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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

5 July 2019

Rhéal LeBlanc, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section, United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the spokespersons for the World Food Programme, the United Nations Refugee Agency, and the International Organization for Migration.

Announcement by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, was scheduled to hold a brief press stakeout outside Room XX, following the Human Rights Council’s interactive dialogue on Venezuela, at approximately 12:30 p.m. She would read out a summary of her statement to the Human Rights Council in Spanish, and she would be able to take up two to three questions. However, if the Council’s session ran too long – beyond 12:30 – the press stakeout would have to be cancelled because the High Commissioner had to leave Palais des Nations by 12:40 p.m.

Response to floods in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

Charlie Yaxley, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), read out the following statement:

“Three days of continuous rain in Bangladesh have destroyed 273 shelters and injured 11 people in the Cox’s Bazar settlements where more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees live. An estimated 350 millimeters of rain fell in 72 hours from Monday and more heavy downpours are expected throughout next week, with four months of the monsoon season to go. According to preliminary reports, there have been 26 landslides.

Refugee volunteers trained by UNHCR and partners worked throughout the night on Wednesday in heavy rain to help families in urgent need. In some cases, this involved rescuing refugees from shelters destroyed by landslides. We have temporarily relocated 2,137 people, either because their shelters suffered substantial damage or as a precaution.

Our network of emergency response teams has been mobilised to identify the needs of the most vulnerable and prioritise them for assistance. As an immediate response, pre-positioned emergency supplies are being distributed to help rebuild, repair and strengthen damaged shelters.

In support of the humanitarian response led by the Bangladeshi authorities, UNHCR and partners, including the World Food Programme and the International Organization for Migration, made preparedness for the monsoon season a priority, including building and retaining structures on hillsides, installing drainage, and building roads and bridges. Reservoirs have been also constructed to hold monsoon rains and stabilise water supplies.

We remain on high alert, ready to deploy additional emergency response teams to support our network of refugee volunteers and partners as needed. But, to date, the 2019 Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh has received only a third (US$ 301 million) of the US$ 920 million that is needed.”

Hervé Verhoosel, for the World Food Programme (WFP), added the following:

“Following the recent damaging rainfall and flooding in Cox’s Bazar, which brought multiple landslides and damaged food stocks for thousands of refugees, WFP provided assistance to 4,889 people with high energy biscuits and hot meals.

WFP will start the next cycle of our general food distribution of rice, lentils, and oil early so families will be able to get new rations starting tomorrow. We have 65 metric tons of high energy biscuits prepositioned in high risk areas around the camps which can feed more than 160,000 people in an emergency.

Some 400 labourers have been mobilised to help our engineering and disaster risk reduction teams stabilise slopes that have slipped. WFP’s engineering work throughout monsoon season is focused on repairs and maintenance, as opposed to starting new projects.

WFP employs almost 2,500 refugees each month under a cash for work programme to assist in the disaster risk reduction and engineering work to make the camps safer. Almost 21,000 people from the refugee and host community have been employed under this project since January. Refugees can only work 16 days of every month under the scheme as per government rules, so there is a regular rotation of people.

WFP is continuing reforestation activities across 80 hectares of land in the camps which helps stabilise the land and reduce the risk of landslide. Planting activities in the camps were launched last week.

Disaster risk reduction work is ongoing in 545 sites – 60 per cent – of the planned 750 sites, which consists of bridge repair, slope stabilization, drainage clearance and access road rehabilitation.

Some 80 percent of refugees are entirely dependent on WFP food assistance. Half of those refugees receive rations via food distributions, and the other half through e-vouchers.

It costs WFP US$24 million every month to feed almost 900,000 refugees and without continued support from the international community the situation for these refugees would become increasingly dire.”

Responding to journalists’ questions about UNHCR’s expectations from the new European Union leadership, Mr. Yaxley said that UNHCR had made a number of recommendations to the new leadership, such as re-starting efforts to reform the common European asylum system, and to address the well documented issues on the Mediterranean.

