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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

20 July 2018

Rhéal LeBlanc, Chief of the Press and External Relation Section, United Nations Information Service at the United Nations Office at Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the spokespersons for the United Nations Refugee Agency, International Organization for Migration, World Meteorological Organization, United Nations Children’s Fund, World Food Programme, and the World Health Organization.

Situation inside Syria

Andrej Mahecic, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), read the following statement:

“UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, urges all parties in Syria to protect and provide safe passage to civilians displaced by the recent fighting in the south of the country. An estimated 140,000 people remain displaced across the south-west and need safe passage out of the area, plus immediate humanitarian assistance, protection and shelter. We have also been witnessing the return of tens of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) following local agreements and in areas coming under the control of the Government of Syria.

Together with UN and other humanitarian partners we have mobilized a robust aid response within Syria, reaching tens of thousands of people. A new scaling-up of assistance is needed and UNHCR continues to advocate for sustained access for humanitarian actors.

Amid continued fighting and new displacements during the first six months of 2018, nearly 13,000 refugees from neighbouring countries and another 750,000 IDPs are estimated to have returned to their homes in Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Rural Damascus, Damascus, south-west and north-eastern Syria. In anticipation and recognition of this dynamic, UNHCR ramped up its capacity inside Syria already in 2017 to support refugees and internally displaced people who return spontaneously. We continue to work on enhancing the response to the humanitarian and protection needs of IDPs, returnees and other crisis-affected population.

UNHCR has taken note of Wednesday’s announcement by the Syrian and Russian authorities concerning the setting up of a centre in Syria to help refugees who return home. UNHCR has not yet seen the details of this plan, but we are ready to engage in discussions about these plans with the Government of Syria and the Russian Federation.
Refugees always have a right to return. UNHCR stresses that any plan that aims to enable refugees to exercise this right must be aligned with international standards – meaning that returns must be voluntary, they need to take place in safe and dignified conditions, and need to be sustainable.

It is critical that returns of refugees and internally displaced persons are not pressured, rushed or premature. Refugees need to be able to make a free and informed choice about their future and basic elements to anchor voluntary returns and make them sustainable must be in place.

UNHCR is prepared to work with both the Syrian and Russian governments towards solutions for Syrian refugees and internally displaced that meet international refugee and human rights standards.”

Responding to questions concerning the return, Mr. Mahecic said that the 750,000 returning persons had been in displacement in different parts of Syria and were returning mostly to Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Rural Damascus, Damascus and the south-west and the north-east of Syria. There were still an estimated 6.6 million internally displaced persons in Syria, many of whom had been displaced for more than once, stressed the spokesperson, adding that in total, 13,000 refugees had returned from the neighbouring countries during the first six months of 2018. UNHCR was providing basic humanitarian assistance, shelter, and in many instances was supporting the returnees to obtain identity documents and other paperwork they might need. The assistance, added Mr. Mahecic, was being provided by hundreds of partners on the ground who operated in Syria within the overall United Nations response.

As for the safety and timeliness of the return, the spokesperson stressed that the key issue for UNHCR was that all the returns were voluntary, reminding that 77,000 refugees and over 764,000 internally displaced persons had spontaneously returned to their places of origin in Syria in 2017. The figures provided on the return during the first half of 2018 were based on UNHCR ability to monitor the situation both in the countries of origin and in the country of return. The motives for return varied, for some it was an increased feeling of safety, which the spokesperson stressed was a personal perception since what might feel safe for one person might not feel safe for another. Return was also motivated by the need to check on the family members, homes and land left behind.

A journalist raised concern about disturbing reports that Syria and Russia were ready to bomb Idlib, the last rebel holdout, to make a clean sweep and get the possession of the country. Mr. Mahecic said that as a humanitarian organization, UNHCR could not make comments on the military situation and stressed that UNHCR always advocated for the safety of civilians and avoiding the targeting of civilian infrastructure.

Responding to questions on the whereabouts of the 77,000 returned refugees and the demand from refugees for information on return, the spokesperson said that UNHCR's systematic surveys of the intentions of refugees in neighbouring countries showed that a great majority wished to return as soon as the situation was safe enough. There were areas of the country which were still engulfed in conflict and violence, thus the UNHCR monitored the situation in areas where it had access and where it had set up centres to assist returnees. At the moment there was no detailed information whether any of the returning refugees remained or had moved on. The key element was that the conditions that “anchored” the return were in place, to ensure that returns were sustainable, concluded Mr. Mahecic.

