NEW YORK The United Nations disclosed yesterday that U.N. workers in Nairobi, Kenya, had been shaking down refugees desperate for asylum or resettlement in other countries.
The scheme was so lucrative the extortionists threatened to kill the U.S. ambassador to Kenya to stall an investigation.
Local staffers and others working with the U.N. refugee agency in Nairobi for years have been demanding payments of up to $6,000 for services that should have been free, according to a 22-page U.N. report released yesterday in Geneva.
The shakedown started with security guards at the gates of the U.N. office and continued with demands from low-level officials, interpreters and others who asked for money in exchange for processing interviews and paperwork, according to the U.N. Office for Internal Oversight Services (OIOS).
Last March, in an effort to derail a U.N.-led investigation, the extortionists planned to send death threats with the forged signature of Osama bin Laden to U.S. Ambassador Johnnie Carson.
The U.N. employees operated as a organized ring that, in addition to collecting money, also stole the identities of legitimate but indigent refugees.
The ring then sold their files to wealthy asylum-seekers who emigrated to North America, Britain or Australia. For the refugees, OIOS said, “The wait for assistance would be never-ending.”
The scam, which apparently generated millions of dollars for staffers operating in full view of other U.N. workers, began at some point in the 1990s and apparently was tolerated by other office workers and officials of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) for some time.
“The criminal enterprise described in the report did not appear overnight, but in its evolution, successive management of the Nairobi branch office should have seen that corruption had been seeping into the core operations of their office,” the OIOS report said.
Last March, in an effort to derail a U.N.-led investigation, the extortionists devised a plan to threaten the U.S. ambassador and place the blame on bin Laden then notorious in the region for his link to the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
A source within the Nairobi refugee office told OIOS that he had been asked to procure the letters in English and Arabic and that the conspirators felt it was necessary to invoke bin Laden to “heighten the profile” of the threat.
The extortionists also discussed plans to kidnap the daughter of a senior UNHCR official. Neither plan was carried out.
Nine persons have been indicted and will be tried in Kenyan courts on charges of conspiracy, among other charges. Additional arrests are possible, according to the UNHCR.
As many as 70 persons are thought to have been involved.
Kenya has roughly 250,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, mostly from nearby Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan.
Many of them live in UNHCR camps, where “brokers” steered those with money to members of the syndicate.
The scheme was discovered in April 2000. Among those charged are three UNHCR employees and two members of the African Refugees Training and Employment Service.
Services provided by UNHCR are always free, a fact that is advertised around refugee camps.
Ruud Lubbers, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, released a statement yesterday saying he is “shamed and outraged” by the findings.
“It shows that in a era of mass migration, global organized crime, human trafficking and smuggling, we are not immune to criminal infiltration,” he said.
The OIOS said the corruption in Nairobi could exist in any part of the world where the number of desperate refugees far outstrips the willingness of nations to take them in.
But investigators also found the Kenya office to be uniquely suited to corruption and extortion.
“From the guards who were seen beating a female refugee at the UNHCR gate, to the those in the protection office who operated the criminal enterprise, to the managers at UNHCR headquarters who let the office drift without a representative for more than a year, the UNHCR apparatus failed in its obligations to the very clients it is designed to serve,” the report said.
The situation today is greatly improved, the report said, with new guards, more engaged management and improved oversight.
Two investigators from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service worked on the investigation, as did their counterparts from other nations that take in asylum-seekers.