The following is UNHCR’s response to media following widespread allegations made against its workforce in a recent NBC press article.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, strongly rejects the widespread allegations against its workforce in a recent press article, which risks jeopardizing the future of refugees in dire need of resettlement.
UNHCR is one of the biggest and most operational UN agencies, working in 138 countries and serving 68.5 million people. The overwhelmingly majority of our 16,000 personnel are deeply committed professionals, many of whom are working in difficult environments, sometimes risking their own safety.
As with other organizations, we are not immune to risk or failure on the part of individuals. This is why we have a solid safeguarding structure, which has been further strengthened in the last two years, and which we continuously seek to improve.
We are fully committed to ensuring the integrity of our programmes. Our workforce is also systematically reminded of the obligation to abide by the highest standards of conduct and to make sure that all their actions are free of any consideration of personal gain.
Every report or allegation of fraud, corruption or retaliation against refugees by UNHCR personnel or those working for our partners, is thoroughly assessed and, if substantiated, results in disciplinary sanctions, including summary dismissal from the organization.
Investigations at UNHCR on possible misconduct by our workforce are carried out by the Inspector General’s Office (IGO), which is an independent oversight body. It consists of expert investigators, with a strong background in law enforcement, military, war crimes tribunals or people who occupied similar functions in private companies and other international organizations. In recent years, additional investigators were recruited and some stationed in Nairobi, Pretoria and Bangkok enabling them to deploy rapidly and to have a better understanding of local contexts and issues.
UNHCR disciplinary measures have been reinforced, with a 60% rise in the number of disciplinary actions taken by the High Commissioner between 2017 and 2018. Referrals to national authorities are undertaken systematically in cases involving conduct that may amount to criminal conduct and waivers of immunity facilitated.
In addition, we have significantly strengthened our risk management capacity and skills in the past two years. We now have a solid network of some 300 risk officers, focal points and managers in our field operations and at HQ to help ensure that risks are properly identified and managed, that the integrity of our programmes is further enhanced and that the risk culture is reinforced across the organization.
The prevention of fraud, including identity fraud, is key to ensuring the integrity of our resettlement programme. This is why we use biometrics in registration, including iris scans and fingerprints, in the majority of refugee operations where we operate, including Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. Biometric registration makes theft of identity virtually impossible and biometric screening of refugees is done at various stages of the resettlement process, including right before departure. In other places, such as Libya and Yemen, where security conditions do not allow us to deploy such a tool, we take all possible preventive measures related to fraud.
We are acutely aware that refugees are at times approached by people trying to defraud them. For example, reports and investigations have found multiple occasions where people pose as UNHCR officials, using fake ID cards and claiming that they can influence the resettlement process. While it is impossible for UNHCR to root out ground level imposters, we have taken renewed action to raise awareness among refugees, help them recognize and report fraudsters, reminding them that all services provided by UNHCR and its partners are free.
Resettlement is highly sought after by refugees. UNHCR considered 1.2 million people to have resettlement needs in 2018 alone, while less than 60,000 people were resettled last year. In 2019, those needs further increased. The fact that the needs for resettlement are far greater than the places available is a factor that weighs heavily in favor of those wishing to exploit desperate refugees, many of whom have lived many years in refugee camps, with no foreseeable end to their plight in sight for themselves or their children.
UNHCR strives to ensure that refugees have proper means to provide feedback. This is essential to ensure their protection and the very reason why we completed last year a survey across 41 countries. We are using the information on the communication systems most commonly used by our beneficiaries – such as complaint boxes, hotlines, emails, social media and face to face interaction – and existing challenges to strengthen these mechanisms. In Kenya, for instance, refugees can report misconduct of any staff member of UNHCR, a partner or a contractor by email (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org), by filling in a webform (www.unhcr.org/php/complaints.php), by using complaints boxes that are available at all UNHCR offices or by calling our toll-free local Helpline (800720063).
UNHCR recognizes its responsibility to protect refugees, particularly those who come forward and cooperate with an investigation to root out misconduct. Significant attention has been devoted to strengthening measures to protect witnesses and people of concern who cooperate with an IGO investigation and these efforts are continuing. We have put a specific protocol in place, with steps taken during the investigation phase, including in the conduct of interviews, the anonymization of testimony and redaction of investigative findings and reports.
When it comes to our own staff being targeted, our record is clear: If a staff member is found to have retaliated against another member of our workforce for reporting wrongdoing, it leads to dismissal. We have a robust policy to protect staff members that are retaliated against. In September 2018, we issued a new policy on Protection against Retaliation, which now includes our affiliate workforce, expands the scope of the activities considered as protected and extends the timeline to report. It also provides interim measures to safeguard the interests of the complainant and strengthens corrective measures.
We also launched a confidential independent helpline available to all colleagues who wish to report misconduct or obtain advice on what to do when in doubt. This helpline is managed by an external provider and is available 24/7 by phone, through a web form and an app. It offers the possibility to report in complete anonymity.
We are committed to eradicating misconduct from our organization. If we receive pertinent information concerning alleged fraud, corruption or misconduct by a member of our workforce, we take action, and if the allegations are substantiated, act to end such inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour. UNHCR encourages anyone, including refugees and journalists, with information about suspected fraud or other wrongdoing to contact its Inspector General’s Office without delay at ▻http://www.unhcr.org/inspector-generals-office.html.