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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

9 February 2018

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 United Nations Refugee Agency, the International Organization for Migration, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the International Labour Organization.

Refugee women and children face heightened risk of sexual violence on Greek islands

Cécile Pouilly, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), made the following statement:

“UNHCR is very concerned by reports from asylum seekers of sexual harassment and violence in reception centres on the Greek islands, despite Government measures to address overcrowding and dire living conditions. In 2017, UNHCR received reports from 622 survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) on the Greek Aegean islands, out of which at least 28 per cent experienced SGBV after arriving in Greece.

The situation is particularly worrying in the Reception and Identification Centres of Moria and Vathy, on the islands of Lesvos and Samos, where thousands of refugees continue to stay in unsuitable shelter with inadequate security. Reports of sexual harassment in Moria are particularly high. In these two centres, bathrooms and latrines are no-go zones after dark for women or children. Even bathing during day time can be dangerous.

Identifying and helping survivors is hampered by a reluctance to report assaults out of shame, concerns about discrimination, and insufficient trust to open up. The actual number of incidents is therefore likely to be much higher than reported.

Thanks to recent accelerated transfers to the mainland by the authorities overcrowding has slightly reduced over the past weeks. But these still-crowded conditions hinder outreach and prevention activities. For example, in Moria, 30 government medical staff, psychologists and social workers share three rooms, where they have to conduct examinations and assessments in the absence of privacy.

Insecurity is another problem. Although there are police patrols, these remain insufficient. Conditions are also building frustration among people, leading to a very tense environment and further raising the risk of SGBV.

UNHCR welcomes measures taken by the Government but we believe further steps are needed. These should include: appropriate allocation of shelter - gender separation should be ensured to avoid women being forced to share shelter with unknown males; improved conditions and services, including medical and psychosocial support, and cultural mediation; increasing police patrolling, including with additional policewomen; more lighting in public areas; continuing efforts to ease overcrowding, notably through increased transfers to the mainland; and appointing additional staff dedicated to addressing SGBV. We will continue to work with the authorities and to provide our support in order to build their capacity and continue efforts to prevent SGBV as well as to strengthen the referral system for survivors.”

Responding to questions from members of the press, Ms. Pouilly said it was difficult to estimate the actual number of incidents of sexual harassment and violence, as current statistics were based on conversations with people in the Reception and Identification Centres. Moreover, the primary responsibility for preventing and responding to SGBV cases lay with the Government, which in the late summer of 2017 had taken over responsibility of the provision of services in Reception and Identification Centres. Limited resources made the collection all the more difficult. That being said, UNHCR staff visited the Centres whenever possible and when they identified survivors of violence, they referred them to specialists in the Centres. Both children and adults were among the victims of SGBV. UNHCR was advocating for special provisions for unaccompanied children in Reception and Identification Centres. Overcrowding went hand in hand with lack of security, and children and women were always the first to suffer from such conditions.

Asked about cases of sexual harassment and abuse involving UNHCR and implementing partners worldwide in 2017, Ms. Pouilly said UNHCR took very seriously the issue of sexual harassment and abuse. It had taken measures to prevent it and encouraged people who experienced or witnessed it to report it immediately. The High Commissioner was extremely committed to eliminating harassment and abuse and had on a number of occasions spoken to staff about it. It was, moreover, a duty of UNHCR staff to report any sexual harassment or abuse they had observed. Allegations were submitted to the Inspector-General Unit, which had an independent investigative function and reported directly to the High Commissioner; all the members of that Unit were professionally trained to deal with sexual harassment and abuse cases.

Citing figures from 2017, Ms. Pouilly said the Unit had received 39 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse, 19 of which involved UNHCR staff and 20 of which involved implementing partners or entities with a contractual link to UNHCR. A total of 16 had led to an investigation by UNHCR or been referred to its implementing partners; a further 15 were still under assessment; and the remaining cases had been closed. Staff immunities did not protect them from prosecution. If allegations against staff members were substantiated, their contracts were terminated and the staff members in question left the organization. UNHCR also cooperated fully with national authorities. In terms of sanctions, one staff member found responsible for sexual abuse committed in 2016 had been dismissed. There was another case in 2017, for which the disciplinary process was at an advanced stage but not yet complete. In terms of sexual harassment, where staff were the victims, two cases had been substantiated in 2017 and both staff members at fault had been dismissed. It was important to distinguish between sexual abuse and exploitation, which were usually considered criminal, and sexual harassment, which was not always. Cases relating to the former were referred to the Office of Legal Affairs in New York, which in turn referred the cases to the relevant national authorities for criminal prosecution. UNHCR systematically cooperates with national authorities on referrals. She did not have statistics on how many of those cases had been dealt with or in what manner.

