Update May 2019: UNHCR's country representative in Kenya Raouf Mazou was relieve from this post and replaced, while an expat protection / compliance officer resigned due to the situation, which has further deteriorated.
THE UN AND REFUGEES - A NIGHTMARE
By Venatrix Fulmen (*) - 21. May 2018
UNHCR globally wastes more than one Galactic Year in the lives of refugees and asylees
In Kenya it just got worse
21. May 2018 (vf) Since that African conglomerate-state with its huge colonial burden is now ruled for another four years by an autocratic governance after a neither clean nor fair election, the Republic of Kenya, which hosts gigantic refugee camps in the impoverished far North of the country as unobserved cash machines, has grabbed the Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process from the hands of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). That this move was even recommended and is still fostered by UNHCR makes it only worse.
UNHCR has the duty to find and provide durable solutions for all refugees. But with only 0.8 percent of refugees resettled per year everyone has to admit that UNHCR has not even remotely fulfilled the tasks at hand - and in Trump's terms "should be fired".
Many therefore say rightly that UNHCR should give its mandate to protect and care for refugees back to the United Nations, since the agency is obviously no longer able nor willing to do the necessary - as recently also observed in Kenya, in Sudan [see below], Egypt, South-Africa, Yemen, Palestine, Syria, Libya Bangladesh or Myanmar - to name just a few.
Together with the brutal enforcement of the Kenyan Detention Policy, which - against a standing court order - still deports refugees to the remote camps (or deports them - often illegally - back to their home countries), the delaying UNHCR processes provide for a constant cash flow to those in charge of the refugees or their brokers.
Urban refugees in Nairobi pay in minimum 45,000KSh (around 450USD), if they are female and willing to provide additional services, just for faked camp exemption papers and a governmental Refugee ID, while others have to pay more. Though fraudulently obtained, these documents at least help the asylum seekers against the harassment launched daily by security patrols in the refugee hotspots around Eastleigh in Nairobi, where police and vigilante groups [based on the Kenyan KumiKumi (KiSwahili:10/10) system - a derivative of the Nazi's 10 houses Block Warden scheme] solicit for bribes or sex to not arrest the victims or to have them deported.
Later, when the asylum seeker then is interviewed by UNHCR in the resettlement (RST) process, these documents are found out to be fake, but the broker is gone and the refugee is back to square one of RSD in this sick process, which is now handled by the Refugee Affairs Secretariate (RAS) of the Kenyan government. Since the Commissioner of RAS did not sign for almost one full year any camp-exemptions - granted to refugees usually on grounds of medical or protection needs - the corruption machinery only became better oiled and boomed, while the real process nowadays often even lacks the ink for the printers to produce the valid papers. At present, the time to just register as refugee can take weeks, if you don't know someone or can pay.
In addition, those, who had peacefully waited for sometimes even two or three years until their appointment date came to collect UNHCR's decision for eligibility - i.e. if they recognize them as refugees or not - do find themselves now only postponed for another six months to get the verdict handed down by the Kenyan Government. Patience derives from the Latin word patientia, which means suffering.
Help- and hopeless at the hands of psychopaths in UNHCR and government
Only in rare cases, where sadistic, sexual or extortionist misconduct of an officer has become simply too obvious or where it has reached widespread proportions, some truth comes into the open. But only when donor money is embezzled heads really roll, though they often do not roll into the abyss and resurrect elsewhere. This climate of impunity on the one and the widespread fear on the other side have created the fertile ground for psychopaths of all shades, who as UNHCR officers enjoy the powers to decide over the fate of humans and in the course abuse them. Cases like that of UNHCR team leader Ali Khemis, are by no means rare, but it was exceptional that this time with the involvement of stout IGO investigators that psychotic maniac was nabbed.
While abuses involving sex sometimes make it to the investigation level and finally the headlines, it goes completely unreported what is the daily sadistic show of force and power enjoyed by those, who decide about eligibility or resettlement.
Sex trafficking cartel targets vulnerable refugees
•Mar 25, 2018 - NTVUganda
A pervasive and sophisticated prostitution web targeting refugees continues to grow in Kampala. In Panorama this week, we go undercover to expose this cartel, which relies on the unscrupulous methods to ensnare its victims who are later huddled in dormitories and carted off to the highest bidder in brothels across the city.
