REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
15 April 2014
Alessandra Vellucci, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the Spokespersons for United Nations Refugee Agency, International Organization for Migration, United Nations Children’s Fund, and the World Meteorological Organization.
South Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia
Melissa Fleming, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that, as the number of South Sudanese refugees fleeing to Ethiopia passed the 95,000 mark, UNHCR and its partners were working to improve conditions in the western Gambella region – flying in new tents, building new camps, and moving refugees to higher ground as the rainy season approached.
Ms. Fleming informed that on 14 April 2014, the first flight in an airlift of 4,000 emergency tents had arrived at Gambella local airport. The first batch of 400 tents was being sent today to Lietchuor refugee camp, 125 kilometres from Gambella town. The remaining tents would arrive on six more flights over the coming days and be distributed to other camps operated by UNHCR and Ethiopia’s Administration of Refugees and Returnees Affairs (ARRA) in Gambella Regional State.
UNHCR had now finished relocating refugees that were living in low-lying water-prone areas in Kule camp (42 kilometres from Gambella town) to higher ground. A similar relocation would start at Leitchuor camp today. With the rainy season approaching, some parts of the camps had already been affected by flooding. In those areas, UNHCR was also closing down latrines to avoid water contamination.
Also over the weekend, UNHCR and ARRA had started preparations on a new camp close to Kule on land donated by the Gambella regional administration. The new camp would accommodate up to 30,000 refugees and be located on high ground, thus helping to avoid flood-related problems like the spread of disease. Work was already underway to clear the area and the camp was expected to be ready to receive refugees by the end of April.
Ms. Fleming stated that refugees were continuing to arrive from South Sudan into the Gambella region at a rate of 800 to 1,000 people per day, mainly through the Pagak border point. They were predominantly (95 percent) women and children from the Upper Nile State, with many citing fear and food scarcity as the main reasons for their flight. Many women reported that the men were forcibly recruited, while others had been killed. Some refugees had walked up to three weeks to cross the border and malnutrition rates among children remained high. Thus far, more than 4,000 malnourished children were enrolled in nutrition programmes in the camps, while some 3,500 lactating women were receiving supplementary feeding. However, UNHCR had noticed a slight easing in the number of arrivals to Ethiopia since the start of food airdrops in South Sudan itself carried out by the World Food Programme (WFP).
With the ongoing influx and rainy season imminent, regional authorities had now granted new land on higher ground at the Pagak border point for the construction of a transitional reception centre. The new transit centre would accommodate up to 5,000 people and provide accommodation while refugees were registered and were receiving vaccinations, health, nutrition and other basic services.
Ms. Fleming added that, meanwhile, UNHCR had deployed a helicopter to transport vulnerable people – the elderly, the disabled, pregnant and lactating women, newborns and sick people – from the Akobo border point to the Lietchuour refugee camp. Most refugees arriving to Akobo then travelled by boat up to 15 hours to Burubiey, another entry point, from where they were eventually settled in refugee camps. Some 190 vulnerable people unfit to make the long boat trip had already been moved to Leitchor camp in eleven 30-minute flights over the previous two weeks. The operation was continuing.
UNHCR and partners needed to raise USD 102 million to provide for the basic needs of South Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia. Within that total, UNHCR required approximately USD 43.6 million, with only 12 per cent of that amount having been funded thus far.
When asked about men forcibly recruited in South Sudan, Ms. Fleming said that normally in similar situations, one would see more men arriving, while nowadays around 95 percent of all arrivals were women and children. They had accounts that their husbands and sons had been forcedly recruited or had been killed. There were different factions even among the opposition in conflict with government forces. They had not given to UNHCR exact information of who was killing whom and who was recruiting whom. In any case, people were arriving very traumatized and in a state of shock.
Answering another question, Ms. Fleming said that people were arriving in Ethiopia at a rate of 800 to 1,000 per day. They were arriving on their last legs; very hungry, many malnourished (up to 37 percent). UNHCR was taking money out of its reserves to fly in tents and establish camps to make sure that infrastructure was there and that the refugees could be properly treated. Partners, including Médecins Sans Frontières, were providing medical care right at the border. If UNHCR, WFP and some non-governmental organization partners were not there, those people would be dead.
Asked if the 37 percent of malnourished people included adults as well as children, Ms. Fleming answered that it did included adults, but most of them were children; about 11 percent of those 37 percent were particularly severely malnourished people and most of them were children, although there were adults among them.
Asked when the 95.000 refugees had arrived in Ethiopia and if they were all in Gambella, Ms. Fleming answered that since the fighting had erupted in December 2013, the refugees had started to arrive and were living in different camps in the Gambella region.
Answering another question, Ms. Fleming said that UNHCR was providing emergency supplementary feeding to all malnourished. There was a clinic that was weighing the children and determining immediately what kind of needs they had so that they could be treated right away. They were given supplementary highly nutritious feeding that was proven to treat and eventually reverse the malnourishment conditions.
