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UN GENEVA PRESS BRIEFING

Bi-Weekly Briefing

6 February 2024

Rolando Gómez, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section at the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired a hybrid briefing, which was attended by spokespersons and representatives of the World Health Organization, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. 

One year since the earthquake in Syria and Türkiye

Shabia Mantoo, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), stated that one year since the devastating earthquakes, the plight of displaced people and their hosts had deteriorated. In Syria, an estimated 90 per cent of the population lived in poverty, 12.9 million were food insecure and 7.2 million were internally displaced. Having to contend with multi-faceted crises, 16.7 million people required assistance, up from 15.3 million the previous year. The earthquake had impacted 8.8 million people across the country, uprooting tens of thousands – many of whom had already been displaced. In north-west Syria alone, more than 40,000 people remained displaced by the earthquake and were residing in 70 temporary reception centres. Türkiye hosted 3.4 million refugees and the earthquake had impacted a region that was home to some 1.75 million of them. Despite Türkiye’s impressive and inclusive humanitarian response, supported by NGOs, the UN and the international community, the impact of the earthquake was still felt by both refugees and their Turkish hosts. While UNHCR appreciated the timely and generous aid offered by donors, it appealed for continued support to ensure critical humanitarian needs could be met. UNHCR was also calling on the expansion of resettlement opportunities for the refugees in Türkiye, said Ms. Mantoo. Full statement is available here

Jenifer Fenton, for the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria (OSE), informed that the Special Envoy had issued a statement on the first anniversary of the earthquake. The disaster had come on top of more than a decade of conflict and suffering, compounding the tragedy of the Syrian people inside and outside and on both sides of conflict lines. The earthquake had stricken at a time when humanitarian needs had already been enormous, and they had only grown since. Continued backing for the humanitarian operation in Syria remained essential, including initiatives for early recovery. After the earthquakes, said the Special Envoy, there had been the lowest level of hostilities in a decade, and fresh diplomatic attention to the Syrian tragedy. This, regrettably, had not translated into real progress, and 2023 later had seen the worst eruptions of violent conflict in years, further exacerbating the worsening humanitarian situation. The Special Envoy urged all parties to take concrete measures to lower tensions and consider the human and economic costs of a broader conflict in an already volatile region. The Syrian people needed the hope and protection that can be provided by de-escalation. 

Tarik Jašarević, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that health workers and first responders had been the real heroes of the health response, and their courage and commitment had helped to save many lives in the aftermath of the disaster. The support of the international community was crucial for the WHO and partners to continue delivering much needed health services in Syria. The consequences of a disaster of this scale would last for many years to come, and one year on, the suffering of the people went on. In Türkiye, the earthquake had created new and urgent health needs in the communities affected, including both host and refugee populations, disrupting access to health services, including maternal and newborn health care, vaccination, noncommunicable disease management, mental health support, disability and rehabilitation services, and health information. In Syria, the earthquake had hit communities that had already been deeply affected during the 13-year long conflict-driven crisis, characterized by repeated displacement leading to food insecurity, disease outbreaks and a severely weakened health system. In Syria, the physical and psychological damage was still affecting millions of people: nearly one year later, levels of depression had increased by 200 per cent and stress-related disorders by 600 per cent compared to previous years. WHO and health partners continued to deliver health services for maternal and child health, management of non-communicable diseases, prevention of outbreaks of cholera and other infectious diseases, physical rehabilitation, and mental health and psychosocial support. 

Jessie Thomson, Head of the Delegation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Türkiye, speaking from Ankara, stressed the sense of urgency and plea for renewed solidarity to address the recovery efforts which needed to continue in the months ahead. The earthquake had claimed over 55,000 lives in Türkiye, leaving an indelible mark on the lives of countless individuals. Ms. Thomson praised the tireless emergency response efforts of the Turkish Red Crescent, which had mobilized 76,000 volunteers and more than 2,400 staff, reaching 10.5 million people across the affected areas in Türkiye. The Turkish Red Crescent had played a pivotal role in providing daily necessities. Over 426 million hot meals, since the very first hours of the disaster and free medical services had been delivered via mobile health clinics. Through a cash relief program, supported by the IFRC network and international partners, over 460,000 families had received cash support to meet their basic need. The CHF 500 million appeal for the two countries was significantly underfunded, and the gap currently stood at 65 per cent for Türkiye. Further support and funding were urgently needed to make a significant impact on the lives of those affected and to empower people to rebuild their lives and contribute to their local economies.