Yemen

Cécile Pouilly, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), made the following statement:

“UNHCR is alarmed at the upsurge in violence across Yemen which is resulting in increased displacement from various frontlines. According to our data and partner data, more than 85,000 people have been displaced across the country since 1 December.

Yemen’s west coast continues to be the highest source of new displacement. UNHCR is particularly concerned for those that remain in areas close to hostilities in Taizz and Hudaydah governorates. As a result of prolonged fighting in those two governorates, conditions continue to deteriorate, exposing people to violence and disease, without access to basic services. Most of those displaced in the governorates of Al Hudaydah and Taizz remain hosted by relatives or friends, trapped inside homes or in caves as ground clashes, aerial bombardment and sniper fire rage around them.

UNHCR is also observing a spike in new displacement from other frontline areas, including Yemen’s border governorates of Al Jawf and Hajjah, and also in Shabwah in the east. Increasing military operations in Al Jawf, in particular ongoing battles in the districts of Bart Al Anan and Khabb wa ash Sha’af have seen more than 8,000 people displaced within the governorate.

The main needs of the displaced and other conflict-affected populations continue to be access to shelter, health, food and water and sanitation. To respond to the waves of fresh displacement, UNHCR is providing emergency assistance that includes a mixture of shelter and essential household supplies to help those forced to flee, to cope in displacement. Since the beginning of the conflict, UNHCR basic aid items such as mattresses, mats, wash buckets, blankets, kitchen sets, etc., have reached more than 1.1 million individuals in all of Yemen’s conflict affected governorates.

Yemen is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis with more than 22 million people in need and is seeing a spike in needs, fuelled by ongoing conflict, a collapsing economy and diminished social services and livelihoods. UNHCR is worried that funding for the humanitarian response is yet to trickle in, with escalating hostilities leading to substantial new displacement at the beginning of the year.

For 2018, UNHCR is appealing for nearly USD 200 million to respond to critical and prioritised humanitarian needs but is starting the year with just three per cent of funding available. UNHCR reiterates its call to the international community to commit funds to the Yemen humanitarian response.”

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said IOM was launching an appeal for USD 96.2 million, which fell under the USD 2.96 billion Humanitarian Response Plan of the entire humanitarian community. Some 2 million internally displaced Yemenis had been identified by IOM staff and others. A further 1 million internally displaced Yemenis had returned to their area of origin but remained in dire need of aid. Their homes had been severely damaged by the fighting and urgently required rehabilitation assistance. Despite all the challenges, in 2017, more than 87,000 migrants had made the perilous journey to Yemen, most of them crossing over dangerous waters from Africa, with some seeking to rejoin their families in Yemen, others seeking employment, but most believed to be on their way to other destinations in the Persian Gulf. Recently, four boats had brought 602 Ethiopian men and women to the coast of Yemen's Shabwa governorate in the previous 24 hours. The passengers on the boat had reportedly been dropped into deep water and forced to swim to shore. A total of 22 remained unaccounted for.

Responding to questions from journalists, Mr. Millman, for IOM, said the migrants had likely left from Obock, Djibouti, which was a smuggling centre where hundreds of migrants were known to arrive on a daily basis during peak migrant season. IOM sought to make migrants aware of the dangers ahead and to offer them return to their country of origin; a meagre average of 10 per day agreed to such offers. For those in need, IOM also provided emergency housing and ran emergency centres where, inter alia, it treated people for medical conditions. Of the estimated 87,000 migrants that had made it to Yemen, it was likely that most of them were of Ethiopian nationality. While it was difficult to speculate about migration patterns, it appeared that in 2017, there had been an increase in the number of Somalis who had returned to Somalia (though not a decrease in the number of those leaving the country) and a decrease in the number of Ethiopians returning to Ethiopia, for a variety of reasons. Most people were pursuing employment and Yemen was on the route to related opportunities.