United Nations Refugee Agency Annual Report on the Public Health of Refugees

Andrej Mahecic, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), delivered the following statement:

“UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has this week released its Annual Public Health Overview of new refugee emergencies and ongoing operations. Despite record forced displacement globally, the report finds that health services to refugees and other displaced populations are in most cases on track. However, communicable diseases, anaemia and stunting remain areas of concern.

The report notes that strengthened weekly surveillance of key health indicators among refugee populations during emergencies and systematic monitoring are contributing to prompt, effective interventions. The report is a snapshot of what has been achieved and highlights the trends based on key indicators in UNHCR’s public health, reproductive health and HIV, nutrition, food security, and water, sanitation and hygiene programmes in 37 key operations. In 21 of these operations, UNHCR and its partners collect and analyse public health data using a standardized health information system to better protect and serve refugees.

The report includes, for example, the findings on the mortality rates among refugee children under the age of five – which is always an important health impact indicator in emergencies. Despite major refugee emergencies and disease outbreaks in 2017 – a year in which wars and persecution drove global forced displacement to a new high – this rate remained globally stable in post-emergency situations at an average of 0.4 deaths per 1,000 refugee children every month, sustaining the declining trend we’ve observed since 2011. The indicator is within the range reported in developing and middle income countries, according to the UN 2017 World Mortality report.

There have been also improvements in reproductive health services as 9 out of 10 deliveries (in total 96,776 deliveries) in more than 83 per cent of the reporting operations were conducted by a skilled health worker, a 25 per cent increase from 2016. About half a million pregnant refugee women attended antenatal services at 135 monitored sites in 21 operations, an 18 per cent increase from 2016.

In 2017 over 8 million clinical consultations were provided to refugees at health facilities. This is a 10 per cent increase from 2016. Nine out of 10 refugees who were treated at the health facilities were suffering from communicable diseases, underscoring the importance of continued investment in high impact preventive services.

The number of mental health consultations for refugees has been also steadily increasing over the years – doubling in 2017 compared to numbers seen only three years ago. This was possible due to improved availability of these services at primary health care clinics.

Sixty-five per cent of our refugee operations reported measles vaccination coverage rates among children under one year of age above 90 per cent – against an international standard of above 95 per cent. Overall, more than 160,000 children in this age group were vaccinated against measles in routine programmes, a 15 per cent increase from 2016. Access to HIV treatment was sustained with over 10,000 refugees enrolled in HIV treatment programs a threefold increase from 2015.

Against these results, UNHCR remains very worried about continued high levels of anaemia as well as persistently high levels of stunting. Acute malnutrition also remains extremely concerning amid reductions in refugee food rations and basic assistance in several operations. Overall, 62 per cent of the surveyed refugee sites met the global acute malnutrition standards, showing a slight improvement from 2016. The levels of stunting among children under the age of five reached acceptable standards in only 25 per cent of sites, remaining at similar levels compared to 2016. Over 50 per cent of surveyed sites exhibited critical levels of child anaemia prevalence (above 40 per cent). Only three per cent of surveyed sites met anaemia standards with prevalence below acceptable standard of 20 per cent.

UNHCR managed to maintain the average volume of water provided to refugees at 21 litres per person per day, exceeding the basic minimum standard of 20 litres per day. However, UNHCR did not always meet the standards in emergency nor protracted situations. The average number of refugees per toilet improved to 22 persons – still over the standard of up to 20 persons per toilet for sanitation.

Given the record levels of forced displacement globally, in 2018 UNHCR’s budget requirements are at a record high of US$8.275 billion. However, as of mid-2018, only 33 per cent of these needs are funded. While UNHCR is grateful for the generous and timely support already provided by donors, and particularly grateful to donors for unrestricted contributions which allowed us to continue our work on these and other activities without interruptions, it is vital that UNHCR and partners have more resources available to provide life-saving services and improve the living conditions for refugees.”

Responding to questions, Mr. Mahecic confirmed that the most dramatically underfunded of the 37 operations were in Africa, where the impact of the funding shortfall was felt. It was very hard to compare the country situations overall, he said and referred the journalists to specific country information provided in the report. It was not possible to assess which one of the operations was the most critical as they varied in their operational aspects - the comparison of a specific health indicator across countries might provide a more adequate picture, he added.

