Press conference by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs on situation in Horn of Africa

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While humanitarian aid was reaching hundreds of thousands in the drought-devastated Horn of Africa, a still more extensive scale-up was needed, said the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator at a Headquarters press conference today.

Valerie Amos, who is also Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, briefed correspondents on the heels of a three-day trip to Kenya and Somalia — the heart of the crisis; her visit also included a stop in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, where people from all over the country were arriving in search of aid. There and elsewhere across the nation, said Ms. Amos, the United Nations agencies and its humanitarian partners were ramping up their efforts in the midst of a truly “heartbreaking” situation.

Every day, more than 100,000 people in Mogadishu were receiving hot meals and an estimated half a million had access to clean water, said Ms. Amos. An emergency vaccination campaign had reached some 88,000 children with measles immunizations. That was critical, she said, as malnutrition left children weak and prone to epidemic diseases. Aid operations were also reaching new areas of the country every day, including the infamously war-torn Afgooye Corridor along the main road between Mogadishu and the city of Afgooye.

But despite the robust response — which had been made possible with more than $1 billion in funding mobilized to date from donors around the globe — Ms. Amos warned that thousands more would die if efforts were not scaled up further. At Mogadishu’s Banadir Hospital, where some of the most severe cases of malnutrition were treated, she visited with many families who had suffered losses due to the long journey to the capital. “Many children don’t survive because they get there too late,” she said. Then, too, hospital staff was exhausted from working around the clock, and resources were still in short supply despite the donor outpouring. Meanwhile, the number of children suffering from severe acute malnutrition was still rising.

Another major concern was the drought’s effects on Somalia’s neighbours, including Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia. “The needs are not limited to Somalia,” she said. In particular, border communities in those countries — themselves suffering from the crisis — were now further burdened by the influx of refugees from Somalia, requiring urgent support.

She said that, while the humanitarian gains made to date showed “how much can be done” when aid agencies were provided with the appropriate resources, efforts would now be needed to sustain and further boost the response. To that end, an outstanding appeal remained for approximately $1.2 million in emergency funding.

Responding to questions, Ms. Amos confirmed that the United Nations had heard allegations of sexual abuse both in Mogadishu’s refugee camps and on the roads leading to the city. Those stories were still anecdotal, she said. Nonetheless, actions were being taken by humanitarian partners to prevent such crimes. For instance, the aid group Oxfam was working in the Dadaab camps on the Kenyan border to build separate toilets for men and women as a deterrent.

Several other questions related to reports that some aid was being diverted from its intended recipients by thieves and sold at a profit in Mogadishu’s markets. Ms. Amos responded that, in situations were conflict was present, the diversion of food was an “extremely difficult” question and some small amount of diversion was unavoidable. In the case of Mogadishu, however, the World Food Programme (WFP) had stated that reports had been exaggerated. No more than 1 per cent of aid was being diverted, according to WFP, but strict monitoring of the situation would continue.

One correspondent wanted to know whether last week’s reported figure for child deaths — estimated at 29,000 — was expected to rise. Ms. Amos said she thought it would, both because the figure was outdated and because “children continue to die every day” from malnutrition and the spread of disease. However, statistical reporting from “rapid assessments” on the ground was extremely difficult, and a margin of error always existed. For that reason, the phrase “tens of thousands” was often being used in conjunction with the number of children who had died.

Questions also addressed the growing political crisis in Syria, where the United Nations had recently pulled out some of its non-essential staff. Responding to one correspondent who wondered how the United Nation’s humanitarian work would be affected by the pull-out, Ms. Amos said that she saw no contradiction between the removal of non-essential staff and a strong humanitarian response. Humanitarian officers were not being removed, as they were expected to work in difficult environments. “This is the reality of the work that we do,” she said.

Regarding the planned assessment of the humanitarian situation in Syria, Ms. Amos said that it was critical that any assessment be conducted independently. She would not want to see any conditions put on the United Nations ability to carry out its investigation, by the Government or any other actors. Maintaining independence remained essential, as it was necessary to negotiate with Syrian authorities for entry into the country.

For information media • not an official record

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