Head of UN refugee agency denounces child abuse in camps

Distressed by reports of child abuse occurring in West African refugee camps, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, announcedthat remedial measures are being put in place to address the problem. UNHCR is participating in the UN investigation into the allegations. On Tuesday, UNHCR and Save the Children UK released a report detailing an apparent pattern of abuse and exploitation of young refugees in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, allegedly by some members of the humanitarian community, including locally employed members of the agency’s staff. “These disturbing allegations, based largely on testimonies by the children themselves, have raised awareness of a very serious problem,” said Mr. Lubbers, who was in Kigali, Rwanda, at the conclusion of a weeklong mission to Central Africa. “Although unverified, the sheer number and similarity of accounts provided by the children leave no doubt that this problem requires immediate, coordinated action and thorough investigation.” The High Commissioner stressed that evidence found against individuals would bring swift disciplinary action, and reiterated UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s policy of “zero-tolerance” for such behaviour. “There is absolutely no place in the humanitarian world for those who would prey on the most innocent and vulnerable of the world’s refugees – the children,” Mr. Lubbers said. “Aid workers must adhere to the highest standards of conduct.” Mr. Lubbers said UNHCR was working closely within the UN system and with its humanitarian partners to put in place remedial measures, ranging from increasing senior-level international presence and monitoring in the camps, to identifying children who were particularly vulnerable to exploitation and ensuring they got the help and protection they deserve. “Some of the children said they and their families were not getting adequate aid,” the High Commissioner said. “This is symptomatic of a wider problem faced by humanitarian agencies: poverty and a lack of assistance make refugees more prone to exploitation.” The High Commissioner noted that in the past few years, despite a reduction in available resources, all humanitarian agencies have tried to ensure that at least minimum standards were met so refugees could receive the basic essentials of life in a safe and secure environment. “The tragic testimonies of these young people make it heartbreakingly clear that those standards are not being met in West Africa,” Mr. Lubbers said. “We must do more and we must do it now.”