Ms. Vellucci added that United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator Valerie Amos had co-chaired an Humanitarian Ministerial Meeting in Washington DC on 12 April. At the meeting the issues of funds for South Sudan had been discussed. The funding gap was estimated to be around USD 800 million, even though new funding had been recently announced.
Christophe Boulierac, new ad interim spokesperson for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), introduced himself and provided his contact details. He would send out to correspondents some information on the numbers of malnourished children among South Sudanese refugees.
Asylum conditions in Bulgaria
Ms. Fleming informed that UNHCR had today updated its guidance on the situation for refugees and asylum-seekers in Bulgaria. UNHCR was lifting the call for the temporary suspension of all Dublin transfers of asylum-seekers to Bulgaria that it had made in January 2014. However, UNHCR noted that serious gaps in the system still remained, and that there might be reasons not to transfer certain groups or individuals, in particular those with specific needs or vulnerabilities. UNHCR encouraged states to conduct individual assessments in those cases.
UNHCR noted the significant efforts by the Bulgarian authorities and their partners to improve living conditions for asylum-seekers and the asylum system over the previous three months. Conditions in the centres had improved, particularly in the Harmanli centre, a former military base located 50 kilometres from the Turkish border where asylum-seekers had been living in tents just four months earlier. Today asylum-seekers living in the centres received daily hot meals, were accommodated in renovated buildings or accommodation in the process of being renovated, with heating, and had access to health care. In addition, with more staff, all asylum-seekers had been registered and progress was being made on asylum decisions.
Ms. Fleming stressed that UNHCR remained concerned about the accommodation and sanitary conditions in two centres in Vrazdebhna and Voenna Rampa, both located in Sofia. UNHCR was also concerned about the lack of identification, referral and support to individuals with specific needs; the barriers children faced in accessing formal education; and the lack of a sustainable integration programme. It was essential that those serious gaps were addressed and that improvements already made were sustained going forward.
UNHCR reiterated its concerns over the measures undertaken by the Bulgarian authorities, first made in November 2013, to restrict access to the territory along the Turkish border. Those had resulted in a marked decrease in the number of arrivals since December 2013, and could be preventing people in need of international protection from entering and requesting asylum in Bulgaria. UNHCR was also seriously concerned about reports that individuals who might be in need of international protection had been prevented from reaching or entering Bulgarian territory or had been forcibly returned from Bulgarian territory without being able to apply for international protection. In some cases those “push-backs” had resulted in family separations. UNHCR had received several reports of those alleged “push-backs” from Bulgaria concerning nationals of Syria, Afghanistan and Sudan, as well as Palestinians from Syria.
Ms. Fleming specified that in 2013, 7,144 people had sought asylum in Bulgaria, most of them from Syria, which was an increase from an annual average of 1,000 asylum-seekers over the previous decade. The recent influx had created significant pressure on an ill-prepared reception and asylum system. Currently Bulgaria was hosting some 5,500 asylum-seekers, about 63 percent of whom were Syrian and some 2,000 people were from Afghanistan.
Ms. Fleming said that UNHCR remained committed to working closely with the Bulgarian authorities, and other partners to address existing gaps and to continue the consolidation of the progress achieved. UNHCR would continue to monitor the situation closely. Improvements had been made possible through the support and assistance of the Bulgarian authorities, UNHCR, the European Asylum Support Office, the EU Commission, member states and civil society.
Asked how UNHCR could feel comfortable about lifting the suspension of the Dublin transfers when there were still so many serious gaps and worries. Ms. Fleming said that UNHCR believed that there had been significant improvements in the case of Bulgaria. UNHCR was partially relaxing its directive, but still urged states not to send back to Bulgaria vulnerable people, such as children and women. Ms. Fleming added that UNHCR did not have a specific number of “push-backs” as evidence had been anecdotal.
Asked why UNHCR decided to lift the Dublin standards now and whether the situation of Bulgaria had indeed improved, Ms. Fleming answered that Bulgaria had made a huge commitment and significant improvements in a very short period of time. UNHCR would know exactly who the returned people were and informed that they would be monitored. However, Ms. Fleming reiterated that people in vulnerable situation should not be forced to return Bulgaria because there were no means and facilities at this time to address their needs.
Answering a question on who decided who were the vulnerable people and if any guidelines about this issue were available, Ms. Fleming stated that an extensive report on this issue was being released to member states today
Nepali workers in Lebanon
Chris Lom, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), announced that the IOM had just returned a group of 39 Nepalese migrants from Lebanon, most of them victims of trafficking and labour exploitation. The operation had been done in close coordination with the Nepali Embassy in Cairo that also served Lebanon. The return of those people had followed a visit to Lebanon by the Nepali Chargé d'Affaires in Egypt to monitor the working conditions of the nearly 7,000 Nepalese workers there, including many who were working as domestic workers and housemaids. He had identified a significant number of Nepali migrants living in dire situations, residing irregularly after having overstayed their visas or having entered the country in an irregular way.
