REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
20 August 2013
Alessandra Vellucci, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by Spokespersons for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Food Programme, the World Health Organization and the International Organization for Migration.
Elizabeth Throssell for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the OHCHR remained alarmed at the continuing violence in Egypt and echoed the Secretary General’s strong condemnation of the ambush in the Sinai peninsula in which 25 Egyptian police officers were killed.
The deaths on Sunday night of 36 prisoners, who were in police custody, were also deeply disturbing and needed to be fully investigated. Hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members were reported to have been detained in recent days – among these were some of its leaders. Everyone deprived of their liberty should be treated humanely and afforded all judicial guarantees under international law. The OHCHR was reiterating its call to the Egyptian authorities to allow them to deploy human rights officers so that the situation on the ground could be assessed.
Answering questions she said the Egyptian Ambassador had visited the Deputy High Commissioner where he had said that the events of Wednesday were to be investigated. Several human rights officers could be despatched to gather evidence as part of an independent investigation if permission were allowed.
Ms. Vellucci also drew attention to the announcement by the Secretary-General that he had asked the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman to hold wide-ranging talks in Cairo from today on how the UN can support efforts to secure peace and forge efforts on reconciliation in Egypt.
Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said WFP was concerned about the rise of poverty and food insecurity among the most vulnerable communities in Egypt amidst continued political uncertainties and a worsening economic situation that the country had faced over the last few months.
In general, WFP continued food distributions throughout July and August with minor delays. Distribution of food vouchers for Syrian refugees went ahead in July and was now being planned for August. Altogether, WFP reached 95 per cent of the targeted beneficiaries in July, assisting 35,000 Syrian refugees with food vouchers in greater Cairo, Damietta and Alexandria despite on-going political instability and demonstrations across the country.
WFP planned to reach 50,000 Syrian refugees in August including in some additional and poorer neighborhoods. WFP staff were operational and had returned to resume working from the offices. Work from home modality was used for few days when the capital Cairo experienced some road closures.
According to a joint WFP/Government survey released in July, 64.7 per cent of the surveyed households’ expenditure went to food and inflation had reached 10.3 per cent in July.
Answering a question she said, WFP has been operating in Egypt since 1963 and had provided over $681 million worth of assistance to the most vulnerable groups in the population. In 2013, more than 650,000 Egyptians were to benefit from WFP projects across the country.
Also handling an enquiry, Dan McNorton for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said there were informal reports that Syrian refugees in Egypt were considering leaving the country and UNHCR was monitoring their situation.
Dan McNorton for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said since Thursday of last week around 30,000 Syrians had streamed into northern Iraq after fleeing communities across a wide swathe of northern Syria.
Yesterday’s (August 19) crossings numbered more than 4,800 people, at Sahela some 120 kilometres northwest of Mosul. Some of those coming across were from Malikiyye city in the neighbouring Syrian governorate of al-Hasakah. They told UNHCR they had fled a bombardment earlier that morning. Others arriving over the past few days had been from further west, including Efrin and Aleppo, as well as Al Hassake and Al Qamishly.
With several tens of thousands of people having crossed since last week, this new exodus from Syria was among the largest seen during the conflict, which was now into its third year. As well as people who said they were fleeing recent bombings, others said they were escaping fighting and tension amongst various factions on the ground. Also cited was the collapse of the economy due to war and the resulting difficulties in caring for their families.
The influx began last Thursday when the Kurdistan Regional Government authorities in northern Iraq suddenly opened access to the temporary Peshkhabour pontoon bridge north of Sahela, allowing several hundred people camped in the area since earlier last week to enter Iraq. By the end of that day and into the following morning thousands of people had swarmed across the swaying bridge over the Tigris. As of Saturday, UNHCR estimated that 20,000 Syrians had crossed the Peshkhabour bridge. This was followed by crossings of around 6,000 persons on Sunday when fleeing Syrians were directed to use the Sahela border crossing, to the south of Peshkhabour.
