REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
25 January 2013
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by Spokespersons for the High Commissioner for Refugees, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the International Organization for Migration, the World Trade Organization and the International Committee of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
Melissa Fleming for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said Jordan had experienced a record number of refugees crossing its border, with over 30,000 arriving in Za'atri camp since the beginning of the year. Yesterday alone over 4,400 Syrian refugees arrived in Za'atri camp and a further 2,000 arrived during the course of the night.
Many originated from Dara’a and its suburbs and were mainly families, female-headed households, and elderly people. Refugees were reporting generalised and targeted violence, property loss, lack of medical treatment with facilities closed, high price and low availability of food and fuel as combined reasons for their flight. Many reported that water and electricity were only available for intermittent periods in parts of southern Syria.
UNHCR was working with the Government of Jordan and partners to prepare a second major camp close to Za’atri, which was to be known as Halabat camp. It was hoped to open it by the end of the month and up to five thousand people were to be accommodated initially in the camp, with a plan to increase the capacity to 30,000.
Staff at Za'atri were working day and night to respond to the new arrivals and the growing needs of the refugees in the camp, she said. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of tents were being delivered. UNHCR and partners were also increasing the staffing in the camp to cope with the high rate of new arrivals. It was estimated that the population of Za'atri currently stood at over 65,000 people.
In the past month, between seven and ten babies were born each day in the camp and families with young babies were constantly arriving. She also explained that healthcare was available to refugees and many arrivals were being seen needing attention for chronic conditions which had gone untreated.
On the opening of the new camp she said it was thought that people were to continue to arrive across the Jordanian border, due to both an increase in military activity and worsening conditions. Asked about the number of people thought to be waiting to take the final step in their exodus she said there were between 25,000 and 40,000 people hoping to enter Turkey, where additional camps were being built to accommodate them.
On a separate question another UNHCR colleague, Sybella Wilkes, said there were relatively low numbers of victims of sexual violence in camps. Between March 2013 and November 2012 there were 13 cases of domestic violence in Jordanian camps, 11 cases of rape, two cases of physical abuse, five cases of sexual harassment and three cases of verbal abuse. More work needed to be done to encourage reporting of these incidents, she said. Underage marriage, illegal under Jordanian law, was also being addressed.
Jumbe Omari Jumbe for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said IOM had also noticed an increase in the amount of refugees arriving, with numbers peaking yesterday morning, at 3,581.
As the workload continued to rise the IOM wished to acknowledge the support of the People’s Republic of China, which had contributed $200,000 to IOM’s operation to provide medical aid and transport from the border to Za’atari refugee camp, he said.
IOM had worked closely with the Jordanian Armed Forces at the border to provide medical screening and buses to transport over 100,000 new arrivals, since the site opened on July 29th 2012. IOM bus convoys, which continually ran between the border and the camp, transported anywhere between 3,500 and a few hundred refugees daily, he explained. In the past week, IOM buses had picked up some 18,345 Syrian refugees.
As part of its transportation services, IOM provided pre-registration and reception services to newly arriving refugees. IOM medical teams also conducted initial health screenings, including referrals to health care providers at the camp.
A major humanitarian donor conference to raise funding for Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries and internally displaced people inside Syria was scheduled to take place in Kuwait on January 30th 2013. IOM was appealing for $2.26 million for its Syrian relief operations in Jordan.
Ted Chaiban, Director of Emergency Programmes for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) gave details of a recent visit to Syria by UN Emergency Directors which had crossed conflict lines. He said infrastructure was being systematically destroyed, families were living 20 to a room with minimal shelter and clothing and access to water and medicine was an increasing struggle.
An assessment of the amount of water available to the displaced had shown a reduction to a third since the conflict began and education was also a worry with large numbers of schools used for shelter, not teaching.
There were successes to report, however, such as a measles and polio vaccination drive which reached 1.3 million Syrian children under five years old.
He answered a question on whether the trip had succeeded in improving access to Syria saying that for the group, supplies and personnel to have been able to cross the conflict lines, under an agreement reached by the Red Crescent having entered into discussions with both the Government and the rebels, showed progress.
The points agreed in the discussions which took place during the visit included simplifying and facilitating visa procedures, an increase in missions and it was also hoped to soon get agreement on the setting up of field offices outside Damascus. There were over 40 NGOs working in partnership on the ground and it was expected that more international NGOs may be able to get involved following the talks.
Yasmine Praz-Dessimoz, Head of Operations for North and West Africa for the International Committee of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (ICRC) said that since the beginning of the French intervention in hostilities in Mali the ICRC had called on both sides to respect their obligations under international law, in particular respect of the civilian population, respect of the rights of combatants, access to health care for the wounded and the safety of medical staff.
Fighting was concentrated in the centre of the country, around Konna, Diabali, and Douentza, together with aerial operations in the north, she said. The situation was displacing people both within Mali and into neighbouring countries, among a population already weakened by food insecurity in recent years. There were almost 1,000 displaced people in Mopti and Sévaré, and some 5,000 further east, in the towns of Badiangara and Bankass. Preparations were under way to provide support for both arriving and resident populations.
