28 August 2015
Ahmad Fawzi, Director a.i. of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by spokespersons for the International Organization for Migration, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations Children’s Fund, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, United Nations Refugee Agency and the World Health Organization.

Geneva Activities

The Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families would start a new session on Monday 31 August, considering the reports of Cape Verde, Guinea, the Seychelles and Timor-Leste. A background release with the programme of work is available here.

The Conference on Disarmament would next meet in public on Wednesday, 2 September, 2015, at 10 a.m. in the Council Chamber.

The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was today concluding its review of the European Union. This is the last report scheduled for the session, which concludes next Friday. A background press release with the programme of work is available here.

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was meeting in public at
3 p.m. today to close its session and issue concluding observations for the reports reviewed during the session: Colombia, Costa Rica, Niger, Suriname, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Czech Republic, Norway and Netherlands. A background press release with the programme of work is available here.

Mr. Fawzi noted that Director-General Michael Moller gave a speech last night to more than 40 Swiss mayors for the Journée des Villes Suisse – Swiss Cities Day – on the subject of sustainable cities. By 2050 some 75 per cent of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas. The speech is available here.

On behalf of Clare Nullis for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), Mr. Fawzi announced that WMO would issue its next El Nino Update in a press conference at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 1 September, in Press Room 1. Maxx Dilley, Director, Climate Prediction and Adaption Branch, WMO and Rupa Kumar Kolli, Chief, World Climate Applications and Services Division, WMO, would be speaking.

Catherine Huissoud, for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), announced that a press conference would take place at 12.15 p.m. on Tuesday, 1 September 2015 in Press Room I to present the 2015 Report on UNCTAD assistance to the Palestinian People. The report found that prospects in Gaza were so dire it was clear from 2020 onwards people would not be able to live in Gaza, anymore. Mahmoud Elkhafif, Coordinator of UNCTAD Assistance to the Palestinian People, and Randa Jamal, Economic Affairs Officer, would be speaking. The report was embargoed until 1 September at 5 p.m. GMT, she noted. Ms. Huissoud noted that press conferences on the report would also be held in Ramallah and Cairo.

Refugees crossing the Mediterranean

Melissa Fleming, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said the number of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean this year had now exceeded 300,000, including almost 200,000 people landing in Greece and 110,000 in Italy. That represented a large increase from last year, when around 219,000 people crossed the Mediterranean during the whole of 2014.

At the same time, some 2,500 refugees and migrants were estimated to have died or gone missing this year, trying to reach Europe, said Ms. Fleming. That death toll did not include yesterday’s tragedy off Libya, where numbers of deaths are still unconfirmed.

Ms. Fleming briefed on three separate incidents involving boats of refugees off the coast of Libya in the last few days.

On Thursday (27 August) morning the Libyan Coast Guard carried out two rescue operations seven miles off coast from the port town of Zwara. Two boats carrying about 500 refugees and migrants were intercepted and survivors taken to shore in Libya. An estimated 200 people were still missing and feared dead. A still undetermined number of bodies were recovered and taken to shore. The Libyan Red Crescent had been helping with the collection of the bodies, said Ms. Fleming.

On Wednesday (26 August), rescuers coming to the aid of a boat off the Libyan coast found 51 people dead from suffocation in the hold. According to survivors, smugglers were charging people money for allowing them to come out of the hold in order to breathe. Ms. Fleming reported that one survivor told UNHCR staff “we didn’t want to go down there but they beat us with sticks to force us. We had no air so we were trying to get back up through the hatch and to breathe through the cracks in the ceiling. But the other passengers were scared the boat would capsize so they pushed us back down and beat us too. Some were stamping on our hands.” Another survivor told UNHCR he had paid €3,000 to get his wife and two-year-old son on the top deck.

Last week (15 August), in a similar incident, the bodies of 49 persons were found in the hold of another boat, who were thought to have died after inhaling poisonous fumes, said Ms. Fleming.

Also on Wednesday, 26 August, a rubber dinghy carrying some 145 refugees and migrants ran into trouble when the person steering it made a manoeuvre that caused the dinghy to tilt dangerously to one side. Some people fell into the sea and two men jumped into the water to rescue them. Panic ensued and people began to jostle and shove and, as a result, three women were crushed to death on the dinghy. Of those who fell in the water, 18 were still missing and believed to have drowned. The survivors were rescued and taken to Lampedusa, including the two-month old baby of one of the women who died. Most of the survivors are in critical condition, suffering from shock, cuts and bruises, she said.

Despite the concerted efforts of the joint European search and rescue operation under FRONTEX, which had saved tens of thousands of lives this year, the Mediterranean Sea continues to be the deadliest. UNHCR appealed to all Governments involved to provide comprehensive responses and act with humanity and in accordance with their international obligations, concluded Ms. Fleming.