In response to the influx UNHCR and partner agency teams had erected shelters to provide shade. Water and food distributions had also been set up at the crossing points. The International Organisation for Migration and the Kurdistan Regional Government had provided buses and trucks to move the thousands of people onwards from the border zone deeper into Iraq.
Yesterday, the authorities provided access for UNHCR to a warehouse in Bahrak and 2500 Syrians were now being housed at this facilty. Additional land had been identified in Erbil’s Qusthtapa district where a further transit site was to be established. As of this morning, a further 2000-3000 people were reported waiting close to the Syrian side of the border, and expected to cross today. On the Syrian side, the border at Sahela was under the control of Syrian Kurdish forces. The Kurdistan Regional Government had identified an additional site in Kushtapa where it had indicated that UNHCR might establish a further transit camp.
Answering questions, he said there were no precise data on the ethnic make-up of those crossing the border, though it was thought the majority were Syrian Kurds. At this stage it was not possible to give the detail on how the quota for the number of persons allowed to cross the border had been set. The bridge which was used for earlier crossings had now closed. The figures on the number of the persons crossing remained fluid and it was thought that 2,000 persons had already crossed this morning. Reports had been received of Syrian Kurds fighting with other groups within Syria. It was understood that the opening of the bridge had agreement on both sides. Work was being done to establish and estimate the situation and numbers of persons wishing to cross the border.
Marixie Mercado for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said of the estimated 4,800 people who crossed the border from Syria into Iraq’s Kurdistan region yesterday, at least 2,100 were children. Many were below 12 years old, and the younger ones were particularly dehydrated and exhausted after the four or five hour walk across the border in the scorching heat.
Since Sunday, at least 80 children had been identified as separated or unaccompanied. Many of them were young teenage boys sent across the border by their families for their safety, or to find work. So far no unaccompanied girls had been documented. Separated and unaccompanied children were extremely vulnerable and needed extra protection.
A child protection team was at the border working to identify separated and unaccompanied children, to make sure they were on the buses for registration with UNHCR, and that they continued to receive support at their final destinations. Many of the new refugees said they were planning to join family members in Domiz camp, which was already operating at twice its capacity.
UNICEF was providing safe drinking water, and working through partners to collect solid waste and garbage. Yesterday afternoon, UNICEF staff saw a stream of people still making their way through the check points between Syria and Iraq.
Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said over the last three days, more than 29,000 Syrians had streamed across the Iraqi border into the Kurdistan region through the Peshkhabour bridge over the Tigris River, as people fled areas in northern Syria. The influx was expected to continue.
WFP had mobilised food from its stocks in Iraq (in Erbil and Al Qaim) to respond to the immediate needs of the new arrivals. Distribution of 3,100 food parcels was to start today (Tuesday) in some of the transit camps, enough for 3,000 households, for about a week.
In the meantime, WFP was mobilising 37,000 family food rations, enough to feed 185,000 people for one month, from the port of Mersin in Turkey for immediate dispatch to north Iraq. To ensure the capacity to respond effectively and promptly to the influx, WFP was ramping up its staffing presence (programme and logistics) on the ground.
Local authorities and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) had moved most of the recently arrived Syrian families, mainly vulnerable women, children and the elderly, from the border to a transit camp in Kawargosk, Erbil. Some of the new arrivals had relatives in host communities and were leaving the transit centres and move to stay with relatives. The Kurdish authorities and military were providing hot meals and water to new arrivals but were facing difficulties coping with the large influx of refugees.
In addition to the assistance being provided to new arrivals in Iraq, WFP provided food assistance to refugees already sheltering in Domiz camp in northern Iraq and in Al Obady camp in Al-Qaim in Al-Anbar governorate. A WFP voucher programme in Domiz camp reached close to 57,000 people in July, with food vouchers worth $31 per person, per month.