UNHCR clearly violates its duty by not providing protection to these victims and by not making it conditional that all employees for these critical jobs are subjected to a regular, thorough and independent psychological examination, which has to establish if they can be fit for this work of high and unbiased responsibility. Inhumane bureaucrats enjoying the powers of a demigod, whose psychotic traits are fed by the pleads and tears of refugees simply must be rooted out from UNHCR and its implementing partners.
Worse, if the refugees finally overcome their fears and resort to protest, they are killed by government soldiers even if they are just hungry, while UNHCR stands by - doing nothing to protect them.
Resettlement to where?
Good question, because the number of countries, that voluntarily still take in genuine refugees has shrunk to less than a handful. Officially the 26 countries who had reportedly functioning resettlement programmes are down to 22, but that is only on paper while the reality looks much more bleak. Sweden, once a heaven for political asylum seekers, has like Hungary completely stopped any intake. Other European countries like Germany or Denmark and also New Zealand only deal now with family re-unification cases. The UK is very picky and seems to have an agenda to take only those, who worked for them earlier undercover or as "translators" in their home countries. The USA has ruled out any Muslim asylum seeker and hand-picks - with an extremely extended vetting process of regularly many years - only the strong - as workers for the slaughterhouses, metal factories and garbage collections or the beautiful for only the heaven knows what. And Australia does not take in single asylum seekers any more, but wants families. This is modern slave-trade at its best.
At present only Canada seems to be the sole shining star at the horizon of the destitute refugees. But even there more and more applicants are pushed - due to the faulty, jammed, corrupt and delayed UNHCR resettlement process - to seek for a private resettlement sponsorship, which usually materializes in 10 to 12 month, but it costs so much that only wealthy family groups or churches can afford it. Inside Canada critical voices might soon even close that window. They claim that the welcoming refugee policy of Canada has the heinous agenda - followed by the ruling government - to outnumber the indigenous people of Native Nations in some provinces - to where the refugees then promptly are settled - in order to back the ruling class of European origin. That refugees are increasingly abused as political play stones is obvious everywhere.
Meanwhile UNHCR's country representative in Kenya Raouf Mazou, who hails from Benin, seems to only spend his time wining and dining with celebrities and royal dignitaries instead of backing the handful of his remaining good UNHCR staff, who were left without means during the last weeks when a new crisis erupted at the colonial border between Kenya and Ethiopia. Despite his sleek celeb-stunts he did not succeed to secure enough funding for the real work the agency has to deliver in Kenya - like protection, health or care for urban refugees. The promised care for the elderly, minors, minorities or other disadvantaged groups among the refugees has materialized nowhere. UNHCR's phony websites on the trendy support for the LGBT community will never transform into action, because the UN agency can not even accept traditional marriages between refugees and merge their case-files. Muslim-Christian marriages have to be kept secret e.g. in Kakuma and simply can not be made in a public office, because the ever present fundamentalist groups there do haunt the couple ever after. But that does not go into the heads of bureaucrats who set the UNHCR rules.
More importantly, the UNHCR representative in Kenya is obviously also too afraid to root out corruption and political influence within his own office. Though the IGO achieved a small success in Kakuma camp, only one of the five targeted low rank culprits got briefly arrested. The top culprits continue under a protective, often political cloud, whereby e.g. the Ethiopian government through its embassy in Kenya is well known to rule deep into UNHCR and even into the Nairobi embassies of potential resettlement nations to make the life of political asylum seekers and dissidents specifically from the Oromo nation at least miserable - or hell.
One of the preferred tools to achieve that is peddling lies about alleged OLF (Oromo Liberation Front) affiliation of a refugee. The OLF is a group of freedom fighters standing for the independence of the Oromo nation and the protection of its over 40 million people - a task which the UN in the light of its duties to foster decolonization actually should support. Though the OLF is, except in Ethiopia, not on a single list of terrorist organizations worldwide - naming a refugee rightly or falsely to be an OLF sympathizer, supporter or ex-freedomfighter causes in UNHCR but also e.g. in the US embassy to drop the case onto the big hip of delay and forget - mostly without any further counter-checks. The USAmerican military still needs the drone-bases, which the present regime allows them to operate from Ethiopia into the Horn of Africa and Sudan. Politicians, musicians, bloggers or activists are regularly haunted by the Ethiopian regime with such false accusations to combat any dissent. And in the worst case scenario the accused refugees are abducted and deported.
