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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE UNITED NATIONS INFORMATION SERVICE

Bi-Weekly Briefing

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, chaired the hybrid briefing, attended by the spokespersons and representatives of the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, the World Health Organisation, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the World Food Program.

Constitutional Committee

Jenifer Fenton, for the Special Envoy for Syria (OSE), said that the members of the Constitutional Committee Small Body arrived in Geneva this weekend for the 8th session and were scheduled to convene Monday through Friday. She would relay information on the constitutional principles/items for discussion that week once received.

Ms. Fenton added that Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen was in Damascus last week, where he met with the Syrian Foreign Minister and Minister of Expatriates, and the Co-Chair of the Constitutional Committee nominated by the Government. The Special Envoy then traveled to Turkey, where he met with members of the Syrian opposition. He was scheduled to brief the Security Council in a closed session on 31 May, and Ms. Fenton would let the media know if a briefing was due to take place next Friday.

World Health Assembly

Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that in the plenary, the Director General of the World Health Organization was presenting awards to several countries who had shown outstanding achievements in public health. An evening session would take place from 6pm – 9pm to progress discussions. A technical briefing would take place at noon today on the Monkeypox outbreak, in Room 19. The fourth strategic round table would take place today. The round table would focus on sharing progress in WHO’s use of behavioral sciences, and how to better integrate science in the global health agenda into WHO’s work, and that of member states. Tomorrow would be the last day of the World Health Assembly. The plenary would go through a long list of decisions and adopt them. This would be followed by a one-day meeting of the executive board on Monday.

In response to questions, Ms. Chaib said journalists could not ask questions during the technical round table, at noon today; this was a question-and-answer session between the experts and member states. She also specified that there were two sets of awards; the Director-General’s Awards, and the awards decided by the WHO Executive Board. These awards, which were being presented today at the World Health Assembly, were given to people from various WHO member states. A detailed press release on each award recipient would be provided.  

Ms. Chaib said there were several resolutions to be discussed during the final day. These could be found in the Highlights of the World Health Assembly bulletin. An important issue discussed at the Executive Board would involve sustainable financing and the establishment of a taskforce.

UNHCR Expands Operations in Poland

Olga Sarrado, for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), spoke from Warsaw, where UNHCR continued to scale up its movement in Poland to provide aid to refugees from Ukraine who had settled across the country. Ms. Sarrado said that Poland remained the main country of arrival for refugees from Ukraine, with more than 3.5 million having entered the country since the start of the war on 24 February. The pace of arrivals had slowed down in comparison to early March, when over 100,000 people were arriving per day, to around 20,000 daily over the course of May. UNHCR had seen more “pendular” movements, where people went back and forth across the border to Ukraine for various reasons, including visiting families, checking their properties or returning to their jobs. However, Poland expected to continue receiving and hosting a considerable number of refugees, given the large internal displacement, massive destruction, and the ongoing hostilities in Ukraine.

Newly arrived refugees often came from areas heavily affected by the fighting, some having spent weeks hiding in bomb shelters and basements, many arriving in a state of distress, having left family members behind, without a clear plan, and with less economic resources and connections than those who fled earlier. Health services and medical needs were the main queries UNHCR staff received from refugees. Other requests concerned transportation, financial support, psychosocial needs, accommodation, and access to social services, including for people with disabilities and older people. Poland had put in place systems to ensure legal stay, access to employment, education, health care and other social welfare schemes for Ukrainian refugees. Over 1.1 million had registered with the Polish authorities, receiving a state ID which gave them access to the services; 94 per cent of those registered were women and children. UNHCR were supporting government-led efforts through a multisectoral response focusing on protection services, cash assistance, emergency supplies and reception capacity.

UNHCR rolled out its cash assistance programme in March and as of today, had established eight cash enrollment centers in the main refugee hosting areas, including Warsaw, Krakow, Poznan, Wroclaw, Ostroda, Gdynia and Gdansk. Over 100,000 refugees from Ukraine had already received financial support from UNHCR to cover their basic needs, such as paying rent or buying food and medicine. Cash was provided for a three-month period to those most in need until they could better support themselves, or be included in government social protection systems.

Almost 20 per cent of refugees enrolled for cash assistance had specific needs, with aid provided to serious medical cases, older people, single mothers, women at risk and people with disabilities. Half of the children with specific needs were separated from their families or unaccompanied.

Jointly with UNICEF, UNHCR had set up twelve Blue Dot Safe Spaces, Protection and Support Hubs in Poland, where refugees could access information and counselling on rights and services and receive immediate psychosocial support. Critical protection services were also provided to people with specific needs, including referrals to specialized services and legal counselling. UNHCR continued to deliver humanitarian supplies into Ukraine from Poland. To date, 139 UNHCR aid trucks had been sent from our warehouse in Rzeszow, to help displaced and conflict-affected people inside Ukraine. People and authorities of Poland had shown extraordinary generosity in welcoming refugees from Ukraine. Continued strong commitment and support from the international community would be crucial to sustain this solidarity.

