Humanitarian agencies are examining their practices and scrutinizing their employees in the wake of a new report that says local staff in West Africa have been demanding sex from refugee girls in exchange for assistance.
The report, commissioned by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the British charity Save the Children, accuses dozens of aid workers in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea of refusing to give girls such necessities as food and medicine unless they submit to sex.
"Sexual violence and exploitation of children appears to be extensive in the communities visited and involves actors at all levels, including those who are engaged to protect the very children they are exploiting," says the report, based on 1500 interviews conducted during October and November.
Made public last week, the report reveals a pattern of abuse aimed mainly against girls ages 13 to 18. The perpetrators were most often said to be locally hired male staff of aid agencies, but UN peacekeepers, local government officials, teachers, and even refugee community leaders were also accused. Experts in the field agree with the report's authors that poor management, the refugees' desperate poverty and vulnerability, and the relative power and wealth of the aid agency staff are leading causes of the abuse.
"Their mandate is supposed to be the protection of refugee children, and if this is the conduct of the protectors, we're in trouble," says Joel Charny, vice president for policy with Washington-based Refugees International.
"There is such a gap in power between the people who assist refugees and the refugees themselves," Mr. Charny adds. "Where you don't have adequate oversight, where there are fewer and fewer international staff, and the operation is underfunded, the two combined lead to an environment in which these kinds of things can take place."
While donor nations have been keen to provide funding to high-profile refugee crises like that in Kosovo in 1999, chronic displacement - particularly in Africa - attracts far less money. Last year, UNHCR implemented across-the-board budget cuts that hit Africa particularly hard.
"The problem arises directly from a combination of poor management, poor oversight, and insufficient allocation of resources," says Jeff Drumtra, senior Africa policy analyst with the US Committee for Refugees. Mr. Drumtra says not enough international protection workers are deployed in the region and they spend little time where the abuses have occurred: in the refugee camps.
Civil wars and cross-border conflicts over the past decade in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have left an estimated 600,000 refugees in the three countries, and another 700,000 internally displaced. Most live in squalid conditions in tiny shacks with no jobs, nowhere to grow food, and little opportunity to return home. As a result, the refugees are almost totally dependent on handouts from aid agencies.
"Children are vulnerable, and in a situation where they're poor and are in need of basic services, they become more vulnerable," says Unicef's Madeline Eisner, an information officer in Nairobi.
Children interviewed for the report made specific allegations against 67 individuals from more than 40 organizations dealing directly with refugees, including the two agencies who conducted the study. They felt that giving in to demands for sex "was often the only option they had in order to receive food and other basic necessities and to pay for education," the authors say.
The effects of the exploitation are myriad. The teenage pregnancy rate among the refugees is estimated at 50 percent. Girls are dropping out of school, although the report gives no figures. Perhaps most chillingly, it says the practice is undoubtedly exposing children to HIV, the virus linked to AIDS.
Attention is turning to how to stop the abuse. The report recommends deploying increased security, more international workers, and more female staff to the region's refugee camps. On Monday, Norway's government proposed the creation of a "secure and permanent channel" for victims to be heard.
The challenge is to muster enough supervisors to monitor all activities on the ground, says Susan Smith, West Africa director for Save the Children, which provides a variety of services to refugees in the region. She says the agency tries to send managers into the refugee camps daily from their bases in major cities and informs staff of their expected conduct in signed contracts.
"It's important to have child protection policies and procedures in place so that staff are aware of the issues and of the consequences of engaging in inappropriate behavior," says Ms. Smith. Save the Children checks references and screens for criminal records among its staff, although Smith acknowledges that finding criminal records in African countries can be difficult.
InterAction, a coalition of 160 US aid organizations, promised this week to establish a task force to look at how aid is delivered, how the system can be made safer for children, and whether increased aid can help reduce abuse.
UNHCR says it is implementing an action plan that includes informing all staff about their expected conduct, improving ways of distributing aid, increasing support to the girls most at risk, and opening channels for refugees to lodge complaints.
A formal investigation by independent UN officials is already underway, but it will not be extended to other parts of the world, high commissioner Ruud Lubbers said last week. That would be a mistake, according to observers.
"I dare say you would find certain amounts of sexual exploitation in refugee situations elsewhere in Africa and to a lesser extent elsewhere in the world," says Drumtra.
While welcoming the openness with which UNHCR is dealing with the sexual exploitation allegations, Drumtra says its management must take responsibility for the two scandals on opposite sides of the continent. "It's hard to believe that top officials on the ground in those regions did not realize something was wrong."