An investigation by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) has found evidence that UNHCR employees in Nairobi took bribes from refugees seeking permanent resettlement in third countries, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on 25 January.
"I and thousands of other past and present UNHCR staff worldwide who have devoted their lives to helping refugees are both shamed and outraged by the despicable actions described in this report," UNHCR head Ruud Lubbers said in a statement in which he accepted the investigation's findings.
"There is no excuse, no defence, for such contemptible behaviour, Those who prey on poor and desperate refugees must be punished to the full extent of the law," Lubbers added.
The investigation, carried out at the request of UNHCR, found that up to 70 people were involved in a complex scheme during the late 1990s to extort money from refugees for services at the Nairobi office, including demanding bribes of between US $3,000 and $5,000 to ensure resettlement, UNHCR said. UNHCR does not charge for resettlement programmes.
Direct threats made against a number persons who tried to assist with the investigation forced five UNHCR employees, including the then country representative, to be evacuated, the UN refugee agency said.
Kenyan authorities have so far arrested nine people in connection with the allegations, including three UNHCR staff members and two members of an affiliated nongovernmental organisation (NGO). The nine are currently facing a total of 78 charges under the Penal Code of Kenya, including conspiracy to threaten to kill the American ambassador and the then UNHCR representative, the UN said.
UNHCR said it first became aware of allegations of corruption in mid-1999, but that a subsequent investigation by the UN Office in Nairobi (UNON), completed in mid-2000, had been inconclusive.
UNHCR had then sought an additional investigation by OIOS, which began its work towards the end of 2000, using special investigators from the police and immigration services of Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Kenya, the UN refugee agency said.
The OIOS report comprises 12 recommendations, some of which urged UNHCR to: change its management structure in Kenya; provide targeted information on refugee rights; establish a complaints procedure; conduct random spot checks of refugee interviews and interpreter services; and examine the agency's other operations to prevent similar criminal activity, the OIOS said in a statement on Friday.
UNHCR said it had responded to the allegations as early as January 2001 by changing its entire staff in Nairobi dealing with protection and resettlement issues, and deploying additional international staff to the Nairobi office.
Other remedial measures already taken included the creation of a "transparency committee" composed of UNHCR protection staff, officers of embassies representing the resettlement countries, NGOs, and representatives of civil society organisations..
The refugee agency said it was also carrying out frequent security spot checks of operations in Nairobi, and strengthening the training of staff in fraud awareness and prevention.
Lubbers - who took over as UNHCR head in January 2001 - said he had been "disturbed" by the apparent management lapses in the Nairobi office.
"So while the investigators have carried out their work over the past year, we in UNHCR have been focusing our attention on rectifying several internal structural and management concerns that may have together contributed to the emergence of this problem in the first place," he said.
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