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PRESS BRIEFING BY THE UNITED NATIONS INFORMATION SERVICE

Bi-Weekly Briefing

Daniel Johnson, Chief a.i. UNTV, Radio and Webcast, United Nations Information Service (UNIS) Geneva, chaired the hybrid briefing, which was attended by spokespersons and representatives from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Labour Organization, the United Nations Children's Fund, the World Food Programme, the World Health Organization and the International Organization for Migration.

Crisis in the Middle East

James Elder for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said that if children’s access to water and sanitation in Gaza continued to be restricted and insufficient, there would be a tragic – yet entirely avoidable – surge in the number of children dying.

It was also now raining in Gaza. Children faced a serious threat of mass disease outbreak. It would be lethal.

The emergency threshold of a minimum amount of water per person per day - be it in war or famine-like conditions – was 15 litres. That is, to drink, to clean, to cook – all critical to prevent waterborne and other infectious diseases. There were parts of Gaza, particularly the north, where there were around 700,000 people, where people struggled to access as little as three litres per day. On some days, they could not access any at all.

To control fuel and access to water was to control whether thousands – perhaps tens of thousands – of children lived or died. More than 5,350 Palestinian children had reportedly already been killed. The death toll among children was sickening. Grief was being embedded into Gaza. Without sufficient fuel, without sufficient water, conditions for children would plummet.

Meanwhile, at least 30 Israeli children were still being held hostage somewhere in this hellscape. They needed to be released. It was abhorrent to think of their fear; the torment their families were enduring. It needed to end.

The potential for the widespread loss of life in Gaza was significantly exacerbated by the fact that around 800,000 children in Gaza were displaced. They were desperately – often vainly – seeking safety in densely packed shelters. On average, there was one shower unit for every 700 people at UNRWA shelters, and a single toilet for every 150 people. Queues took hours. Without enough fuel, we would see the collapse of sanitation services.

This was a perfect storm for the spread of disease, the perfect storm for tragedy: a desperate lack of water; faecal matter strewn across densely packed settlements; unacceptable lack of latrines; severe constraints on handwashing, personal hygiene and cleaning. Already, there were almost 10 times the monthly average of reported cases of diarrhoea among children under the age of 5, in addition to increases in cases of scabies, lice, chicken pox, skin rashes and respiratory infections.

The authorities needed to permit the supply of water and sanitation materials and equipment for the emergency repair and operation of critical water and sanitation services including production, treatment and distribution. They needed to immediately provide safe and unimpeded access for a daily supply of fuel that meets all the needs for operation of critical water and sanitation facilities. And there needed to be a humanitarian ceasefire, safe and unimpeded humanitarian access, and the immediate and safe release of all abducted children.

Without these, an indifferent world would watch the death of countless children in Gaza.

Daniel Johnson, Chief a.i. UNTV, Radio and Webcast, United Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, said that the spokesperson for the Secretary-General had said that Israeli authorities had permitted the entry of 70,000 litres of fuel per day from Egypt, which while good remained well below the minimum requirements for essential humanitarian operations. Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organization Health Emergencies Programme, had briefed the Security Council to say that not one of the 36 hospitals in Gaza was able to treat critical trauma patients or perform surgery.

Arif Husain, Chief Economist, World Food Programme (WFP) said, WFP was trying to answer basic questions concerning the crisis. Around 2.2 million people in Gaza needed food assistance. 1.6 million people were internally displaced, or 70 per cent of Gaza. Over one million children were affected by the crisis. There were over 11,078 Palestinian fatalities, of which 68 percent were women and children. 6,000 people, including 4,000 children, were reported missing and could be trapped under the rubble.

Since 7 October until last week, 457 trucks had reached Gaza. That was just 15 per cent of what was needed. Most bakeries had shut down, and none were operating in the north of Gaza, due to destruction of infrastructure and shortages of energy and water. Month-on-month inflation in the Gaza Strip was 12 percent in October. Mineral water prices doubled in the Gaza Strip within a month; wheat flour prices by 65 per cent; vegetable prices by 32 per cent; and fresh fruit prices by 27 per cent.

