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ACCESSIBILITY AT UNOG A A A A The United Nations in the Heart of Europe


6 February 2018

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


Fran Equiza, Representative in Syria for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), speaking by telephone from Addis Abeba, made the following statement:

“In the first month of this year, nearly 60 children were reportedly killed across Syria in relentless violence in East Ghouta, Damascus, Idlib and Afrin. Many more have been injured in the ongoing fighting. January was a devastating month for children in Syria. UNICEF reminds all parties to the conflict of their obligation to protect children at all times.

Specifically, in Idlib, escalating violence in the past days in villages around Idlib have reportedly killed civilians including women and children. On 4 February, attacks on a UNICEF-supported hospital in Ma’arrat An Numan put the health centre out of service. UNICEF is gathering information on casualties. This is the fourth reported attack on a hospital in Syria in 2018 alone. On the night of 1 February, a UNICEF-rehabilitated water pump station in Kafromeim, Saraqab, in Idlib, was bombed and is now out of service. The pumping station had been serving 18,000 people. The humanitarian situation in Idlib is deteriorating. Schools are closed in many areas due to violence and local sources report shortages and price hikes of basic supplies including food, medicine and fuel. Just in the past few weeks, close to a quarter of a million people have been displaced in and around Idlib governorate due to the ongoing fighting, with people moving to the central, western and northern parts of the governorate.

In terms of response, the United Nations was able to resume cross-border deliveries into Idlib on 31 January. On 1 February, UNICEF sent in six trucks of supplies including essential health supplies, nutrition supplies for 8,000 people, blankets for 25,000 children and recreation kits for 40,000 children. Today, the 6th of February, UNICEF is sending another 14 trucks with health and nutrition supplies in addition to NFIs and wash supplies. In western rural Aleppo, through UNICEF implementing partners, we continue to reach children fleeing the violence in Idlib in 10 IDP camps with recreational activities, psycho-social support and mine risk education. Also in western rural Aleppo, we are doing water trucking as a response to the needs for safe drinking water in several camps and we aim to reach about 100,000 people in 40 IDP camps.

Since 20 January, the intensification of fighting in Afrin has reportedly forced an estimated 15,000 people to flee from rural areas to Afrin city where they are hosted by residents or taking shelter in public schools and unfinished buildings. UNICEF’s partners were able to resume some child protection activities in the Robar IDP camp, reaching around 110 children with recreational activities and Mine Risk Education, but access is still very, very difficult.

In rural Damascus, on 2 February, an explosive remnant of war detonated in a school yard in Jdedet AlFadel suburb while children were playing football. The explosion killed one child and severely injured eight children who are hospitalized and remain in critical medical condition. UNICEF continues its programme in Mine Risk Education, which was begun in 2016.

Children are bearing the brunt of the violence in East Ghouta where they have lived under siege since 2013. East Ghouta accounts as of today for 95 per cent of people living under siege today in Syria. The last UN convoy into East Ghouta was end of November 2017. We must be able to reach children in need of humanitarian assistance, urgently and without restrictions, wherever they are in Syria. In East Ghouta, our response is limited. We demand access for convoys on a weekly basis and demand all the parties to allow us to enter. We also demand all the parties to allow all children with medical conditions to be able to be evacuated. The various parties to the conflict can make that happen by immediately allowing us to enter and reach them with life-saving assistance.”

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that, in a recently issued joint statement, the United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator and the United Nations Representatives in Syria, had called for an immediate cessation of all hostilities of at least one month throughout Syria, given the critical humanitarian needs there and the current inability to deliver aid. The United Nations humanitarian team in Syria had warned of the dire consequences of the crisis in several parts of the country. In Afrin, the ongoing military operations and the reported blockage of exits by other forces had many civilians trapped. So far, 380 families had reached surrounding villages and Aleppo city neighbourhoods while thousands of people remained trapped in Afrin.

