The United Nations and Save the Children said today that staff of many relief agencies have been accused of sexually exploiting West African refugee children they are supposed to be helping.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the UK-based children’s charity released an overview of the findings of an investigation they commissioned into sexual violence and exploitation of children in refugee camps in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone ‘‘much of it allegedly perpetrated by workers locally employed by national and international NGOs as well as by UN agencies including UNHCR’’.
NGOs (non-governmental organisations), is another name for the many relief agencies that help countries whose people are victimised by warfare, disease, starvation and natural disasters.
The team discovered ‘‘a fairly widespread culture of exploitation’’, said Paul Nolan, child protection manager for Save the Children, UK.
‘‘A whole range of people in a position of authority and trust were abusing those positions. All in return for sexual favours,’’ he said in London.
The victims were overwhelmingly girls, he said. But there were some reported incidents involving boys who were victimised by women NGOs.
The investigators made clear they were not in a position to verify the allegations.
‘‘Nevertheless, the number of allegations leaves no doubt that there is a serious problem of sexual exploitation,’’ the two organisations announced.
Mr Nolan said children told the investigators that many individuals, including security forces, extracted favours in exchange for food and relief-agency services.
‘‘Services were withheld unless they provided sexual favour,’’ Mr Nolan said.
‘‘The kids are in a desperate situation. In order to survive, they have to make the choice between going without food or selling themselves, the only currency they have left to them,’’ he said.
In the investigation, ‘‘what emerged was a problem that was widespread, quite possibly endemic and which also included people who were actually in place to provide those refugee children with the care and protection they were entitled to’’, Mr Nolan said.
Some of the consequences were early pregnancy, teenage motherhood, and high-risk behaviour that exposes children to sexually transmitted disease, like HIV.
‘‘The children are not in a position to negotiate sex. This an exploitative relationship,’’ Mr Nolan said.
It was important to let the children speak for themselves and be heard, he added. ‘‘It’s a problem we know has been around for some time. There have been abuses in the past. What this does is show in very stark terms, in the words of children themselves, the kinds of experiences they are being subjected to.’’
The UN Refugee Agency and the children’s charity announced the general findings before publication of the report, which is in the early stages, Mr Nolan said. ‘‘We wanted to raise peoples’ awarenesses to the problem.’’
He said none of the NGOs was being named yet, but that ‘‘It’s a problem that cuts across the whole of the sector’’.
In Sierra Leone, Save The Children programme officer Chris Robertson said the allegations concerned 67 workers in 40 organisations.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced over more than a decade of violence in that region of Africa.
Liberia was destroyed by a 1989-96 civil war, while Sierra Leone’s decade-long conflict was officially declared over last month.
Guinea for years was spared the violence that convulsed its two neighbours, whose citizens it welcomed by the hundreds of thousands. But the country’s reputation as a haven was shattered two years ago when fighting broke out along its borders with Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The clashes sparked an exodus of refugees, who decided to take their chances back home.
While clashes have subsided in Guinea, a recent upsurge of fighting in Liberia has sent tens of thousands of civilians on the move again.
Liberia accuses Guinea of backing a shadowy rebel movement that has been fighting government forces in the north of the country since 1999. Guinea and Sierra Leone in turn accuse Guinea of backing their own dissidents.