Regular Press Briefing by the Information Service, 16 January 2018
Meritxell Relano, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Representative in Yemen, speaking by telephone from Sana’a, said that since the escalation of the conflict in March 2015, more than 3 million children had been born in Yemen, most of them outside hospitals. Thirty percent of them were born premature, 30% had a low birth weight and 25,000 died at birth or within the first month of life. Pregnant and breastfeeding women suffered from anemia and folic acid deficiency, among other conditions. Those children who survived past their first month were growing up malnourished and in the midst of ongoing conflict. An estimated 1.8 million children were acutely malnourished, including nearly 400,000 severe acutely malnourished children. Half of all health facilities in Yemen had closed and those still in operation were running out of fuel. Cholera and, more recently, listeriosis, were ravaging the country, taking an especially harsh toll on children. It was crucial that Hudaydah Port should remain open.
In response to questions from journalists, Ms. Relano said that Hudaydah Port was to remain open until 19 January; the Saudi-led Coalition would then announce whether the Port would be closed after that date. It was hoped that it would remain open so that goods could continue to come into the country and not only provide immediate humanitarian assistance but also ultimately help prevent the spread of cholera and other diseases.
Asked about the funding of the current appeal for Yemen, Ms. Relano said that through the inter-agency Humanitarian Response Plan, UNICEF aimed to reach some 11 million children in need of humanitarian assistance. There was a range of donors from all over the world, with the World Bank as the largest donor currently. Saudi Arabia had contributed US$30 million in 2015 towards a comprehensive health and nutrition programme. However, financing was sufficient to end the current crisis, which could be resolved only through an end to the conflict. Until such time, children would continue to be malnourished and die and an entire generation risked being lost.
Responding to a question about vaccination campaigns in Yemen, Ms. Relano said that a diphtheria vaccination campaign had begun in several districts. UNICEF had negotiated with the Saudi authorities to expand the campaign to other age groups; there was agreement on conducting the campaign in phases. The first phase had already been completed.
Responding to further questions, Ms. Relano said that more than 5,000 children had been killed or maimed in the violence since March 2015 and over 2,000 children had been recruited by armed groups on the ground; both those figures accounted only for verified cases, with the real numbers being likely much higher. Moreover, there had been a 27% increase in recruitment in November and December 2017.
Bettina Luescher, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said that WFP had delivered four United-States-funded mobile cranes to Hudaydah Port. The cranes would boost the capacity of the port and make delivering and unloading humanitarian and commercial aid much easier.
Yemen was experiencing the world’s largest hunger crisis. More than eight million people were entirely dependent on external food assistance. WFP was grateful to the Governments of the United States and United Kingdom for drawing attention to the crisis and to the United States for funding the cranes. To avert famine, WFP had made an appeal for US$303 million for the first half of 2018.
Responding to questions from journalists, Christophe Boulierac, for UNICEF, said that while it was difficult to provide statistics on the number of children who had died from severe acute malnutrition in a given year, it was known that of the 1.8 million acutely malnourished children, some 400,000 suffered from severe acute malnutrition, which made them nine times more likely to die than a child who received adequate food. Ms. Luescher, for WFP, added that there were 17.8 million people who were food-insecure; 8.4 million who were severely food-insecure; 1.8 million acutely malnourished children aged six month to five years; and 1.1 million acutely malnourished pregnant or nursing women. Severely food-insecure people relied entirely on outside help to survive.
Responding to further questions, Ms. Luescher, for WFP, said that the cranes were operational immediately. Each crane had the capacity to lift and unload 60 tonnes; two of them would be used by WFP for food assistance, while the other two would be used for commercial imports. Even in peaceful times, Yemen had always imported the vast majority of its food. More needed to be done to avert famine, including ensuring better access to all areas of the country and more efficient clearance of shipments.
Ms. Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that diphtheria was spreading quickly in Yemen, with a current total of 678 probable diphtheria cases and 48 associated deaths reported. The overall case fatality rate was 7%. Nineteen governorates out of 23 were affected by the outbreak. The most severely affected governorates were Ibb and Hudaydah. Children under the age of 5 years old accounted for 19% of suspected cases and for 27% of deaths. WHO and its partners, were working to provide vaccines against diphtheria. UNICEF has imported 2.5 million doses of pentavalent vaccines and 3 million doses of Td vaccines. They stood ready to support the campaign to all age groups as needed.