Internally displaced persons in north Gaza had not received bottled water in more than a week, raising serious concerns about dehydration and water-borne diseases due to consumption of water from unsafe sources.

Gaza and the West Bank relied on remittances. Use of such remittances was now highly constrained. Over 60 per cent of employment in Gaza had been lost since the start of the conflict, equivalent to 182,000 jobs. The conflict in Gaza was also having spill-over effects in the West Bank, where an estimated 24 per cent of employment, equivalent to 208,000 jobs, had been lost over the same period. Jobs losses in Gaza and the West Bank translated into daily labour income losses of 16 million USD. 625,000 students could not access education.

WFP had provided emergency food and electronic voucher assistance to over 764,000 people across Gaza and the West Bank – to 704,000 in Gaza and to 60,000 in the West Bank. This number included around 550,000 displaced people in UN-designated shelters, who had so far received fresh bread, date bars or canned fish. It needed to consistently reach 1.1 million people in the next 60 days. To do this, it needed regular working supply chains. It needed more, sustained entry points for delivering aid. If it had these, it could save lives. It also needed support from donors –314 million USD to reach 1.1 million people with life-saving assistance through the end of April.

People in Gaza would need assistance until this war came to an end and they could start to rebuild their lives.

In response to questions, Mr. Elder said fuel and water distribution was ongoing in the south of Gaza at a reduced capacity, but in the north, distribution had been interrupted. In the north, electrical and mechanical equipment and power generators were needed, in addition to fuel.

Cholera was UNICEF’s great fear. A cholera outbreak would lead to an exponential rise in casualties.

Al-Shifa was rightly a focus of international media, but there were an average of just over 100 children being killed every day elsewhere in Gaza. There were no signs of this abating. At least 1,500 children had been killed since Al-Shifa started dominating headlines.

A humanitarian ceasefire was so critical as it allowed for actual safety for children. All agencies had supplies ready to go. The ceasefire needed to be accompanied by unimpeded access to deliver humanitarian supplies and essential equipment.

Christian Lindmeier for the World Health Organization (WHO) said one of the main issues was the lack of power and fuel, which prevented desalination plants from running. The last remaining water tanks on top of Al-Shifa had been targeted. Power was necessary to run both the water and sewerage systems. The health system was struggling to deal with a lack of supplies.

There were 72,000 cases of upper respiratory infections in shelters for internally displaced persons; 49,000 cases of diarrhoea, over half of these among children under age five, which was an immense increase compared to 2021 and 2022, when there were to 2,000 cases monthly in children under five. There were over 1,000 cases of chicken pox and 17,274 cases of skin infections and infestations. More than 2,000 cancer patients, 50,000 cardio-vascular patients, 60,000 diabetics and 50,000 pregnant women at risk. Most pregnant women would be forced to give birth without skilled attendants. 180 children were being born every day, and more than 20 of those needed specialised care.

Al-Shifa was not fully evacuated. WHO’s priority was not evacuating hospitals. Hospitals needed to be last resort places where people could seek health care. However, on Saturday, WHO teams were asked by hospital staff to facilitate evacuation. There were over 50 people with spinal injuries who normally should never be moved. Evacuation was a last resort and should only be implemented when patients faced certain death.

The WHO team in Gaza led a joint UN mission to evacuate 31 premature and low birthweight babies from Al-Shifa Hospital in northern Gaza to Al-Emarati Maternity Hospital in southern Gaza. 28 of these severely ill children had now been transported to Al-Arish in Egypt for further specialised care. Three would remain in Rafah. Mr. Elder added that seven mothers had received these babies, so there were now 21 unaccompanied babies. They were receiving therapeutic milk and medical support.

WHO was looking at evacuating three hospitals in the north to non-specialised hospitals in the south, which had limited food, fuel and staff. The situation in Al-Shifa was the same as everywhere in Gaza; nowhere was safe.