But in not one case of proven refoulement to Ethiopia UNHCR's Raouf Mazou followed up with the Kenyan government, though the Kenya Police is involved in the illegal deportations - as ICRC interviews with the innocent victims back in Ethiopian prisons proof.
The internationally outlawed crime of returning political asylum seekers, who are UNHCR recognized refugees, back into the hands of the regime from which they fled - termed refoulement - is simply not addressed by UNHCR in Kenya effectively. In the case of world-famous Oromo spiritual leader Dabasa Guyo, UNHCR Kenya and their headquarters in Geneva went even so far to bluntly deny that the gentle elder was a registered, fully recognized refugee and asylum seeker at the time of his abduction. But one of the few remaining independent civil society organizations could during a tribunal for the case provide the documents, which proof beyond any reasonable doubt that he held genuine papers as recognized refugee and asylum seeker from UNHCR as well as a Refugee ID issued by the Kenyan government. Outrageously UNHCR denied it and had told several investigating journalists not the truth.
When UNHCR officials lie to the outside world it is never investigated by its Inspector General's Office (IGO), which is supposed to provide the High Commissioner with independent assurance and oversight of UNHCR's activities and operations. Unfortunately the IGO appears to be only an in-house watchman and not a pro-active guard with own rights and means to combat the crimes or enforce protection for refugees. Only few therefore bother to report to the IGO - with often very negative consequences for themselves. The IGO's reporting process - like all UNHCR presentations and documentations on the internet - involves insecure, click-tracking websites which don't allow secure browsers to use them and it makes anonymous reporting impossible. With too many leaks everywhere, witness protection is likewise a very sad chapter in UNHCR and therefore it is only logic that perpetrators can continue for years and get away, while those in the know remain mum. Only the very brave dare to take on the uphill battle involving often the top echelons of this UN agency.
Meanwhile UNHCR obviously doesn't want to step on the toes of the rogue regime in Addis Ababa, which since 25 years disappears dissidents in and outside the country unabated and has killed thousands of its civilians, because also in Ethiopia there are huge UNHCR administered refugee camps with good business as usual. No wonder that Mr. Mazou - instead of working hard to provide real and durable solutions for fleeing people in distress - spends his time with retweeting promotions that see and present refugee camps as an untapped opportunity for the private sector - as likewise earmarked recently even by the UN's Worldbank Group and its International Finance Corporation (IFC). Data on people subjected to forced displacement - these are internally displaced people in countries with civil strife as well as genuine refugees fleeing a country - are now even peddled by UNHCR with the WorldBank. Obviously these banksters with diplomatic immunity want in on the game.
Has anyone asked refugees in Kakuma Camp if they even want to play the role of "dynamic economic agents" in its 56 mio USD per year market on foreign soil or if they want to just live and work in peace with their families, relatives and friends on their own land back home? With these deceptive actions pushed by the masters of deceit and the lords of poverty jointly, these vassals of the 1% only secure their stock of chattel and their share of looted international funding deriving from tax-payers money.
Let others do the hard work - we just want the funds
To shield itself UNHCR has outsourced many duties of its actual mandate, that is based on the international conventions. With the always working carrot-and-stick approach and severe contract stipulations this UN agency has created a cordon of boot-licking non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around itself, which then can be blamed if things go wrong. Things do go wrong very often and with increasing tendency, since what could earlier be solved in-house does involve now many players with all their own interests. Who at the end suffers are the refugee and not the stacked conglomerate of organizations.
One serious side-effect is likewise that UNHCR now clearly violates it own data security rules and regulations. One outrageous example is the recently established hotline for refugees in emergency situations e.g. in Kenya, that was outsourced. The private company running it with their non-UN-staff is ignoring any confidentiality rules and they are endangering persecuted refugees more than they are able to help them. New refugee status websites, where refugees supposedly should be able to monitor the progress of their cases, like in Egypt and Kenya, are easily hacked and from there the intruder can even hop to the major databases of the UN agency. Refugee databases are now the key-target of foreign agents looking for dissidents with the task to eliminate the critics or the insurrection organizers.
That these are serious security breeches seems not to go into the heads of the twitter- and facebook-addicted holders of diplomatic immunity, with which UNHCR senior staff is equipped. Such protection is not available to refugees, especially not in the remote camps were rape victims rarely report to police for fear to be violated again or young men are recruited by force into fundamentalist groups.
