Charity denies cover up of refugee camp food-for-sex culture

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Save the Children and UNHCR 2001 report highlighted major concerns about sexual abuse of children in west African refugee camps

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29th May 2018 by Susan Smith 1 Comment

Save the Children took action to improve its safeguarding process after it uncovered, alongside the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a sex-for-food culture in west African refugee camps in 2001.

The international development agency said that far from covering up the issues the joint investigation revealed, it took immediate action against three individuals and improved its overall approach to safeguarding.

The Times newspaper has published details of the 84-page report that followed the investigation but was never published.

The report suggested horrendous sexual abuse was widespread in refugee camps in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

It identified more than 40 aid organisations “whose workers are alleged to be in sexually exploitative relationships with refugee children.”

The report team spoke to 1,500 people and reported families saying they had no choice but to allow workers to have sex with their daughters in order access food and aid.

A woman in a camp in Guinea said: “In this community no-one can get corn soya blend without have sex first. They say ‘a kilo for sex’”.

Another woman in Sierra Leone said: “If your family does not have a girl, your family is in crisis.”

British charities Save the Children and Merlin were implicated alongside small local organisations and international bodies including UNHCR itself, the World Food Programme, Médecins Sans Frontières, Care International, the International Rescue Committee, the International Federation of Red Cross Societies and the Norwegian Refugee Council.

The report, which is now with the House of Commons international development committee, is said to be a key element of its investigation into sexual exploitation in the aid sector.

Although the report was never published publicly, the UNHCR wrote to all the organisations mentioned and made them aware of the allegations.

A total of 67 individuals were named in the report, however the Times understands less than ten were dismissed and there have be no known prosecutions.

The report stated: “Agency workers form local and international NGOs as well as UN agencies are among the prime sexual exploiters of refugee children often using the very humanitarian assistance and services intended to benefit refugees as a tool for exploitation”.

The report’s authors said the allegations required further investigation.

However, Ruud Lubbers, formerly the UN high commissioner for refugees, publicly undermined the report when it was circulated in 2001. He told CNN at the time: “We have to find concrete evidence. It’s very scarce. So the idea of widespread sexual exploitation by humanitarian workers, I think it’s simply not a reality.”

A spokesperson for Save the Children this afternoon said it had taken the investigation and report very seriously at the time.

She said: “We were shocked when our investigators uncovered sexual abuse by aid workers in 2001. The investigation found that far too little was being done to prevent and report abuse across the humanitarian sector.

“At the time Save the Children took immediate action against three individuals. We have since made sweeping changes. Every member of staff is now given mandatory child safeguarding training within a week of joining the organisation. We have established a dedicated global safeguarding team and 445 focal points for reporting concerns.”

The charity said it has continued to strengthen its safeguarding systems and has seen a rapid increase in safeguarding reports from 31 cases in 2013 to 201 in 2017.

These include road traffic accidents as well as reports of emotional, physical and sexual abuse in the communities where it works, whether or not they involve Save the Children staff.

The spokeswoman added: “Save the Children have a culture of zero tolerance for misconduct of any kind. Anyone found to be violating this policy is held to account.

“As one of the international development sector leaders in child safeguarding, we are continuously improving our reporting and surveillance of child safeguarding incidents as a critical step towards keeping children safe in all our work.”

The charity Merlin was taken over by Save the Children in 2013.

1st June 2018 by marion davis

This is a disgrace of the highest order. Save the Children Board and management team should resign.