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Sex-for-Aid Scandal Hits West Africa Refugees - 2002-02-27

The U.N. refugee agency and the British Save the Children Foundation say they have uncovered allegations of widespread sexual abuse of children by relief workers in West Africa. The refugee children affected are in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The United Nations refugee agency calls the apparent findings of sexual exploitation of refugee children very disturbing.

UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond says the investigating team spoke to 1,500 people last October and November gathering testimonies from children.

"They started getting an alarming number of similar accounts from children about aid workers in the camps using humanitarian aid in exchange for or demanding sex," said Mr. Redmond. "What was particularly disturbing about this is that the study group was looking at children under the age of 18, and quite a number of these children gave accounts of this kind of thing happening."

Mr. Redmond stresses that the accounts are unsubstantiated, but the large number points, he says, to a potentially widespread problem.

Mr. Redmond says the reports implicate about 70, mainly local aid workers from 40 national and international relief organizations including UNHCR. They are said to have demanded sex in exchange for things like flour, oil, and education from mainly girls under the age of 18. He says it is unclear how long this had been going on.

Mr. Redmond says the UNHCR has taken immediate measures to address the situation.

"Firstly, we have got a preliminary investigative team already on the ground in West Africa. Secondly, we are already implementing a number of measures in the camps to try to combat this immediately. This ranges from increasing international presence and security in the camps, including deploying more female staff, to setting up reporting channels that give the refugees someone that they can feel secure in raising complaints, preferably with senior UNHCR staff. One of the problems is the refugees said they did not have anybody to they could report this to," said the UN official.

Mr. Redmond deplored the news, saying that refugees of all people are the poorest of the poor. Refugees are completely dependent on outside assistance, and he says this very assistance to which they are entitled was used to exploit them in the most grievous manner.