In Al-Hasakah, an agreement had been reached to allow some United Nations partners to reach people there. However, the agreement was only for a period of two months. Sustained access was absolutely crucial. The devastation of the city of Ar-Raqqah was unparalleled and the conditions for civilians trying to return home, unsafe. Access was critically needed so that United Nations could provide protection and aid. In recent weeks, fighting and displacement in Idlib had increased. There continued to be besieged areas, not only in East Ghouta, but also in in Idlib, particularly Foah and Kafraya, where the United Nations had been unable to provide any aid for several months.

Responding to questions from journalists, Mr. Laerke, for OCHA, said that according to recent reports, chlorine attacks had killed 15 people, including some paramedics, in Idlib. While he was not in a position to define the nature of the attacks, the reports were very worrying. Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, added that on 5 February 2018, the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs had briefed the Security Council, indicating that the fact-finding mission of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was continuing to look into all allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the majority of which had involved the use toxic chemicals, such as chlorine, in areas not under the control of the Government; that report was expected to be issued shortly. Another fact-finding mission team had been looking into allegations of the use of chemical weapons that had been brought to the attention of OPCW by the Government of Syria; a report from that fact-finding mission was also expected and appropriate action would be taken in response to both reports.

Asked a question about humanitarian access to Ar-Raqqah, Mr. Laerke, for OCHA, said that while the city of Ar-Raqqah was technically accessible, the problem was the considerable remnants of war in that area, which must be cleared before the city could be entered. The related dangers for returning civilians were also cause for concern. Mr. Equiza, for UNICEF, added that people displaced in northern and southern rural Ar-Raqqah Governorate were receiving assistance from the United Nations and its partners.

Asked a question about medical evacuations, Mr. Laerke, for OCHA, said that 29 people had been evacuated from Idlib so far; however, 2 had subsequently died. OCHA continued to call for the immediately evacuation of all those in medical emergency conditions, which included many children.

Responding to further questions, Mr. Laerke, for OCHA, said that the call for a minimum one-month “humanitarian pause” had been prompted by the deep concern of the United Nations about many aspects of the crisis, including the near or total inability to provide aid to besieged areas; the ongoing military operation in Afrin; the lack of clearance of remnants of war in Ar-Raqqah and the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people who were extremely vulnerable and regularly under attack. Moreover, the agreed bi-monthly plan to reach besieged and hard-to-reach areas had been paralyzed owing to access restrictions or lack of agreement concerning locations, supplies and number of beneficiaries; such restrictions seemed almost designed to make it impossible to implement the bi-monthly plan. The United Nations needed certain conditions to be able to do its job. He drew attention to the fact that the appeal for at least one month’s cessation of hostilities, as some time would be needed to deploy the humanitarian operation.

Asked whether civilians, especially those in Idlib, were being deliberately targeted as a strategy of war, Mr. Laerke, for OCHA, said that as a humanitarian entity, OCHA could not speculate on the intentions or strategies of the parties to the conflict. However, the war had been raging for years now, with devastating effects throughout the country and with utter disregard for the protection of civilians.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Babar Baloch, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), made the following statement:

“UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is gravely concerned about escalating violence in Ituri province of north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), creating new displacement over the last four days.

At least 30 people are reported to have been killed amid conflict between the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups. Many villages have been burned to the ground in Ituri’s Djugu territory, according to initial information by UNHCR monitors in the affected areas. Fighting among the two communities had previously devastated the region from 1999 to the early 2000s, leading to large scale internal displacement and refugee movements to Uganda.

Now, UNHCR offices on both sides of the border are once more on high alert. Initial reports put the number of internally displaced in the thousands. Refugee arrivals in Uganda also picked up significantly on Monday, with 1,386 people crossing Lake Albert to the village of Sebagoro, some 270 kilometres northwest of the capital Kampala.

We fear the fighting could spread to neighbouring areas, particularly because of the circulation of light weapons in the region. Meanwhile, as physical access in certain communities remains limited, the displaced populations are without any assistance, despite their urgent needs for food and other basic relief items. Greater efforts to ensure security and humanitarian access in the area are vital.

