West Africa

Sex-for-Food Scandal

Late February brought sobering news from West Africa when it was revealed that relief workers and peacekeepers in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone had been sexually exploiting women and girls in refugee camps. A report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the British charity Save the Children, in which some 1,600 children gave statements, accused 67 workers in 40 agencies of offering food and medicine in return for sexual favors.

  South African Press Association
news service, Johannesburg, South Africa
The News
newsweekly, Monrovia, Liberia
The Nation
independent, Nairobi, Kenya
The East African Standard
independent, Nairobi, Kenya
Sierra Leone News
Internet news site
The East African
independent regional weekly, Nairobi, Kenya
Many refugees corroborated the allegations. Forty-year-old Helen Kamara, a refugee in Freetown, told the South African Press Association (March 1) that “the secretary-general of our camp once told me that if I did not make love to him or give him one of my seven girls aged between 22 years and seven months, they would not supply us with food.” Monrovia’s The News (March 1) quoted another refugee in Sierra Leone saying, “If you do not have a wife or daughter to is hard to have access to aid.”

Commentators across Africa reacted with anger toward the nongovernmental organizations running the camps. “What is mind-boggling is the impunity with which the U.N. staff entrusted with the lives of entire communities get away with sexually exploiting the most vulnerable members,” read a statement by the Refugee Consortium of Kenya, quoted in The Nation (March 8). “Humanitarian workers recognize that they will not be held responsible for their actions,” commented The East African Standard (March 8). While some editorialists proposed that the countries involved should afford more legal rights to refugees, others pointed fingers at the United Nations for its weak supervision of local employees. “Changes in disciplinary action and the structure of power within the U.N. need to take place,” wrote The East African Standard. “No institutionalized mechanism exists to bring disciplinary action against such perpetrators within the U.N. system.

The UNHCR responded by sending Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees Kamel Morjane to the region. While insisting that the UNHCR would prosecute individuals found guilty of sexual exploitation, Morjane also struck a defensive note. “We are aware that when an organization like ours sees its budget cut by 20 percent, these kinds of consequences are to be expected,” he said, according to Sierra Leone News (March 8).

For John Kamau, writing in The East African (March 4), such excuses rang hollow. “Anyone trying to explain this one out should spare us,” he wrote. “When people charged with protecting refugees prey on the same hapless refugees, then something must be very wrong.”