Responding to further questions, Ms. Pouilly, for UNHCR, added that the dangers of the migration route had prompted UNHCR to run a campaign in 2017 alerting people to the risks involved, including in Yemen. UNHCR sought to help people in need of international protection but it was believed that the vast majority of Ethiopians in Yemen were transiting through, rather than planning on staying there, and that they were moving mainly for economic reasons. Not only was it difficult to access all areas because of the security situation, but UNHCR had limited resources and was focusing on reaching as many people as possible who were affected by the conflict.

Syria

Responding to an update on the situation in Syria, Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said the United Nations was very preoccupied about the situation and continued to emphasize the need for a pause to enable as much humanitarian assistance as possible to enter Syria and relieve people who had long been trapped by the conflict. Since returning from the Syria event in Sochi, Russian Federation, Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, had been working hard on the establishment of a constitutional committee, including by engaging in consultations with a number of interlocutors. During the week of 12 February, Mr. de Mistura would travel to New York to continue consultations; he would also brief the Security Council on Wednesday, 14 February. The call for a pause was not new but continued to be crucial; it was therefore disappointing that the Security Council had not been able to agree on it.

Referring to information provided by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Mr. LeBlanc added that the United Nations remained deeply concerned by the continued intense fighting in eastern Ghouta and its impact on close to 400,000 civilians in the besieged enclave. On Tuesday, airstrikes on Kafr Batna had reportedly struck a mental health centre, the only such facility of its kind in Eastern Ghouta, rendering it inoperable. The United Nations continued to remind all parties to the conflict of their responsibility to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure as required by international humanitarian and human rights law.

Responding to a request for an update from the WHO Office in Damascus, Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), made the following statement, referring to information covering the period 15 December 2017 to 24 January 2018:

“In Idleb, health organizations noted that their resources to respond to the ongoing displacement in Idleb are being stretched to the limit. Prepositioned supplies are running out. There has been a considerable increase in the number of patients frequenting health facilities in the communities that received a large number of IDPs, mostly related to winter-related illnesses and non-communicable diseases. Mobile vaccination teams have vaccinated more than 2,000 children under the age of five at IDP sites in the governorate. Mobile clinics in different parts of the governorate have provided more than 10,000 consultations in the past four weeks, i.e. in January. Static health facilities have increased their capacity to respond to the additional caseload, but the needs are just increasing by the day.

Syria is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a health worker. WHO as usual is calling on all parties to immediately halt attacks on health. Health workers and health facilities are not a target.

There have been at least 13 verifiable attacks on health facilities recorded in Syria in January alone, including in besieged Eastern Ghouta, which has witnessed several reported attacks on health facilities since the beginning of January.”

Asked for an update on the situation in Afrin, specifically, Mr. LeBlanc, again referring to information provided by OCHA colleagues, said that since 20 January, tens of thousands of people had been displaced in Afrin owing to ongoing hostilities, with 2,000 people being reported as displaced elsewhere in Aleppo governorate. While numbers inside Afrin were extremely difficult to verify, displaced people were reportedly sheltered in schools, mosques and public buildings. The main needs of displaced people included food, medicine and winter items. A partial interruption in the water supply had been reported in Matuna village in rural Afrin after the shelling of damaged sterilization basins. Education activities in the district were also reportedly suspended, impacting an estimated 48,000 students.