Cholera bacteria were not present in Gaza, but the cases of acute, watery diarrhoea being seen were similar to cholera and posed a similar threat.

A senior health emergency officer had led the WHO fact-finding mission in Gaza.

All UN agencies, the Palestine Red Crescent and other agencies hoped for a humanitarian ceasefire and had been ready for such a ceasefire for a while. Their trucks were ready to deliver supplies within Gaza, but they needed fuel and access. A ceasefire was needed to facilitate the delivery of supplies.

There were no more functional hospitals in north Gaza. This was robbing the entire population of the north of means to seek health. The entire population had been robbed of a water and food system and of humanity. Over 30 per cent of deaths and injuries were occurring in the south, the so-called “safe area”.

Record Number of Sudanese Refugees Crossing into Chad

Enrico Pausilli, Deputy Country Director in Chad, World Food Programme (WFP), said we were witnessing yet another humanitarian trauma in Chad. Chad was now hosting over a million refugees, mostly from Sudan. This was one of the largest refugee populations in Africa.

Over the past six months, since the beginning of the conflict, the number of refugees had basically doubled in Chad. There were more than 450,000 refugees. Several Chadians had also recently returned to the country.

This was a very difficult crisis for WFP to respond to. During the first three days of November, over 5,000 people had crossed the border. Most of them were women and children.

Mr. Pausilli said that that he had interviewed two siblings aged seven and nine on the border, who had told him that they had lost their parents while trying to cross the border. They said that they did not remember the last time they had eaten food. This was just one example of the overlapping crises that children were facing.

Before this crisis, there were already over two million people in Chad in an acute food insecure situation and 1.3 million children suffering from malnutrition. In eastern Chad, where most of the Sudanese population were, 90 per cent of refugees had insufficient access to food. Around 70 per cent of the local population also did not have enough food to eat.

The situation was likely to get worse. People were affected by the impact of climate crises, global fuel shocks, declining agricultural production and intercommunal tensions. On top of this, WFP had already had to stop providing assistance to over 200,000 internally displaced persons in the east, including refugees from the Central African Republic, Cameroon and Nigeria. Soon, WFP would have to stop assisting an additional 1.4 million people unless it received humanitarian aid soon.

Read the related press release here.

In response to questions, Mr. Pausilli said the for the next six months, WFP’s financial needs were 185 million USD. The organisation was dealing with millions of people in need of food assistance. It did not have the choice to stop providing assistance. Chad was the only stable country in the region. If Chad could not hold refugees, the entire region would destabilise further.

Pakistan Orders Undocumented Foreigners to Leave

Philippa Candler, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Representative in Pakistan, said UNHCR was raising concerns over Pakistan’s announcement ordering undocumented foreigners to leave Pakistan. The announcement, also referred to as the “Illegal Foreigners Repatriation Plan,” had adversely affected Afghan nationals including registered refugees and others with valid documents.

Since the announcement on 3 October, over 370,000 people had returned to Afghanistan – many in fear and haste. The agency was witnessing an exponential increase in arrests, detentions and deportations of Afghans in Pakistan.

Mass arrivals back to Afghanistan were adding to the ongoing humanitarian crisis. as winter temperatures were start to dip – in some locations the minimum was already reaching -4°C . Many Afghan returnees were vulnerable, including women and children, who could lose their lives in a harsh winter if left without adequate shelter. UNHCR was asking for a halt to returns over the winter period.

In the last two weeks, Ms. Candler said she had visited different locations in Pakistan, meeting with Afghans on the move as well as with local authorities. Afghans had shared stories of threats, evictions and arrests. The atmosphere of fear and uncertainty had compelled many to decide to leave, although many had never lived in Afghanistan. She had heard stories of families not leaving their houses in the current climate and not sending their children to school. The announcement had also created stress for registered Afghan refugees, many of whom were leaving or facing threats and discrimination.

UNHCR was calling on Pakistan to put in place a screening mechanism to identify individuals in need of international protection, and was ready to support such a mechanism. The situation created a major challenge for staff in Afghanistan, who were already overwhelmed due to the recent earthquakes.

