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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE UNITED NATIONS INFORMATION SERVICE

Bi-Weekly Briefing

Rhéal LeBlanc, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, chaired the hybrid briefing, attended by the spokespersons and representatives of the World Food Programme, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the International Organization for Migration.

Economic downturn and hunger crisis in Yemen

Tobias Flaemig, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said that an alarming and rapid economic decline threatened to exacerbate the hunger crisis in Yemen. Soaring food prices in the first half of 2021 had left millions struggling to afford food. The value of the Yemeni rial (YRI) has reached record lows in southern Yemen, reaching YRI 1,000 to the United States dollar for the first time in July, although the exchange rate remained stable in northern areas due to tight economic controls. Fuel imports were down by 74% and fuel prices were up 90% year on year. Rising global commodities prices were also pushing up the cost of food in the import-dependent country. The cost of the minimum food basket had risen by over 25% in 12 out of 22 governorates since the beginning of 2021. In Marib Governorate, the current epicentre of the conflict, prices had risen by 44% since the start of the year.

As a result of the economic downturn, inadequate food consumption, one measure of hunger, was increasing each day. It had now passed the ‘very high’ threshold of 40%, according to WFP data. Families were resorting to desperate measures to survive as the high cost of food pushed them to the brink. Reducing the size or frequency of meals, adults not eating to feed their children, reducing diet diversity, and relying on cheaper or lower quality food were all common coping strategies. Families were also taking on debt to pay for food.

Humanitarian food assistance was the best line of defence against massive loss of life in Yemen and was vital in preventing famine. WFP had increased food assistance in all famine-risk areas since the start of 2021 as additional funds had become available. However, about 3 million of the 13 million people that WFP supported with food assistance were still receiving food assistance in alternate months, due to uncertain funding. WFP continued to call for a sustainable solution to the crisis in Yemen. As the economic cost of the war grew, urgent action was needed to prevent further decline of the economy.

A famine had not been declared in Yemen, as famine classification required specific evidence of food security, malnutrition and mortality – evidence that was difficult to collect in a conflict zone. The international community must not wait for a declaration of famine to act. Yemen had 16.2 million severely food insecure people and 2.3 million acutely malnourished children under the age of 5 years, of whom 400,000 were at risk of dying if left without treatment. Some 1.2 million pregnant and nursing mothers were acutely malnourished. Hunger left people acutely vulnerable to various public health risks, including coronavirus disease (COVID-19), cholera, dengue and malaria.

In terms of its response, WFP was providing emergency food assistance to nearly 13 million people, prioritizing areas with the highest rates of food insecurity. It had increased the cash assistance amount from July to help families cope with rising food prices. It was supporting 3.3 million children and mothers with nutrition supplements to treat and prevent malnutrition. WFP was also working on community development programmes to provide livelihoods support and training and to boost resilience. A school feeding provided daily nutritious snacks to 1.55 million school children, a vital nutrition boost that also helped to improve school attendance. WFP also provided much of the logistical capacity for the humanitarian response in Yemen, supporting other United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

As for funding, WFP had received over USD 1 billion of the USD 1.9 billion needed to maintain food assistance for the millions of Yemenis facing food insecurity. While grateful to its donors, WFP needed consistent and predictable funding to maintain the level of response needed to avert famine. Based on funds currently available, WFP would face shortfalls from October. The consequences of cuts to assistance would be devastating for vulnerable Yemenis.

In response to journalists, Mr. Flaemig said the blockade imposed on Yemen during the conflict had had severe consequences, notably a dramatic fall in fuel imports, which had driven up the costs of transport and energy. On the positive side, food imports had picked up in 2021, but it was important that the supply chain remained uninterrupted if WFP was to conduct its operations smoothly.

Refugees and health situation in Tigray Region

Babar Baloch, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said the Agency was extremely concerned about the fate of an estimated 24,000 Eritrean refugees currently trapped in the Mai Aini and Adi Harush camps in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, as fighting between armed groups escalated. The refugees faced intimidation and harassment, lived in constant fear, and were cut off from humanitarian assistance. UNHCR had also received disturbing and credible reports that at least one refugee had been killed by armed elements operating inside the Mai Aini camp. Another refugee had been killed on 14 July. UNHCR implored all parties to the conflict to uphold their obligations under international law and to respect the rights of refugees and civilians to be protected from hostilities.

The full briefing note can be found here: UNHCR - Eritrean refugees in Tigray caught up in conflict

Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), said the United Nations Secretary-General had reiterated his call for unfettered humanitarian assistance, for all hostilities to stop and for urgent steps to be taken towards a sustainable resolution of the conflict. The Secretary-General was extremely concerned about the widening conflict in northern Ethiopia and its impact on civilians.

Replying to questions from journalists, Mr. Baloch said the situation in the camps had steadily deteriorated since UNHCR and its partners had lost access on 14 July. UNHCR had been working with the Tigrayan local authorities and the Ethiopian refugee agency to ensure the safety of refugees and civilians. As a result, 98 refugees from the two camps had arrived in Amhara Region. Nevertheless, conditions in terms of access to food, water and health facilities, remained difficult. Although 30 days of food rations had been distributed to the camps in June, it was likely that supplies were running out. Humanitarian access to Tigray Region remained problematic, as the road between Semera and Mekele had been blocked since 18 July.

Fadéla Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said the priority of WHO was to scale up deliveries to resupply health facilities so health workers could return to providing essential health-care services. Lack of cash and fuel were rendering operations increasingly challenging and stocks were depleting quickly. Some 3.8 million people in the region needed health assistance. Although WHO and its partners had planned to provide health assistance and services to 2.3 million people in 2021, they had only managed to reach 87,000 people since 1 May.

