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Bi-Weekly Briefing

Rhéal LeBlanc, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section at the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, speaking for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the hybrid briefing, which was attended by spokespersons and representatives of UNICEF, the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Meterorological Organization (WMO).

Situation in Ukraine and children’s mental health

Rhéal LeBlanc, speaking for the United Nations Information Service, said the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres had briefed the Security Council about his recent visit to Russia and Ukraine, speaking about the safe passage evacuations that were taking place in coordination with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Nearly 500 civilians had found relief after a long time holed up in the Azovstal plant.

“We must continue to do all we can to get people out of these hellscapes,” Mr. Guterres said. The Ukraine war was also setting in motion “a crisis that is also devastating global energy markets, disrupting financial systems and exacerbating extreme vulnerabilities for the developing world,” and Mr. Guterres hoped that the Global Crisis Response Group on Food, Energy and Finance would be able to mobilize UN agencies, multilateral development banks and other institutions to help countries face these challenges. Concluding, Mr. Guterres said “The war…is senseless in its scope, ruthless in its dimensions and limitless in its potential for global harm. It is high time to unite and end this war”.

James Elder, spokesperson for UNICEF, speaking from Dnipro, said there were rockets hitting the city as he was speaking, illustrating what civilians were currently undergoing. UNICEF was in the middle of a distribution. There was a duty of care, not just to keep children alive, but also to respond to the trauma they were undergoing.

Aaron Greenberg UNICEF’s regional child protection advisor for Europe & Central Asia, speaking from Lviv, said the situation in Ukraine was a complex crisis of extraordinary scope, the like of which had never been seen before, with 7 million people internally displaced and over 5.5 million people driven across international borders, including nearly two-thirds of all children in Ukraine. Hundreds of children had been killed and many more injured, and there had been nearly 200 attacks against health care facilities and schools, which continued to be impacted by strikes.

The Government and humanitarian partners were working to protect children, but the needs were tremendous. Ukraine had the highest number of children in institutional care in Europe before the war, nearly half of whom were children with disabilities, and the impact of the war on them had been particularly devastating. Many children had been hastily returned to families as the war started and had not received the care they needed. Children had been shaken by bomb explosions and the alert systems, were coping with the absence of almost all adult males in their lives, and had witnessed or experienced physical or sexual violence. But children were resilient: many would bounce back when their lives would return to normal. A sub-set would need more psycho-social support, some would present symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and this group would need more intensive support from dedicated professionals.

The social service workforce in Ukraine was equally impacted by this combat: retaining the workforce and sustaining them to stand and deliver was vital, and the international community must support them through existing Governmental systems. UNICEF was working in over-drive, supporting the Government, protecting child-support mechanisms, and supporting local services. Since 24 February, over 140,000 children had been provided with mental health and psycho-social services. Over 40,000 children had benefited from specialized services. But it was not enough- and the international community must be prepared with more specialized services for children who had faced violence and sexual violence.

Responding to a question on disabled children, Mr. Greenberg said the Ukrainian Government had been trying to address the pre-existing situation about children languishing in institutional care and who should be transferred to family care. The war was exacerbating the situation. There was a Task Force bringing together all actors in the country to visit every child in every institution, deliver supplies and support, and start a process of individual case management for each child. As of this week, 800 children had been visited, and that work was scaling up. Teams were visiting every child, not just in institutions. Out of the 91’000 children in institutions, approximately 35,000 had returned to families when the war started, predominantly from boarding schools. Those children needed to be visited. Children who had been evacuated from the East and South numbered between 3,000 and 4,000. There were still children who remained in institutions, who were not evacuated, and children in foster families and in guardianship arrangements, and when this was layered, the number of children in need was incredibly high. UNICEF was focusing first on areas that could be accessed and the institutions where the most vulnerable children were. The Ministries and the Government were intent on providing support, and they were deeply involved in coordinating processes to ensure everything possible could be done.

Responding to another question, Mr. Greenberg said that pre-war, anywhere between 40 and 50% of children in institutions had some form of disability. Reforms pre-war had not successfully tackled the institutionalization and the process of moving to family-based care for all children, including those with disabilities. The resources and support needed to engage these children was difficult to obtain right now. However, UNICEF had been working with the Government to support the workforce. Solidarity in Ukraine was like nothing UNICEF had ever seen, but workers needed guaranteed salaries, support for their work and travel, as well as their own mental health. There was a need to invest heavily in national NGOs, to provide them with the money and support they needed, as the scale was too large. The resources were needed to support and build capacity for the national system, and then augment it with international support.

Responding to questions on why there had been such a high number of children in institutions in Ukraine, and what was the situation of children in the East part of the country in Russian-controlled areas, Mr. Greenberg explained that former Soviet States had inherited a legacy of institutional care, and had struggled to move away from this situation where there were one-stop solutions for very complex needs for care. It was a complex process and usually took 10 to 15 years to do effectively, and the move from institutional care to community-based and foster care had not happened in Ukraine. The Government had tried to do so several times but had not been able to make much progress. Mr. Greenberg said he could not speak to what was happening in the Russian-controlled territory, as UNICEF had no access, although it continued to monitor the situation and provide support.

On a question regarding the reports of sexual assault experienced by children, Mr. Greenberg said the levels of conflict-driven sexual violence numbers of confirmed cases were currently in the tens, and UNICEF was supporting 12 dedicated mobile violence teams in the East, who had worked so far with 7,000 cases involving women and children. Some of their efforts were more preventive in nature, some were cases of directly experiencing violence. It was very difficult to provide services and report disaggregated data in a timely manner across the wide field, but UNICEF was doing its best to produce these. The volume was high, and hopefully in two weeks with an increase in mobile teams it would be easier to address sexual and gender-based violence. UNICEF expected the number of cases to be in the tens of thousands, and was working to respond to the more egregious forms. It was also working with the Government of Ukraine to scale up as fast as possible to ensure that survivors had access to tertiary services and were connected to justice mechanisms in a way that honoured their rights without re-traumatizing them.