Attack on the Tajoura detention center in Libya

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), read the following statement:

“In Libya, the security and humanitarian situation is worsening. So far this year, 426 persons have drowned attempting to cross the central Mediterranean route, while some 3,750 have been returned to systematic and arbitrary detention, where they remain at risk as clashes continue to rage in Libya’s capital Tripoli.

Fifty-three migrants are confirmed dead, among them six children, following Tuesday’s airstrikes on the Tajoura detention centre. Over 130 people were injured. The more than 600 migrants detained at Tajoura represented at least 17 different nationalities, mainly African.

According to IOM staff on-site Thursday, 350 migrants, among them 20 women and four children, remain in detention there. IOM teams provided food and water to the people who were still traumatized by Tuesday’s attack, and will continue to assist them. At least 12 survivors with severe injuries – some needing urgent surgery – have been referred to clinics by IOM doctors who remain on call to follow up on these cases.”

Answering journalists’ questions, Mr. Millman said he could not confirm reports that guards had fired on migrants who had tried to flee the Tajoura detention centre after the first strike. He added that approximately 180 people of the 600 detained in the Tajoura detention centre had been registered for evacuation under the IOM voluntary humanitarian assistance flights. They were vulnerable migrants who had agreed to leave Libya. Two on that list had died in the attack.

Mr. Yaxley added that UNHCR was continuing its efforts to get the remaining detainees and survivors out of Tajoura detention centre. The strike on the Tajoura detention centre could not pass with condemnation alone. UNHCR was insisting on a full and independent investigation to determine how it happened and who was responsible, and to ensure that the responsible individuals be held to account. UNHCR reiterated that the coordinates of the detention centres in Tripoli were well known to both sides of the conflict. The attack was a preventable tragedy that never should have happened.

There needed to be a fundamental shift in approach; the status quo could not continue. UNHCR called for an immediate release of all detainees from detention centres in Libya, and it called on States to urgently help UNHCR evacuate refugees out of Libya. UNHCR also called for renewed efforts on the Mediterranean to ensure that no refugee at sea was returned to Libya, Mr. Yaxley noted.

On the question about the responsibility for the attack on the Tajoura detention centre, Mr. Yaxley said that UNHCR was not able to verify responsibility, which was why an independent investigation was needed. But, the international community, particularly those States that had leverage over the warring in Libya, should work to bring the warring parties to the negotiation table and establish political dialogue. Mr. Yaxley reminded that less than two months ago, UNHCR had warned about the safety of detainees in the Tajoura detention centre. UNHCR had been concerned that some of the detention centres in Libya could have been used to store weapons and military equipment, stressing that was a violation of international humanitarian law.

As for allegations that some refugees from Idlib, Syria, might be going through Libya as migrants, Mr. Millman said that evidence from the past two years showed that smuggling networks definitely used Libya as a stepping stone. It was not just people crossing the desert who had spent months and years in Libya; there were also many refugees from Bangladesh. War and chaos were always used by smugglers as marketing points; it would not be surprising to see refugees from Idlib coming to Libya.

Mr. Yaxley reminded that the four survivors of the shipwreck off the Tunisian coast on Thursday, 4 July, were from Côte d’Ivoire and Mali, which spoke volumes about the 15 unresolved conflicts in east and west Africa. There was an increasing refugee dynamic in the Libyan detention centres. In many instances, those people fled war, violence and persecution, and for the lack of alternatives they put their lives in the hands of smugglers and traffickers who placed them on unseaworthy boats. UNHCR thus called for renewed efforts to bring about meaningful alternatives to allow people to legally and safely access asylum in Europe.

Assistance to survivors of the shipwreck tragedy off Tunisia’s coast

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), read the following statement:

“More than 80 migrants, among them women and children are believed to have drowned when a vessel capsized off Tunisia’s Mediterranean coast this week.

On Thursday, 4 July, the International Organization for Migration assisted four male survivors who said they sailed from Zwara, Libya, early Monday. One of the men, a 29-year old national from Côte d’Ivoire suffering from hypothermia died in hospital Thursday morning.

