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21 December 2018

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the spokespersons for the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Bamboo treatment plant in Bangladesh

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

“Work has begun on one of the largest bamboo treatment plants ever installed in an emergency response, as IOM experts tackle a tiny insect that is devastating structures in the world’s biggest refugee settlement.

An infestation of “boring beetles” means the bamboo in almost every shelter in the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar – home to around 240,000 families – needs to be replaced. With just over four months to go until the beginning of the next monsoon season, the race is on to provide families living in the worst-affected shelters with new, more-durable bamboo.

To help meet the challenge, IOM has launched a new treatment facility in the south of Cox’s Bazar, which will be scaled up over coming weeks until it has the capacity to treat around 40,000 pieces of bamboo per month – sufficient to upgrade between 6,000 – 7,000 shelters.

“This is a major project, and one which will help ensure that the refugees do not have to live with the constant threat their shelters will collapse due to damaged bamboo,” said Manuel Pereira, IOM’s Emergency Coordinator in Cox’s Bazar.

Treatment at the plant relies on boron – a natural substance which will be filtered and recycled on site then reused to minimize environmental impact. Plant residue from the treatment process can be used as a fertilizer by nearby farms.

“We use bamboo because it’s cost effective and grows naturally in Bangladesh,” said Yoga Sofyar, a bamboo expert working with IOM, who helped establish the treatment plant. “But once the infestation became apparent, something had to be done. This affects many people and involves a significant amount of money, so we need an effective durable solution. But no one has done anything on this scale before. That has been the challenge.”

Almost a million Rohingya refugees are currently sheltering in Cox’s Bazar. They live in a rapidly constructed city of bamboo and tarpaulins built on the hills of a forested nature reserve in late 2017 after violence in Myanmar drove hundreds of thousands of people across the border into Bangladesh in just a few weeks.

During the emergency response in the weeks and months that followed, millions of pieces of bamboo were brought in from across the country to help build life-saving shelters and medical facilities. Bridges, steps and handrails were also built with bamboo to keep vital access ways open and to shore up vulnerable slopes.

But the scale and urgent need for supplies to upgrade shelters ahead of monsoon, meant organisations were forced to rely on young bamboo that is more susceptible to attack by insects.

“Even with the untreated bamboo IOM used, we would normally have expected the material to last between one to three years. But the infestation is so large and spread so quickly that within six months major damage had already taken place,” said Sofyar.

While the infestation was evident in the dusty residue that covered the bamboo under attack, identifying a solution was less easy. According to Sofyar, bamboo is a traditional construction material in Bangladesh, but its popularity has declined in recent years and there was not sufficient, high quality treated bamboo available.

The answer, IOM experts decided, was to treat the bamboo themselves. But first a suitable site had to be found, as well as a treatment method, that could practically be scaled up to meet the immense demand, with minimal environmental impact.

Following the identification of a site in the south of Cox’s Bazar – close enough to the camps to allow easy transportation, but outside the already overcrowded refugee settlement, a pilot project construction of the treatment facility was launched with funding from the UK, USA and Sweden. With the first four treatment tanks now operational, and a pilot project undertaken, expansion work is now underway.

Installation costs for the plant will be USD 500,000. Operational costs for the next 12 months to allow 100,000 families to upgrade the six core structural poles in their shelters will total USD 2 million.

The treatment extends the bamboo’s durability from months to many years. If shelters are taken down or moved, the treated bamboo can be reclaimed and reused for other purposes, according to Sofyar.”

Responding to questions from journalists, Mr. Millman said that he would endeavour to find out whether the treatment plant would provide work for those living in the shelters, how boron was applied and how the treatment process would be carried out.

Mediterranean migrant arrivals

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that the IOM press briefing notes distributed in the meeting room contained the latest IOM data on Mediterranean migrant arrivals. The final data for 2018 would be available in January or February 2019. The data showed that, as at 19 December, over 113,000 migrants had entered Europe in 2018 via the three major routes. That figure was the lowest recorded in five years. Indeed, it was lower than the number of arrivals recorded over the same period in 2017 for Italy alone.

Mr. Millman, for IOM, added that, on 20 December, the Spanish Coast Guard had recovered the remains of 12 people during the rescue of a boat. It was believed that 12 others from the boat had been lost at sea. The dead included a pregnant woman. IOM had documented 769 deaths on the Western Mediterranean route in 2018. The number of deaths along that route had increased rapidly over the previous three months. For that reason, it was possible that further such incidents would be reported in the following days.

Elizabeth Throssell, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that, according to field colleagues, six boats had been rescued in the western part of the Mediterranean and 25 people were dead or missing. Bodies had been found on two of the boats. On one of the boats, 33 people had been rescued, 12 had died and a further 12 were missing. On another, 57 people had been on board, including one who had already died by the time of the rescue. Among those who had been rescued, one mother and her child had been evacuated, as the child had been suffering from hypothermia. UNHCR understood that many of those rescued were being held at Port of Almería in detention centres. UNHCR’s implementing partner was working on the ground to provide information and support, meet protection and other needs and facilitate access to the asylum process, where appropriate.

Responding to a question on the rescue operations, Ms. Throssell, for UNHCR, said that she believed that the boats had been found by a Spanish search-and-rescue team on 20 December.

Responding to a number of questions, Mr. Millman, for IOM, said that the number of migrants arriving in Spain had continued to increase over the course of 2018. Over the previous two months, the fatality rate among those migrants had begun to increase, but it was not yet clear why. The rescue boat controversy was more associated with the Central Mediterranean route. As far as he was aware, vessels of various kinds were involved in search-and-rescue operations.

Global Compact for Migration

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that the IOM briefing notes distributed in the meeting room contained the text of the statement of the United Nations Network on Migration on the formal endorsement of the Global Compact for Migration.

Syria press conference

Responding to a comment on a remark made by Staffan de Mistura, the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, at a recent press conference, Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that, although she could not speak on Mr. de Mistura’s behalf, it was possible that the remark in question had been taken out of context. Mr. de Mistura had not stated as a fact that the peace talks on Syria had saved 500,000 lives, but had merely relayed a comment that he had heard to that effect. Mr. de Mistura’s intention had been to emphasize the important work done by all stakeholders, including journalists, over the previous years. Nevertheless, if the opportunity arose, she would bring the matter to Mr. de Mistura’s attention.

Geneva announcements

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that journalists should have received a list of the spokespersons who would be on call over the holiday period and information on the logistical arrangements in place at the Palais des Nations. The next press briefing would take place on Friday, 4 January 2019.

Ms. Vellucci said that she wished to thank Hans von Rohland for his work as spokesperson for the International Labour Organization and wish him the best for his retirement.

Responding to a question on the accreditation system for journalists, Ms. Vellucci said that, owing to technical issues, the process of renewing accreditations had been begun later than usual in 2018. It had therefore been agreed that journalists’ current ground badges would be recognized during the first two weeks of January 2019, while the Information Service was completing the reaccreditation process for 2019.

Press Conferences

No press conferences were announced.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog211218