Funding shortfalls in food aid for refugees

Asked about the ability of the United Nations World Food Programme to get the money it needed to prove food assistance to refugees, Bettina Luescher, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said that in general, refugees were often in places for many years, and most were being hosted by African countries which had showed incredible hospitality to their neighbours who had fled war, violence and other forms of persecution. WFP worked with governments and other partners to provide food, but because of the lack of funding, sometimes rations must be cut. “This is one of the hardest decisions you can make as an aid worker”, she said, adding that prolonged refugee situations and an unprecedented number of humanitarian crisis around the world meant that donors were stretched and had a hard time coming up with the money that was often needed.

A journalist asked for an update on the state of funding of United Nations’ emergency appeals.

Situation of the newly displaced in south-west Syria

As for the situation of the newly displaced in the south-west Syria, and the assistance provided by Israel, Mr. Mahecic said that those populations were mostly accessed from Syria and reiterated the call for the safe passage of those populations.

Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, referring to the information provided by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that on 19 July, a United Nations/Syrian Arab Red Crescent inter-agency convoy had delivered food, nutrition, health, education, water and other humanitarian supplies for 19,500 people in need to Beit Jan and surrounding areas, in the southwest of the Rural Damascus governorate. This had been the first humanitarian convoy to reach the formerly besieged area since 2013. In addition, the team had conducted a needs assessment during the delivery in order to better inform future needs.

United Nations position on the “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People” law

A journalist asked about the position of the United Nations on the law adopted by Israel which had declared Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people thus de facto excluding Arabic language and so 20 per cent of the Israeli population. Many countries regarded this law as a violation of international law and the rights of the Palestinian people, added another.

Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that the question had been raised during the press briefing in New York yesterday. The Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General had said that the United Nations needed some time to study the new legislation, and if a response were available, it would be shared with everyone.

New displacement numbers in Ethiopia

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that since last week, the IOM had done its own displacement matrix report and had identified 970,000 displaced people in Gedeo and West Guji districts (woreda). The people had been fleeing their homes since April 2018 and more than half had been displaced in June alone. There were 822,187 people in Gedeo zone and 147,040 in West Guji (Oromia region). Due to the ongoing security concerns and access problems, the International Organization for Migration's displacement tracking matrix teams could only assess internal displacement in four of the six woredas in West Guji, which means that the numbers might soon change.

The buildings in the collective sites visited were generally not fit for human habitation and were extremely overcrowded, forcing many people to sleep outside on dirt, rarely with anything but a single sheet of tarpaulin shielding them from the rains which were in season now, said Mr. Millman. Food was reported as the primary need in both zones, in addition to major shelter needs, as well as concerns over the access to safe sanitation. A more detailed assessment of displacement sites in both zones was currently underway, which would produce more qualitative data in terms of how many people were displaced and their needs.

Country-wide, the IOM had identified, in May and in June, 1,776,685 internally displaced persons in Ethiopia, with 1,204,577 displaced due to the conflict and 536,321 due to climate change, said the spokesperson.

Asked whether camps would be set up for internally displaced persons since the current sites were not suitable for human habitation, Mr. Millman said that IOM had constructed over 190 latrines of a planned 263, four communal shelters of a planned 40, two communal kitchens, as well as hosted workshops with the Government on site management. There were some indications that an appeal was being prepared. The Government of Ethiopia was the lead on the response right now, but the IOM did not have detailed information about the overall aid response at the moment.

Humanitarian situation in the port city Al Hudaydah, Yemen

As for the displacement of people due to heavy fighting around the strategic port city of Al Hudaydah in Yemen this week, Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration, delivered the following statement:

“Civilian casualties and mass displacements continue to mount amidst intense fighting that began on 12 June. It has caused further damage to ravaged public services that has affected water supplies, forced shops to close resulting in shortages in essential commodities, complicated the delivery of humanitarian assistance and resulted in the closure of a temporary feeding centre in Zabid.

The fortunate few are traveling to the relative safely of Sana’a, Aden and Thamar but the majority of the population have already exhausted their reserves, forcing them to seek protection wherever they can.

Fifty IOM staff are working in various locations to assist migrants and an estimated 50,000 newly displaced Yemenis in Al Hudaydah. In coordination with its partners, IOM is providing shelter kits and NFIs to 1,400 households in Bait Al Fakeeh. In Hays and Al Khookh, internally displaced persons have received 165 food baskets and IOM’s Migrant Response Point compound is today sheltering and providing services to 41 displaced Yemenis. The Organization has also provided 7,830 meals to children in three Al Hudaydah schools. The internally displaced persons have received 400 boxes of dates, nearly 1,600 people have received free consultations at IOM’s clinic and 40 pregnant women have received counselling.