Healthcare services in Tigray were alarmingly limited, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without adequate access to essential medicines and basic care. Health facilities had sustained damage, and equipment had been looted and destroyed. Besides the lack of essential medicines, there was a need to support diagnostic capacity in all health facilities. Although some health staff were returning to work, the lack of supplies prevented them from doing their jobs and cash flow restrictions meant their salaries could not be paid. Together with its partners on the ground, WHO was trying to resupply health centres to allow them to function again – an extremely difficult task. WHO had provided Inter-Agency Emergency Health Kits, with medication to treat over 30,000 people during three months, to health partners across the region.

WHO was also concerned about the security of humanitarian workers. Since the beginning of the conflict, 12 aid workers had been killed and 140 incidents reported in which aid workers’ security had been impacted. In June, multiple cases of violence or threats of violence against aid personnel, assets and facilities had been reported.

WHO and partners were pursuing efforts to strengthen preparedness and response in relation to diseases of epidemic potential (cholera, measles, malaria and COVID-19), focusing on displaced populations, and to investigate suspected outbreaks in the region. Given that the risk of a cholera outbreak was particularly high, the first round of an oral cholera vaccination campaign had been carried out, reaching over 2 million of the targeted 4 million people. WHO had also helped train trainers and vaccinators for the campaign and was providing technical and operational support. Lastly, WHO was concerned that 1.8 million people, mostly children, were at risk of measles if they were not reached with measles vaccination.

Replying to journalists, Ms. Chaib said that people who had been injured in the conflict, pregnant and lactating women, and children, all had urgent health needs. WHO was also concerned about severe malnutrition, as it had detected a worrisome increase in the weekly number of cases in Tigray. All cases of severe acute malnutrition required specialized care and could lead to serious complications or even death if not treated on time. For that reason, WHO was working with partners such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and WFP to support all aspects of health and nutrition, including in stabilization centres where severely malnourished children could receive therapeutic feeding services and overall progress would be monitored. However, of the 92 stabilization centres previously in place in Tigray, just 23 remained operational.

Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education

James Elder, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that even with schools in the northern hemisphere closed for the summer, more than 600 million children in countries not on academic break remained affected by school closures. In nearly half of countries in Asia and the Pacific, schools had been closed for more than 200 days during the pandemic. In Latin America and the Caribbean, after some of the longest closures ever seen, there were 18 countries and territories where schools were still closed or partially closed. Based on its most recent estimates, today UNICEF had reported that 40% of all school-aged children across Eastern and Southern Africa were currently not in school. As a result, education, safety, friends and food had often been replaced by anxiety, violence and teenage pregnancy. Child helplines had seen triple-digit rises.

For at least a third of the world’s school children, remote learning was simply out of reach. Across East Asia and the Pacific, UNICEF estimated that more than 80 million children had not had access to distance learning during school closures. In Eastern and Southern Africa, schools in Uganda had been closed for 306 days and schools in South Sudan for 231 days. In both countries less than 0.5% of school children had Internet access at home.

UNICEF believed the school closures could not continue in the light of clear evidence that primary and secondary schools were not among the main drivers of COVID-19 transmission. It therefore implored Governments to reopen schools as soon as possible, considering that reopening could not wait for all teachers and students to be vaccinated. Governments and donors must also protect education budgets. As schools reopened, enrolment should be extended to those children who had already been out of school before the pandemic, including by removing financial barriers and loosening registration requirements. Cash transfers should be increased, with financing scaled up via a global funding facility, resourced by debt relief savings, international financial institution funds and the fulfilment of official development assistance commitments by donor Governments. The international community should do everything in its power to bring the pandemic to an end, beginning with the universal availability of vaccines. The sharing of available excess doses, for example through the COVAX Facility, was an essential emergency stop-gap measure that was needed immediately.

Replying to questions from journalists, Mr. Elder welcomed the news that children in South Africa had returned to school. Education was particularly critical for Eastern and Southern Africa, which was experiencing an unprecedented population boom, affording it with a rare opportunity – if it could provide its children with a high quality education – to create full employment and significantly reduce its poverty rate.

Evidence had emerged that Governments in some parts of the world had been too quick to close schools, perhaps indicating that they did not attach sufficient importance to education. It was certainly possible for children to catch up with their education, although in most countries it was unlikely that they could do so within a single year.

Mediterranean boat sinking

Paul Dillon, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), responding to journalists, said that at 11 p.m. on Sunday, 25 July, a vessel had left the Libyan port of Khums carrying at least 70 people. The boat had run into trouble, taken on water and sunk. Local fishermen and the Libyan coastguard had rescued 18 people. Survivors had told staff from the International Organization for Migration, who regularly responded to such incidents, that at least 57 people were missing, among them at least 20 women and two toddlers. IOM had provided emergency medical assistance, food, water and comfort to survivors from Nigeria, Ghana and the Gambia.

The latest tragedy took the 2021 death toll on the central Mediterranean route to roughly 970 men, women and children. IOM believed that by advocating for better migration management practices, better migration governance and greater solidarity from European Union member States, it would be possible to develop a clear, safe and humane approach to migration that began with saving lives. It was now time for a State-led approach to search and rescue, before more innocent lives were lost.

Announcements

Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), said that today at 10 a.m., the Conference on Disarmament would hold a plenary meeting devoted to an open discussion on transparency in armaments. The meeting would mark the beginning of the third and last part of the 2021 session of the Conference.