Yesterday in Niono, a town in the Ségou Region of Mali, 7,000 people that had travelled with nothing in wet conditions had received assistance with basic necessities. It was very difficult to give a number of the amount of persons displaced in the country as the situation was still changing and access was still not possible in all areas.
There had been worrying reports of large displacements of people in the Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu areas, in the north of the country. People were said to be leaving the urban centres because they fear the fighting was approaching. The ICRC and the Mali Red Cross were going to assess the situation in the coming days. Structures were in place to receive people arriving into neighbouring countries, though the development of the situation needed to be followed closely.
Around 15 people a day were being admitted into the Gao hospital with injuries, around 35 had been admitted in Timbuktu in recent days and around 70 into the hospital of Mopti and Sévaré earlier in the week. Since the conflict in Mali began one year ago, the ICRC and the Mali Red Cross had provided food and other essentials for more than 780,000 people in the Mopti, Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu areas. Maintaining access to healthcare and clean water was an ICRC priority, she said.
Answering questions, she stated that a medical team including a surgeon and an anaesthetist had been sent to Gao hospital, and medical materials had been sent to the hospital in Mopti. Operations were ongoing to assess the possibility of further assistance for those in the north of the country, where only a limited amount of work was currently possible. Contact had been made with armed groups in this part of the country, she added, and they also had been reminded of their obligations under international humanitarian law.
She answered a question on reports of Malian government troops assaulting civilians saying that no incidents had been confirmed, though investigations continued. Were they to be proved correct then these matters would be taken up with the Malian Government bilaterally.
Melissa Fleming for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said the refugee agency was renewing its appeal for an urgent scaling up of international aid for the hundreds of thousands of people now displaced by the war in Mali. This was to prevent a worsening of the now acutely fragile humanitarian situation across the Sahel.
Since the start of the conflict in northern Mali a year ago, more than 150,000 refugees had fled to neighbouring Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso, while nearly 230,000 had sought safety in other areas inside Mali.
In Bamako, Mali's capital, the number of internally displaced people was now estimated at close to 50,000. They were in poor neighbourhoods with little or no access to housing or vital services such as clean water, education and health.
From people fleeing the current fighting in the north of Mali, UNHCR continued to hear worrying accounts of atrocities. For example, a former resident of Gao, who left the town after recent air strikes, told UNHCR that food and fuel were in short supply. Armed groups had stripped the city hospital of medicines, and at the hospital dead bodies were said to be everywhere. Wounded fighters from these armed groups were being brought into the city, among the fighters many foreigners.
The person UNHCR spoke to reported seeing a woman being executed summarily for refusing to show the contents of her bag to a fighter as she tried to board a bus. Amputations of hands or feet were used as punishments. IDP families in Bamako told UNHCR that they had been uprooted by the conflict several times, fleeing ahead of the rebel advance. They lost most or all of their belongings and left relatives behind. Fighters were not preventing people from leaving the areas they controlled but they checked their bags thoroughly and took away any food, money or valuables.
In neighbouring Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger, UNHCR was hearing similar accounts from newly-arrived refugees who were interviewed to determine protection and assistance needs. Children were reportedly being abducted from their families and made to fight for the rebels. Armed groups were also confiscating private vehicles – one of the reasons why refugees were travelling huge distances on foot or by donkey.
In Burkina Faso, many of the new arrivals were ethnic Tuareg and Arab women and children. They told UNHCR they fled for fear of becoming confused with the rebels, who were said to be trying to blend in with the civilian population. Another reason for leaving northern Mali, according to the refugees, was the presence of bandits and militias from other ethnic groups. Food and other essentials were in short supply, with markets closed and shops empty.
Since 11 January, when the French military intervened, over 9,000 new refugees had fled the country and been registered and assisted by UNHCR and our partners in Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso.
Answering questions she said refugees were generally crossing into the neighbouring country nearest to them, with some even passing through other countries to then re-enter Mali, rather than cross swathes of Mali itself, to get to relatives in other regions. On another point she said that UNHCR was scaling up its operations in the country to the maximum extent possible.
Asked about the possibility of rebel fighters infiltrating the civilian population, she said if such persons were found by UNHCR to be hiding any civilians, then they would be excluded from refugee status.
UNICEF Global Appeal 2013
Ted Chaiban, Director of Emergency Programmes for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said UNICEF appealed today for almost $1.4 billion to meet the immediate, life-saving needs of children in over 40 countries gripped by conflict, natural disasters and other complex emergencies this year. This included situations such as Syria and Mali but also areas such as Madagascar and Colombia which were less visible in the global agenda.
In Mali it was known that children in the north of the country were displaced, out of school and at risk of recruitment into armed groups or violence, which was worrying. However it was also to be remembered that the majority of the population lived in the south, which had suffered from malnutrition in 2012. It was hoped the number of children that would receive nutritional help from UNICEF in this country would triple in 2013.
Answering questions he said the bulk of the appeal was focused on sub-Saharan Africa, though work was still needed to address the consequences of situations such as the Syria crisis, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He also explained that Somalia was the largest operation in 2012, though a new dialogue had been started to support longer-term strategies for recovery. Other areas which would require attention in 2013 included the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and Blue Nile and South Kordofan areas.
