Reports that child refugees sexually exploited shock Annan

Refugee children in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have been subjected to sexual abuse and exploitation, reportedly by employees of national and international NGOs, UNHCR and other UN bodies, fellow refugees, security forces of host countries and other persons, according to a joint assessment by UNHCR and Save the Children-UK.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was "clearly shocked and disturbed at the news of the possible extensive abuse of children in refugee camps in West Africa," the UN Department of Information Division said in a news release on Wednesday. It said Annan "has directed that these allegations be investigated as thoroughly and urgently as possible, and remedial action aimed at strengthening the protection of women and children be taken as necessary".

The initial findings of the assessment, released on Tuesday, reveal that the exchange of sex for money or gifts appeared widespread. The victims were mostly girls aged 13 to 18, while the most vulnerable group comprised orphans and children separated from one or both parents. The perpetrators "are often men in positions of relative power and influence who either control access to goods and services or who have wealth and/or income". The resources at their disposal are "considerably more than those of the refugees", and they exploit this extreme disparity.

"Exploiters appear to be able to pay for sex when and with whom they want, and to do so with impunity, since the people they exploit are not able to complain about their situation for fear of their source of basic survival being removed," UNHCR and SCF-UK said in their report, titled 'Note for Implementing and Operational Partners on Sexual Violence & Exploitation: The Experience of Refugee Children in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone'.

[The report can be accessed at http://www.reliefweb.int]

The assessment team carried out interviews and group sessions with 1,500 adults and children. It also received allegations of abuse against 67 individuals based in a range of agencies responsible for the care and protection of refugee and IDP communities. It cautioned, however, that the assessment mission was not intended as an investigation and was therefore not conducted with the methodology that would have been required if this had been the purpose, and that UNHCR had "assumed responsibility of following up on investigatory issues".

Staff traded humanitarian goods, services for sex

The assessment, conducted from 22 October to 30 November 2001, found that most of the allegations involved male national staff, trading humanitarian commodities and basic services for sex with children, sometimes for as little as a few biscuits or a bar of soap. The practice appeared particularly pronounced in locations with large established aid programmes, it said.

Refugees felt unable to challenge the behaviour of agency staff because of their dependency on humanitarian goods and services for their survival and also because of the power such workers held. Moreover, the absence of senior and international staff in the camps was reportedly allowing junior agency staff to behave with impunity, the assessment team found. Mechanisms for reporting abuses in a way that is safe and confidential were found to be inadequate. Adolescents in Guinea and Liberia were quoted as saying that if you reported one NGO worker you were in trouble not only with that person but also with the other staff.

Among the perpetrators are national military personnel who provide security within and around camps and who reportedly sexually exploit girls for little or no payment as the children are afraid to refuse. Other exploiters include teachers, refugee leaders in a position to control resources because of their close association with UNHCR, NGOs and other implementing and operating partners, and relatively prosperous people such as diamond miners, logging company employees and local businessmen.

Poverty, lack of food cited as contributory factors

Factors that contribute to the sexual exploitation of refugee children include poverty and the lack of options to earn a livelihood and meet basic survival needs, especially since the policies of host governments sometimes prevent refugees from working for salaries. Refugees cited insufficient rations as a primary contributing factor to sexual exploitation. They said food they received for 30 days was finished within 10. The report quotes one woman as saying "I am a mother of seven children and when the food finishes my youngest child keeps crying and pulling on my skirt, what do you think you can do if your daughter brings you some?"

Data on the number of girls who became pregnant as a result of sexual exploitation was hard to come by but there was much evidence of teenage pregnancy in most camps, according to the report. There were high levels of illiteracy among teenage mothers, who generally did not go to school. In most meetings assessment teams had with refugees, the report said, the teenage mothers "displayed visible signs of broken spirits" and resignation. They were the only group who, at times, were not able to give the assessment team recommendations.

There were also reports of sexual harassment, with the victims including children aged between four and 12, rape and other forms of sexual violence. Perpetrators included male relatives, security personnel, adolescents, abusers of drugs and alcohol, neighbours, the mentally ill, ex-combatants and medical staff.

UNHCR says it has begun taking action

UNHCR said on Tuesday that while the assessment team had made it clear it was not in a position to verify the allegations, it left no doubt that "there is a serious problem of sexual exploitation demanding further action and investigation". To this end, a team of investigators has been in the region since mid-February and is scheduled to wrap up its mission towards the end of this week, UNHCR Regional Director Abou Moussa told IRIN.

The team includes special UN investigators from New York, staff from the office of the UNHCR Inspector-General and an outside expert on the sexual abuse of children.

Moussa said that, in the meantime, UNHCR had started taking measures such as increasing security in the camps, asking camp leaders to report abuses by UNHCR staff to senior UNHCR officials, improving the distribution of aid and services to make sure they reach refugees, and informing refugee children and other refugees of their rights and entitlements.

It has also started providing farming plots for refugees in some areas so that they can be more self-sufficient, Moussa said.

UNHCR said that other measures were being considered or prepared. These include deploying more female staff and establishing a reporting mechanism that provides refugees with a secure channel for raising complaints with senior UNHCR staff. "It's important to create an atmosphere for people to be able to come forward and speak out," Moussa said. "Then we'll be able to punish perpetrators." He added "Refugees must be able to have access to senior managers."

Other measures include ensuring that humanitarian aid currently being given to refugees meets minimum standards and basic needs, introducing a code of conduct and a blanket prohibition against sexual relations between employees and children under the age of 18, and measures to increase refugee access to the legal system to ensure that violators are prosecuted.