Located in the western part of the country, Al Hudaydah is the primary gateway for food and humanitarian aid for a population on the verge of starvation. Humanitarian organizations fear the port closure will lead to further forced displacements of people in a country where two million are already displaced and in need of humanitarian assistance.”


Mr. Millman, responding to questions, confirmed that the 50,000 people had been newly displaced since June 12. Some had travelled to safety in Sana’a, others had been taken in by the family, relatives and friends, and as was the case in many other conflict zones, they were living where they could. There was not much information about the situation on the ground at the moment, and it was not clear whether the displaced Yemenis were were the residents of the city or were displaced from elsewhere in the country.

Bettina Luescher, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said that the WFP was sending its communication team to Yemen, and would produce material that journalists could use for their stories.

A question was asked whether the port was closed and if the humanitarian assistance was still being delivered through the port.

Bettina Luescher, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said that the WFP was extremely concerned about the upsurge in fighting in Hudaydah governorate close to the city and its port, which was a lifeline for millions of Yemenis who were on the brink of famine. Currently the port was open and the WFP was bringing in food and other aid supplies. The upsurge in fighting could result in up to 1.1 million people being either displaced or trapped within Hudaydah city and outlying districts and in need of emergency food assistance, said Ms. Luescher, adding that the WFP was working around the clock to provide emergency rations to people fleeing violence and to ensure that wheat and other food stocks were available.

Conflict and insecurity often prevented food assistance from reaching the people who needed it, thus the unimpeded access to all ports in Yemen was crucial so that vital supplies such as food and fuel could be delivered. Severe restrictions on port access in November 2017 had led to soaring food and fuel prices. Yemen had always imported most of its food, most of it by sea, with the majority through the Red Sea ports of Hudaydah and Salif. It was vital that all shipments of food and fuel get timely clearances and facilitation before arriving at port and while being dispatched.

The consequences of conflict, continued the spokesperson, were devastating; the fighting must stop now to avert what could be one of the worst hunger crises in living history. WFP food assistance prevented the country from falling into full-blown famine in 2017 by providing food assistance for more than seven million people per month since August 2017, recalled Ms. Luescher, highlighting that the WFP needed to sustain and scale up its assistance to reach eight million people a month in September 2018.

Over three years of conflict and destruction have pushed Yemen to the brink of famine, resulting in the world’s largest hunger crisis - nearly 18 million people didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. More than eight million lived in extreme hunger and depended entirely on external food assistance, reminded the spokesperson. Each year of conflict pushed a further million or more people towards extreme hunger, and currently, seven governorates were in ‘emergency’ phase - one step below ‘famine’.

Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, reiterated that ensuring that the port remained an access line, a lifeline for the people was a critical issue for the United Nations. The Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen Martin Griffith was engaging with the parties to get an agreement to prevent any attack on both the city and the port of Hudaydah. At the moment, the parties were studying his proposal, which would see the United Nations play a role in the city and the port.

Update on Mediterranean crossings

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration, said that the fatalities in the Mediterranean had reached 1,490 and that overnight, that had increased by at least two with remains uncovered in Libya on 19 July. The arrivals to Italy on the Central Mediterranean route in June this year – 3,136 - were the lowest recorded since the emergency had begun. There had been 22,371 arrivals in June 2016 and 23,524 in June 2017. And yet, this past June was the single worst June for migrant deaths on this route and in the Mediterranean in general.

“It is remarkable that such a low volume of arrivals is corresponding to such a high number of deaths, and July is on the verge of being the worst July,” said Mr. Millman, adding that those two months were hardly the traditional months for crossings from Libya to Italy. Such a high volume of deaths spoke to the recklessness traffickers were indulging in, and “how urgent it is to come up with a different kind of management system to handle these crossings.”

The IOM had received a report of a shipwreck off the cost of Yemen which carried 160 passengers, but no additional information was available at the moment, including on potential losses of life.

High impact weather continues with flooding in Japan and a heatwave in the Scandinavia

Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization, said that an updated roundup on the extreme weather events around the world was now available. The heavy rains in Japan which had caused disastrous flooding had been now replaced with quite an intense heat. A lot of media attention was focused on a very intense and persistent heatwave in the Scandinavia, caused by a high pressure system causing temperatures 10°C above the normal for this time of the year. As far as the Arctic Circle temperatures topped 30°C which was quite extraordinary.

