recorded as displaced since 1 December owing to the fighting. The majority had moved to north-western Idleb and Maa’rt Al-Nouman subdistrict in southern Idleb. The United Nations estimated that there were two million people in Idleb Governorate, about half of whom had already been internally displaced before the recent escalation in violence. With the onset of winter, safe shelter was among the biggest concerns as many families were fleeing into areas that were already at full capacity or into communities with depleted resources.

Responding to further questions, Mr. Laerke said that while there were no plans for the Under-Secretary-General to visit eastern Ghouta, he would, in his meetings with Government officials, be pushing for the assistance and evacuation of people in need, especially in besieged and hard-to-reach areas.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon

William Spindler, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that Syrian refugees in Lebanon were more vulnerable than ever, with more than half now living in extreme poverty and over three quarters living below the poverty line, according to the findings of a new survey by UNHCR, the United Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme (WFP). Seven years into the crisis, Syrian refugees in Lebanon were finding it even more difficult to make ends meet and were more reliant than ever on international aid – which made the uncertain outlook for humanitarian funding in 2018 all the more worrying. Borrowing money for food and to cover health expenses and pay rent continued to be extremely common, with almost 9 out of every 10 refugees claiming to be in debt.

Food insecurity also remained critically high, affecting 91 per cent of households to some degree. Obtaining legal residency also continued to be a challenge, leaving refugees exposed to an increased risk of arrest, hindering their ability to register their marriages and making it more difficult for them to find daily labour, send their children to school or access health care. Only 19 per cent of families – as compared to 21 per cent in 2016 – reported that all members had legal residency. More alarmingly, the share of households where no one had legal residency had increased considerably. Overall, 74 per cent of surveyed Syrian refugees aged 15 or above did not have legal residency in Lebanon. The survey also revealed that only 17 per cent of refugee parents had managed to complete all the steps of the birth registration process for their children – although higher percentages of families were completing at least the first two steps of the process – and that nearly all families (96%) had obtained a notification of birth from the hospital or midwife, thanks to joint efforts by UNHCR and the Government.

Taken as a whole, the survey results painted an alarming picture of the growing vulnerabilities facing Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Self-reliance opportunities were extremely limited in an economy deeply affected by the neighbouring conflict in Syria. And external funding was insufficient to keep up with the growing needs; in 2017, only 36 per cent of the total funding needed to provide adequate humanitarian support in Lebanon had been received, as of the beginning of December.

A further US$2.7 billion was needed to meet needs in 2018, under the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan. With upcoming conferences in Paris and Brussels aimed at mobilizing further support for the humanitarian response and for Lebanon in particular, it was more vital than ever that donors stayed the course amid deepening poverty and growing vulnerabilities. Funding was also crucial to support vulnerable members of the local community who were also struggling with limited resources and to help prevent social tensions between Lebanese hosts and refugees.

Responding to questions from journalists, Mr. Spindler said that the precarious situation of many refugees was pushing them to adopt negative coping mechanisms such as early marriage and child labour. While early marriages were not necessarily abusive, they were always a cause for concern. Some Syrian girls were getting married at 14 years old or younger. One of the concerns relating to child labour was that some employers preferred to hire children because they could pay them lower wages than they would adults.

Asked if the 36% funding figures were on par with previous years, Mr. Spindler said that while absolute levels of funding had increased, funding had nevertheless not kept up with needs, proportionally speaking. Mr. Laerke, for OCHA, added that appeals were funded at an overall average of 57.7%.

Refugee relocations by Israel

William Spindler, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that UNHCR was again appealing to Israel to halt its policy of relocating Eritreans and Sudanese to sub-Saharan Africa. The appeal came following the identification of some 80 cases in which individuals relocated by Israel had risked their lives by taking dangerous onward journeys to Europe via Libya.

All 80 cases involved Eritrean refugees or asylum seekers interviewed by UNHCR staff in Rome. Feeling that they had no other choice, they had travelled many hundreds of kilometres through conflict zones in South Sudan, Sudan and Libya after being relocated by Israel. Along the way they had suffered abuse, torture and extortion before risking their lives once again by crossing the Mediterranean to Italy.

