Refugees in Khartoum, interviewed by IRIN over a 10 month period, say that individuals working with the Sudanese branch of the UN agency responsible for resettlement engage in corrupt practices, and that life-changing decisions are often made based on bribes rather than eligibility. That agency, UNHCR, says it has now mounted an investigation.
More than a dozen people told IRIN of experiences in which individuals claiming to be affiliated with UNHCR solicited money in exchange for advancing refugees a few rungs up the long ladder to resettlement, in a kind of “pay-to-play” scheme.
A recent staff list obtained by IRIN indicates that several individuals named in interviews with refugees as engaging in corrupt practices were still employed there as of February 2018.
“We call it the mafia – they’re supposed to be caring for refugees, but here, they think of themselves,” said one Ethiopian man in Khartoum, sitting on a bed donated by another refugee he said had paid to be resettled in Australia. The man asked not to be named because he fears arbitrary arrest and deportation by Sudanese security agents, a common concern among Khartoum’s refugees.
UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch confirmed that the agency’s independent, Geneva-based Inspector General’s Office (IGO), which is mandated to look into allegations of misconduct, is carrying out the investigation.
“UNHCR does everything to ensure the integrity of the resettlement programme as it is absolutely vital to maintain the confidence of refugees and the states involved,” Baloch said. “UNHCR investigations are led by professional investigators.”
An entrenched problem
When IRIN first raised refugees’ allegations of corruption with UNHCR Khartoum office in September 2017, the then spokesperson in Khartoum said they were unaware of such claims. IRIN contacted the office with additional information in February, by which time a new spokesperson was in place. She passed on the allegations to the IGO, which later asked IRIN for further details.
The IGO appears to have opened its investigation in March, although UNHCR would not confirm the timing, or whether it was the result of IRIN’s reporting. Some refugees say their cases are now being re-assessed, although IRIN again could not confirm if this was prompted by these allegations and the investigation.
Since July 2017, IRIN has been in frequent contact with refugees in Khartoum and others now living in Europe. Many described an entrenched system of bribery and exploitative practices associated with the UNHCR resettlement programme in Khartoum.
“We call it the mafia – they’re supposed to be caring for refugees, but here, they think of themselves.”
These complaints were echoed by a UNHCR staff member formerly posted to the Sudanese capital, who asked to remain anonymous because of fears of professional retribution.
“The magnitude of corruption in the office... is (on) an unprecedented scale… This operation is the worst in terms of corruption [and] mismanagement,” the staff member said.
The UNHCR employee said the alleged corruption had been going on for a long time, but had become significantly worse over the past four years, with no apparent action being taken to address it.
“If they [staff] talk they will lose their job. They will be attacked and harassed. I believe lots of people in UNHCR know about this but no one wants to talk about it. That's a problem,” the staff member said. “They know talking about it will not do anything… Even IGO. The IGO takes a long time and nothing happens… Everybody prefers to be quiet.”
59 global probes
Migration in the Horn of Africa is complex and constantly evolving. Lying on a crossroads of these movements, Sudan is both a temporary and long-term host to large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers who mostly come from South Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, but also from Syria, Yemen, Chad, and the Central African Republic. Many migrants pass through Sudan on their way to Europe via Libya.
For many of the 1.2 million refugees in Sudan and the 22.5 million worldwide, resettlement – the opportunity to start life anew, typically in a Western country – is coveted. But with fewer than one percent of registered refugees resettled each year, the process has been susceptible to abuse and exploitation.
Baloch said that globally, since 2015, the IGO’s Investigation Service has carried out 59 probes related to fraud in resettlement and refugee status determination, and that the allegations were proven in 25 of these investigations.
In 2017, the service received almost 400 complaints about misconduct by UNHCR staff around the world, most of which related to fraud, as well as to sexual exploitation and abuse, according to a recent overview of the IGO’s work. Allegations in half of the cases concluded last year were substantiated, it said.
“Fraud and corruption are not tolerated at UNHCR and would constitute a serious breach of the trust placed in us by the vulnerable people we serve and those who support us,” Melissa Fleming, UNHCR’s head of communications and public information, told IRIN when asked for comment about the Khartoum allegations.
“If it exists, it must be rooted out. UNHCR policy strongly encourages staff, partners and refugees to report any exploitation or abuse that comes to their attention. We are committed to do our utmost to support and protect victims and witnesses of misconduct and to foster an environment in which every person feels safe and free to come forward and speak up.”
In a statement issued last year in relation to allegations of corruption by government officials responsible for refugees in Uganda, UNHCR said: “Every allegation is thoroughly assessed and, if substantiated, leads to sanctions against the concerned staff member, including summary dismissal.”
“What is written is contrary to what’s happening”
Resettlement is a complicated process taking anywhere from several days (in emergency cases) to several years. More than 2,000 people were resettled from Sudan in the year ending September 2017, according to UNHCR.
People arriving in Sudan seeking asylum are supposed to head first to Shagarab camp in the east of the country to be registered as refugees. But many skip this step and head straight to the capital because the area around the camp is a notorious haunt of kidnappers-for-ransom.
Refugees in Khartoum said the going rate to speed up the refugee registration and resettlement process for unregistered asylum seekers in Khartoum is about $15,000. Resettling a whole family boosts the price to $35,000-$40,000 – money usually raised by relatives in Europe or elsewhere. The refugees said bribes were being paid to a network that includes middlemen and UNHCR protection staff.
