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Press Releases


21 July 2017

Alessandra Vellucci, Director, United Nations Information Service, chaired the briefing attended by the spokespersons for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the World Health Organization, the International Organization for Migration, and the United Nations Refugee Agency.


William Spindler, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), introduced a new member of the team now at UNHCR Headquarters, Duniya Aslam Khan, who will be the UNHCR Spokeswoman for Asia and the Pacific region.

Ms. Khan said UNHCR welcomed the pilot launched this week of the Pakistan Government’s programme to register undocumented Afghans living in the country, currently estimated between 600,000 to one million.

This significant step would help regularize the stay for many Afghans at a time when return to their home country may not be possible. Afghans registered under the new scheme would receive Afghan Citizen (AC) cards, providing them legal protection from arbitrary arrests, detention or deportation under Pakistan’s Foreigner’s Act. The AC cards would allow Afghans to stay in Pakistan for the time being, until they could be issued documents, such as passports, by the Government of Afghanistan. The initiative would bring much needed relief for many Afghan families where some were registered refugees, while others had no legal status.

The registration of undocumented Afghans followed three years of consultations between the Governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan and UNHCR. It formed part of Pakistan’s Comprehensive Policy on the Repatriation and Management of Afghans, which had been endorsed by its cabinet in February 2017. Other components of the plan included: extending the validity of the Proof of Registration cards to some 1.4 million registered Afghans refugees until the end of 2017; a commitment to adopt a national refugee law; and a visa regime for different categories of Afghan refugees who had the Proof of Registration cards.

The six-month registration programme had begun on 20 July with the launch of a pilot in the country’s capital Islamabad and the north-western city of Peshawar, which hosted the largest number of undocumented of Afghans. The programme was expected to be rolled out in all four provinces from 16 August.

Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), Ministry of States and Frontier Regions and the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation would oversee the project with support from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR. UNHCR would assist IOM with its information campaign in spreading information to Afghan communities residing in Pakistan as well as ensuring that Afghans with international protection needs were referred to UNHCR.

Nigerian victims of sex trafficking crossing the Mediterranean

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), spoke of a major report compiled by the IOM office in Rome on Nigerian women crossing into Europe from Libya. Around 80 per cent of the women in that situation were trafficked into the sex commerce industry.

Mr. Millman then introduced Flavio Di Giacomo, Spokesperson for the IOM Coordination Office for the Mediterranean. Speaking by phone from Rome, Mr. Di Giacomo said IOM had been working with victims of trafficking over the past three years with its counter-trafficking teams, in Sicily, Puglia and Calabria, at landing points and in reception centres. IOM had registered an increase of arrivals of victims of trafficking in the past three years. Nigerian women’s arrivals over the past three years had increased by 60 per cent. Almost 1,500 Nigerian women had arrived in 2014, 5,600 in 2015 and 11,000 in 2016. In 2017 so far, the arrivals of more than 4,000 Nigerian women had been registered, which was already 20 per cent more than in 2016 at the same time.

Those girls, increasingly younger from year to year, were trafficked for sexual exploitation from Nigeria to Europe by international criminal organizations. They mainly came from the same region in Nigeria, Edo State, and came from very poor families. They were usually promised a job in Europe and had to carry out a voodoo ritual in Nigeria before their departure, that manipulated them psychologically. They did not pay for the journey to Europe, which was offered by the criminal organization, and were accompanied on the journey by a madame, usually very close to the family of the victim. The victims came to rely on their madame and trusted them.

Often the victims did not know upon departure that they would be working as prostitutes. Sometimes they came to understand that during the journey, because they were forced to prostitute themselves while travelling, especially in Libya. Often they did not have any idea of the extent of the exploitation they would face and did not even know what prostitution was. When they arrived at the landing points in Italy, it was very difficult to talk to them and to convince them that they could be helped. Italy had very advanced legislation on that issue and those girls could be provided with social protection and a stay permit, but they needed to say that they had been trafficked. In most cases the girls did not wish to speak. They were psychologically manipulated because of the voodoo ritual and believed that if they tried to escape, bad things would happen to them and their families. They were also controlled by their madame, and could not speak freely with IOM staff. When migrant girls arrived, IOM had to move very fast to talk to them before they were approached by those who had organized the journey. IOM teams informed them of their right to be protected by the Italian authorities and shared stories of experiences of girls who had arrived before them. IOM also provided them with leaflets. Many times, the girls called IOM from reception centres in Italy once they had started working as prostitutes and understood what exploitation they would face. Upon arrival the girls often told the authorities that they were adults, in order to be sent to open reception centres and not centres for minors where access was limited. They were then taken by the traffickers and had to practice prostitution in the streets in Italy and in other European countries, such as Spain, Germany, France and Austria.