Melissa Fleming for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said the refugee agency had been in urgent consultations with the Government of Kenya since December, when the Government announced a directive immediately discontinuing the reception and registration of asylum-seekers in Nairobi and other urban areas and for them to all be relocated to the refugee camps.
UNHCR expressed its serious concerns about the impact of the policy from the protection, human rights and humanitarian point of view. In particular, the lives, education and livelihood of thousands of refugees who had settled and lived lawfully in the urban centres for years would be severely disrupted. UNHCR called on the Government not to implement the new directive.
The Government, however, made clear its determination to go ahead with the enforcement of the policy. UNHCR had since been working to ensure that any such implementation would be properly managed, consistent with essential refugee protection and humanitarian principles and would avoid human suffering. The Government subsequently established an Inter-Ministerial Committee establish how these principals would be assured in implementing the new policy.
When news broke last weekend that a security operation to round up refugees in Nairobi and relocate them to the camps was imminent, UNHCR expressed its concerns to the Government and urged against such an operation being launched.
The Government had since provided assurances that a round-up would not take place and reiterated its readiness to work with UNHCR to ensure that refugee protection principles would be respected. Meanwhile, the High Court of Kenya has issued an injunction temporarily halting any action to implement the relocation direction pending a full hearing on the matter.
UNHCR was sustaining its efforts with the Government to ensure that in any implementation of the new directive, refugees and asylum-seekers would not be put in harm’s way. UNHCR also hoped that the Organization’s urban refugee policy that had been supported by the Kenyan Government as the best way forward for refugees who were able to fend for themselves and participate in the development of their host communities will remain in effect.
Jumbe Omari Jumbe for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said IOM, in collaboration with Zimbabwe’s Department of Civil Protection, was providing humanitarian aid to thousands of victims of flooding in Zimbabwe.
Heavy rains, which began on 14th of January 2013, had left a trail of destruction across the country. Homes, infrastructure, agriculture and public services, including road transport and schools, had all been affected and over 8,500 people were reported to be in need of urgent assistance. The worst affected provinces were Matabeleland South, Matebeleland North, Manicaland, Mashonaland Central, Masvingo and Midlands.
IOM, at the request of UNOCHA, was leading the emergency response in the area of emergency shelter and non-food relief items (NFIs), including blankets, cooking utensils, clothes and hygiene kits. To date it had delivered tarpaulins and NFIs to some 2,300 people and was planning deliveries to a further 4,000.
Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said a just-launched revised action plan for the Philippines sought $76 million to provide life-saving assistance and recovery support to more than 920,000 people in Mindanao over the coming six months.
This amount represented a 17 per cent increase from the $65 million requested on 10 December. He added that the storm was thought to be the strongest to hit Mindao in the last 100 years.
Answering questions he said over 6.2 million people had been affected and close to 850,000 remained displaced. Major humanitarian needs included shelter, food, water, sanitation, nutrition and education.
Refugee kidnappings, trafficking in eastern Sudan
Melissa Fleming for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said UNHCR was seeing rising incidents of human trafficking, mainly of Eritrean refugees. She explained that people were being exploited as they were crossing the border.
According to their accounts persons were being kidnapped for ransom under extreme forms of torture, given a phone and then submitted to torturous acts while their family members listed on the line. The family member was then asked to pay large sums of money to release them.
The latest kidnapping incidents, involving four refugee women occurred in the Shagarab camps.
The Committee on the Rights of the Child finished its public examination of reports in this session on Wednesday and was now meeting in private until the end of the session next Friday (1 February). It was to adopt concluding observations on the eight countries that were under consideration.
The Conference on Disarmament opened its 2013 session on Tuesday and was to meet again next Tuesday (29 January) at 10:00.
Ankai Xu for the World Trade Organization (WTO) said the Dispute Settlement Body was to meet on Monday (28 January) and from Tuesday 29 January to Thursday 31 January there was a General Council on the appointment of the next Director-General where members would meet with the candidates. Press conferences were planned following these meetings and the schedule for those was at the back of the room.
Meanwhile, current Director-General, Pascal Lamy, was on Monday (28 January) in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India to speak at the plenary session of the Partnership Summit 2013 and on Tuesday (29 January) in Delhi to meet with the stakeholder’s panel at Consumer Unity & Trust Society (CUTS International) and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. On Wednesday (30 January), still in Delhi he was to meet Mr Anand Sharma, Minister in charge of Commerce and Industry and Textiles of India.
On Thursday (31 January) he arrived in Dhaka, Bangladesh to meet with the Commerce Minister, Foreign Minister and Finance Minister of Bangladesh. Following this on Friday (1 February) he was in Chittagong, Bangladesh to visit the Chittagong Export Processing Zone.
Answering questions she said the press conferences were each planned to last 30 minutes.
Mr. Wolde Gabriel Saugeron announced himself as the new ICRC Spokesperson for North and West Africa and explained his details could be found on the ICRC website for those seeking information on the Mali situation.