Turning to the cholera situation in Yemen, Ms. Chaib, for WHO, said that the cumulative total of suspected cases had surpassed 1 million and there had been 2,244 associated deaths. The overall case fatality rate was 0.22%. The number of cholera cases had decreased over the previous few months but monitoring of the situation was still necessary.
In response to questions from journalists, Ms. Chaib said that diphtheria was a highly infectious disease but vaccine-preventable. It was recommended in children routine immunization programmes worldwide. The outbreak in Yemen highlighted the major gaps in routine vaccination and an extremely weak health system.When the outbreak had started, antitoxins and vaccines had been in short supply in the country. However, it had been possible to import them in mid-December 2017, even though initially import restrictions had made it difficult. Additional diphtheria vaccine doses were ready to be shipped. No cholera vaccination campaign had been put in place.
Responding to questions about the position of the United Nations with regard to the conflict in Yemen, Alessandra Vellucci,
United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that the Secretary-General had, on repeated occasions, expressed the need for an end to the war in Yemen, the ultimate solution to the current crisis. All the parties involved in the conflict were responsible for finding a solution; until then, the Secretary-General had urged the parties on the ground to allow full humanitarian aid access.
Bettina Luescher, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said that WFP was extremely concerned about the upsurge in violence in the besieged Eastern Ghouta enclave of rural Damascus, and in Idlib governorate in north-west Syria. Since the end of last year, airstrikes had destroyed numerous civilian buildings, killing hundreds of people in both places and, in the case of Idlib, displacing some 100,000 people.
In Idlib, general insecurity had increased as armed clashes between government forces, their allies and opposition armed groups had intensified. Insecurity had also spread to parts of northeast Hama, western rural Aleppo and southern Idlib, forcing 100,000 people to abandon their homes near the frontline and move towards safer areas of Idlib governorate. Conditions were dire in Idlib with many displaced people forced to stay out in the open during the winter period. WFP had assisted a total of 70,000 displaced people in Idlib in December and January with ready-to-eat, five-day rations; there were plans to distribute additional ready-to-eat rations in the coming days. WFP and its partners were conducting assessments to ascertain the rising level of need as more displacements took place. WFP had prepositioned over 27,000 ready-to-eat rations in Idlib and Aleppo in the event of a surge in humanitarian needs, and shipments of additional emergency supplies from Turkey were also ongoing.
In the besieged enclave of Eastern Ghouta, fighting continued. Nearly 400,000 people were living in dire conditions with severe shortages of food, fuel and drinking water. A total of 417,000 people were currently living under siege in Syria, with the largest proportion of them in besieged areas of Eastern Ghouta, where almost 400,000 people lived. WFP access to Eastern Ghouta had been severely restricted for the past five years, allowing only a trickle of aid to reach families in need. In 2017, WFP had helped to deliver food assistance for 110,000 people (some being reached multiple times) in 13 parts of the besieged enclave. The single greatest priority must be an end to the conflict which had raged for more than seven years and which was pushing ever-more people into hunger and misery. WFP appealed to all parties to protect civilians, respect humanitarian principles and allow the safe delivery of food to families in need, no matter where they were.
In response to questions from journalists, Ms. Luescher said that in addition to the 70,000 recently displaced people in Idlib whom WFP had reached in December 2017 and January 2018, WFP, together with its partners, had provided assistance to 330,000 people in the governorate. Ready-to-eat rations had been brought in from Turkey.
Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, recalled that at the noon briefing held on 15 January 2018, the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General had stated that the United Nations reminded all parties of their responsibilities to protect civilians and continued to call for safe, unimpeded and sustained access to all people in need, including the millions of people who live in hard‑to‑reach and besieged areas.
Asked by journalists for an update on the Syria talks, Ms. Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, dismissed the announcement by some sources of Syria talks to be held in Montreux in mid to late January. The Special Envoy for Syria had said that he was working towards the ninth round of talks. While it was still hoped that such talks would take place before the end of January, as announced, no concrete details were yet available. The Special Envoy’s attendance of the Syria-related event to be held in Sochi, Russian Federation, in late January, had also not yet been confirmed; his position remained that every initiative on the conflict in Syria should be welcomed by virtue of whether they contributed to the United-Nations-brokered talks in Geneva.