Asked about the moment when the girls found out that they would be forced into prostitution, Mr. Di Giacomo clarified that when the girls were leaving Nigeria they were mostly not aware that they would have to become prostitutes. They understood the real purpose of their journey during their trip through Africa as they were forced to prostitute themselves during the journey, in brothels in Niger and Libya especially. However, there were some cases in which the girls did not know that they would be forced into prostitution until their arrival in Italy.

Asked about the identification of the criminal groups behind the trafficking of those women in Libya and in Italy, Mr. Di Giacomo clarified that the UN were not prosecutors and that the identification of traffickers was the domain of national police and of Interpol. As a humanitarian organization, IOM’s task was to identify and support the victims and report them to the authorities.

In 2016, IOM had reported to Italian anti-trafficking authorities 425 girls, of which 251 minors, compared to 142 in the previous 18 months. Those numbers were low considering that out of the 11,000 Nigerian women having arrived in 2016 in Italy, an estimated 80 per cent were victims of trafficking. This identification process had to be reinforced but it was very difficult to talk to the victims at landing points. It was necessary to have more safe houses where it would be possible to talk to girls after their arrival, not in presence of the madame.

Mediterranean update

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said July 2017 had been a remarkably safe month for migrants, with 104 migrant deaths confirmed for the month so far, which was less than half of the number for July 2016 and 2015.

Landings by sea in Spain stood at 7,389 as of 19 July – more than in all of 2016 – and was swiftly matching the volume coming into Greece, which was very light in 2017.

Asked about an explanation of why the arrivals to Spain were increasing, Mr. Millman said there were more and more events reported by the authorities in Spain, with small numbers – sometimes 20 or 30 people at a time – and it was suspected that that had to do with the froth of activities across West Africa, since the countries which were beginning to be predominant among migrants arriving to Italy were actually closer to Morocco and Spain (Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Togo). Alternative routes that were not quite as dangerous were leading them into Spain, and that seemed to be the logical explanation.

Mr. Millman also said that it was assumed that the proliferation of rescue vessels and the work of the Libyan coast guard were contributing to bringing down the number of migrant deaths at sea. The voyages were as dangerous as ever but were being stopped sooner.

Worldwide migrant deaths

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that since 18 July, 11 deaths had been recorded in Latin America and the Caribbean. Those included murders in Haiti and in the Dominican Republic, three drownings on the US-Mexico border and three separate train accidents in Mexico in three different cities.

Yemen – cholera

Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that from 27 April to 19 July 2017, 368,207 suspected cholera cases and 1,828 deaths had been reported in 91.3 per cent of Yemen’s governorates and 88.6 per cent of districts. Yemen faced the world’s largest cholera outbreak. Every day, there were 5,000 more Yemenis falling sick with symptoms of acute watery diarrhoea or cholera. WHO and health partners were focusing resources on interventions that could make a difference to treat those affected and to reduce further spread. Those included scaling up access to clean water and sanitation, setting up treatment centres, training health workers, reinforcing surveillance and working with communities on prevention.

The response seemed to be working but had to be scaled up. More than 99 per cent of people who became sick with suspected cholera and were able to access a health centre could survive. It was necessary to provide life-saving oral rehydration therapy corners and treatment centres for as many people as possible. Cholera attacked the most vulnerable, and in the current outbreak, children and elderly people were paying the highest price. Children aged under 15 accounted for 41 per cent of all suspected cases and people aged over 60 accounted for a third of all cholera deaths. It was necessary to break the vicious cycle of malnutrition and diarrhoea. 17 million Yemenis were currently food insecure.