All this resulted in a continued drought affecting norther Europe since May 2018, impacting hard the agriculture and causing forest fires, especially in Sweden, which was currently suffering from extensive forest fires with smoke that could be seen from the space. The current heatwave was causing many record temperatures, including in Lapland, Finland which had recorded a temperature of 33°C, northern Norway had also recorded temperatures well above 30°C, as well as a new record of a minimum night temperature of 25°C, which was more typical for Spain and not for the Arctic Circle. There were bad wild fires in Siberia, too and a lot of unusual high impact weather happening in the Arctic and high northern latitudes, partly due to climate change.

Aviation safety and extreme weather

Extreme weather also affected aviation, continued Ms. Nullis, noting that three-quarters of really bad traffic delays were related to weather conditions, including thunderstorms, turbulence, icing, tropical cyclones, and nearly half of all aircraft accidents occurred when there was bad weather.

The WMO, said the spokesperson, had a Commission for Aeronautical Meteorology which met every four years, and which would meet next week in Exeter, United Kingdom. The meeting, hosted by the United Kingdom’s Met Office, would have on its agenda the issue of the aviation safety and efficiency, how to minimize disruption due to extreme weather, and how to provide better weather forecast to enable the aviation sector to minimize its carbon footprint and maximize efficiency. The skies were getting crowded, said Ms. Nullis, as air traffic was doubling every 15 years.

Election of a member of the Human Rights Committee

A journalist asked about the election of a President of the Human Rights Committee that had taken place during the current session, noting the paradox of Israel presiding over a committee on civil and political rights given all the violations it was committing.

Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, referred the question on the procedures and the election of members to the Human Rights Council.

Activities of the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria

Responding to question about Staffan de Mistura’s activities, Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that the Special Envoy remained concerned about the protection of civilians affected by the reports of hostilities in Southern Syria, as military operations continue in the South-Western Governorates of Dara’a and Quneitra. The Special Envoy and his team were advancing the work on the constitutional committee, studying carefully the lists received from the Government of Syria and the Syrian Negotiation Committee, and building on the consultations that took place recently. This was not an easy task and the Office was taking the time to come up with adequate lists.

Announcements

Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that the
Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women would publicly close its seventieth session at 4 p.m. today, 20 July. The Committee would issue its concluding observations on the reports of the eight countries reviewed during the session, namely: Australia, Cyprus, Liechtenstein, Mexico, Turkmenistan, the State of Palestine, New Zealand, and the Cook Islands.

The Human Rights Committee is currently holding its one hundred and twenty-third session, added Mr. LeBlanc, noting that the Committee would meet in public at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 24 July to continue the discussion on the draft General Comment on the right to life, while at 3 p.m. it would discuss the follow-up to its concluding observations.

The Committee Against Torture would open its sixty-fourth session next Monday, 23 July, at 10 a.m., during which it would examine the reports of Mauritania, Russia, the Seychelles and Chile.

Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, announced a meeting of Secretary-General with the United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo today around noon New York time. It was possible that Mr. Pompeo would speak afterwards at a stakeout, which would be available on UN WebTV, and a readout of the meeting, if issued, would be shared with the press.

Fernando Puchol, for the World Trade Organization (WTO), briefed on the WTO agenda for the week, highlighting today’s meeting of the Dispute Settlement Body and noting that Daniel Pruzin of the World Trade Organization would brief on this meeting at a press conference today at 3.30 p.m., Press Room 1, Palais des Nations.

Next week, the Negotiating Group on Rules would resume discussion on fisheries subsidies in order to set a work agenda to be addressed after the summer break with the idea of advancing negotiations in a meaningful way. The Group would meet for three days, Monday through Wednesday.

On Tuesday, 24 June, there would be an informal Trade Negotiations Committee and a Heads of Delegation meeting. A briefing for journalist on this meeting was scheduled at 5 p.m. on 24 June, in Room B, WTO, and on the General Council meeting on Thursday, 26 June.

The Director-General’s agenda for the following week would include chairing the Trade Policy Review Body meeting on monitoring on Wednesday, 25 June; a press conference at the Palais des Nations on Friday 27 July in Press Room 1 hosted by the Association of the Accredited Correspondents to the United Nations (ACANU); and a meeting with Ahmed Isse Awad, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Somalia, on Thursday, 26 June.

Press Conferences

Friday, 20 July at 3:30 p.m. in Press Room 1
World Trade Organization
Dispute Settlement Body
Press Conference by Dan Pruzin, Information Officer https://bit.ly/2NrhUZC

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog200718