More than a dozen international aid organisations are implicated in a sex-for-food scandal documented by an official United Nations report that has never been published.
The Times has obtained a copy of the 84-page document produced by research teams working in refugee camps in west Africa for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Save the Children in 2001. It identified more than 40 aid organisations “whose workers are alleged to be in sexually exploitative relationships with refugee children”.
Many were small local charities but the list included 15 international organisations including the UNHCR and the World Food Programme and the British charities Save the Children and Merlin. International NGOs including Médecins Sans Frontières, Care International, the International Rescue Committee, the International Federation of Red Cross Societies and the Norwegian Refugee Council were also named in the report.
Pauline Latham, a Conservative MP and member of the committee, said that the document, which was submitted to UNHCR management in 2002, was “very important to our inquiry because it shows the aid sector has had problems for many years but has failed to sort itself out and now is the time for renewal and reform”.
The researchers in west Africa found that aid workers were “among the prime sexual exploiters of refugee children, often using the very humanitarian assistance and services intended to benefit refugees as a tool of exploitation”.
Food, oil, access to education and plastic sheeting for shelters were traded for sex, with families feeling that they had to give up their teenage daughters to abusers “to make ends meet”.
Researchers emphasised that the allegations could not be fully verified and required further investigation. They added: “The number of allegations documented, however, is a critical indicator of the scale of the problem”.
Incomplete details relating to claims against 67 people were passed to senior UNHCR officials “in confidential lists”. The Timesunderstands that fewer than ten were dismissed and none was prosecuted.
The UNHCR wrote to all the NGOs and agencies mentioned and made them aware of allegations. It also sent investigators from UN headquarters. They identified 43 separate abuse allegations in west Africa. The UN said that it had initiated “specific preventive and remedial actions”.
The report was publicly undermined by Ruud Lubbers, then the UN high commissioner for refugees, who told CNN: “We have to find concrete evidence. It’s very scarce. So the idea of widespread sexual exploitation by humanitarian workers, I think it’s simply not a reality.”
Despite his scepticism, three NGOs identified and dismissed suspected abusers. Nine agencies said that they took the reports seriously but were unable to trace suspected offenders from the information provided. One agency no longer exists and its records could not be accessed; two bodies did not respond to requests for comment.
The UNHCR released a summary of the document in 2002 after leaks to the media had caused outrage.
NGOs named in the report are still dealing with exploitation cases in the field today. The Red Cross, Save the Children and the Norwegian Refugee Council said that the problem was under-reported.
Christine Lipohar of Save the Children, one of the co-authors, said she had been “frustrated and annoyed” at the undermining of the report by Lubbers. She said: “Good systems for preventing and responding were developed on paper, but have not been effectively and consistently rolled out in all locations; so implementation . . . is often reliant on individuals committed to the issue.”
The UNHCR said that it had “a zero-tolerance policy, which means that every possible report or allegation of sexual exploitation, abuse or harassment by UNHCR or partner personnel is thoroughly assessed and if substantiated leads to sanctions, including summary dismissal”.
For six weeks in October and November 2001, a team of researchers toured refugee camps in the Mano River states of west Africa — Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — to examine the extent of sexual exploitation of children in refugee camps.
They gathered children, mothers and healthcare workers together, often sitting under trees in the shade, and gently asked questions. Mostly, however, they listened and were appalled by what they heard.
“We were shocked after the first assessment in Liberia,” recalled Christine Lipohar, a co-author of the report. “Then when we arrived in Guinea and started hearing more of the same thing, it was even more of a shock. I recall feeling a strong sense of shame that humanitarian staff were .....
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