The interviews – all with adult males, some with family members still in Israel – had taken place between November 2015 and December 2017 in reception centres and informal settlements in the Rome area. All had entered Israel via the Sinai and all had reported torture, mistreatment and extortion before reaching Israel.

Most had said that they had been transferred from Israel to a country in Africa and provided with a lump sum of US$3,500. However, the situation on arrival had been different to what most had expected and little support had been provided beyond accommodation on the first night. They had reported feeling unsafe, as they were known to have money. Some said that people travelling with them had died en route to Libya, where many had experienced extortion and detention, as well as abuse – including torture – and violence.

UNHCR was therefore seriously concerned over Israel’s plans announced on 1 January to forcibly relocate Eritreans and Sudanese to countries in Africa or have them face indefinite detention. Official statements that the plans might eventually target families and those with pending asylum claims, or that asylum seekers might be taken to the airport in handcuffs were particularly alarming. At a time when UNHCR and partners in the international community were engaged in emergency evacuations from Libya, forced relocation to countries that did not offer effective protection and the onward movement of those people to Libya and Europe were particularly worrisome.

There were some 27,000 Eritreans and 7,700 Sudanese in Israel. Since Israel had taken over refugee status determination from UNHCR in 2009, only 10 Eritreans and 1 Sudanese had been recognized as refugees. Another 200 Sudanese, all from Darfur, had been granted humanitarian status in Israel and there was an announcement that another 300 would follow. Israel had not received any Eritreans or Sudanese since May 2016.

UNHCR stood ready to work with Israel to find alternative solutions for the protection needs of asylum seekers, in line with international standards. That included resettlement out of Israel, as had happened previously.

Responding to questions from journalists, Mr. Spindler said that Israel was indeed a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Determining whether Israel was in violation of its obligations under that Convention would require a full legal analysis of each case concerned. Some individuals who had travelled to Italy after their relocation by Israel to African countries had been relocated as part of a voluntary policy; the fact that some refugees now were going to be forcibly relocated to third countries was cause for concern. Because the new policy was not being implemented in a transparent manner, it had been difficult to follow up with those who had been relocated. That was why the recent interviews with the 80 previously relocated refugees in Italy had been a particularly important development. In any event, the relocation of refugees without the necessary safeguards or protection did not appear to be a coherent policy.

Responding to further questions, Mr. Spindler said that although the relocation policy had been publicly announced and applied by Israel since 2016, the fact that it now involved forced, not voluntary, relocation was a worrying development. Furthermore, some countries, such as Rwanda, that had been reportedly involved in the forced relocation policy had recently denied such involvement. UNHCR stood ready to work with Israel to find solutions for the sizable population of refugees in Israel, including granting them refugee status or finding legal alternatives for their resettlement in other countries, especially where prospects for integration in Israel might prove difficult.

Asked to what country the 80 persons interviewed in Italy had been originally relocated, Mr. Spindler said most of them claimed to have been sent to Rwanda.

Myanmar

Marixie Mercado, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that she had spent the period from December 2017 to 3 January 2018 in Myanmar, almost half of that time in Rakhine State. She had travelled to the northern part of the State, where the violence had broken out in August 2017, driving 655,000 people, the vast majority of them Rohingya, across the border into Bangladesh. She had also gone to central Rakhine, where over 120,000 Rohingya had been stranded in squalid camps since 2012 and about 200,000 more lived in villages where their freedom of movement and access to basic services were also increasingly restricted.

UNICEF and its partners still did not have a true picture of the situation of children who remained in northern Rakhine because they had insufficient access to that area. What was known was deeply troubling. Prior to 25 August 2017, 4,800 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition had been receiving life-saving treatment; those children were no longer receiving that treatment. All 12 of the outpatient therapeutic treatment centres run by UNICEF partners had been closed because they had been looted or destroyed or because staff could not access them. None of the five primary health-care centres that they were supporting were functioning, and nowhere near enough clean water or food aid was being distributed. Partners had identified about 20 children who had been separated from their families during the violence but estimated the total number to be at least 100, most of whom were in parts of northern Rakhine State that they could still not access.