The poor state of UNHCR's IT capabilities can be already seen when it comes to make proper entries. UNHCR claims they can not write "Oromo" into the field for the nationality of an Oromo refugee - only Ethiopia. But insiders know it is the UN politics of not recognizing Oromiya as a nation, though even the brutal regime in Addis based on the constitution has conceded. Oromiya is a nation and the nationality of an Oromo is Oromo. Next argument in line will be that the UNHCR computer system would not have space on the forms to write both - nationality and citizenship. But there is enough capacity to file all the forcibly taken biometric data of innocent refugees who will find their details in many global databases from the CIA to Google - thanks to the leaks in UNHCR.
The other side
Surely also the other side of the coin must be seen, be it in form of organized crime trafficking humans as sex- or labour-slaves or to smuggle economic migrants through or into other countries, and yes, in desperation also refugees can lie to improve their status. But, as long as nobody cares to establish and maintain a clean and due legal process for genuine refugees and political asylum seekers, the shadows will only expand under whose cover people then will have to seek refuge to escape persecution. The clean avenue between persecution on the one and exploitation on the other sides is not yet paved.
Recent practices in Kenya, however, where intercepted human trafficking gangs get away with a slap on their wrists, while the genuine refugees are just hoarded back with the support of IOM (the International Office of Migration) - the USAmerican-founded travel agency of the UN and its member states - while neither UNHCR nor OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) are even informed by the Kenyan Police, must stop. People from minorities and/or Indigenous Peoples have additional, internationally guaranteed and accepted rights, for which neither local law enforcement nor IOM or UNHCR do care or could cater. And it is often the case that especially members of these endangered minorities are lured into the cattle-trailers of the smugglers to traverse Kenya en route to South Africa with false promises. When they then find out that South-Africa is hell like Ethiopia or Somalia they have no means to return or to flee elsewhere, especially because UNHCR South Africa is even more hypocritical and less helpful to refugees than Kenya. Being intercepted actually could be advantageous for these migrants, if they then would be given the full information and the assistance of UNHCR - or better OHCHR - and with their prior informed consent the right to apply for asylum. But that is not how it works in the moment in Kenya, where instead of UNHCR e.g. the Ethiopian embassy agents show up to pick the dissidents from among the migrants for extradition or forced repatriation.
If, while reading all this, you got the feeling that it is all too much, you are right, but today it can still be solved. Its not easy, but must be done if any moral legitimation shall be upheld and provide for a better future.
The whole and worldwide refugee crisis must be analysed afresh, policies and laws must be revised and the processes to provide real help must be restructured and boosted without delay:
- States, which cause or foster regime change or war elsewhere, must cater for the fleeing people in full.
- Regimes, which cause their own people to flee must be charged the costs to host them.
- Host countries must provide full protection and be held accountable, if the fundamental rights to security or well-being are breeched.
- And UNHCR should become a department of OHCHR, whereby the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights will have the duty to enforce the rights of refugees - no matter where they are.
"We are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record in all of human history", says Filippo Grandi, the not-anymore-so-new UNHCR boss in Geneva, who is the 11th United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees since the agency was founded 68 years ago. His predecessor António Guterres left him a real mess - only to be himself promoted now to United Nations (UN) Secretary General. The Peter principle still works.
Observers who are as old as UNHCR or even older state that the agency in not one instance anywhere has created a durable situation where it would no longer be necessary to operate - the opposite: Everything is done to ensure that the refugee crisis situations persist or can be created newly to sustain the agency.
We all agree with UNHCR that in a world where nearly 20 people are forcibly displaced every minute as a result of conflict or persecution, over half of whom are under the age of 18 years, the work to help these people is today more important than ever before. BUT, many say, it cannot be done with the present UNHCR and faulty governments, which don't do the work as needed.
While limping from one crisis to the next with their faulty or outright wrong sets of tools and often enough corrupt staff, the UN and many of its member-state governments are providing hardly real help, but are causing instead untold harm to millions of refugees in addition to their plight.
The first step
A rough estimate resulted in the finding that - with the constant back-log and the corrupted delays in the resettlement process or while finding durable solutions for displaced people and refugees - UNHCR is wasting in the moment approx. 342mio human years - that is more than 1.4 Galactic Years in the life of people, who had to flee their homes.
