UN press briefing in Islamabad 04 Feb 2002

News and Press Release
Originally published
The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today's briefing at the United Nations Information Centre in Islamabad by the United Nations offices for Pakistan and Afghanistan (excluding question and answer session).

** Eric Falt, Director, UN Information Centre

Good afternoon. I don't have very much for you today, but I would like to use the opportunity of this briefing to announce the rare visit this week of Mr. Kim Hak-Su, the Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). He will be visiting Pakistan from 6 to 8 February and meeting with senior Government officials. He is also scheduled to address the media at a press conference here.

ESCAP, as you know, is based in Bangkok and promotes economic and social development in the region through regional and sub regional cooperation. They serve as the main economic and social development forum within the United Nations system for the ESCAP region. Mr. Kim Hak-Su, a national of the Republic of Korea, has served as served as ESCAPs Executive Directory since July 2000.

** Ariana Yaftali, Spokesperson for the Office of the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan

A IDPs Survey in the Ex-Russian Compound in Kabul carried out by WFP and UNHCR has reduced the number of IDPs though to reside in the compound from some 5000 families to 2490 families. The IDPs in the compound say that they want to return early for preparation of houses and planting, however, registration done during the survey indicates that some 9% want to return now, 86 % after the winter and 4% at a later stage (up to one year) and 1 % does not want to return. The tentative return date is March 2002.

IOM will shortly go ahead with a massive exercise to re-register up to 350,000 displaced people in camps near Herat. The re-registration will be supported by UNHCR, as well as other UN agencies and NGOs. The process, which will involve 1,060 staff and will take up to nine days, is needed to ensure that aid is directed to people most in need, particularly in the giant Maslakh camp.

Aid agencies have only been able to estimate the number of IDPs in Maslakh camp. Abuse of the camp registration system under the Taliban regime, which resulted in multiple registrations and registration of some non-IDPs and local people, put the official camp population at 324,000. But an IOM count of tents and mud shelters in the camp in December showed some 23,500 dwellings. Assuming that about six people live in each tent or shelter, this would mean a population of about 141,000 - less than half the official number.

Up to now, relief agencies including IOM, the UN World Food Programme and UNICEF have delivered food, tents, blankets, clothing, stoves and other items to Maslakh's desperately poor population on the basis of the official figure of 324,000. But fears are growing that some of the aid could either be going astray, or making Maslakh a magnet for impoverished villagers and nomads elsewhere in the region. Most IDPs in the Herat camps come from rural areas of drought-stricken Ghor, Badghis and Faryab provinces.

Registration of newly arrived displaced families now takes place at four IOM checkpoints located on roads 40 km to 70 km from Herat to ensure that only genuine IDPs are registered. In the week January 19-27, 399 families or 1,676 people were registered at the check posts.

When the re-registration is complete, Maslakh will be closed to new arrivals and newcomers will be directed to a new tent camp - possibly at Mir Daud - some 20 kms south of Herat on the road to Kandahar. The other four IDP camps in Herat - Shaidayee, Minarets, Transit Center (CTC) and Ruwzabaq - which house a total of about 35,000 people, are already closed to new arrivals.

The re-registration will also provide important data on the IDPs and their places of origin. Many are expected to start returning to their villages for the planting season as early as next month and IOM is already working with other agencies to prepare the transport, seeds and tools that they will need to restart their lives.

The influx of aid to Maslakh since October 2001 has dramatically improved living conditions for most of the IDPs, despite the camp's bleak setting in the desert some 20kms west of Herat on the road to the Iranian border. Distributions of food and non-food items by the international community have provided people with the basic resources that they need to survive Herat's freezing winter nights.

The UN World Food Program delivers 90 MT of food to the camp every day. Health services in the camp comprise 6 clinics run by the various NGOs.

Water and sanitation in Maslakh is coordinated by UNICEF, supported by IOM, WHO, and UNCHS (Habitat) and international NGO. There are currently 237 water points, 2,410 latrines, 167 solid waste bins and 750 bathhouses in the camp.

** Jennifer Abrahamson, Spokesperson for WFP

WFP this week is launching a three-month rapid assessment helicopter mission to evaluate food needs in snow-affected, mountainous and difficult-to-access areas of Afghanistan. The first helicopters are set to arrive today in Mazar-I-Sharif.

Six helicopters will eventually be deployed to these areas that are extremely difficult to access by road and will enable WFP to mount rapid assessment missions with less staff, to more places in a shorter amount of time. It will take about three hours to assess the situation in a location.

Small teams of WFP experts will fly into these rural areas to assess food needs, investigate any reports of food shortages and other urgent needs, streamline food aid operations, assess health conditions, investigate non-food emergency needs, monitor food distribution and verify reports by NGOs on earlier food dispatches.

The assessment teams will include three WFP staff members, a nutrition expert and a representative from the respective NGO working in any particular area.

The information collected by the assessment teams will allow WFP to adjust food aid allocations, determine the type of food needed, assess the progress made by NGO's, and help identify the appropriate activities to be supported in the future. If necessary, on an emergency basis, the helicopters will allow WFP to airlift a limited quantity of food aid.

Missions will be carried out in isolated areas in the North, Northeast, West and Central Highlands. Provinces include Faryab, Sar-e-Pul, Balkh, Ghor, Samangan, Uruzgan, Badakhshan and Baghlan.

WFP has informed the local authorities and commanders about these helicopter missions as well as the general public via the local services of the BBC and the Voice of America.

All parties concerned including the local authorities and the coalition forces have been notified about these missions and will be updated regularly to ensure the security of the crew and staff members aboard.