Maungdaw town clearly bore the scars of the recent violence – large areas had been razed and flattened by bulldozers, most stores were shuttered and few people were on the streets – very few women and even fewer children. The best estimates indicated that only about 60,000 Rohingya remained in Maungdaw out of a population of about 440,000 prior to 25 August 2017. The Rohingya children who did remain in rural areas were almost totally isolated. High levels of toxic fear in children from both Rohingya and Rakhine communities had been reported.

UNICEF stood ready to work with the Government of Myanmar and with the State Government of Rakhine to reach out to all children, irrespective of their ethnicity, religion, status or circumstance, to bring them the protection and assistance they needed. For that, it urgently needed regular, unlimited access across Rakhine State.

While the eyes of the world were on the situation in northern Rakhine and in Cox’s Bazaar, over 60,000 Rohingya children remained almost forgotten, trapped in 23 camps in central Rakhine that they had been driven into by violence in 2012. Pre-existing restrictions on movement of people into and out of the camps had been tightened first after the October 2016 outbreak of violence and then again after August 2017, making it even harder for humanitarian workers to deliver aid to children and making already poor conditions in the camps even worse.

The worst camps were in appalling condition. Nget Chaung 1 and 2 in Pauktaw Township were reachable only by boat, a four-to-five-hour ride on the local boats used to deliver supplies. The camps were below sea level, with almost no tree cover. Parts of the camps were literally cesspools. Shelters teeter on stilts above garbage and excrement. In one camp, the pond that people drew water from was separated only by a low mud wall from sewage. Children walked barefoot through the muck. One camp manager had reported four deaths among children 3 to 10 years old within the first 18 days of December. His only request had been for proper pathways so they would not have to walk through their own waste.

The restrictions also meant it was extremely difficult for Rohingya to leave their camps for medical treatment. Permission to travel to seek medical assistance was only granted where there was a justification certified by a doctor. Checkpoints and curfews meant delays. Travel authorization cost money, which most people in the camps could not afford. Relatives were often not permitted to accompany the patient. Once they were at a hospital, Rohingya were confined to a restricted area and not allowed outside contact. As a result, people were turning to traditional healers and untrained physicians or self-medicating. Basic living conditions and access to lifesaving services needed to be improved urgently.

There was an acute level of fear between the Rakhine and Rohingya communities. Furthermore, movement restrictions were shrinking horizons for children in the camps, nowhere more so than in terms of education. Most of the learning took place in poorly-resourced temporary learning classrooms, with determined volunteer teachers who had little formal training. There were nowhere near enough classrooms to accommodate students and there was only one high school in the capital, Sittwe, where most camps were located, that catered to Rohingya students between 10th and 12th grades. Previously, the more fortunate students from other camps came to Sittwe for high school. In 2018, however, because of the movement restrictions, no student was expected to make it out of the more remote camps. No Muslim had been able to attend university in Rakhine state since 2012.

Rohingya children desperately needed education if they were to have any kind of prospects for a better future. Temporary solutions needed to be improved immediately and more durable arrangements providing children with access to formal education, provided by properly trained teachers and recognized by the education system, must be set in place quickly. Otherwise the current generation’s future prospects would be permanently damaged.

The Government of Myanmar had established a ministerial committee tasked with implementing the recommendations of the final report of the Rakhine Advisory Commission chaired by Kofi Annan, which included addressing the stateless status of the Rohingya population and meeting priority needs. Rohingya children needed a political solution to the issue of legal identity and citizenship. In the interim they needed to be recognized first and foremost as children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child guaranteed rights to health, education and opportunities to learn and grow to all children, irrespective of their ethnicity or status or the circumstances in which they found themselves. Ways and means had to be found to deliver those rights to Rohingya children in Rakhine State today.