In total, some 5 million people have been displaced by conflicts in DRC, over 4 million of them internally and an additional 600,000 as refugees - including into Burundi last week.”

Responding to questions from members of the press, Mr. Baloch said that the recent escalation in conflict had been triggered by a flare-up in tensions between the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups. Such tensions were not new in the region –in the late 1990s, around 400,000 people had been displaced for similar reasons. There had been significant displacements in a number of regions throughout DRC, including Kassai and in North and South Kivu. More and more people were affected by the continuing violence. Over the last four days, some 5,000 people had been displaced from Ituri. The mandate of the UN Refugee Agency was to provide aid to ordinary civilians. It was crucial that law and order should prevail and that impunity should not be tolerated. Above all, peace was needed. Children should not be forced to live through such traumatic situations, but they were the majority of those being displaced or arriving as refugees.

Migrant deaths

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that the number of migrants who had died crossing the United States-Mexico border in 2017 had remained high, despite a 44 per cent decrease in border apprehensions as reported by the United States Border Patrol between 2016 and 2017. In 2017, 412 migrant deaths had been recorded, compared to 398 in 2016. The number of deaths was in part attributable to the heavy rainfall in early 2017, which had made crossing the border into Texas more difficult as the Rio Grande flowed faster and deeper; around 80 people had drowned. However, no similar explanation had emerged for the increase in migrant deaths elsewhere along the border. It was noteworthy that regardless of the Administration in power or the law enforcement policy in place, the average of one migrant death per day had held steady for years, since the Missing Migrants Project had begun recording deaths in 2014.

According to updated information on the shipwreck off the coast of Libya reported last week, IOM could confirm only that 12 of the 13 bodies recovered were of Pakistani nationals. IOM understood that two witnesses had been interviewed and that there might be additional survivors. In 2017, Pakistan had ranked thirteenth among the countries of origins of migrants arriving in Italy from Libya, with over 3,000 arrivals. In 2018 to date, Pakistan ranked third, with 240 of its nationals having arrived during January 2018, compared with just 9 in January 2017. Some of them were understood to have initially tried to enter Europe through Greece and Turkey but had been turned back; it was believed that there was now a migration route from Turkey to Sudan to Libya, which might explain why Pakistanis were showing up on the Libyan route.

Responding to questions from journalists, Mr. Millman said that the vast majority of migrant border deaths recorded by the Missing Migrants Project, which covered up to 50 miles south of the United States-Mexico border, occurred in the United States. There were a number of homicides, including by criminal gangs in Mexico. However, because many bodies are difficult to identify due to severe decomposition and a lack of identifying documents, local authorities might have trouble identifying deaths. In any case, homicides did not account for the bulk of migrant deaths. Migrant deaths overall had increased all along the border, with Texas being a particular area of concern. There, 191 migrant deaths had been recorded in 2017 – representing a 26 per cent increase over the 151 fatalities recorded in Texas in 2016. Besides the 80 some individuals who had drowned as a result of heavy rains, the spike in fatalities in Texas might be partly attributable to better data collection. Coroners, medical examiners and sheriffs in United States border counties were more likely to regularly report data on migrant deaths to IOM staff. Reports of deaths south of the border often surfaced locally from radio stations and small newspapers, as well as social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Often IOM researchers became aware of these fatalities weeks, even months after they occurred. There were organizations in Mexico that sought to provide assistance to migrants, for instance in cold weather situations; however, the United States-Mexico border was some 2,200 miles long and there were a large number of dangerous areas.

Asked about apprehension by law enforcement, Mr. Millman said that apprehensions referred to encounters with law enforcement, including border control authorities. Generally, Mexican nationals were returned within 24 hours, unless they appealed for asylum, in which case they might be immediately released or placed in detention, usually for a period of months, but sometimes for years. An increasing number of asylum seekers were presenting themselves at ports of entry, so that they were not technically apprehended by law enforcement officers. It was therefore not clear how such individuals were recorded by the border authorities.