WFP, along with UNICEF, ran a school feeding programme in the two camps. Since April, WFP had distributed around 18 metric tons of high-energy biscuits to over 4,500 Syrian refugee children attending schools in camps in Iraq.
Jumbe Omari Jumbe for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on 15 August, the Kurdistan Regional Government authorities notified IOM of the impending influx of the refugees and asked for assistance.
Since then IOM had been providing transport for refugee arrivals from the border crossings to three transit facilities - Baharka (175 km) and Gawergosik (165 km) in Erbil governorate, and Aarbad (340 km) in Sulaymaniya governorate.
By Monday (19 August) IOM had moved a total of 18,500 registered refugees. In close co-operation with UNHCR, IOM had also provided the refugees with water and food upon arrival. IOM’s preliminary assessment of incoming refugees indicated 70 per cent were families with children. Often they were female-headed. About 10 per cent of the refugees were elderly and 3 per cent were people with various disabilities.
IOM, jointly with local health teams, was currently setting up emergency medical screening and referral facilities at the Sihela crossing point. It planned to post more medical staff to the site and to deploy an ambulance which would ferry the sick from the border to the camps.
It was reported that the Kurdistan authorities set a daily quota for the number of persons allowed to enter, which was for today to be 3,000. Yesterday, it was also 3,000 but in the end, about 5,000 people had crossed.
Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said rains continued around Manila and the average rainfall for a whole month had been recorded in a single day. Authorities said seven people had died, four were missing and 40,740 people were staying in 200 evacuation centres. This was in addition to 90,000 people staying with family.
Targeted support in food and camp management had been requested and was to be delivered by WFP and IOM. Further updates were due later today.
Jumbe Omari Jumbe for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said IOM was to provide technical assistance to the government for camp management and to support the operation of evacuation centres being set up by local and national government.
At this stage of the crisis, IOM’s response was to focus on capturing the numbers made homeless in all evacuation centres through its Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM); identifying needs/gaps to inform the UN humanitarian response; and activating and managing the humanitarian cluster system to coordinate the aid response in the affected areas.
The DTM assessments were to include a review of health needs from individuals and health service facilities at or serving the evacuation centres to provide supplementary evidence for a health cluster response.
Jumbe Omari Jumbe for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said IOM Ecuador had carried out 451 infrastructure projects over the past decade in isolated communities along Ecuador’s northern and southern borders which have benefited over 681,000 people.
The projects had deployed over $100 million in the past decade and benefitted some 60 per cent of local residents living in these border communities, as well as migrants from Colombia and Peru living in these areas.
Ms. Vellucci said the Conference on Disarmament this morning held its first plenary meeting under the chairmanship of Ireland. It was further noted that the Conference decided last Friday to create an informal working group charged with developing a work programme and a press release on this had been issued.
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was to finish reviewing the report of Burkina Faso this morning and began this afternoon with the report of Belarus. Jamaica and Sweden were to follow and Cyprus was to be examined on Monday (26 August). Reports already examined: Chile, Venezuela and Chad
She also announced that on 3 September the United Nations Office at Geneva was to welcome participants in the “Earth Dialogues” on climate change. In attendance would be Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Walesa and others. These discussions were to be followed by a performance of a musical by Peace Child International entitled “2050: The Future we Want,” composed and written by David Gordon and Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens). A presentation of the musical’s young performers from countries such as: India, Mali, Russia, Sweden, Syria and the United States was planned for tomorrow (21 August) at 11.00 a.m. in the Assembly Hall. The Director of Communications of Green Cross International could be contacted to arrange interviews.
Tarik Jasarevic for the World Health Organization (WHO) said a study on WHO hand hygiene strategy was to be published by The Lancet on Thursday. The data came from a pilot study in 43 hospitals in six cities from 2006 to 2008. This had shown that the WHO strategy produced good results and enhanced best practice. A press release was to be issued and experts were available for interview.
In the room but not briefing were spokespersons for the International Labour Organization and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/16Grf8h