A seven-month investigation across five countries with significant refugee populations has found widespread reports of the UNHCR’s staff members exploiting refugees, while victims and staff members who report wrongdoing say the agency fails to act against corruption, leaving them vulnerable to intimidation and retaliation.
…In the Dadaab refugee camp, whose residents are almost all Somalis, 19 refugees said it used to cost as much as $50,000 to resettle a large family, or roughly $3,000 per person, before the Trump administration effectively stopped resettlement of Somalis in the U.S.
Refugees who cannot afford to pay bribes report that unscrupulous resettlement workers will sell their case files, often compiled painstakingly over years, to others with more wealth.
…Three former UNHCR staff members said their employment contracts were unexpectedly terminated after they spoke out about fraud and exploitation or took steps to stop it. Instead, corrupt staffers in positions of power replaced them with others more willing to tolerate bribery or other misconduct, they allege. Alternatively, staff suspected of misconduct may receive good references so they are promoted and moved to other locations, current and former staff said.
“You’re punished if you care too much about the rights of refugees,” one former staff member in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya said. “It’s not a place for that.”
…Refugees often cannot even get refugee status and qualify for resettlement abroad without the UNHCR’s involvement. And while the agency helped resettle 55,000 people in 2018, by its own estimate, that’s less than 5 percent of the refugees needing resettlement worldwide.
…Another Bantu member, in his late 20s, demonstrated a particular handshake he said is needed to get through the main UNHCR gate in Dadaab. It involved 100 or 200 Kenyan shillings ($1-$2) folded under the thumb and then slipped to the guards, employees of the multinational security firm G4S. “I had to shake hands because I was in need,” the Bantu said of a recent visit.
…The former U.N. contractor who allegedly collected bribes for the UNHCR’s staff members in Dadaab said it was an open secret that some U.N. staff were exploiting refugee women, and sometimes ended up impregnating or marrying them. “He will take advantage, just because he has a big office. Maybe he can do nothing, but he will pretend for her he can do the best.”
Later, “when you ask her why she agreed, she will just cry,” he said.
…Many refugees who cannot pay bribes said their personal cases, including detailed interviews and fraught histories establishing a need for resettlement, were stolen by others who can afford to skip the queue to a new life. Some report going to the UNHCR after years of interviews and other procedural checks, only to be told they had already resettled, leading them to conclude someone else had gone abroad using their identity.
…The illiterate mother says Momanyi pressured her into signing a form, telling her it meant she could leave for the U.S. with her family. She said she was never given a copy and soon after she signed it, her children left without her.