Refugee agency’s IG office accused of promoting impunity

A victim displays an injury sustained after being attacked by UNCHR G4S-security officer in Nairobi on December 18,2018./Enos Teche

Inaction by the UN refugee agency’s Inspector General’s Office is aiding increased abuses, harassment and extortion of asylum seekers, refugee activists have claimed.

Speaking to the Star on condition of anonymity, seven refugees who have taken it upon themselves to advocate their rights and those of other refugees said the IGO’s office has rebuffed them and doesn’t want to listen nor take their complainants.

In 2017, the group blew the whistle on several UNHCR officers in Kakuma involved in fraud, threats, intimidation and gross misconduct. They gave leads that helped the IGO’s office investigate the cases fully, seeing three officers referred to Kenya police for action, whereas two were put on internal disciplinary measures.

“Since that time, we were told the UNHCR got a backlash and they no longer want to hear from us anymore because we are embarrasing them,” one activist told the Star.

“Today the IGO doesn’t want to see us. They have ignored our anonymous emails. Even when we tried to visit their office, they called police, who threw us out,” another said, explaining that this has emboldened impunity among UNHCR staff, as they know the mechanism to put them on check and accountability is shielding them.

Other than documenting abuses, threats and intimidation, they have also been recording video and audio conversations on how brokers are used by UNHCR to pick bribes in exchange for services.

For instance, when we started this in 2010, bribes for resettlement were in the range of Sh50,000. In 2011 it jumped to Sh70, 0000. In 2015 it was in the range of Sh 150,000. Today it is above Sh200,000. For protection, which includes being put into a safe house for urban refugees, one has to pay over Sh150,000, they alleged. 

The UNHCR, through its spokesperson Yvonne Ndege, has constantly denied claims they have safe houses for urban refugees.

Another activist said: “We have been grouped into those who can pay and those who cannot. Most of us are the wretched poor and we can’t afford. Unfortunately, when we complain about this mistreatment, we are dismissed by UNHCR officers that we are only jealous. Others think we are doing this to get resettlement or money.

“We are just activists, not investigators. Ours is to document and hand over to a responsible entity to act, but now that channel has been closed. But we won’t be cowed. If we keep quiet this behaviour will be the norm,” he added, explaining that all they are fighting for is to have fairness and dignity for all refugees regardless of their walk of life.

They said they are now facing risks from the brokers and UNHCR officials, who see them as a thorn in their flesh.

“For us, corruption and indignity kill more than war, and that is what we want to end. Even the disappearances of some of our comrades who speak out will not silence us. What we do is from our deep personal convinction,” one activist said.

IGO is an independent unit that conducts investigations into allegations of misconduct that involve UNHCR staff, contractors and other persons.

When reached for comment, head of the IGO Michael Holstein said their work is confidential.

“I cannot comment on any IGO internal matters. I have forwarded your information request to our media section at UNHCR HQ in Geneva,” he said. 





The widespread malpractices in the whole UNHCR system are now so widely known that even university curricula offered courses based on these well documented abuses.


Corruption at the UNHCR Refugee Camps: Can it be tackled?

Dileep Nair, Singapore Management University
Clara Portela, Singapore Management University

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The Inspector-General of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Maureen Connelly, receives two highly distressing pieces of news on the same day. Both of them relate to the UNHCR-administered Dabaad and Kakuma camps in Kenya, which have been flooded by refugees fleeing the armed conflicts in Somalia and Sudan to the point of overstretching their capacity. The first piece of news is an anonymous letter detailing rampant levels of corruption at the camps, including fraud and abuse by UNHCR officials. And the second is word from the US Ambassador in Nairobi informing her of a personal threat he has received from employees of the Kenyan refugee camps, requiring him to leave the country. The US is now threatening to withdraw its financial support to UNHCR. Connelly faces hard choices on how to proceed.

This case will familiarise students with the intricacies of managing a multicultural staff and the inevitable tensions between well-paid expatriates and more poorly remunerated locals. They would gain some understanding about the functioning of the UN and the challenges it faces. Finally, students will learn about crisis management within an international context, and possible situations to be considered in decision-making — particularly when one’s own career advancement and the image of the organisation appear to be at odds with each other.

The level of difficulty of the case study is basic. It can be used in the context of courses on management, such as organisational behavior, human resources, risk management, crisis management, cross-cultural/international management and corporate governance, or for International Relations courses such as International Organisations or Politics of Asylum.