Mads Brinch Hansen, Head of the Delegation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Syria, speaking from Damascus, said that the situation in Syria was dire. In the earthquake a year earlier, tens of thousands of people, already affected by 13 years of crisis, had lost family members, their homes, and their livelihoods, and many saw themselves displaced once again. Since then, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the IFRC had provided 3.5 million people with humanitarian assistance. They had delivered over 23 million humanitarian services and continued to distribute relief items and strengthen the resilience of families in the earthquake hit areas, to those displaced throughout the country and their host communities. While the immediate earthquake response may have concluded, the emergency persisted, and the humanitarian in Syria and the earthquake areas tended to grow. Some 16.7 million people would need humanitarian assistance in Syria this year, informed Mr. Hansen. Heavy machinery was still not available, one year after the earthquake. In Syria many people got by with only one hour of electricity today. There was a lack of international funding, prices were growing, while the Syrian economy was falling apart. Some 90 per cent of the population were living under the poverty line, and a better future seemed elusive. Syria should not be forgotten, as the situation today was more dire than ever before. More information is available here.

Answering questions from the media, Mr. Hansen, for the IFRC, said that international sanctions could have an indirect adverse effect on humanitarian efforts, and they could affect supply chains. Ms. Fenton quoted the Special Envoy, who had said that the Syrian economy was in dire straits, and it was important to ensure that any adverse effects of the sanctions against Syria on ordinary Syrians be mitigated. Disaster risk reduction was of critical importance, which included constructing adequate buildings, especially in high-risk countries such as Türkiye, said Ms. Thomson, for the IFRC. Ms. Mantoo, for UNHCR, reminded that in February 2023, the appeal had been generously funded, but the situation required continuous attention. The UNHCR operations in Syria and Türkiye were currently only one third funded, so it was important that the international support be sustained. Mr. Hansen, for the IFRC, responding to another question, said that the international support for Syria had been declining over the past five years, and it was unfortunately expected to continue to decline. There were simply no funds for wider rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts. Without more funding, recovery efforts could not be scaled in Türkiye either, added Ms. Thomson, for the IFRC. The scale of the disaster was massive, both in terms of the intensity and the geographic scope of the earthquake; no one agency could address it alone.

Cholera situation in southern Africa

Dr. Fiona Braka, Emergency Operations Manager at the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Africa, speaking from Brazzaville, stated that, while cholera was surging globally since 2021, Africa, and in particular eastern and southern Africa, was today the epicenter. In the first four weeks this year, ten countries in the WHO African region had reported over 26,000 cases and 700 deaths, which was almost twice the numbers reported in during the same period in 2023. The main countries of concern were Zambia and Zimbabwe; in addition, Mozambique, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, and Nigeria were reporting active outbreaks. Climate change and conflict were adding fuel to the fire. 

Dr. Braka had just returned from Zambia, which was witnessing its worst-ever outbreak. She had observed strong commitment at the political level and among front line workers who were working tirelessly to contain the outbreak. It was great to see high acceptance of the cholera vaccine by communities in the most affected areas that were targeted for vaccination. WHO was working closely with the governments and partners in affected countries to respond to these outbreaks; it had over 100 experts deployed in Zambia and Zimbabwe, who worked closely with the governments. Despite the global shortage of oral cholera vaccines, WHO was supporting countries in the targeted and strategic use of vaccines. In Zambia, over 1.7 million people had been vaccinated and a campaign was underway in Zimbabwe, expecting to cover 2.3 million people. While there were early signs of the outbreak slowing in Zambia over the past week, work was far from done. Dr. Braka stressed that a multisectoral approach was needed more than ever, focusing on improving water, sanitation, and hygiene, scaling up disease surveillance, and quality and timely treatment. Ending cholera needed investment. 

Cholera was preventable and treatable, and no one, no longer, should die from it. 

Replying to questions from the media, Dr. Braka said that the WHO wished to reduce deaths as quickly as possible. Those with severe cases should be able to receive care quickly. Most deaths were happening in communities rather than health care centers, which meant that the victims were not accessing facilities fast enough. There was a stigma of going to health care centers as people who went there would then be known as having cholera. WHO was engaging with the communities to deep dive into those reasons and address them properly.

Food situation in Sudan

Adam Yao, Deputy Representative of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Sudan, speaking from Port Sudan, informed that the Desert Locust situation in Sudan had significantly worsened since mid-2023. This deterioration could be attributed to the absence of surveillance and control operations in the central and western regions of Sudan, resulting from the ongoing conflict as well as the internal breeding along the Red Sea coast. In December 2023, the Desert Locust situation had reached a threaten level. Precipitation in the winter breeding zone during December had created favourable ecological conditions for locust breeding and the formation of locust swarms. In addition, more swarms were expected to invade Sudan from neighbouring countries in early 2024 and destroy crops and pastures, particularly in the eastern states. Mr. Yao stated that the window between now and the upcoming planting season was a crucial opportunity to implement actions to curb the spread of Desert Locust and safeguard food production of the most vulnerable populations.