Ethnic Rakhine children had also been deeply affected by years of communal violence and divisions. UNICEF had long worked to promote more equitable and inclusive access for all children across Rakhine and Myanmar and it stood by the principle that a child was a child and every child in need deserved help.

The Annan Commission has provided a road map for a durable political solution so all children’s rights could be protected in a sustainable, open and fair manner in the longer term. UNICEF stood ready to support that crucial work and called on the global community, especially regional organizations and countries, to leverage their influence in order to improve children’s lives today and in the future.

Responding to questions from journalists, Ms. Mercado said that of the three townships in Northern Rakhine, she had been able to visit only one - Maungdaw town. Access had been better in Central Rakhine. The camps had been set up by the Government but were run by members of the community.

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that the 2018 Interim Humanitarian Response Plan for Myanmar would require funding of US$183.4 million, the great majority (US$131.7 million) of which was earmarked for Rakhine State. The top three types of assistance to be provided were food security, water and sanitation services and protection. Just US$9 million had been received so far; the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland had all given initial funding.

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that an estimated 58,700 pregnant women were among the Rohingya population living in the camps and an estimated 15,480 deliveries were expected to occur over the next three months. Approximately 67% of pregnant women had no or very limited access to gynaecological and obstetrical care services. Regarding the diphtheria outbreak, as of 7 January 2018, there were 3,649 clinically suspected cases and 30 related deaths, with the most recent death having been reported on 2 January 2018. Nearly 350,000 children between the ages of 6 weeks and 15 years had been given vaccine to control diphtheria. The health sector continued to expand its reach and services among the Rohingya settlements and camps. Most recently, the Government had decided to establish 20 health centres in the camps on a semi-permanent basis, which would help expand access to basic health services. Although all health sector partners were working with the Government to meet the population’s health needs, the challenges in terms of numbers, terrain and resources were huge. The health sector was grossly underfunded. WHO and other health sector partners would need US$175 million over the next 12 months to scale up their response. WHO was appealing to donors for more funds to meet the health needs of the population in Rohingya camps.

Bettina Luescher, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said that, since November 2017, WFP had been assisting some 150,000 people in Rakhine State – most of them in Central Rakhine, but at least 33,000 in Northern Rakhine. It was working with local NGOs and partners to continue providing services in January 2018 and was coordinating with the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) to prevent duplication of efforts. Lack of access continued to make it difficult to have a comprehensive picture of the needs on the ground. WFP was extremely concerned about undernutrition, which had been an issue even before the eruption of violence in the region. WFP needed funding of US$25 million to help people affected by the conflict.

Zambia

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that the current cholera outbreak in Zambia was centred around Lusaka, the country’s capital, and showed no signs of slowing down. The Government had declared the outbreak on 6 October after two suspected cases had been reported to a clinic on 4 October. After an initial downward trend, cholera cases had started intensifying in early November and health authorities had reached out to WHO for more support including help with an immediate request for initially 2 million doses of oral cholera vaccine from the global stockpile. WHO had helped the government put together a plan for supporting the oral cholera vaccine campaign and trained about 500 health and community workers in how to administer the vaccine. The request had been officially submitted on 14 December and approved on 15 December. The doses had been scheduled to arrive in batches from 7 January to 9 January and the campaign was expected to start on 10 January. WHO had also procured two large tents, each with a 30 bed capacity, to expand cholera treatment services. From 4 October 2017 to 8 January 2018, in Lusaka District alone, 2,523 cases and 26 facility deaths had been officially recorded. The Health Ministry had itself recently reported slightly higher figures (2,802 cases) which had yet to be confirmed.