Responding to questions about the ceasefire task force, Mr. LeBlanc said the task force had been holding regular meetings. Generally speaking, the Special Envoy, Mr. de Mistura had been clear on the need for all parties to the conflict to stop fighting and to find a political solution to the conflict, which had been raging for over seven years. After the Syria event in Sochi, there had been positive signs that the process might move forward; the establishment of a constitutional committee was promising. Asked whether other meetings on Syria would be welcome by the Office of the Special Envoy, Mr. LeBlanc replied that Mr. de Mistura viewed such meetings by virtue of their ability to contribute to the United-Nations-led political process in Geneva, which focused on reaching the goals of Security Council resolution 2254 (2015)

Agenda 2030 for Children: End Violence Solutions Summit

Dr. Etienne Krug, for the World Health Organization (WHO), Director of the Department for the Management of Noncommunicable Diseases, Disability, Violence and Injury Prevention, said the Agenda 2030 for Children: End Violence Solutions Summit, which would take place on 14 and 15 February 2018 in Stockholm, would bring together the Queen and Prime Minister of Sweden; the heads of several United Nations agencies including WHO, UNICEF, and UNODC; some 30 Ministers; and senior officials from NGOs. At the Summit, participants would discuss ways to achieve target 16.2 under the Sustainable Development Agenda.

Globally, it was estimated that up to 1 billion children - or one in two children – suffered physical, sexual, or emotional violence or neglect every year. Such maltreatment most often occurred in the home, but sometimes it happened at school or conflict or fragile settings. Violence against children had a multitude of consequences, including death or, for those who survived, anxiety, depression or negative coping and health risk behaviours. Violence against children was predictable and preventable.

The Summit would focus specifically on the seven strategies for ending violence against children outlined in the technical package “INSPIRE”, which had been developed jointly by international agencies, including several United Nations agencies. The Summit was a unique opportunity to scale up the response to end violence against children and to bring governments on board with the seven strategies.

Responding to questions from journalists, Dr. Krug said that while sexual violence affected children at all ages and from all backgrounds, adolescent girls were most often the victims, and so were children from lower-income settings. The perpetrators were very often family members or caregivers or teachers and most often men. At a later age, once girls started engaging in dating, the perpetrators were also often intimate partners. In many societies, the subject of sexual violence was still taboo; therefore, WHO was conducting surveys to gain a better understanding of violence and was supporting better data collection, which was lacking in many countries. Legislation, while important in eliminating violence against children, was not the only answer. It was important to focus on changing mentalities to achieve a culture of zero tolerance. Changing norms and values was one of the strategies of the INSPIRE technical package. Progress was slow but real. The Summit in Stockholm was the culmination of some of the efforts being made worldwide to eliminate violence against children. Specifically regarding online violence, the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children, was running a project to look into online violence, including jihadist-related violence and sexual violence.

Bangladesh

Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), made the following statement:

“In two months, monsoon season will start in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Cyclone season could begin as early as April and could last until December. The health and safety of Rohingya children living in overcrowded camps and settlements in Bangladesh is likely to be at even greater risk. Monsoon flooding and cyclones affect children in many ways, directly and indirectly. About 100,000 Rohingya refugees are in grave danger of flooding and landslides during the impending rainy season, putting up to 60,000 children at direct risk.

One major concern is the impact on water and sanitation infrastructure. More than 3,000 latrines and almost 4,000 waterpoints could be affected by flooding or landslides in the hills and valleys of Cox’s Bazar. In the valleys, latrines and water points are at risk of flooding. The tube wells and latrines risk contamination. People will have no access to the latrines. What we have to do in this case is to immediately treat the water and do chlorination. This water sanitation risk has a direct impact on children’s health as they are highly prone to water borne diseases, such as acute watery diarrhoea and cholera.

Younger children are also are at risk of drowning in flood waters in some parts of the camps, especially when they are playing on their own. We are doing awareness raising to ensure the younger children are not left unattended especially during floods.

Children will also face an even greater risk of disease during the cyclone and monsoon season. As of 7 January 2018, 5,511 suspected diphtheria cases have been reported, with 38 deaths. Almost 75 per cent of all cases are among children below 15 years old. Measles is still present with 79 cases reported the first week of February. In 2018, the total number of suspected measles cases is now 601. Other risks include as Hepatitis (possibly A and E), injuries, malnutrition, acute respiratory infection.

In this context, there is very little time to do a lot of work. There is no time to lose. As we get closer to the cyclone and monsoon seasons, what is already a dire humanitarian situation risks becoming a catastrophe. To protect children, UNICEF is currently setting up mobile medical teams in case infrastructure is damaged, and also to reach isolated people. Together with the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Bangladesh, we are setting up diarrhoea treatment centres to respond to acute watery diarrhoea or cholera emergencies. We are vaccinating children to reduce the risk of disease outbreaks. Together with partners we have already conducted major rounds of vaccination against cholera, measles, rubella and diphtheria. This work is ongoing.