The Nepali Embassy had subsequently issued travel documents to 45 migrants – 42 women and three men – all of whom had been immediately removed to a safe house operated by Caritas Lebanon.
As far as the return concern, Mr. Lom explained that the IOM had taken care of 31 of the migrants, providing them with air tickets. Eight of them had been helped directly by the Nepali authorities, and six more people had yet to be cleared for travel. Once they returned to Nepal, they would be sheltered in safe houses managed by local NGOs working with returned migrants and victims of trafficking. IOM among other agencies would assist in their reintegration.
Mr. Lom said that this was a huge problem facing Nepal, only growing through the years of conflict in the last decade. There were large numbers of people who had been trapped in slavery, human trafficking, particularly women and children for sexual, labour, and other forms of exploitation. This was due partly to a lack of information, and partly because Nepali missions and consular services abroad had not been sufficiently aware or proactive in helping their citizens abroad who were often in desperate situations, particularly in the Middle East.
Nepalese people mainly migrated because of the lack of economic opportunities at home. According to the IOM, around 1,500 young people were leaving the country every day. Women constituted around 30 per cent of Nepali migrants and some 90 per cent of women finding jobs abroad got them through irregular channels, leaving the country without proper travel documentation.
Mr. Lom said that undocumented migrants were at high risk. Young women often saw irregular migration as their only option and their lack of documentation made them extremely vulnerable: they could easily fall into the hands of illegal recruiters and traffickers primarily because they lacked education and awareness.
There was also an open and unregulated border between Nepal and India; people could get into India without much difficulty because of the absence of appropriate cross-border and sub-regional counter trafficking mechanism from immigration authorities on both sides of the border.
Most of the victims were usually from rural areas and were lured by agents and brokers with false promises of a better life abroad, including in the Gulf and in Lebanon.
Mr. Lom said that the US State Department’s 2012 “Trafficking in Persons” report had indicated that about 11,500 women and children from Nepal had been trafficked, rescued or escaped from traffickers in 2011. That was more than double of the number estimated in 2009/10. No figures were provided in the 2013 report.
IOM believed that strong and collaborative efforts between all the countries involved were needed to overcome the structural issues which were linked to migration and trafficking at the policy level and at the grassroots with information campaigns and building the capacity of immigration authorities to spot potential victims of trafficking.
Mr. Lom announced the opening of a major two-day international conference “The Fight against Human Trafficking: a Multiple Response to a Multi-faceted Challenge” in Tunis. The event was organized by Tunisia’s Ministry of Justice, the Council of Europe and the IOM.
Experts from Tunisia, the Mahgreb and the Western Mediterranean would discuss the issue of human trafficking and international measures to combat the problem, in particular the Council of Europe’s Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. They would also share practical experiences and best practices.
Asked if the conference in Tunisia would be a follow-up to a similar recent meeting in Rome, Mr. Lom explained that those two were unrelated, even if they were on the same subject.
Possible onset of El Nino
Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), stated that the WMO would issue a new El Niño update today, which was under embargo until 1 p.m. A majority of models showed that an El Niño event might develop around the middle of the year, but it was still too early to assess the strength of any such event.
The update was a consensus product, based on analyses by a number of experts from around the world. National meteorological services would now use the available information, downscale it and asses it at national levels. In a related context, the following week, the South Asian Climate Outlook Forum would meet in India, and would focus on the monsoon season. The actual climate outlook would be issued on 23 April and could be sent to anybody interested.
Answering a question, Ms. Nullis specified that the WMO would have another assessment of El Niño in a couple of months. There were many indications that there would be an El Niño event, but more time was needed to be more definite on the issue.
Ms. Vellucci informed that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights would hold a press conference on the human rights situation in Ukraine in Press Room III at 11:30 a.m. today. The speaker would be Gianni Magazzeni, Chief of the Americas, Europe and Central Asia Branch at OHCHR.
The Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the United Nations Office at Geneva would also hold a press conference on the current situation in his country in Press Room I at 12:30 today.
Ms. Vellucci informed that there would not be the regular press briefing on Friday, 18 April, as it was an official United Nations holiday. She also reminded journalists that on Monday 21 April, the UN Office at Geneva will also be closed for an official holiday.
Ms. Nullis informed that the WMO’s Commission for Agricultural Meteorology, which was meeting every four years, was concluding its five-day session in Turkey today. The session had been dominated by the need to improve climate services with the view of strengthening food security. The Commission had been preceded by a three-day international conference on promoting weather and climate information on agriculture and food security, which had seen numerous presentations on the subject.
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The representatives of the International Labour Organization, World Health Organization and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development also attended the briefing, but did not brief.
The webcast for this briefing is available here: … http://bit.ly/1gyf39U