Responding to questions from journalists, Mr. Lindmeier said that clean water, proper sanitation and good hygiene were fundamental to controlling and preventing cholera; vaccination campaigns were just one part of the response. The Government was aiming to carry out two rounds of vaccinations for one million people, including adults and children in and around the capital. Cholera was a fast killer in weak and older persons; easy access to treatment facilities was therefore key. In order to improve hygiene, the Government has deployed the military to clean up parts of Lusaka where sanitation had been poor; had closed one market with poor sanitation; banned street vending and public gatherings; and delayed the start of the new school semester. Markets and places of public gathering were known to facilitate transmission where prevention was lacking. WHO supported the Government’s efforts to improve sanitation and other fundamental preventive strategies and believed it was better to focus on such efforts instead of banning key public activities. It was therefore discussing the possibility of re-opening the schools rapidly.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that heavy rains from 4 to 7 January 2018 had triggered flooding and landslides in and around the city of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. That in turn had led to 45 deaths, the flooding of more than 5,000 homes and the collapse of more than 190 houses.

The flooding was likely to worsen the ongoing cholera epidemic and other water-borne diseases. One health facility that provided cholera treatment had been flooded in Pakadjuma area. WHO and partners are currently making a rapid risk assessment of the situation and of the resulting public health needs.

The current cholera outbreak in the DRC had begun in July 2017 and was one of the most severe outbreaks of the disease in years. In 2017, there had been a total of 55,000 cases – almost double the number reported in 2016 – and nearly 1,200 deaths. A total of 24 of 26 provinces had reported cases so far; the overall case fatality rate was 2.1% but as high as 14.5% in some areas. WHO attributed the fatality rate mainly to the fact that cholera patients did not have timely access to cholera treatment. Poor access to safe water was also an enormous challenge.

The response to the cholera outbreak was complicated by the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the DRC. There were about 4.5 million internally displaced people at the end of December 2017 – the largest such population in any single country in Africa.

Responding to questions from journalists, M. Lindmeier said that he was not aware of any plans for vaccination campaigns. Cholera kits and quick access to treatment centres were proving key in saving people. The fact that the outbreak had lasted so long was not surprising, in light of the ongoing conflict and the large number of internally displaced people.

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, added that on the morning of 9 January, the Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, would be briefing the Security Council on developments in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; the initial part of the briefing would be public but the ensuing discussion would be closed.

Migration and the Mediterranean

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that 1,072 migrants and refugees had entered Europe by sea during the first week of 2018; that figure was consistent with that of the previous year. Data on deaths at sea, however, were much grimmer: through the first eight days of the new year a total of 81 Mediterranean Sea deaths of irregular migrants or refugees had been recorded; 76 of those had occurred along the Central Route.

Italian authorities had reported an incident that had occurred on 6 January, during which 86 people had been rescued from a floundering dinghy. The rescue ship had recovered the remains of 8 people; based on statements by witnesses that 150 or more people had been aboard, that meant 64 people had perished. Some of the victims had been children and one three-year-old survivor was said to have lost her mother in the tragedy.

A second incident over the previous weekend, this time off the Libyan coast, had seen the rescue of 270 migrants by a Coast Guard unit. The remains of two female bodies had also been found on the craft; the cause of death was still unknown. According to witnesses, 10 migrants had drowned prior to the rescue operation.

According to the daily update of returnees from Libya, 181 migrants had returned to Nigeria on 8 January 2018. Since the signing of the agreement at the European Union-African Union Summit held in November 2017 in Abidjan, IOM had carried out the evacuation of 6,577 individuals, for an average of 160 per day, equivalent to one chartered flight per day.

Press conferences

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that on Thursday, 11 January, at 10 a.m. (EST) at United Nations Headquarters, the Secretary-General would launch his report on “Making Migration Work for All”. The report provided a vision for how to better manage migration, for the benefit of all – the migrants themselves, their host communities and their societies of origin. The General Assembly had requested the Secretary-General to produce the report as an input to the zero draft of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and related intergovernmental negotiations.

On 10 January, from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., New York local time (2:30 p.m. Geneva time), Louise Arbour, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for International Migration, would hold an embargoed, on-the-record, press briefing via WebEx, with members of the press. Ms. Arbour would do a brief introduction in English and then answer questions in English and French. Interested journalists could attend the briefing in room D.17 of the Palais des Nations. The embargoed report would be shared with journalists.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog090118