He further said that FAO had been recently informed that the gene bank located in Wad Madani, with its unique collections of seeds, consisting of 15,000 accessions of seed collected from different regions of Sudan over the last 40 years, had been looted, and the plant materials stored in a deep freezer were now at risk of being lost completely, if not already damaged. FAO, in coordination with the Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator and OCHA, was urgently working to secure immediate access to Wad Madani and facilitate the transportation of seed collections to a safer location. The collections included indigenous wild relatives for crops such as sorghum, pearl millet, sesame, eggplant, and others, which originated from Sudan and are highly important for food security in the region and globally. The loss of these collections would not be just for Sudan but for the entire humanity. 

Mr. Yao stated that the food security situation in the country was extremely concerning and demanded urgent intervention as 17.7 million people across Sudan, accounting for 37 per cent of the analysed population, were facing high levels of acute food insecurity, classified in IPC Phase 3 or above (crisis or worse) between October 2023 and February 2024. The needs were tragically growing while resources remained scarce. It was imperative that resources align with the escalating needs. FAO was urgently seeking USD 104 million to reach nine million people and strengthen their food and nutrition security in 2024. Those funds were crucial to address escalating needs, enhance local food production, and improve its accessibility across the country. FAO called upon all parties of the conflict to cease hostilities immediately to enable aid workers to reach all regions of Sudan and deliver the much-needed humanitarian assistance.

Concerns over violence against political parties ahead of Pakistan elections

Elizabeth Throssell, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), stated that, ahead of the parliamentary election in Pakistan, OHCHR deplored all acts of violence against political parties and candidates, and urged the authorities to uphold the fundamental freedoms necessary for an inclusive and meaningful democratic process. There had been no less than 24 reported instances in which armed groups had staged attacks against members of political parties. OHCHR was disturbed by the pattern of harassment, arrests, and prolonged detentions of leaders of the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf party and their supporters which had continued during the election period. Multiple legal cases had been brought against former Prime Minister Imran Khan, which had disqualified him as a candidate and sentenced him to long prison sentences. It was hoped that the High Court would carefully review this case.

Mindful of Pakistan’s political journey, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, appealed to the authorities to ensure a fully free and fair vote and to recommit to the democratic process and an environment that promotes and protects the full range of economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights, which were clearly interconnected. 

OHCHR statement can be read here

The High Commissioner had called for free and fair elections in Venezuela, informed Ms. Throssell responding to another question. Right to participation was one of the key prerequisites for elections. 

Situation in Gaza

Responding to questions from the media, Tommaso della Longa, for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), said that the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip was beyond catastrophic. He shared a story of an IFRC colleague who had been killed recently. It would be very difficult to continue the activities at the Al-Amal Hospital as the hostilities continued. The needs were enormous, and the humanitarian aid coming in was simply not enough.

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that the population of Rafah had increased five-fold in less than five months. The health and sanitary situation there was dire, and every single child there suffered from some kind of trauma. The international humanitarian law prohibited bombing of heavily inhabited areas, which could amount to war crimes, warned Mr. Laerke. 

Announcements

Tarik Jašarević, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that today was the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). More than 200 million girls and women alive today had undergone FGM, and this year, nearly 4.4 million girls would be at risk of this harmful practice in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia where FGM was practiced. FGM was recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It reflected deep-rooted inequality between the sexes and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against girls and women. WHO strongly urged health care providers not to perform FGM and had developed a global strategy and specific materials to support health care providers against medicalization. More information is available here. UN Secretary-General’s message on this Day was available here, informed Rolando Gómez, for the United Nations Information Service.

He also reminded of the Secretary-General’s statement shared the previous day on the appointment of an independent review group on UNRWA. 

On 7 February at 12:30 pm, there would be a joint launch of the Sudan Humanitarian Needs and Response Plan and the Sudan Regional Refugee Response Plan 2024. Speakers would be Martin Griffiths, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, and Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

On 8 February at 1:30 pm, the UN Child Rights Committee would present its findings on Bulgaria, Congo, Lithuania, Russian Federation, Senegal, and South Africa.

Finally, Mr Gómez informed that the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was reviewing the report of Greece today.

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