Surveillance had confirmed a slight decline in suspected cases over the past two weeks in some of the most affected governorates: Amanat Al Asimah, Amran, and Sana’a. That data should be interpreted with great caution as there was a backlog in the data, which took time to be interpreted and analysed. WHO continued to monitor the situation to establish whether this slight decrease would continue as a trend over the coming weeks. Even if the outbreak was beginning to slow down in certain areas, thousands of people were still falling sick every day and the situation remained alarming. The Yemen cholera outbreak was far from being under control. The rainy season had just started and might increase the pace of transmission. Sustained efforts were required to stop the progression of the disease.

WHO and its partners had provided more than 800,000 bags of IV fluids, 525 beds with cleaning supplies and more than 100 kits containing supplies for the treatment of cholera, for hundreds of sick people. WHO and partners had delivered enough IV fluid supplies for all of the calculated severe cases and had sent a 4-ton delivery of supplies as well as 20 ambulances. Some 200 tons of medicines and hospital equipment and 140 tons of food items for children with malnutrition had arrived in Yemen on behalf of UNICEF on 30 June.

As of 6 July, WHO, UNICEF and partners had established 2,924 diarrhoea treatment beds out of the 5,000 that were planned, and 711 fully operational oral rehydration therapy corners had been established, with a further 400 to come.

Asked if WHO was expecting the numbers to reach 600,000 suspected cases, which was an estimate from Oxfam, despite the preliminary data indicating that there was somewhat of a decline in new cases in some areas, Ms. Chaib said a lot of people were still falling sick on a daily basis. The cholera outbreak was far from being over. As mentioned previously, the rainy season had just started and would exacerbate the situation in terms of transmission. WHO made calculations for planning purposes, but those were not projections. The current toll was heavy, this was why WHO was putting in place actions to slow and reverse the outbreak. On the one hand, there was a large number of people sick with cholera, but on the other hand WHO and its partners were focusing efforts on putting in place interventions that were showing some kind of success in slowing down the outbreak. WHO was in the process of looking at all the new data they were receiving, and expected many thousands more cases before the outbreak would end. They intended to work together with all partners to put an end to this outbreak, but were not making any projections – even though they had some planning numbers – because they were hoping that their intervention could make a difference.

Asked for WHO’s planning figure in terms of the possible number of cases, Ms. Chaib said that she would look for it and send it to the press. She would also send more information on the impact of the rainy season. The rainy season would usually slow down the operational capacity on the ground and there would be more difficulties in putting the water and sanitation operation in place. Roads would be flooded and people would be on the move, exacerbating the spread of the disease.

The security situation would also have an impact in not allowing interventions to take place easily. That was why WHO was trying to put in place as much of the response as possible now. It was very important to make sure health workers were trained, as not all suspected cases of cholera were actual cholera: they could be other diarrheal diseases. WHO helped workers to identify if a suspected case was cholera or malaria, or other diseases. In the rainy season, the rise of malaria could also exacerbate the situation, making it more difficult to identify the cases.

Ms. Chaib also reminded the press that half of the country’s health structures were not functioning and that health workers had not been paid for more than 10 months, so they might not be able to go to their workplaces or would rather stay with their families. All those factors were exacerbating the situation.

Yemen – civilian deaths

Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said OHCHR’s office in Yemen had gathered more information about a deadly airstrike that had taken place in a small village in Taizz Governorate in Yemen on 18 July. The Arab Coalition Forces airstrike had taken place in Al Asheerah village, which was near the town of Mawza, and was currently controlled by the Houthis, at around 8:30 a.m. on 18 July.

According to witnesses who had fled the area and had been interviewed by one of OHCHR’s monitors, the airstrike had destroyed a makeshift house made of straw, killing all three families who had been inside it at the time. At least 18 civilians in all, including ten children and two women, were believed to have died in the incident.

Three months previous, the three families had been recorded by OHCHR’s office in Yemen as displaced, along with three others, from their homes in a different village nearby as a result of other airstrikes, and had set up four rough shelters in an open area in Al Asheerah. The village was located approximately eight kilometres away from Khalid Bin Al Walid Military Camp, where clashes between pro-Hadi forces, backed by the Coalition Forces, and the Houthis were taking place, and, according to available information, there did not appear to have been any military objectives anywhere in the immediate vicinity of the destroyed house.

