UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner in West Africa
Continuing a mission to West Africa, Assistant High Commissioner Kamel Morjane this morning headed for Sierra Leone at the end of a three-day visit to Guinea.
Before leaving Conakry, Morjane said he was heartened by the climate of understanding and support among all of UNHCR's partners in Guinea and by the work humanitarian agencies continue to perform in the country's refugee camps.
"I very much appreciated the goodwill and understanding of the government of Guinea and the international donor, NGO and UN communities, as well as the honesty and outspokenness of the refugees I met," Morjane said. "It has strengthened my belief that we can jointly move forward in dealing effectively with the problem of sexual exploitation in the region, and continuing the noble mission for which many people have dedicated their lives."
Morjane flew to West Africa on Tuesday following the public release last week of an alarming UNHCR-Save the Children UK survey alleging sexual exploitation by humanitarian workers. He is consulting with various counterparts in the region and discussing with UNHCR's partners on the ground the report's content and follow-up actions, as well as getting a first-hand impression from the refugees themselves.
Morjane spent one day in Kountaya camp, north of Kissidougou, where he met with the refugee community. About 15,000 of the camp's 27,000 refugees have registered to return to neighbouring Sierra Leone when conditions allow.
The deplorable situation faced by refugees was also highlighted in meetings with the government.
There was full agreement that any actions related to sexual exploitation, in particular of children, would be strongly condemned and strong action would be taken against perpetrators of such crimes. Guinea is one of the first countries to sign and ratify the international Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Guinea has been subject to rebel attacks and refugee influxes since the early 1990s. It has always opened its doors to refugees, even in the most difficult situations, Morjane noted.
An independent investigative team will arrive in the region in the next few days to continue further investigations. "While a thorough investigation into the report is absolutely necessary, we in the humanitarian community at large will at the same time have to focus on strengthening the protection of refugees from these criminal acts," said Morjane.
Burdened by a lack of funding and dependent on its donors, UNHCR has over the past years been obliged to work in large-scale operations with very limited budgets, Morjane noted.
"The best protection of the refugees is through presence," he said. "Without strong presence, effective monitoring and control is simply not possible. In today's world, we all have to ask ourselves how much humanitarian assistance we are willing to give. A price tag is attached to everything."
With the specific consent of High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers, UNHCR's regional offices have been given carte blanche to carry out all necessary measures to minimise the dependence of refugees and their exposure to exploitation - of all kinds and by anyone. A joint plan of action involving all parties will be constantly updated.
Among measures already undertaken or under way are the increased presence of international staff, including females; expanded sensitisation and awareness campaigns; joint workshops with the government and international community; and development of a code of conduct for community workers.
"The report on sexual exploitation is alarming and requires the highest attention," Morjane said. "Problems of this kind take place around the world and need to be addressed wherever possible. It will be extremely important to carefully study the main causes of such problems to ensure the future of effective humanitarian operations worldwide."
Morjane will spend two days in Sierra Leone before returning to Geneva over the weekend.
Meanwhile, the number of Liberian refugees arriving in Sierra Leone has dropped off significantly since the beginning of March, with less than 200 arriving in the past week as the situation in southern Liberia has stabilised somewhat. Most of the new arrivals are originally from northern Liberia, but had already been displaced within Liberia to areas in the south. Throughout February, hundreds of new refugees arrived daily, with as many as 1,300 arriving per day in the early part of the month. In all, almost 11,000 new Liberian refugees have been registered in the Sierra Leonean border town of Jendema since early February.
Returns of Sierra Leonean refugees from Liberia and Guinea continue. The 15th and 16th return convoys from Sinje and Monrovia camps in Liberia arrived in Sierra Leone yesterday (Thursday), bringing back more than 840 returnees. This brings the total number of returnees assisted by UNHCR to over 5,600 since convoys began in mid-February.
The number of Sierra Leoneans returning on their own through Jendema has dropped off sharply since the convoys began, with less than 10 people returning spontaneously each day in recent days. In the eastern part of Sierra Leone, boat trips from Guinea continue twice weekly bringing back 500 returnees per week.