UNHCR stood ready to continue supporting the Polish authorities in ensuring refugees met their needs in dignity, were protected and could transition to sustainable solutions. In support of the Government-led response, UNHCR coordinated the development of an Inter-Agency Regional Refugee Response Plan which, in Poland, brought together 87 partners, calling for US$740.6 million to cover prioritized needs. So far, 25 per cent of requirements for Poland were funded.

Responding to questions, Ms. Sarrado said UNHCR were looking at analysing the trends of movements and why refugees were returning to Ukraine. In some cases, refuges were briefly going back to Ukraine to check on their families and properties, but were then returning to Poland.

Responding to questions, Shabia Mantoo, for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said the latest figures, showed 2.1 million movements of Ukrainians entering Ukraine, and 6.6 million movements of Ukrainians entering neighbouring countries, since the 24th of Feb. The situation was very fluid and volatile and being monitored by UNHCR.

Also answering questions, Ms. Sarrado said some of the refugees who had arrived in Poland had moved on, and it was estimated that around 50 percent of refugees wanted to stay in Poland. There would be around 1.5 – 2 million people who would be staying in the country.

Ms. Mantoo said many refugees would stay in other host countries. UNHCR data showed that 2.9 million refugees had moved beyond countries neighbouring Ukraine.

Ms. Sarrado said that the immense generosity provided to refugees at the beginning of the crisis was beginning to wane, and needs were only increasing. It was important that support from the international community continued, to answer refugees needs over the long-term.

Renewed violence in the DR Congo

Shabia Mantoo for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said UNHCR was deeply concerned about the urgent and large-scale needs of more than 72,000 people who had been displaced by fighting in recent days in North Kivu Province, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Since 19 May, intense fighting had shaken Rutshuru and Nyiragongo territories as militias claiming to be part of the M-23 armed group clashed with government forces in a continuing struggle north of Goma, the provincial capital. At least 170,000 civilians had been displaced since an escalation of fighting in eastern DRC from November 2021. The latest wave of violence had driven tens of thousands of people from their homes in search of relative safety in different parts of the province, including Goma. Over the past week around 7,000 had reportedly crossed over to neighboring Uganda – a country already hosting more than 1.5 million refugees.

Those on the move were exposed to constant violence. Fields and shops left abandoned were at high risk of being looted, and women and girls were exposed to sexual violence, including rape, by the warring parties. Numerous children had been separated from their families. The fighting came as communities previously displaced by insecurity in the region had tentatively begun to return home and re-establish their lives. This cycle of violence and displacement had become a repeated source of despair and danger. Thousands of people displaced by the current clashes were facing difficulties in finding shelter and basic household items, as well as accessing food and clean water. Some counted on the generosity of Congolese families, others had sought safety in schools, churches and sites built by the authorities for those forced to flee the Nyiragongo volcano eruption of May 2021.

Many temporary housing sites lacked the infrastructure to support the new arrivals, exposing them to cholera, malaria and other diseases. The use of education facilities also left children out of school. While measures were taken in April to provide much-needed assistance in the form of blankets, sleeping mats and soap to over 2,900 vulnerable people already displaced in Rutshuru and Kiwanja territories, many thousands more were now fleeing with few or no belongings. Needs heavily outweighed the available assistance, and humanitarian access to the region was severely hampered by the violence. At least 1.9 million people were displaced in North Kivu.

With 5.6 million IDPs, the DRC was home to the largest internal displacement situation in Africa. UNHCR in Uganda, in partnership with other actors, was delivering emergency assistance to the 25,000 people who crossed the border since 28 March and were taking shelter in facilities set up by UNHCR. UNHCR urgently needed US$5 million to reinforce its protection and humanitarian response in North Kivu. Financial needs across the DRC remained pressing, with just 16 per cent of the required $225 million funded. In Uganda, UNHCR and partners recently appealed for US$47.8 million to respond to the critical needs of thousands of refugees who have arrived in that country this year, including around $35 million for new arrivals from the DRC.

Surge in risky sea crossings across the Caribbean

Shabia Mantoo for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, was increasingly concerned by the sharp increase in individuals, including a growing number of Haitians, resorting to dangerous journeys in the Caribbean Sea, many taking place in overloaded and unseaworthy boats. UNHCR was urging governments in the region to fulfill their maritime rescue obligations and ensure all those in need of international protection were identified and offered unobstructed and prompt access to fair asylum procedures. The worrying trend in perilous crossings was recently highlighted when a vessel carrying over 800 Haitians, attempting to reach the United States, arrived in Cuba after being abandoned by its captain and set adrift at sea. Search and rescue at sea was a legal and humanitarian imperative, and those rescued include refugees and others in need of protection. Coordination, solidarity, and responsibility-sharing were crucial in responding effectively and ensuring that people in need of international protection were not returned to their country of origin, and the dangers they fled.

