Skip to main content


UNHCR: Policing or protecting?

A report from the United Nations relief agency finds that aid workers are involved in the sexual abuse of refugee girls, but the agency isn't willing to name any names

To budget crisis and corruption racket the United Nations' refugee agency can now add sex scandal. Officials for the problem-ridden UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stepped before reporters earlier this month to admit that an internal investigation in West Africa shows rampant sexual abuse-including aid workers bribing young girls to have sex in exchange for food rations.

But the agency is also trying to patch the latest bleed in its reputation by refusing to release the names of private relief agencies (known in UN-speak as NGOs, or non-governmental organizations) implicated in the controversy.

The UN refugee agency and London-based Save the Children interviewed more than 1,500 refugees, mostly minors, in refugee camps in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone between October and November 2001. Their assessment, released last month, accuses of sexual abuse not only aid workers but also UN peacekeepers tasked to camp security.

Male staff members, according to testimony of the refugees, traded wheat and other food items, tarpaulins, and medicine for sex with girls under 18. For the youngest victims, aid workers sometimes rewarded sex with only a piece of fruit or a handful of peanuts.

"It's difficult to escape the trap of those [NGO] people," said one adolescent in Liberia, according to the report. "They use the food as bait to get you to [have] sex with them."

Pregnancy rates in some camps, according to the report, run as high as 50 percent among girls under 18. The refugees told investigators that underage mothers give birth to six babies a week in their camps.

Aid workers long have known prostitution is one of the first enterprises to flourish in refugee camps. But this is the first time the UN publicly acknowledged its own workers could be behind the sex trade; and the first time anyone has gathered evidence about the widespread abuse of young girls. The internal report found that in all three countries aid workers used "the very humanitarian aid and services intended to benefit the refugee population as a tool of exploitation."

In the past decade, hundreds of thousands of West Africans have been displaced by civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Many fled armed groups like Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front, which raped and maimed thousands of those who later ended up in the UN camps. Betrayal by the aid workers leaves those victims with nowhere else to turn.

This is the second scandal in the past year to rock Africa's refugee bureaucracy. Last year the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office in Kenya-which supervises most of the continent's refugee population -was implicated in a major corruption ring. UN workers extorted thousands of dollars from refugees to process their applications for asylum to other countries, including the United States.

Observers say the scandals are two sides of the same coin. "There is a direct connection between the resettlement scandal we had last year in Africa and this sex scandal," said Joel Frushone of the U.S. Committee for Refugees. "This is a systemic problem that goes to the management in Geneva and the management in Africa. Workers feel free to abuse the people they are supposed to protect."

The UNHCR released the report before it was actually ready to do so, spokesman Kris Janowski told WORLD, because officials thought it was about to be leaked to the press anyway. "We decided to control it in some way in the hopes of putting it in perspective," he said. The agency attempted damage control by sending one of its top administrators, Kamel Morjane, to visit camps in Guinea and Sierra Leone. "Sexual exploitation in refugee camps is [a] fact," he told reporters on March 7 after speaking with refugees. "What we don't have is proof UNHCR personnel or those at other NGOs working with us are implicated."

Despite the overwhelming testimonies of abuse, UNHCR and private agencies running the camps are at this point protecting those directly involved. Mr. Janowski told WORLD the initial assessment listed 40 organizations and 67 individuals specifically named by refugees as perpetrators. The UN has not released those names to the public. Although the initial investigation showed abuse "is quite widespread," he said, "we have little in terms of concrete evidence."

The 40 named aid groups, according to several aid agencies contacted by WORLD, have been told who they are. Several aid groups not implicated in the UN report said they were notified of their status by InterAction, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of 160 aid groups. InterAction spokeswoman Shanta Bryant told WORLD she would not confirm "whether or not we have notified them" because, she said, "it is done in confidentiality and the report has not been completely released." InterAction plans to launch its own investigation by a task force drawn from its members.

Both the UN and Save the Children admit their own workers were implicated. Mr. Janowski said UN workers linked to sexual abuse "will be summarily dismissed without benefits." Save the Children has already dismissed one employee and two volunteers over the charges. Only one other organization, Doctors Without Borders (known by its French acronym MSF, or Medicins sans Frontiers), has publicly acknowledged involvement in the scandal. A statement on its website admits it was named in the investigation but has not received "detailed information that would enable us to take measures towards employees who might have been involved in such practices and protect those who may have been victims of sexual abuse."

For the groups that have not come forward on their own, confidentiality may protect the reputation of those with otherwise good track records. International aid agencies rely on their good name in order to raise funds. Sensationalized behavior of even one or two workers could cost them that support. But internal policing can be just another way of burying the scandal. Publicizing the initial findings "is a step in the right direction," according to Mr. Frushone. "Should they start naming names? That would be a good step if they plan to do something about it. To study the problem is not going to stop sex predators."

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.