Admittedly sometimes UNHCR does good work, but that waste of human lifetime was also funded with the US$ 7.7 billion, which UNHCR received in 2017 alone from the international community.
Nobody thinks that 3.42mio centuries or 342 thousand millennia don't matter - so why the lifetime of refugees seems not to matter for UNHCR today?
We all know that time is the most precious good in one's life. "Your time is limited, so don't waste it - neither for yourself nor in someone else's life" is the message delivered since the days of the Buddha and just recently stated again by Apple founder Steve Jobs on his deathbed.
UNHCR & GOVERNMENTS - STOP TO WASTE TIME IN THE LIVES OF REFUGEES !
END PEDDLING FALSE HOPES AND CREATE TRULY DURABLE SOLUTIONS!
Despite that those at the global roulette tables might be still just smiling and believe that they can continue their divide and rule games and that refugees from different countries and ethnicities would never be able to come together and fight their oppressors jointly -- just imagine what would happen, if the at present 68.5mio forcibly displaced people worldwide would find the way to unite and together beat back. Just imagine ....
(*) Venatrix Fulmen (vf) is an independent investigative journalist and can be reached via or Lioness <>
N.B.: Only two days after the publication of the article below UNHCR suspended its resettlement programme from Sudan as a fraud probe gathers steam. Though the UN agency shows concern and engages now in some face-saving damage-control, it is, however, doubtful that this will actually help the refugees. It most likely will just slow UNHCR's work and extend the suffering of the asylum seekers.
Refugees in Sudan allege chronic corruption in UN resettlement process
UNHCR says investigators are probing the misconduct claims, which relate to its Khartoum office
Refugees in Khartoum, interviewed by IRIN over a 10 month period, say that individuals working with the Sudanese branch of the UN agency responsible for resettlement engage in corrupt practices, and that life-changing decisions are often made based on bribes rather than eligibility. That agency, UNHCR, says it has now mounted an investigation.
More than a dozen people told IRIN of experiences in which individuals claiming to be affiliated with UNHCR solicited money in exchange for advancing refugees a few rungs up the long ladder to resettlement, in a kind of “pay-to-play” scheme.
A recent staff list obtained by IRIN indicates that several individuals named in interviews with refugees as engaging in corrupt practices were still employed there as of February 2018.
“We call it the Mafia – they’re supposed to be caring for refugees, but here, they think of themselves,” said one Ethiopian man in Khartoum, sitting on a bed donated by another refugee he said had paid to be resettled in Australia. The man asked not to be named because he fears arbitrary arrest and deportation by Sudanese security agents, a common concern among Khartoum’s refugees.
UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch confirmed that the agency’s independent, Geneva-based Inspector General’s Office (IGO), which is mandated to look into allegations of misconduct, is carrying out the investigation.
“UNHCR does everything to ensure the integrity of the resettlement programme as it is absolutely vital to maintain the confidence of refugees and the states involved,” Baloch said. “UNHCR investigations are led by professional investigators.”
An entrenched problem
When IRIN first raised refugees’ allegations of corruption with UNHCR Khartoum office in September 2017, the then spokesperson in Khartoum said they were unaware of such claims. IRIN contacted the office with additional information in February, by which time a new spokesperson was in place. She passed on the allegations to the IGO, which later asked IRIN for further details.
The IGO appears to have opened its investigation in March, although UNHCR would not confirm the timing, or whether it was the result of IRIN’s reporting. Some refugees say their cases are now being re-assessed, although IRIN again could not confirm if this was prompted by these allegations and the investigation.
Since July 2017, IRIN has been in frequent contact with refugees in Khartoum and others now living in Europe. Many described an entrenched system of bribery and exploitative practices associated with the UNHCR resettlement programme in Khartoum.
“We call it the Mafia – they’re supposed to be caring for refugees, but here, they think of themselves.”
These complaints were echoed by a UNHCR staff member formerly posted to the Sudanese capital, who asked to remain anonymous because of fears of professional retribution.
“The magnitude of corruption in the office... is (on) an unprecedented scale… This operation is the worst in terms of corruption [and] mismanagement,” the staff member said.
The UNHCR employee said the alleged corruption had been going on for a long time, but had become significantly worse over the past four years, with no apparent action being taken to address it.
