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Press Conferences | ICRC , UNDP , UNHCR , WHO

UN Geneva Press Briefing - 20 February 2024

UN GENEVA PRESS BRIEFING

20 February 2024

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired a hybrid briefing, which was attended by spokespersons and representatives of the World Health Organization, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the United Nations Development Programme, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

 

Third year of Ukraine war

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), said that the second anniversary was approaching of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in violation of the UN Charter. United Nations reiterated its call for an end to the conflict.

Jaco Cilliers, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Resident Representative, speaking from Kyiv, said that UNDP had launched a new study on the impact of the war on micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in Ukraine. The report underscored the significant role MSMEs played in the Ukrainian economy -- they accounted for 99.98 percent of all business entities and provided 74 percent of all jobs. A key finding of the report showed that MSMEs that had suspended operations at the beginning of 2022 had shown remarkable resilience, with 82 percent of them having partially resumed their activities by the end of 2023. Businesses in Ukraine were cautiously optimistic about their prospects in 2024, although their main concerns continued to be the unpredictable situation, low demand, and labour shortages. Still, businesses were not planning further staff reductions, which indicated that there was the potential for further economic recovery. 

Companies also said they planned to gradually put substantial unused capacity back into operation and are ready to increase turnover by about 50 percent in 2024 if demand arose. In 2023, companies had gradually restored their capacity utilization levels; with the weighted average rate of company capacity utilization being 53.4. According to the forecast, this weighted average percentage should increase to 56 percent in 2024, informed Mr. Cilliers. Almost 80 percent of the companies mostly relied on domestic loans and were not looking into attracting foreign investments. Businesses in eastern and southern Ukraine were facing 1.5 times higher losses than those in western parts of the country but were still keeping a positive outlook for 2024. Businesses were planning to retain staff, but had several concerns, including on the deterioration of the economy. UNDP’s approach was rooted in resilience and sustainability; the UNDP’s budget was USD 140 million over next four years.

More details can be found here

Philippe Leclerc, UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Regional Director for Europe, speaking from Athens, stated that, after two years of full-scale war in Ukraine, amidst massive destruction and ongoing shelling and missile attacks across the country, the future for millions who had been displaced remained uncertain. As war raged on, humanitarian conditions remained dire inside Ukraine, where some 40 per cent of the population needed humanitarian and protection support. For many, this was not the first encounter with war and displacement as this week also marked ten years since the beginning of the war in Eastern Ukraine. There were currently almost 6.5 million refugees from Ukraine who had sought refuge globally, while some 3.7 million people remained forcibly displaced inside the country.

According to preliminary findings from a recent study by UNHCR, the majority of Ukrainian refugees and internally displaced people surveyed (65 and 72 per cent, respectively) still expressed a desire to return home one day. However, that proportion had declined, with more expressing uncertainty due to the ongoing war. Those displaced who were surveyed cited the prevailing insecurity in Ukraine as the main factor inhibiting their return, while other concerns included a lack of economic opportunities and housing. A key priority for UNHCR was to repair houses in Ukraine so that people can remain in their homes. Worryingly, a significant proportion of Ukrainian refugees surveyed – some 59 per cent – indicated that they might be compelled to return home even if this was not their preferred choice due to the ongoing war, if they continued to face challenges in host countries, mainly related to work opportunities and legal status. UNHCR urged host States to maintain a flexible approach to refugees’ short-term visits to Ukraine, and that refugees’ legal status and associated rights in a host country were not to be affected by visits lasting less than three months. The protection and needs of refugees had to be ensured until they can voluntarily and sustainably return home, in safety and dignity. UNHCR was appealing for USD 993.3 million – USD 599 million for inside Ukraine and the remainder to support refugees in host countries. The Ukraine appeal was currently just 13 per cent funded, warned Mr. Leclerc. Full briefing note is available here