More information can be found in the UNHCR briefing note: http://ow.ly/RkH3x

Asked why European countries weren’t upholding their responsibilities under international human rights treaties and for best examples of refugee protection, Ms. Fleming said UNHCR was calling for protection for the refugees coming into Europe, and more support to the Governments around the world which were already hosting refugees, particularly as 86 per cent of the world’s refugees were hosted in developing countries.

Responding to a question about the root causes for the increase in refugees coming to Europe, Ms. Fleming said there were two new trends stemming from the Syria conflict. The first trend was that of worsening conditions for refugees in the neighbouring countries. UNHCR and all partners working to serve refugees were totally underfunded. The result was that refugees were going hungry, for example the World Food Programme had been forced to slash its food vouchers to US$13 per person per month. Although most people said they preferred to stay in neighbouring countries, close to their home country, to eventually return and rebuild, many were losing hope after five years living in a squalid tent without enough food and water, and so were forced to flee to Europe.

The second trend was that people continued to flee Syria to save their lives. They knew conditions were poor in neighbouring countries, including new restrictions in Lebanon, so they were choosing to go straight to Europe. The Syrians could go to Lebanon, take a plane to Turkey, then catch a boat to Greece – that was a large source of the flow of people. Syria’s neighbours were overflowing with refugees and were receiving far too little support from those Governments and from humanitarian agencies including UNHCR, because they were all so underfunded by the international community.

Joel Millman, for the International Organization of Migration (IOM), also briefed on deaths of migrants on the Mediterranean sea. He said that hundreds of people were feared dead from the twin shipwrecks off the Libyan coast of Thursday, 27 August. The boats had had an estimated 500 people on board. At least 100 bodies had been taken to a hospital west of Tripoli. The remains of five children aged between one and three years old were among the bodies.

The IOM Libya Office was reporting that one of the two boats had been carrying 400 migrants. So far 100 had been rescued, including nine women and two young girls. The Libyan authorities expected to receive another 150 survivors today, and the rest of the passengers were still missing at sea, said Mr. Millman.

IOM was working to assist the rescued migrants, and had already met them and distributed hygiene kits and collected information regarding their nationalities and ages. There is more information in the IOM briefing note: http://www.iom.int/press-room.

Refugee/migrant bodies found in Austria

Melissa Fleming, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said UNHCR was deeply shocked and saddened at the grim discovery yesterday of the bodies of up to 70 people inside a truck abandoned near the Austrian border with Hungary. Austrian police said that they believed the truck came from Hungary and entered Austria on Wednesday night or early on Thursday morning, and that the victims might have been dead for one or two days. Their identity was still unknown but it was presumed that they were being transported by smugglers.

After establishing that there were no survivors, the truck was closed again by the police and moved to another location for further investigations. Police said that they counted at least 20 bodies but the actual number is likely to be much higher, said Ms. Fleming.

The tragedy underscored the ruthlessness of people smugglers who had expanded their business from the Mediterranean sea to the highways of Europe, said Ms. Fleming, and showed they had no regard for human life and were only after profit. It also showed the desperation of people seeking protection or a new life in Europe.

UNHCR hoped the incident would result in strong cooperation among European police forces, intelligence agencies and international organisations to crack down on the smuggling trade while putting in place measures to protect and care for victims. It reiterated its call to European countries to approach the refugee crisis in a spirit of solidarity and cooperation and to provide those seeking safety in Europe with safe legal alternatives to dangerous irregular voyages. Those legal avenues include resettlement or humanitarian admission programs, flexible visa policies and family reunification.

Ms. Fleming also briefed that this week the Hungarian border police had been intercepting more than 2,000 people crossing the border from Serbia every day. On Wednesday, police reported 3,241 new arrivals, including 700 children, which was the highest number in a single day so far this year.

More information can be found in the UNHCR briefing note: http://ow.ly/RkH3x

Joel Millman, for the International Organization of Migration (IOM), said IOM joined the rest of the international aid community in condemning the shameful act of neglecting dozens of migrants and refugees who, authorities in Austria said, suffocated in the back of a tractor trailer. The victims were discovered on Thursday.

Mr. Millman reported IOM Austria’s Chief of Mission, Ms. Katerina Kratzmann, as saying “The extent of the tragedy is much bigger than expected on Thursday. On Friday morning the speaker of the Federal Ministry of the Interior announced that more than 70 people died in the truck. The dead bodies included adult men and women.”

The chief of IOM’s office in Hungary, Ms. Majkowska-Tomkin, said that the migrants had almost certainly come along the Western Balkan route and had actually reached the “safety” of the Schengen zone, only to die within hours of reaching their destination. They had resorted to smugglers as no other means of transport – train or bus – was available to them, because they were routinely taken off the trains and buses bound for Austria and Germany from Hungary.