While refugees and migrants of various nationalities had been making voyages by sea throughout the Caribbean region, an increasing number were of Haitian origin. As of May, the U.S. Coast Guard reported it has interdicted almost 3,900 Haitian nationals in fiscal year 2022 - more than double the number in fiscal year 2021. At least 175 Haitians had been reported as missing or deceased to the U.S. Coast Guard. Many of those who resorted to dangerous sea crossings were fleeing the political instability and socio-economic insecurity of the region that put severe strains on communities throughout the Caribbean. The situation in Haiti had led to waves of mixed movements of migrants and asylum seekers from the country, amid a recent increase in gang-related violence, internal displacement, natural disasters, and a lack of employment opportunities. Humanitarian and security conditions in Haiti remained dire, making pushbacks or forced returns even more dangerous. In response to the growing numbers risking their lives in perilous sea crossings, UNHCR was working with governments in the region to support the response and reception of arrivals at their borders. Receiving states had the first line of responsibility in protecting those who had fears of persecution in their country of origin.

It was vital to ensure that arrangements for disembarkation of those rescued did not result in summary return, and they had access to procedures to have their claims assessed before being expelled or deported. UNHCR would continue working with governments in the region to strengthen national reception and asylum systems, ensuring the protection of refugees in a fair and efficient manner, and supporting international human rights and refugee law, while respecting national security concerns and state sovereignty.

Food price hikes in Malawi

Tomson Phiri, for the World Food Program (WFP), said soaring food prices were being seen in Malawi which had started to push the poor onto the brink of hunger,. Rising global food prices as a result of covid 19 had adversely affected Malawi in 2020/2021. In newer WFP assessment, these challenges were further exacerbated by the effects of the Ukraine crisis. Over the last three months the cost of the food basket has increased by 18 percent in the country, registering the highest increase in Southern Africa. WFP expected a worsening situation if the price of the food basket remained high. 50 percent of Malawi’s population were already living in poverty, on less than 2 USD a day prior to these price hikes.

Mr. Phiri said that the price of bread had increased by 50 percent in the last three months. Interviews with bakery owners revealed that the retail price of a 50kg bag of wheat flour had risen by 42 percent. Malawi imported 100 percent of its petroleum and diesel, the prices of which had increase by 54 precent and 64 percent respectively, triggering an upsurge in the price of food. Fertiliser prices in Malawi were at an all time high; 130 – 160 percent higher than in 2020. As of the first week of May 2022, the price of beans had increased by 28 percent compared to the same time last year. The government of Malawi had removed its commodity tax on cooking oils since April, however prices remained high, reflecting a 300 percent increase compared with November 2020.

It was supposed to be a time of plenty in Africa right now, and the agricultural harvest and maize prices were anticipated to fall. However, maize prices rose sharply last month. If food prices continued to rise, the WFP would be affected in two ways. It would cost more to provide food for the hungry, and even to provide cash assistance. Secondly, this meant the existing financial resources would not last as long and would be stretched. On average, the WFP assisted 1.5 million people every year, and had been forced to provide reduced assistance to 400,000 people as a result of climate shocks. Some 2.9 million dollars were required to provide support to 22,500 families who had been affected by floods. WFP required 3.4 million dollars to continue providing vital food assistance to 48,000 refugees. Mr. Phiri concluded saying that while Malawi might not make headline news with all the crises happening in the world, this might be another potential huge crisis down the line.

Responding to questions, Mr. Phiri said the crisis in Ukraine had the potential to wreak havoc in many countries. While countries which relied on direct imports of their wheat are on the front line, there were other countries which were going under the radar but were equally affected - like Malawi. It was difficult to say whether Malawi was the most affected; time would tell, but the impact would definitely be high. WFP did not have the exact number of affected people yet.

Announcements

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) spoke about the International Day of the UN Peacekeepers, which took place annually on the 29th of May. Ms. Vellucci read a statement from the Secretary General which honoured the more than one million women and men who served as United Nations peacekeepers since 1948.

The Secretary General stated that “we pay tribute to the nearly 4,200 heroes and heroines who sacrificed their lives in the cause of peace. And we are reminded of an age-old truth: peace can never be taken for granted. Peace is the prize. We are deeply grateful to the 87,000 civilian, police and military personnel now serving under the UN flag who are helping to realize the prize of peace worldwide.” The Secretary General went on to say that “This year, we focus on the Power of Partnerships. We know that peace is won when governments and societies join forces to resolve differences through dialogue, build a culture of nonviolence, and protect the most vulnerable.” He concluded by stating “Today and every day, we salute their dedication in helping societies turn away from conflict, towards a more peaceful and prosperous future for all. We are forever in their debt.”

Ms. Vellucci extended an invitation to the commemoration of Peacekeeping Day on Monday at 3pm, in front of the UN memorial in Ariana Park for a flag-raising and wreath-laying ceremony.

Ms. Vellucci said that the Conference on Disarmament’s next public plenary would be announced at a later date. This would be the first under presidency of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child would conclude its 90th session next Friday, where it would issue concluding observations on the reports of Greece, Iceland, Cambodia, Somalia, Cuba, Djibouti, Cyprus, Canada, Kiribati, Croatia, Zambia and Chile.

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