Dušan Vujašanin, Head of the Central Tracing Agency bureau for the international armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine, at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), informed that, as of today, some 23,000 persons were reported to the ICRC as missing, the number which kept growing. The Geneva Conventions obliged parties to conflict to put in place information systems, which had an obligation to systemize all protected persons, such as prisoners of war, civilians, alive or dead. Such bureaus existed in both Russia and Ukraine and the two national information bureaus were under obligation to share with the Central Tracing Agency the information in their possession. This system, while imperfect, was functioning, and the CTA was regularly receiving information from the two sides. ICRC had been contacted well over 100,000 times by families of missing persons; some 31,000 requests for search for missing persons had been opened over the past two years. ICRC was receiving information both from families of missing persons and the parties to the conflict. Fate of about 8,000 persons had been clarified thus far. 

Mr. Vujašanin stressed that 23,000 families were still waiting for the news about what had happened to their loved ones. Families continued to visit and call the ICRC, trying to find out what had happened. The ambiguity and not knowing the fate of family members represented a heavy burden. This was a long-term investment, and it would take years to resolve the pending cases. 

Responding to questions from the media, Mr. Vujašanin, for the ICRC, said that the ICRC had a constructive relationship with both Ukrainian and Russian national information bureaus. He reiterated that the ICRC had been contacted over 115,000 times, by 31,000 families, as many families had called multiple times. ICRC was working confidentially with the two parties on the issue of prisoners of war. Mr. Vujašanin estimated that by the end of this year the number of open cases could grow to 30,000 from the current number of 23,000. The system currently in place had been used only in World War II and the Gulf War, so there was not that much earlier knowledge to build upon. So far, the ICRC had visited some 3,000 prisoners of war. Among the 8,000 resolved cases, there were both Ukrainian and Russian nationals; a very small proportion of them were children. Families had approached the ICRC with requests to trace missing children, but in relatively small numbers. ICRC also received lists from the authorities and actioned upon them. 

Mr. Leclerc, for UNHCR, answering questions, said that the UNHCR did not have a chance to systematically visit all places where Ukrainian refugees were hosted in Russia. Following Russia’s attack against Ukraine two years earlier, Ukraine had started mobilizing men to defend the country. A new mobilization law in Ukraine which was also addressed to male refugees, was a subject of many discussions in the country. He further said that States had different ways of organizing support to refugees. In Russia, UNHCR did not have a strong operational role; refugee camps were run by the authorities. Nonetheless, UNHCR had the role to ensure that the 1951 Convention was applied correctly; UNHCR teams regularly visited some camps across the country but did not have the capacity to visit them all. More than 30 percent of UNHCR’s budget was supported by the USA, he explained, through the State Department’s budget, which had not yet been approved by the US Congress.

Global measles situation

Dr. Natasha Crowcroft, Senior Technical Adviser, Measles and Rubella, at the World Health Organization (WHO), speaking from Cairo, said that the WHO was concerned about current upward trends in measles cases which was happening in all but one of its regions (the Americas). Latest global data on the number of cases reported to WHO were of 306,291 cases reported in 2023 compared with 171,156 cases in 2022, an increase of 79 percent. Dr. Crowcroft said that 92 percent of children who died from measles lived within 24 percent of the world’s population. More than half of all the countries in the world would be classified as being at high or highest risk of measles outbreaks by the end of 2024 unless urgent preventive action was taken. Nearly half of those countries were low- or middle-income countries. An estimated 142 million children under 5 years of age were susceptible to measles, and there was a huge inequity issue, as 73 percent of those children lived in low- or middle-income countries. Measles prevention required 95 percent of children to receive two doses of measles vaccine. Global measles vaccination coverage was only 83 percent and had not recovered to the level reached in 2019 of 86 percent. 

Dr. Crowcroft stressed that deaths from measles should not be acceptable in 2024. Parents, communities, governments, and global partners needed to raise up measles prevention in their priorities and take urgent action to make sure all children be protected. Every child should be fully vaccinated. Low-income countries needed to prioritize prevention of measles in their plans to catch up children with immunization, because measles would come back quickly if action was not taken and could be devastating in vulnerable communities. Global partners needed to consider the needs of middle-income countries that were falling behind and did not have access to the financial support available to low-income countries.