Similar allegations of corrupt practices have been made elsewhere and in some cases confirmed. In 2001 Frank Montil, a former narcotics detective and senior UNHCR investigator, uncovered a refugee extortion racket in Kenya. At the time, he said, profits from exploiting refugees amounted to millions of dollars, with unofficial fees on migrants starting at $25 to enter a local UNHCR compound and escalating to between $1,000 and $4,000 for resettlement.
When told last autumn about allegations by refugees in Sudan – months before IGO got involved – Montil said he was astounded at the similarities with the schemes he had revealed in Kenya. It was as if someone had read his 2002 report and decided to replicate it, he said.
“It needs to be investigated,” he continued. “If I heard [as a responsible official] what you said now, I would already be in Sudan and looking at it… I would have already sent a team on the ground.”
Jumping the queue
In interviews, refugees recounted being approached by Eritrean or Ethiopian individuals who claimed to have contacts within UNHCR and suggested that money could advance their cases.
These middlemen seemed to have a good sense of their market. “They know which ones are the houses they should go to,” said one man who fled to Sudan in the 1990s from Ethiopia and now lives with his family in a small stone room in a run-down area of Khartoum, having given up on resettlement.
"I believe lots of people in UNHCR know about this but no one wants to talk about it."
Refugees who raised the requested cash were handed a paper confirming an appointment at the UNHCR offices, where the resettlement process begins with a series of interviews and background checks. Refugees and the former UNHCR Khartoum staff member said a lot of power rests with a small group of UNHCR protection staff, who decide which cases should be promoted for resettlement.
But such payment did not guarantee resettlement. Refugees put forward for resettlement often go through extensive security screenings before they are accepted by a host country.
A number of the interviewed refugees said they believe some UNHCR staff work with outside individuals to obtain money without the knowledge of their colleagues.
Some refugees in Sudan who had applied for resettlement told IRIN their documents had mysteriously disappeared, their case numbers had changed without explanation, or people they knew who lacked refugee status were nonetheless allowed to leave the country after paying money to UNHCR staff.
Many refugees said they and others now avoid the UNHCR in Sudan altogether because of perceived corruption and unfairness in the system. Instead, they turn to smugglers to make the hazardous journey to Libya, the Mediterranean and, eventually, Europe. It’s common for asylum seekers in similar situations to avoid official channels, as they attempt to find the fastest way to a country they consider safe.
The close relationship between UNHCR and Sudanese government officials, and the systemic abuse and discrimination refugees face as "second-class citizens" inside Sudan, were additional reasons refugees cited for avoiding formal channels.
Paying for a fake wife and a UNHCR meeting
One refugee in Khartoum, a construction worker who did not want his name used because of fears of retribution, told IRIN he had been asked by a Sudanese man of Eritrean origin, who identified himself as ‘Saleh’, to pay about $4,500 for resettlement. The man had approached him after the Sudanese government’s Commission for Refugees denied his request for an identity card without explanation. All refugees in Khartoum are supposed to have such cards.
The construction worker, who earns just $50 a month, said Saleh had told him a UNHCR official was willing to help him in return for payment.
The refugee said he paid a portion of the money in 2011, and that Saleh gave him a UNHCR appointment form to meet the official and start the resettlement process.
Saleh also set him up with a “fake wife” to increase his chances of success. The woman in question was another refugee desperate to leave Sudan and had to pay $12,000 for the opportunity. The larger sum is consistent with gender-discrepant smuggling fees throughout Sudan, where Eritrean families are typically charged three times more to keep women safe.
The process went on for three years and included meetings in the UNHCR compound, the refugee said. Then Saleh disappeared, followed by the supposed UNHCR official.
The pair had collected money from many others, the refugee said. The fake wife eventually left, he said, hiring a smuggler to help her travel to Libya and later Germany.
Less well-off refugees, meanwhile, alleged the corruption involved theft of their identities.
Bisirat Tesfamariam, a 53-year-old Eritrean widower who arrived in Sudan in 1981 and now has three children – one a teenager, the other two in their twenties – said UNHCR had twice told him he would be resettled, most recently in 2014, to Canada. But his case was eventually rejected, he said.
He told IRIN that one former UNHCR staff member in Sudan later told him one of his daughters – who was still living with him in Khartoum at the time – had already been resettled abroad. Bisirat concluded that his family’s files must have been given to other refugees in a case of identity theft.
When contacted by IRIN, this person said that they had no immediate memory of the man or his case and declined to comment further.
In April 2017, Bisirat, together with 38 other Eritreans and Ethiopians – all with official refugee status – signed a letter complaining of rampant corruption in UNHCR’s Khartoum office.
The refugees say they gave physical or digital copies to UNHCR’s Geneva and Kenyan headquarters. In September, UNHCR said it had no knowledge of the letter, which named four people the refugees accused of being involved in exploitation. The letter ended by stating: “Please bear with us because we have no alternative possibility but you.”
Bisirat is one of the refugees whose case is now being reassessed.
In a phone call with IRIN in March, hours after he was unexpectedly called and asked to bring his family in for an interview with UNHCR, Bisirat said he felt hopeful for the first time in years. But two months later, after seeing little evidence of any further progression, he sounded despondent again. “Sudan now is very hard,” he said. “Sudan is not changing.”
(Additional reporting by Temesghen Debesai in London)
This story was produced with support from the non-profit 100Reporters, a Washington, DC-based investigative reporting organisation; and Journalists for Transparency, a project of Transparency International.
(TOP PHOTO: Teenagers sit in a dormitory in the unaccompanied minors section of Shagarab refugee camp, eastern Sudan, where many refugees who've fled Eritrea first go to get registered. CREDIT: Sally Hayden/IRIN)