There is more information in the IOM briefing note here: http://www.iom.int/press-room.

Responding to a question about how UN and international organizations were responding to smuggler groups, Mr. Millman said IOM would convene a summit later this year on tackling the problem. Ms. Fleming said international organizations could only go so far; it needed international policing and intelligence services to also take the lead on it.


Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said OHCHR was concerned about the situation at the border between Colombia and Venezuela, particularly with reports of human rights violations occurring in the context of deportations of Colombians. OHCHR was also concerned about the declaration of a “state of emergency” in six border municipalities, in the Táchira State in Venezuela.

OHCHR called on the authorities in both countries to ensure the resolution of the situation through calm discussion and dialogue, firmly grounded in their obligations under international human rights law and international refugee law. It urged the Venezuelan authorities to ensure that the human rights of all affected individuals are fully respected, particularly in the context of any deportations. OHCHR would continue to closely monitor the situation and stood ready to engage with and advise the Venezuelan and Colombian authorities, concluded Ms. Shamdasani.

The briefing note can be found here: http://ow.ly/RkEON
Central African Republic

Christophe Boulierac for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), announced that a ceremony to celebrate the demobilization of child soldiers in Central African Republic was taking place this morning in Batangafo, in the north-west of the country. A helicopter had just taken off from Bangui, bringing representatives of UNICEF and the Government to the ceremony, he noted.

The ceremony would mark the formal release of a number of children from armed groups, said Mr. Boulierac. He reminded the journalists that earlier this year, in May 2015, a reconciliation forum had led to a freedom agreement and the release of 357 children. Between May and August this year, tens more children had also been released. That clearly showed that reconciliation was progressing. However, much more remained to be done, he emphasized, as it was believed some 6,000 to 10,000 children were still part of armed groups in the Central African Republic.

Democratic Republic of Congo

Jens Laerke, for the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), announced that Kyung-wha Kang, Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator and Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, was starting a five-day visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo on Monday to – once again – speak up on behalf of people in need, particularly in the east, and advocate for durable solutions to their situation.

There were an estimated 2.7 million people internally displaced across the Democratic Republic of the Congo; some 636,000 in North Kivu alone and 318,000 in South Kivu, said Mr. Laerke.

Ms Kang would begin her visit in Kinshasa and move on to both North and South Kivu in the east where various armed groups for years had terrorised communities and prompted the displacements of hundreds of thousands of people. In North Kivu, Ms Kang would visit the Mugunga III site where more than 5,000 Congolese had sought refuge. In South Kivu she would visit the Lusenda camp for mainly Burundian refugees.
Current challenges for the humanitarian community included access to vulnerable people in the midst of generalised insecurity in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and finding adequate funding for the humanitarian operation. The US$692 million response plan for Democratic Republic of the Congo was 45 per cent funded, concluded Mr. Laerke.

Cholera in Tanzania

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), reported on a new spike of cholera cases amounting to 404 cases and eight deaths, in the Dar es Salaam and the Morogoro regions, between 15 and 27 August 2015. The Dar es Salaam region was the most affected, with 354 cases and seven deaths.

Mr. Lindmeier recalled that the cholera outbreak in Kigoma region of Tanzania between May and July had related to refugees coming from Burundi, and had been brought under control. He said no epidemiological link had been established between the cases in the two regions. He added that there had not been any cases in the Kigoma refugee camp in recent weeks. WHO officials had visited the areas to assess needs, and five treatment centres had been established.

Bay of Bengal

Melissa Fleming, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), briefed on a new UNHCR report on refugees and migrants in South-East Asia and said UNHCR was urging States to help avert another boat crisis in the Bay of Bengal in coming weeks. UNHCR was calling for urgent action before the end of the monsoon season unleashed a new wave of people leaving on boats from the Bay of Bengal.

A new UNHCR report estimated that in the first six months of 2015 some 31,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis had departed from the Bay of Bengal on smugglers’ boats. That marked a 34 per cent increase over the same period last year, and brought to 94,000 the estimated number of people who had risked their lives making the dangerous journey since 2014. Over 1,100 people were estimated to have died in those waters since 2014, including 370 in 2015, said Ms. Fleming. She noted that more information – as well as links to the report – could be found in the briefing note: http://ow.ly/RkH3x.

South Sudan

Melissa Fleming, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said UNHCR welcomed the signing of a South Sudan peace deal as refugee and internally displaced people numbers surpassed the 2.6 million mark. The new numbers were a marked increase on the number reported at the time of the fourth anniversary of the South Sudan’s independence, said Ms. Fleming. More information can be found in the briefing note here: http://ow.ly/RkH3x.

Source: United Nations


Robert Williams

Editor in Chief



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