Widespread Abuse of Refugee Children in West Africa Alleged

Suspicion Falls on Local Members of Aid Groups

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ROME, FEB. 28, 2002 (Zenit.org).- A report of the British organization Save the Children reveals that humanitarian agents in West Africa demanded sex from refugees in exchange for food.

The report, which is also sponsored by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), states that the victims of this blackmail were boys and girls of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, fleeing from violence and often separated from their families.

Men, women and children, whose sole protection came from humanitarian agencies, were victims of abuse by those who were supposed to help them.

According to the report published Wednesday, the abuses were perpetrated by the local members of at least 40 humanitarian agencies. The agents abused their position to elicit sex, especially with young refugee women sheltered in aid camps.

The UNHCR and Save the Children UK released details of some of the disturbing findings of a joint assessment team, recently commissioned by the two agencies to look into sexual violence and the exploitation of refugee children in West Africa.

Based largely on children´s testimonies, collected during a 40-day mission to the region in late October and November, the team reported evidence of «extensive» sexual exploitation of refugee children in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone — much of it perpetrated by workers locally employed by national and international nongovernmental organizations as well as by U.N. agencies, including UNHCR.

In all three countries, workers reportedly used «the very humanitarian aid and services intended to benefit the refugee population as a tool of exploitation,» the team said.

The assessment mission was neither an investigation nor an in-depth research study — and therefore was not conducted with the same rigor as would have been required of either. Nevertheless, UNHCR and Save the Children UK made details available because of the disturbing nature of the allegations, the apparent scope of the problem, and the need for immediate and coordinated remedial measures by a wide range of agencies and organizations.

The «Note for Implementing and Operational Partners» says most of the alleged «exploiters» were male national staff who traded humanitarian commodities and services for sex with girls under 18.

It says the practice appears pronounced in places with significant and established aid programs, particularly in refugee camps in Guinea and Liberia.

In addition to aid workers, the paper also cites allegations of sexual exploitation against children by international peacekeepers and community leaders. In all, more than 40 agencies and organizations and nearly 70 individuals were mentioned.

The assessment team made clear, however, that it was not in a position to verify the allegations. It noted, however, that the number of allegations leaves no doubt that a serious problem exists.

UNHCR has begun a process of inquiry, and a team of investigators is working in the region and trying to determine how best to proceed without endangering the children involved.

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