Because safe water and sanitation is so critical, we are expanding water sources and supply by improving water storage capacity and water treatment including chlorination. We are also installing water access points at higher locations. We are removing latrines in the flood zones and securing latrine materials against cyclonic winds. We are scaling up desludging and relocating faecal sludge management to higher areas or areas outside of the camp. In lower parts of the camp, we are installing elevated latrines.”

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

“As fears mount for the safety of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh ahead of the impending monsoon season, IOM, the UN Migration Agency, has launched a major roll out of materials to help 120,000 households in camps and local communities make vital improvements to their shelters. This began on 3 February. Apparently we have been able to reach 3,000 households in the first three days with a shelter upgrade kit. The kit includes the distribution of tarpaulins, bamboo poles, ropes, tie-wires and sandbags. Shovels, wheelbarrows, hoes, digging posts and other tools are also being distributed in communities for shared access to help families to level and stabilize land. We cannot stress this enough that many people are living in precarious housing on hillsides. With the risk of heavy rains and cyclone winds just weeks away, urgent action is needed to help them to strengthen the shelters and shore up the soil to reduce the likelihood of deadly landslides.”

Responding to questions from journalists, Mr. Millman, for IOM, recalled that over 688,000 Rohingya had crossed into Bangladesh from Myanmar since late August 2017, other Rohingya had arrived in October 2016, and yet thousands of others had trickled in over the border over the past 25 years. The more recently refugees had arrived, the more likely it was that they lived in precarious housing. IOM was targeting 120,000 households for assistance.

Responding to further questions, Mr. Boulierac, for UNICEF, said drowning was a significant cause of death for children in Bangladesh. UNICEF was continuing to raise the awareness of parents as to such risks, especially during monsoon season. It was also trying to ensure the identification of particularly dangerous areas in the refugee camps, where water could rise quickly.

Launch of new ILO, WHO ,UNAIDS and IOM report on migration and HIV

Hans von Rohland, for the International Labour Organization (ILO), announced that the global launch of a publication on promoting a rights-based approach to migration, health, and HIV/AIDS would take place at ILO Headquarters (in room 3) on Wednesday, 14 February, from 3 to 5 p.m. The report for the first time paid comprehensive attention to HIV and AIDS and other disease risks faced by migrants, proposing globally applicable migration and public health policy and practical responses. The launch event would feature a panel with representatives from WHO, UNAIDS, IOM and ILO, all of which were involved in the publication of the report.

Geneva events and announcements

Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said the next public plenary meeting of the Conference on Disarmament would be held on the morning of Tuesday, 13 February, under the presidency of Sri Lanka.

In addition, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities would open its nineteenth session on Wednesday, 14 February, in Palais Wilson. During that session, which would close on 9 March 2018, the Committee would consider the reports of Haiti, Nepal, Oman, Russian Federation, Seychelles, Slovenia and Sudan.

Mr. LeBlanc drew attention to the fact that the Secretary-General has extended the mandate of the Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva for an additional year.

Mr. LeBlanc also drew attention to the Secretary-General’s message on the Olympic Truce for the Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games and Paralympic Winter Games, which the Secretary-General was currently attending. The Secretary-General, in his message, once again called for a truce in all conflicts taking place in the world so that the Olympic Flame could shine as a beacon to human solidarity and the Truce, spread a culture of peace.

Press Conferences

OHCHR / HCDH
70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 2018 – media opportunities
Monday, 12 February at 10:00 a.m. in Press Room 1
http://bit.ly/2Edy58P

UNOG-UEFA
Match for Solidarity 2018
Tuesday, 13 February at 2:00 p.m. in Room III
http://bit.ly/2BIJQ9y

UNMAS
Clearance of explosive hazards in Iraq post ISIL
Wednesday, 14 February at 1:30 p.m. in Press Room 1
http://bit.ly/2BNa6zN

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog090218