In other news, WFP citywide food distribution will begin in Mazar-I-Sharif tomorrow, 5 February and will be completed some eight days later.

Mazar-I-Sharif lies in the heart of the Afghan hunger belt and historically is one of the poorest regions of the country. It is highly agriculturally dependent and therefore has suffered tremendously during the three-year drought.

WFP hired 400 people, half of them women, to do quick household surveys and family registrations. Some 53,000 families will receive WFP food rations totaling some 2,500 tons of food.

Last month, urban food distributions were completed in Herat and Kabul; the next city distribution is being planned for Kandahar.

Since September 11, WFP has delivered nearly 270,000 tons of food to Afghanistan, at an unprecedented rate averaging more than 2,000 tons per day for 6.6 million people.

** Melita Sunjic, Spokesperson for UNHCR

Preparations for the voluntary repatriation of some 400.000 Afghan refugees form Pakistan are well under way. A draft of a tripartite agreement between UNHCR and the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan has already been shared with the authorities. A similar agreement will be signed with the government of Iran. UNHCR hopes to finalize both accords by early March.

As for the practical side of the repatriation operation, a high-ranking strategic planning workshop with UNCHR and government representatives will take place on 7 February in Islamabad.

For an Afghan returnee repatriation will be organized in four steps: As part of Step 1, in five fixed and two mobile repatriation centers in NWFP, Baluchistan and Karachi Afghan refugees will need to register. They have to fill in a form and confirm that their repatriation is of voluntary nature. Then the refugees will organize the journeys to Afghanistan on an individual basis.

For Step 2, they will report at the border to UNHCR information points where they will receive cash grants against their original voluntary repatriation forms. These grants are to cover their travel expenses. Border teams and mobile monitoring teams will ensure that re-entry into Afghanistan and the journey to their destination runs smoothly and without problems.

For Step 3, as of early March, distribution centers will be established in all provinces of Afghanistan. There the returnees will be able to collect returnee packages to cover their immediate needs. This includes: 150 kg of wheat (family ration for three months) by WFP, 2 plastic sheets, 2 jerry cans/water buckets, 2 blankets, 1 kerosene lantern, 15 bars of soap (per family per three months), women's sanitary material, 1 mat, 1 shelter tool kit or 1 agricultural tool kit as appropriate.

For Step 4, in order to speed up re-integration, UNHCR will provide additional assistance with shelter, water, crop production and income generating projects.

Yesterday, 94 families of 426 persons were pre-registered and admitted at Killi Faizo from the waiting area at the Chaman border. The families received food and non-food relief items, medical and nutritional screening and vaccinations as a regular procedure. UNHCR continues to pre-register an average of 100 families per day at the waiting area. Among those previously pre-registered at Killi Faizo a total of 94 families or 409 persons have been transferred to Darra 1 camp yesterday.

More families continue to arrive at the waiting area. Some 1500 families or approximately 7,500 individuals are estimated to be in the waiting area.

In the other side of the border, in Spin Boldak UNHCR will officially open its office this week and is likely to resume its protection and relief activities soon.

** Lori Hieber-Girardet, Spokesperson for WHO

In Kabul, an important meeting to design the new structure of the Afghan Ministry of Health is currently underway. Rebuilding the health system is one of the greatest priorities in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. The World Health Organization's mandate is to develop the capacity of Afghans to provide health services for their own population. An essential first step towards building this professional capacity is now being taken as the Ministry of Public Health holds its first planning session to develop a functional structure and to designate the roles and responsibilities of each department.

The workshop is bringing together more than forty representatives of the health sector; including directors of major hospitals, UN agencies, government officials and key NGOs for three days of talks. The meeting is hosted by the Ministry of Public Health and funded by the World Health Organization.

Developing clearly designated responsibilities for each Health Ministry department is especially important because of the likelihood of an increase of the number of new external players on the scene offering assistance to the health sector. Already there are dozens of international and national NGOs, UN agencies and international organizations providing much needed health services throughout Afghanistan.

External support is crucial for the Afghan health sector, but requires careful coordination to avoid duplication and misallocation of resources. For the Afghan recovery process to be a truly Afghan-driven exercise, the Ministry of Health must be in a position to coordinate the work being carried out in the health sector. In the future, NGOs seeking to work with mother and child health, for example, will first consult with the appropriate department within the Ministry before setting up its programme. This will enable the Ministry to gain a clear overview of the health work being carried out, and to identify potential gaps.

In addition, millions of dollars in donor funding is expected in the upcoming months to jumpstart the rehabiliation process. For the Afghan Ministry of Public Health to be in a position to absorb these new funds, there must be a clear and transparent financial system in place. The World Health Organization is working to build the capacity of the Ministry of Health to receive and allocate these resources in the most efficient manner possible.

Ensuring Afghans have access to the health care they require will depend on a close collaboration between UN agencies, international and national NGOs, and above all, the Afghans themselves. That is why the Ministry of Public Health is moving rapidly towards developing the type of structure needed to serve the Afghan population and meet the requirements of the donor community.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization sub-office in Jalalabad reports that the regional Leishmania Control Center for the Eastern Region of Afghanistan is currently treating 2, 679 cases of leishmaniasis. About a fourth of the cases are referred from Kabul and IDP camps ; the rest are from the Jalalabad region. Leishmaniasis is a skin disease caused by a parasite transmitted by the sandfly. Although not deadly in most cases, it does lead disfigurement on the exposed parts of the body, including the face. Scarring and further spread of leishmaniasis is reduced by early diagnosis and treatment. The best protection against leishmaniasis is to follow the same guidelines as anti-malaria measures, such as sleeping under impregnated bednets.