Cholera outbreaks in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Ms. Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that Zambia was experiencing one of the worst outbreaks of cholera in years. While sporadic cases of cholera were regular occurrences during the five-month rainy season, the number of cases this year exceeded the annual average caseload. The Government of Zambia had declared the outbreak on 6 October 2017 and had recently put in place temporary measures such as closing schools and banning public gatherings in order to prevent mass gatherings in places where access to safe water and sanitation was not guaranteed. Countrywide the cumulative number of cases was 3,233 with 74 deaths . Out of these, Lusaka had reported 3,065 cases with 68 deaths.
The Government of Zambia had launched a campaign to vaccinate 1 million residents of Lusaka with support from the World Health Organization and partners. By January 10, nearly half a million people had been vaccinated. WHO had donated oral rehydration solution, intravenous fluids, antibiotics and four cholera kits to treatment centres.
Turning to the cholera situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ms. Chaib said that WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, had visited Kinshasa on 15 January to offer support to authorities in combatting the severe cholera outbreak. Recent flooding had resulted in the loss of 5,100 homes, leaving more than 10,000 homeless, and was expected to significantly increase the risk of the spread of cholera in Kinshasa and throughout the country. The rainy season would continue until June and could exacerbate the situation. WHO was working with health authorities to step up the response to this outbreak: it had deployed a team of technical experts to work with the authorities and to go to the various districts to collect data, provide training, and assess the cholera situation.
In response to questions from journalists about the cholera situation in Zambia, Ms. Chaib said that the vaccination campaign provided for two rounds of immunizations. The first round provided for around 1 million doses of the vaccine to be administered to residents of Lusaka; that first round was ongoing and the second round would start shortly. Since the previous weekend, the temporary measures involving the closure of schools and banning of public gatherings had been lifted. This was a positive step, given that cholera was not a respiratory illness that was transmitted from person to person and also given that schools and markets were ideal places for conveying public health messages.
In response to questions from journalists about the cholera situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ms. Chaib said that WHO had recently procured and shipped an emergency health kit with essential medicines, supplies and equipment to meet the basic health needs of 10,000 people for three months. It had also shipped four cholera kits – each one able to treat 400 moderate cases and 100 severe cases – for a total of 1,600 and 400 cases, respectively.
Andrej Mahecic, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), made the following statement:
“UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, notes yesterday’s (15 January) meeting of the Joint Working Group on returns between the Governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar, in Naypiydaw, Myanmar. They reportedly discussed the implementation of their bilateral arrangement signed on 23 November 2017 on the return of refugees who have been arriving from Rakhine State in Myanmar into Bangladesh since 25 August. UNHCR underscores the importance of the dialogue between the two States at the core of which is the right of refugees to voluntarily return home. To ensure that the refugees are heard and their protection guaranteed in Bangladesh and on return in Myanmar, we are willing to be part of these discussions.
UNHCR understands that in yesterday’s discussions, Bangladesh and Myanmar focused on the modalities for the return of refugees to Myanmar. In any refugee situation, UNHCR hopes that refugees will be able to return home when they themselves choose to. Before considering return to Myanmar, some Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have informed UNHCR staff that they would need to see positive developments in relation to their legal status and citizenship, the security situation in Rakhine State, and their ability to enjoy basic rights back home.
In that regard, major challenges have to be overcome. These include ensuring that refugees are informed about the situation in their areas of origin and potential return and consulted on their wishes; that their safety is ensured throughout - on departure, in transit and on return; and that the environment in the areas of return is conducive for safe and sustainable repatriation.
In this context, we have observed that the Government of Myanmar has endorsed the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission (RAC) led by Kofi Annan and reiterated its commitment to implement them; that was also reiterated in the bilateral Arrangement with the Government of Bangladesh. A comprehensive implementation of the Rakhine Advisory Commission recommendations is essential to ensure sustainable return. These stress the importance of ensuring peace and security for all communities in Rakhine State, reducing communal divisions, and achieving solutions for the legal and citizenship status of Muslim communities. We look to Myanmar to urgently implement these recommendations.
In Myanmar, UNHCR and our partners need urgent, unhindered humanitarian access in Rakhine State, in order to assess the situation and provide support to those in need who are still in Rakhine and to help with rebuilding efforts. While a few agencies have regained limited access in the northern part of Rakhine State, UNHCR staff are not currently authorised to travel outside Maungdaw town.