Refugee relocations by Israel

Responding to questions about the Israeli policy of relocating Eritreans and Sudanese to sub-Saharan Africa, Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that IOM had no involvement in the logistics for relocating refugees from Israel. It had always opposed forced deportation everywhere. Babar Baloch, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), added that UNHCR had been following the deportations with grave concern and had reminded Israel of its obligation under international law to protect refugees and asylum seekers. Although IOM was aware of reports of an agreement for relocating refugees in countries including Rwanda, when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had visited Rwanda, the Prime Minister had denied the existence of such an agreement between Rwanda and Israel. That said, reports of such relocations indicated that those refugees flown to Rwanda had made their way to Uganda and beyond, with some even appearing later in Italy. The whole situation was very worrying. Refugees had to be treated with dignity, even if they did not wish to apply for asylum, and their protection could not be outsourced to other countries. UNHCR had requested information from all the Governments potentially involved, as the arrangements in place for receiving refugees were not clear.

Female Genital Mutilation

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, recalled that on 6 February, the international community was observing the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation and she drew attention to the Secretary-General’s message on that occasion. Female genital mutilation (FGM) was recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women.

Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that FGM had no health benefits. In fact, it harmed girls and women in many ways: procedures could cause severe bleeding, urination problems and infections, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths. More than 200 million girls and women alive today had been cut in some 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, where FGM was concentrated. FGM was mainly carried out on young girls between infancy and 15 years of age.

WHO was responding by equipping health-care providers with the information and skills to provide high-quality medical care and counselling to girls and women who had been subjected to FGM. It was also building evidence on the causes, consequences and costs of FGM, as well as developing and testing interventions on how to prevent health-care professionals from carrying out the practice, how to eliminate it and how to care for those who had experienced it.

WHO also continued to work at community level to dispel some of the myths associated with FGM. For example, despite popular belief, FGM was not mentioned in any religious texts, for example in the Koran or the Bible. According to another myth, only girls who underwent FGM could enter womanhood and be considered respectable. That was not the case; cultural norms were changing and many communities had rites of passage into passage that did not involve FGM. Yet another myth was that if FGM was performed by a health-care professional, there was no risk involved. That was simply not true. FGM was necessarily a harmful practice and could lead to physical, mental and sexual health complications regardless of who performed it.

Responding to questions from journalists, Ms. Chaib, for WHO, said that there were some signs that the practice of FGM had declined in some communities; however, progress was slow. Specifically in Sudan, where FGM was traditionally most prevalent, with the help of WHO, UNICEF and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), together with funding from the United Kingdom and Ireland, more than 1,000 communities had made progress towards eliminating FGM. There were other examples of hope involving movements led by women and supported by men, as well as by medical practitioners. In Europe and the United States, where there were severe laws against FGM, the practice still endured in some migrant or foreign communities; members of those communities sometimes underwent FGM while on leave in their country of origin.

Geneva events and announcements

Catherine Huissoud, for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), said that on 19 February 2018, from 3 to 5 p.m., UNCTAD would host a dialogue entitled "Trade in Crisis: Headwinds or Maelstrom?" in conference room XIX. The dialogue would focus on the role to be played by the United Nations and its Member States, as well as by the international trade community as a whole, in the current environment in order to ensure that trade was not lost as an enabler for economic development. The dialogue would be chaired by UNCTAD Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi and would bring together global thought leaders including Baroness Valerie Amos, Director, SOAS University of London; Ms. Anabel Gonzalez, former Senior Director, Global Practice on Trade and Competitiveness, World Bank Group; and possibly Ms. Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director, Oxfam International.

Press Conferences

OHCHR / Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
Concluding Observations by the Committee on the Rights of the Child on Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Panama, Seychelles, Spain, Solomon Islands, Palau, and Marshall Islands
Thursday, 8 February at 12:30 p.m. in Press Room 1

Match for Solidarity 2018
Tuesday, 13 February at 2:00 p.m. in Room III

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog060218