Read UNHCR’s press release here.

In response to questions, Ms. Candler said there was a large number of undocumented arrivals who came to Pakistan after 2021. Authorities had said that they would not target this group, but there was a risk that they could be returned.

Itayi Viriri for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said over 374,000 Afghans had left Pakistan in the past two months. The number of border crossings had dramatically increased from 200 daily to 17,000 since the 1 November deadline was set. In the last week, IOM had seen 45,000 people arriving in Afghanistan.

The IOM Chief of Mission in Afghanistan, Maria Moita, was at the border in the past week and had met with people crossing over. This was a humanitarian crisis. People were leaving quickly without gathering their belongings. They were returning to a country that was facing many other challenges. There were over six million displaced people in the country and the needs were immense.

IOM was working with international partners to provide as much help as it could. It was providing shelter, protection, health care and in some cases cash to those affected, some of whom had never lived in Afghanistan.

Over 52 per cent of those crossing the border were women and girls. Girls who had been attending school in Pakistan likely would not have access to education in Afghanistan. This was just one issue of concern.

More attention from the international community was needed to make sure that the needs of the returnees were met. IOM expected that numbers of returns to Afghanistan would continue to increase. In recent weeks, there had also been increases in returns from Iran and Türkiye.

In response to questions, Mr. Viriri said IOM’s response in Pakistan was ongoing. It had a team on the ground providing support to populations requiring immediate assistance. There was also a “border consotrtium” of international agencies working collectively to provide support. These agencies had been provided the access they needed by authorities.

Announcements

Shabia Mantoo for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said the Global Refugee Forum 2023 would be taking place from 13 to 15 December at Palexpo in Geneva. The Forum was held every four years and was the world’s largest international gathering on refugee issues. It would bring together UN Member States, refugees, international organisations, humanitarian actors, regional institutions, academics, experts and other stakeholders. Media representatives accredited to UN Geneva were required to register to attend the event by following the instructions here. The deadline for accreditation was 1 December. Media seats for the first plenary and the Nansen Awards Ceremony on 13 December would be limited, so a poll system would be used. There would also be a live stream of the event.

In response to questions, Ms. Mantoo said this was the world’s largest gathering on refugee issues. It would look at the current refugee situation, take stock and seek to garner support. The Forum was co-convened by States and UNHCR.

Rosalind Yarde for International Labour Organization (ILO) said ILO would be publishing a new occupational safety and health report on Monday 27 November, which included its latest estimates on deaths due to work-related accidents and diseases. The report also included an analysis of the factors leading to deaths in the workplace, a breakdown by gender, as well as a regional overview and comparisons. It further outlined ILO’s new global strategy on Occupational Safety and Health for 2024-2030.

The report would be issued to coincide with the opening of the 23rd World Congress on Safety and Health at Work, one of the largest international conferences on this subject, that would take place in Sydney, Australia on 27 – 30 November. It would be presented at the conference, which was organized by the ILO, the International Social Security Association (ISSA), the Government of Australia and Safework New South Wales. The Congress would bring together more than 4,000 industry leaders, policymakers and specialists.

An embargoed press release and the report would be sent on Thursday 23 November. The embargo would lift on Sunday 26 November at 11 p.m. Geneva time.

Daniel Johnson, Chief a.i. UNTV, Radio and Webcast, United Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, said on 27 November between 12 and 12:30 p.m., the #OrangeTheWorld event, part of the “16 Days of Activism” campaign to end violence against women, would be held at door 40 of Building E in the Palais des Nations.

The Committee Against Torture would close its 78th session next Friday morning, at 10am, when it would issue its concluding observations on the six reports reviewed during this session, those of Burundi, Costa Rica, Kiribati, Denmark, Egypt and Slovenia.

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which opened yesterday its 111th session (20 November-8 December, Palais Wilson), would begin this afternoon its review of the report of Bolivia. It would review Bolivia, Morocco, Germany, South Africa, Bulgaria and Viet Nam.

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