- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 23, 2003

GENEVA — Complaints of sexual exploitation of refugees have risen dramatically in reports to the investigating arm of the world refugee agency, stunning the humanitarian community and major donor countries.

The inspector general’s office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it received 82 complaints between January and mid-July this year. Sexual exploitation of refugees accounted for 26 percent of the complaints, compared with 10 percent of complaints last year.

Roughly half of the claims concerned UNHCR staff, mostly national hires, and the other half related to independent agencies, a senior UNHCR official told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity.

Major donors to the UNHCR are surprised and concerned about the continued sexual violation of refugee women and children, said a senior diplomat with the European Union.

“It’s very high on our agenda,” the official added.

Paula Lynch, a member of the U.S. delegation in Geneva, strongly urged the UNHCR “to activate its efforts in preventing sexual abuse and on investigating any cases that arise quickly and thoroughly.”

UNHCR chief Ruud Lubbers said the number of investigations of misconduct has increased because the agency has taken steps to strengthen accountability and because UNHCR staff, partners and refugees have become more willing to bring forward complaints.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan stressed a policy of zero tolerance after widespread sexual abuse of refugee children in West Africa was reported in February 2002.

The move triggered a spate of policy reforms and initiatives to enhance the protection of refugees. These initiatives were reinforced after reports of abuse of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal last October.

Some of the measures include a code of conduct signed so far by about 98 percent of the refugee agency’s staff.

“It is very important that UNHCR should appear as a clean organization. It is a clean organization, but in all organizations you have sometimes black sheep and there are obviously some in UNHCR,” said Jean-Marc Boulgaris, the Swiss chairman of the refugee agency’s executive committee.

But senior Western diplomats say UNHCR’s efforts to tackle the problem are not effective enough on the ground.

Arthur E. Dewey, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for refugees and migration, has pointed out that UNHCR “has an obligation to ensure that those under its care are safe from abuse and exploitation.”

An investigation by the UNHCR inspector general’s office in November documented 16 cases of sexual exploitation of refugee women and girls by male refugees working for three UNHCR-funded partner organizations and two Nepalese government officials funded by the global agency, said UNHCR Inspector General Dennis McNamara.

Three UNHCR staff members also were found guilty of “gross negligence” by an internal inquiry, but no information on the disciplinary actions taken in those cases will be made public until the due process is complete, UNHCR officials said.

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