Local staff of the United Nations refugee agency working in Kenya have been implicated in a global refugee smuggling operation in an investigative report released by the United Nations Friday.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, said the agency accepts the findings that three of its Kenyan staff demanded and received bribes from refugees in Nairobi for resettlement abroad.
Kenya is home to more than 250,000 asylum seekers and refugees, mostly from the neighboring countries of Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and Rwanda.
Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, Mary Ann Wyrsch said the desperate plight of some refugees can create the potential for abuse. But she said she does not excuse the gross misconduct of UNHCR staff in the refugee smuggling operation. "There is no excuse for the misconduct that is described in this report. As I noted, it is extremely painful. We concede that corruption did infiltrate our office and we are acutely aware that we have an institutional responsibility to follow-up on the findings," she said.
Dileep Nair, of the UN investigation unit probing the corruption case, said 70 people were involved, but nine played lead roles.
The nine ringleaders have been arrested and are being tried by Kenyan authorities. They also have been charged with conspiracy to murder, after threats were made to the United States ambassador, an immigration officer in Nairobi and senior UNHCHR officials.
Mr. Nair said it is difficult to know how long the operation went on or how many refugees were actually smuggled. But he says millions of dollars were extorted from the refugees.
Mr. Nair says resettlement could cost victims of the smuggling operation between $3,000-$5,000 per person. He said entry into the UNHCR compound in Nairobi cost refugees $25 dollars and an interview to determine their status could bring the smugglers up to $200. "You had cases of people having to pay as a result of extortion, or being extorted for money, in order to be interviewed," he said. "In some cases, where people who did not have the money, as a result had their files replaced. The net result was that the people who did not deserve to be resettled were resettled. So you had identities in a way stolen."
The UNHCR says it always provides its services free of charge. Last year, it resettled over 9,000 refugees based in Nairobi to the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.
The UNHCR has vowed to introduce new measures to stop refugee smuggling from happening again. It says its personnel have been changed in Nairobi and supervisory panels now oversee settlement decisions.