Meanwhile humanitarian efforts continue in Bangladesh. Over the weekend, UNHCR and our partners started relocating more than 9,400 refugees who had been living in isolated border locations in Bangladesh, to Kutupalong refugee settlement. This is now, with more than 560,000 people living there, the largest refugee settlement today.
These refugees had initially chosen to stay near the border to remain close to their homes. Their isolated location also meant that they received little assistance and had no access to informal education or medical facilities. The nearest hospital for emergency cases was more than an hour away.
They agreed to move to Kutupalong refugee settlement where they could more easily access assistance and basic services.
In the last two days more than four hundred of these refugees have been taken by buses to Kutupalong site where they underwent medical checks, and received hot meals, emergency relief items as well as shelter kits. They told UNHCR staff they were very happy to be at the site with other members of their community, to get help and be able to sleep in peace. The relocation movements will continue over the next few weeks.”
Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that the position of IOM globally was that it would offer support to displaced people who wished to return to their homes. However, according to IOM principles, it was crucial that any such return must be voluntary, safe, sustainable and dignified. At present, Rohingya people were still arriving from Myanmar every day and were in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. IOM continued to focus on supporting the needs of those new arrivals as well as the 656,000 people who had arrived since 25 August 2017.
Mr. Millman also said that starting on 17 January IOM counter-trafficking experts were launching a programme with local law enforcement officers in Cox’s Bazaar. Rohingya children, women and children were targeted by traffickers who sought to exploit them in various situations including the sex industry, as unpaid domestic help, and in other forms of bonded labour. There was no single solution to ending trafficking and it was vital that aid agencies and the authorities worked together to build skills and share information about counter-trafficking, which had been an issue for the Rohingya population long before the latest influx of refugees.
Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that the more than half a million Rohingya children living in overcrowded camps and informal settlements in Bangladesh were likely to be put at even greater risk ahead of upcoming cyclone and monsoon seasons. Tropical cyclones generally strike Bangladesh in two seasons, March through July and September through December. The dangers facing children would be (still-poorer) sanitation and hygiene conditions and even less access to safe water, resulting in turn in more potential cholera outbreaks and hepatitis E, a deadly disease for pregnant women and their babies, while standing water pools could attract malaria-carrying mosquitoes. An already dire situation for children risked becoming a catastrophe with the onset of the cyclone and monsoon season. More than 4,000 suspected cases of diphtheria had been reported among the refugee population, with 32 deaths, including at least 24 children. UNICEF and its partners had launched a diphtheria vaccination campaign and were working to provide children and families with access to safe water and sanitation facilities, but overcrowding and the growing risk of extreme weather increased the risk of further outbreaks.
In response to questions from journalists, Mr. Mahecic, for UNHCR, said that in accordance with international standards on voluntary repatriation, any return arrangements should depend on the wishes of refugees, who should return only when it was safe for them to do so. While some refugees had already expressed a wish to return to Myanmar, and their wishes should be respected, UNHCR staff on the ground had spoken to other refugees who said that they would first need to see positive developments in relation to their legal status and citizenship in Myanmar before returning. That said, talks about future returns between the Governments involved were important, especially because Myanmar, as the refugees’ country of origin, was in part responsible for finding solutions to the situation. UNHCR had stated time and again that any refugee returns should not be premature or precipitated and that international standards must be upheld throughout the process. UNHCR had never claimed to be involved in the talks between Myanmar and Bangladesh about future returns; however, it was willing to be part of those discussions. Major challenges remained, many of which had been outlined in the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission. The fact that Rohingya were still fleeing to Bangladesh for safety – as many as 960 last week – was a sign that the conditions for their safe, dignified return to Myanmar were not yet in place. UNHCR still had no access to Rakhine State beyond Maungdaw. Mr. Millman, for IOM, said that the latest figures were up to 1,500 new arrivals per day, but that was not true every day.
In response to further questions, Ms. Luescher, for WFP, said that WFP had local staff on the ground in northern Rakhine. A total of 63,600 people had been reached there. In central Rakhine, 114,000 people had been reached. WFP was coordinating its actions with ICRC so as not to overlap. WFP was working on a request from the Myanmar Government for FAO and WFP to conduct a Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission in Rakhine State. Details and timing for the assessment were being discussed with the Government. It is essential to gain a thorough understanding of the food security situation of people in Rakhine State, and this assessment would be a welcome step in that direction.