Charity workers from 15 international aid organisations have been implicated in a sex-for-food scandal at refugee camps in west Africa, according to a new leaked report obtained by The Times newspaper.
The 84-page document was reportedly produced in 2001 for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), compiled by teams working in refugee camps.
It identified more than 40 aid organisations “whose workers are alleged to be in sexually exploitative relationships with refugee children”.
Refugee families allegedly told the researchers they felt they had to give up their teenage daughters “to make ends meet”, with sex being traded for essentials such as food, oil, access to education classes, textbooks and pencils, soap and plastic sheeting for shelters.
A teenage girl in Liberia is reported to have said: “These NGO workers are clever, they use the ration as bait to get you to have sex with them.”
Researchers spoke to 1,500 people, and said claims against 67 people were passed to senior UNHCR officials, but according to the Times, none were prosecuted.
While many of the 40 organisations named in the report were small local charities, it did include major international names including: UNHCR, 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.
Researchers reportedly found that aid workers in west Africa were “among the prime sexual exploiters of refugee children, often using the very humanitarian assistance and services intended to benefit refugees as a tool of exploitation”.
Ruud Lubbers, formerly the UN high commissioner for refugees, publicly undermined the report when it was circulated in 2001, telling 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.”
Three NGOs identified and dismissed suspected abusers, the Times reports, while other agencies said there was insufficient evidence to trace suspected offenders.
Pauline Latham, a Conservative MP and member of the Commons international development committee, which has the report, called the document “very important”, adding it “shows the aid sector has had problems for many years but has failed to sort itself out and now is the time for renewal and reform”.
The UNHCR said that it had “a zero-tolerance policy, which means that every possible report or allegation of sexual exploitation, abuse or harassment by UNHCR or partner personnel is thoroughly assessed and if substantiated leads to sanctions, including summary dismissal”.
Christine Lipohar of Save the Children, one of the co-authors, said she had been “frustrated and annoyed” at the undermining of the report by Lubbers.
This latest revelation comes after the international aid sector was rocked by allegations of sexual misconduct after it was alleged that Oxfam aid workers had used prostitutes in the aftermath of the 2011 Haiti earthquake.