The survivors told IOM staff that the inflatable boat carrying 86 people, including four women and two children, left Zwara around 6 a.m. on 1 July. A few hours later the boat began to leak and capsized during the confusion and frantic movements of the dozens of people on board.

After 40 hours in the water, the surviving men were spotted by fishermen who alerted the Tunisian Coast Guard, who brought them to Zarzis.

This is not the first such tragedy this year. On 10 and 11 May rescues were carried out on two overloaded crafts. On one boat, 59 people went missing while 16 were rescued. On the second craft, 69 were rescued. Both reportedly left Zwara, Libya, at the same time.

IOM Tunisia Chief of Mission Lorena Lando said of the remaining survivors of this week’s tragedy, two are hospitalized and one is in a shelter run by the Tunisian Red Crescent (TRC). Lando said IOM remains in contact with all the survivors, who are believed to be Malian citizens, adding they appeared to be in a state of shock and are traumatized. IOM provided them with basic needs and psychological support, in partnership with the Tunisian Red Crescent.

IOM was able to meet with two of the three rescued at sea. The third is in stable condition in intensive care and cannot be interviewed.

IOM has learned that of the 82 still missing: four are women, one of them pregnant. Two others were traveling with at least one child each. Unaccompanied children also were on board. The survivors said they knew of one Egyptian, one Gambian, as well as several others from Mali, Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea aboard the vessel.”

Ebola response in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), read the following statement:

“Renewed violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) region that is struggling to contain the on-going Ebola outbreak, has claimed the lives of at least 160 people and displaced hundreds of thousands of others, further complicating the response to the public health emergency.

“The people who fled the frontline of the conflict are living in dire conditions,” said Fabien Sambussy, IOM Chief of Mission in DRC.

“Humanitarian actors urgently need access to provide assistance and prevent further massive displacement. We are increasingly concerned that rising displacement creates fertile ground for the spread of disease – most worryingly Ebola – in Ituri province.”

An estimated 400,000 persons are currently displaced throughout Ituri Province. Djugu Territory has seen a 135 per cent rise in displacement with 20,000 new internally displaced persons (IDPs) registered last month in 12 displacement sites managed by IOM, which has provided Camp Coordination and Camp Management (CCCM) and shelter services since 2018. Thousands more are sheltering in spontaneous sites.

Poor hygiene conditions in displacement sites severely increase the risk that Ebola, as well as cholera, measles and acute respiratory diseases, will spread. Many of these people are seeking assistance in Ebola-affected Bunia where the displacement site officially called ‘General Hospital Site’ has received more than 5,000 new IDPs, increasing the site’s population to 10,000 – twice its capacity.

The overcrowded site, where hygiene conditions are poor, is close to the town’s hospital and the Ebola Treatment Centre (ETC), where 12 suspected and confirmed cases are being treated. A plan to relocate IDPs to a new settlement on land owned by Bunia’s Catholic Diocese is currently underway. The 120,000 square meter plot offers favourable conditions for the safe and dignified relocation of IDPs.

IOM is mobilizing the financial resources required to start land development as well as the rapid relocation of IDPs exposed to public health hazards and other protection risks.

IOM is also reinforcing its Ebola surveillance and disease prevention activities in Ituri by supporting health points of control within the country, and Points of Entry at international borders with risk communication, hand washing/hygiene promotion, and surveillance activities, including temperature screening and collection of key traveller information and health status. IOM also uses information on population mobility in the region to target preparedness measures, including in Uganda, South Sudan and Burundi, with the aim of reducing disease transmission to new areas and across borders.

This recent resumption of violence follows 16 years of relative peace; intercommunal violence in the same area displaced hundreds of thousands of people between 1997 and 2003. The security situation has now deteriorated in resource-rich Djugu and neighbouring Mahagi territories due to intense fighting between Lendu and Hema groups, and conflict between the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) and non-state armed actors.

Announcements

Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, informed that a presentation on the Strategic Heritage Project would be moved from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. in order not to coincide with the press stakeout by the High Commissioner for Human Rights [later the presentation was rescheduled to Friday, 19 July 2019 from 2 p.m. – 3.30 p.m.].

The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog050719