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Tuesday, 26 February, 2002, 22:33 GMT
Child refugee sex scandal
Sierra Leone refugees
Millions of refugees have fled conflicts in the region
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has sent a team of investigators into refugee camps in west Africa following the revelation that large numbers of children have been sexually exploited by aid workers there.

The scale of the problem - revealed in an overview of a report by the UNHCR in conjunction with the British-based charity Save the Children - has surprised relief personnel.

Contributing factors
National staff largely unregulated
Abuses of power unpunished
Absence of international staff at camps
Lack of female staff
The unpublished report - details of which have been obtained by the BBC - covers Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea and is based on a study of more than 1,500 people interviewed over six weeks last October and November.

An unspecified number of interviewees complained that they or their children had to have sex in order to get food and favours.

Over 40 aid agencies - including the UNHCR itself - were implicated, and 67 individuals - mostly local staff - named by the children.

Some under-age girls said United Nations peacekeepers in the West African region were involved.

Most of those who said they were abused were girls under the age of 18, but the mission said it had heard from some who were much younger.

Poverty

The report said that the practices were rife in locations with established programmes, including refugee camps in Guinea and Liberia.


We are going to sit down and look at what we do and how we do it and try to ensure children do not have to sell sex for services

Save the Children Liberia director Jane Gibril
It cited lack of regulation and an absence of international staff as possible contributing factors.

But it said that poverty was the principle cause, with parents feeling compelled to offer their children to aid workers for sex in order to survive.

"They want us to love to them (sic) so they can give us money," one refugee told the BBC.

Another said she was continually sent to the back of the queue for aid because she had refused to have sex with one aid worker.

Sex could buy items of food, as well as such things as loans and scholarships.

Condoms were said to be rarely used by the staff involved.

New measures

Save the Children says it was determined to use the information obtained in the study to put a stop to the practices.

refugee girl
Children are among the most vulnerable

"The very people who are meant to be providing services are the exploiters themselves," said Save the Children Liberia country director Jane Gibril.

"We are going to sit down and look at what we do and how we do it and try and do things very differently... to ensure children do not have to sell sex for services," she added.

The charity has already sacked three employees.

The UNHCR has drawn up a package of remedial measures, including increasing security and the international presence in camps and the deployment of more female staff.

Other steps include establishing a mechanism to give refugees a secure channel for raising complaints with senior UNHCR staff.

But a spokesman for the agency, Ron Redmond, said the accusations were based only on testimonies from individuals and were so far unsubstantiated.

One senior aid worker said ending the sexual exploitation of under age refugees would be an uphill task because gender discrimination was deeply rooted in many cultures, not only here in West Africa but all over the world.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The UN Refugee Agency's Claire Doole
"There is a serious investigation underway"
See also:

13 Feb 02 | Africa
Sierra Leone refugees go home
31 May 00 | Africa
Slavery investigation wins award
16 Apr 01 | Africa
West Africa's 'little maids'
28 Sep 00 | Africa
The bitter taste of slavery
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