Attacks targeting civilians or civilian objects or indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks were prohibited under international humanitarian law. OHCHR also reminded all parties to the conflict, including the Coalition, of their duty to ensure full respect for international humanitarian law and for their obligations under international human rights law. OHCHR called on the relevant authorities to carry out a comprehensive and impartial investigation into the incident.

Since March 2015, OHCHR had documented 13,609 civilian casualties, including 5,021 killed and 8,588 injured. Those numbers were based on the casualties individually verified by the UN Human Rights Office in Yemen. The overall number was probably much higher, with some estimates suggesting that a total of more than 11,000 civilians had been killed since the beginning of the conflict.

Asked about whether there had been airborne activities in the area that day, Mr. Colville said the OHCHR monitor had not been able to get into Al Asheerah itself because of ongoing fighting, but had interviewed witnesses who had fled. According to their accounts, there had been air activity over the village just before the strike, which was why OHCHR was quite sure it had been an airstrike, not artillery or mortar. They had described it as aircraft hovering around the village. The main fighting, however, was around the military base, at quite some distance from the village, which did not explain why the house had been hit. There had been constant fighting and shelling, as well as artillery and airstrikes in the area for quite some time.

Asked whether it was a definitive finding of the UN that the Arab Coalition Forces were responsible, Mr. Colville said “definitive” was perhaps too strong a word, and the monitor had not been able to go to the area and see the munitions, but it was quite clear. No other planes were operating. The OHCHR office in Yemen continued to record all the incidents and tried to investigate them as well as it could. The investigations revealed round two thirds of the casualties were being caused by the Coalition and around one quarter by the Houthis, mainly by shelling. There was a breakdown by known or suspected perpetrators. The fighting was hugely exacerbating the ability to stop the epidemic of cholera. The disintegration of the health system in Yemen because of the conflict, at a time of cholera, was providing for a lethal combination.

Asked about results of investigations into incidents in which civilians had been killed, Mr. Colville said that among some of the worst incidents had been the one in October 2016 when 132 civilians had been killed and nearly 700 others injured in a single attack. There had been an attack on a wedding as well. For such major attacks there had been announcements of investigations and findings. It was tricky to say whether the investigations were satisfactory or not as it was necessary to investigate the investigation. At the next session of the Human Rights Council in September a major report would be presented and would provide an overview of the situation in Yemen since the beginning of the conflict.

Ms. Vellucci said that on 20 July, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmad, had wrapped up a visit to Cairo, where he had meet with Egyptian, Yemeni and regional leaders on the crisis. A readout had been sent to the press.


Asked about recent remarks from Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Mr. Colville said that there was a lot of unpleasant rhetoric as the situation grew more intense there. OHCHR remained concerned about extreme polarization in Venezuela and constant rising tensions.

Geneva Events and Announcements

Alessandra Vellucci, Director, United Nations Information Service, United Nations Office at Geneva, said the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women would close today at 4 p.m. its 67th session, during which it had reviewed the regular reports of Barbados, Costa Rica, Italy, Montenegro, Niger, Nigeria, Thailand and Romania.

The Committee against Torture would open on 24 July at 10 a.m. its 61st session, at the Palais Wilson in Geneva. The session would run until 11 August. The Committee would review the reports presented by Paraguay, Ireland and Panama, regarding the implementation of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In the absence of a report it would also examine the implementation of the Convention in Antigua and Barbuda.

Ms. Vellucci announced a press conference on 24 July at 12.30 p.m. in Press Room 1, by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, on its concluding observations on Italy, Thailand, Romania, Costa Rica, Montenegro, Barbados, Niger and Nigeria. The speakers would be Committee members Marion Bethel, Hilary Gbedemah, and Nahla Haidar.

On behalf of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Ms. Vellucci said journalists were invited to two press briefings at WTO in the following week by WTO spokesperson Keith Rockwell. The first one would be after the heads of delegations meeting on 25 July in Room B at the WTO, at 5 p.m. The second would be after the General Council meeting on 26 July, also in Room B at the WTO, at 5 p.m. The full agenda for the following week would be available online and in Press Room 1.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here:

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