“If they [staff] talk they will lose their job. They will be attacked and harassed. I believe lots of people in UNHCR know about this but no one wants to talk about it. That's a problem,” the staff member said. “They know talking about it will not do anything… Even IGO. The IGO takes a long time and nothing happens… Everybody prefers to be quiet.”
59 global probes
Migration in the Horn of Africa is complex and constantly evolving. Lying on a crossroads of these movements, Sudan is both a temporary and long-term host to large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers who mostly come from South Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, but also from Syria, Yemen, Chad, and the Central African Republic. Many migrants pass through Sudan on their way to Europe via Libya.
For many of the 1.2mio refugees in Sudan and the 22.5mio worldwide, resettlement – the opportunity to start life anew, typically in a Western country – is coveted. But with fewer than one percent of registered refugees resettled each year, the process has been susceptible to abuse and exploitation.
Baloch said that globally, since 2015, the IGO’s Investigation Service has carried out 59 probes related to fraud in resettlement and refugee status determination, and that the allegations were proven in 25 of these investigations.
In 2017, the service received almost 400 complaints about misconduct by UNHCR staff around the world, most of which related to fraud, as well as to sexual exploitation and abuse, according to a recent overview of the IGO’s work. Allegations in half of the cases concluded last year were substantiated, it said.
“Fraud and corruption are not tolerated at UNHCR and would constitute a serious breach of the trust placed in us by the vulnerable people we serve and those who support us,” Melissa Fleming, UNHCR’s head of communications and public information, told IRIN when asked for comment about the Khartoum allegations.
“If it exists, it must be rooted out. UNHCR policy strongly encourages staff, partners and refugees to report any exploitation or abuse that comes to their attention. We are committed to do our utmost to support and protect victims and witnesses of misconduct and to foster an environment in which every person feels safe and free to come forward and speak up.”
In a statement issued last year in relation to allegations of corruption by government officials responsible for refugees in Uganda, UNHCR said: “Every allegation is thoroughly assessed and, if substantiated, leads to sanctions against the concerned staff member, including summary dismissal.”
“What is written is contrary to what’s happening”
Resettlement is a complicated process taking anywhere from several days (in emergency cases) to several years. More than 2,000 people were resettled from Sudan in the year ending September 2017, according to UNHCR. [N.B.: Apart from fleeing spies of a country, which exfiltrates their spook under UNHCR cover, there is in recent years no case where emergency referral for a genuine refugee is seen through in "days". Even in the most critical of cases it takes many months with the result that seriously persecuted refugees are then found and abducted or disappeared by the long arm of their regimes.]
People arriving in Sudan seeking asylum are supposed to head first to Shagarab camp in the east of the country to be registered as refugees. But many skip this step and head straight to the capital because the area around the camp is a notorious haunt of kidnappers-for-ransom.
Refugees in Khartoum said the going rate to speed up the refugee registration and resettlement process for unregistered asylum seekers in Khartoum is about $15,000. Resettling a whole family boosts the price to $35,000-$40,000 – money usually raised by relatives in Europe or elsewhere. The refugees said bribes were being paid to a network that includes middlemen and UNHCR protection staff.
Similar allegations of corrupt practices have been made elsewhere and in some cases confirmed. In 2001 Frank Montil, a former narcotics detective and senior UNHCR investigator, uncovered a refugee extortion racket in Kenya. At the time, he said, profits from exploiting refugees amounted to millions of dollars, with unofficial fees on migrants starting at $25 to enter a local UNHCR compound and escalating to between $1,000 and $4,000 for resettlement.
When told last autumn about allegations by refugees in Sudan – months before IGO got involved – Montil said he was astounded at the similarities with the schemes he had revealed in Kenya. It was as if someone had read his 2002 report and decided to replicate it, he said.
“It needs to be investigated,” he continued. “If I heard [as a responsible official] what you said now, I would already be in Sudan and looking at it… I would have already sent a team on the ground.”
Jumping the queue
In interviews, refugees recounted being approached by Eritrean or Ethiopian individuals who claimed to have contacts within UNHCR and suggested that money could advance their cases.
These middlemen seemed to have a good sense of their market. “They know which ones are the houses they should go to,” said one man who fled to Sudan in the 1990s from Ethiopia and now lives with his family in a small stone room in a run-down area of Khartoum, having given up on resettlement.
"I believe lots of people in UNHCR know about this but no one wants to talk about it."