Answering questions, Dr. Crowcroft explained that infants in the first year of life were most vulnerable. Anyone with a compromised immune system and pregnant women were also susceptible. People of ages anywhere in the world could die of measles, she said. An increase in measles was observed across the world; weak health systems were the primary reason. Security in some parts of the world, access to health care, and disinformation also played a role. Dr. Crowcroft did not have any information on measles in Gaza, which used to have a good vaccination system in place. Vaccinations were preventing millions of measles cases in the world every year. The worry right now was the large gaps in immunizations, so the numbers of new cases could go up and be comparable to 2019. It was still difficult to estimate the number of deaths from measles in 2023, but there was likely to have been an increase compared to 2022. Generally, there were no issues with the supply of measles vaccines; the problem usually arose from the countries’ side – financing or logistics wise. 

Health situation in Gaza

Tarik Jašarević, for the World Health Organization (WHO), informed that the WHO had led two life-saving missions to transfer 32 critical patients, including two children, from Nasser Medical Complex in southern Gaza on 18-19 February, amid ongoing hostilities and access restrictions. The high-risk missions had been conducted in close partnership with the Palestine Red Crescent Society and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The team had also provided limited supplies of essential medicines and food for the remaining patients and staff who were otherwise cut off from aid. Four Red Crescent ambulances had ensured the safe transportation of the patients, who had undergone medical assessment and triage under the coordination of the hospital director. 

Nasser Hospital had no electricity or running water, and medical waste and garbage were creating a breeding ground for disease. WHO staff said that the destruction around the hospital was ‘indescribable.’ The area was surrounded by burnt and destroyed buildings, heavy layers of debris, with no stretch of intact road. An estimated 130 sick and injured patients and at least 15 doctors and nurses remained inside the hospital. WHO feared for the safety and well-being of the patients and health workers remaining in the hospital and warns that further disruption to lifesaving care for the sick and injured would lead to more deaths. Efforts to facilitate further patient referrals amidst the ongoing hostilities were in process. Mr. Jašarević shared stories of patients laying in the corridors in darkness.

The dismantling and degradation of the Nasser Medical Complex was a massive blow to Gaza’s health system. Facilities in the south are already operating well beyond maximum capacity and were barely able to receive more patients. WHO repeated its calls for the protection of patients, health workers, health infrastructure, and civilians. Hospitals ought not be militarized, misused, or attacked. WHO reiterated its calls for all parties to uphold international humanitarian law and the principles of precaution, distinction, and proportionality, and to ensure sustained access so hospitals can continue providing lifesaving care.

Alessandra Vellucci, for the UN Information Service (UNIS), referred to a joint WHO/UNICEF/WFP press statement on the malnutrition of children in Gaza Strip.

Answering questions, Mr. Jašarević said that, ideally, the WHO would like to see the Nasser Hospital, as well as other health facilities in Gaza, protected, rebuilt, and properly supplied. This could only be achieved if there was a ceasefire and unimpeded access to health workers, patients, and humanitarians. He encouraged the journalists to view the footage recorded by a WHO colleague at the Nasser Hospital the previous day. Fighting was still ongoing nearby and the access to the hospital, as well as moving from one hospital wing to another, was close to impossible. 

Announcements

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service, informed that on 21 February at 10 am, there would be a press conference on the 55th regular session of the Human Rights Council. Speaker would be Omar Zniber, President of the Human Rights Council. 

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was beginning this morning its review of the report of Indonesia and would conclude this afternoon its review of the report of Iraq.

The Committee on Enforced Disappearances was concluding this morning its review of the report of Cambodia. This afternoon, it would open its dialogue with Burkina Faso under article 29(4) of the Convention.

The Conference on Disarmament was having this morning a public plenary meeting, the first under the presidency of Indonesia.

Finally, 20 February was the World Social Justice Day, on which occasion the International Labour Organization was conducting several events around the world, including in Geneva.


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