Isabel Piquer Hubert, International Labour Organization (ILO), said the ILO would issue an initial assessment on the impact of the Ukraine crisis in the world of work on Wednesday 11 May. The brief would explain how economic disruptions, combined with heavy internal displacement and flows of refugees, are causing large-scale losses in terms of employment and incomes. It also included estimates on how the situation could worsen if the hostilities were to escalate, examined the impact of the crisis in neighbouring countries and in Central Asia, and explained how the conflict could complicate the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. For UNOG-accredited correspondents, an embargoed virtual press briefing would take place on Wednesday 11 May from 11:00 to 12:00 CEST.

Monthly Food Price Index

Josef Schmidhuber, Deputy Director, Markets and Trade Division at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said there was a stabilization of food prices at a very high level, although prices were slightly below the levels reached in March. This was due to high prices for vegetables and cereals, and there had been massive run-ups in prices for transformed goods such as rape-seed to oil. Food prices remained very high, and this took a toll on global food security. The index was down by 0.8% in April, still nearly 30% above the level characteristic for prices a year ago. Cereal prices were going down slightly, wheat prices were going up. It was an almost grotesque situation: in Ukraine there were nearly 25 million tons that could be exported, but could not leave the company due to blockades at ports. Harvest conditions in Ukraine did not look dire, and therefore there may be a lack of storage capacity in Ukraine. Rice was going up in price, a new phenomenon, and this could be a harbinger of things to come. Vegetable oils were dropping in price. Meat and poultry prices were up across the board. Dairy and sugar prices were also rising, as more sugar cane was going into ethanol, which restricted supply. There was a very good crop in India, however, which should keep a lid on sugar prices.

Responding to a question on the situation in Ukraine, Mr. Schmidhuber said that approximately 14 million tons of grain should be available for export, but 25 million were usually exported from the country. Current winter crops were all sown between September-October 2021. They were mostly in areas unaffected by the conflict. About 50% of the summer crops had been sown already, and hopefully a certain amount more would be sown. In response to another question, he clarified that most grain exports would normally be going through Black Sea ports. Responding to a further question, he said that he did not know how much of the basic infrastructure and inputs would be available for harvesting. Overall, however, the current problem was not necessarily one of availability, but one of access. There was enough grain to go around, but it wasn’t moving to the places where it was needed. Asked whether Russian troops were looting grain storage and deliberately destroying farmland and livestock to escalate the crisis and use food as a weapon, Mr. Schmidhuber said that there was anecdotal evidence to this effect, but there was no statistical data.

Adriano Timossi, speaking for the Food and Agriculture Organization, said the FAO had launched The State of the World’s Forests (SOFO 2022) at the XV World Forestry Congress , which explored the potential of three forest pathways for achieving green recovery and tackling environmental crises, including climate change and biodiversity loss against the backdrop of the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use and the pledge of 140 countries to eliminate forest loss by 2030 and to support restoration and sustainable production and consumption. The Global Report on Food Crisis 2022 (GRFC2022) was published on Wednesday, indicating that the number of people facing acute food insecurity and requiring urgent life-saving food assistance and livelihood support continues to grow at an alarming rate. The 33rd session of the FAO Regional Conference for Europe will take place 10 to 13 May 2022 in Łódź (Poland). Discussion will cover the promotion of healthy diets. The United Nations designated 12 May the International Day of Plant Health (IDPH) to raise global awareness on how protecting plant health can help end hunger, reduce poverty, protect biodiversity and the environment, and boost economic development. A virtual event would take place and was open for registration here.

Temperature Outlook Update

Claire Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said the WMO was releasing on Monday 9 May a press release about the temperature outlook for the next five years. This outlook was updated and issued annually. On Wednesday 18 May, there would be a press conference by Petrie Tallus, Head of WMO, to further discuss the situation with regard to the temperature.

Press conferences and meeting coverage

Rheal LeBlanc, speaking for the Information Service, said there would be a hybrid press conference today at 1 p.m. from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) on War in Ukraine: Risks and Opportunities for the Continent (Food crisis, Instability, Debt and Energy), with Ahunna Eziakonwa, United Nations Assistant-Secretary General and UNDP’s Assistant Administrator and Regional Bureau for Africa Director, and Raymond Gilpin, UNDP Africa Chief Economist and Head of the Strategy, Analysis and Research Team.

Also, on Monday 9 May at 3:30 p.m. there would be the launch of the new WHO report on regulating cross-border marketing of alcohol. Speaking would be Dag Rekve, Senior Technical Officer, Alcohol, Drugs and Addictive Behaviours Team, and Dr. Vladimir Poznyak, Unit Head, Alcohol, Drugs and Addictive Bahaviours, World Health Organization.

The Committee Against Torture would conclude this afternoon its review of the report of Uruguay, begun yesterday morning. The Committee on the Rights of the Child was concluding this morning its review of the report of Cambodia, begun yesterday afternoon. Other countries to be reviewed during this session include Somalia, Zambia, Cuba, Djibouti, Cyprus, Canada, Kiribati, Croatia and Chile.

On behalf of the United Nations Information Service, Mr. LeBlanc also offered warmest congratulations to two correspondents accredited at the United Nations in Geneva who were big winners in the 2022 Swiss Press Awards: Denis Balibouse from Reuters had won first prize in the Swiss Press Photo “News” section, while Mark Henley, from Panos Pictures, had won first prize in the “Daily Life” section. Mr. Balibouse was also named Swiss Press Photographer of the Year 2022.