Refugees who raised the requested cash were handed a paper confirming an appointment at the UNHCR offices, where the resettlement process begins with a series of interviews and background checks. Refugees and the former UNHCR Khartoum staff member said a lot of power rests with a small group of UNHCR protection staff, who decide which cases should be promoted for resettlement.
But such payment did not guarantee resettlement. Refugees put forward for resettlement often go through extensive security screenings before they are accepted by a host country.
A number of the interviewed refugees said they believe some UNHCR staff work with outside individuals to obtain money without the knowledge of their colleagues.
Some refugees in Sudan who had applied for resettlement told IRIN their documents had mysteriously disappeared, their case numbers had changed without explanation, or people they knew who lacked refugee status were nonetheless allowed to leave the country after paying money to UNHCR staff.
Many refugees said they and others now avoid the UNHCR in Sudan altogether because of perceived corruption and unfairness in the system. Instead, they turn to smugglers to make the hazardous journey to Libya, the Mediterranean and, eventually, Europe. It’s common for asylum seekers in similar situations to avoid official channels, as they attempt to find the fastest way to a country they consider safe.
The close relationship between UNHCR and Sudanese government officials, and the systemic abuse and discrimination refugees face as "second-class citizens" inside Sudan, were additional reasons refugees cited for avoiding formal channels.
Paying for a fake wife and a UNHCR meeting
One refugee in Khartoum, a construction worker who did not want his name used because of fears of retribution, told IRIN he had been asked by a Sudanese man of Eritrean origin, who identified himself as ‘Saleh’, to pay about $4,500 for resettlement. The man had approached him after the Sudanese government’s Commission for Refugees denied his request for an identity card without explanation. All refugees in Khartoum are supposed to have such cards.
The construction worker, who earns just $50 a month, said Saleh had told him a UNHCR official was willing to help him in return for payment.
The refugee said he paid a portion of the money in 2011, and that Saleh gave him a UNHCR appointment form to meet the official and start the resettlement process.
Saleh also set him up with a “fake wife” to increase his chances of success. The woman in question was another refugee desperate to leave Sudan and had to pay $12,000 for the opportunity. The larger sum is consistent with gender-discrepant smuggling fees throughout Sudan, where Eritrean families are typically charged three times more to keep women safe.
The process went on for three years and included meetings in the UNHCR compound, the refugee said. Then Saleh disappeared, followed by the supposed UNHCR official.
The pair had collected money from many others, the refugee said. The fake wife eventually left, he said, hiring a smuggler to help her travel to Libya and later Germany.
Less well-off refugees, meanwhile, alleged the corruption involved theft of their identities.
Bisirat Tesfamariam, a 53-year-old Eritrean widower who arrived in Sudan in 1981 and now has three children – one a teenager, the other two in their twenties – said UNHCR had twice told him he would be resettled, most recently in 2014, to Canada. But his case was eventually rejected, he said.
He told IRIN that one former UNHCR staff member in Sudan later told him one of his daughters – who was still living with him in Khartoum at the time – had already been resettled abroad. Bisirat concluded that his family’s files must have been given to other refugees in a case of identity theft.
When contacted by IRIN, this person said that they had no immediate memory of the man or his case and declined to comment further.
In April 2017, Bisirat, together with 38 other Eritreans and Ethiopians – all with official refugee status – signed a letter complaining of rampant corruption in UNHCR’s Khartoum office.
The refugees say they gave physical or digital copies to UNHCR’s Geneva and Kenyan headquarters. In September, UNHCR said it had no knowledge of the letter, which named four people the refugees accused of being involved in exploitation. The letter ended by stating: “Please bear with us because we have no alternative possibility but you.”
Bisirat is one of the refugees whose case is now being reassessed.
In a phone call with IRIN in March, hours after he was unexpectedly called and asked to bring his family in for an interview with UNHCR, Bisirat said he felt hopeful for the first time in years. But two months later, after seeing little evidence of any further progression, he sounded despondent again. “Sudan now is very hard,” he said. “Sudan is not changing.”
(*) Author Sally Hayden is a freelance journalist and regular IRIN contributor focused on migration, conflict, and humanitarian crises
sh/am/ag (Additional reporting by Temesghen Debesai in London)
This story was produced with support from the non-profit 100Reporters, a Washington, DC-based investigative reporting organisation; and Journalists for Transparency, a project of Transparency International.