Statement by High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers
The following statement is attributable to UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers, who is in Kigali, Rwanda, at the conclusion of a weeklong mission to Central Africa.
"UNHCR and Save the Children UK this week jointly released alarming details of what appears to be a pattern of abuse and exploitation of young refugees in West Africa, allegedly by some members of the humanitarian community.
"These disturbing allegations, based largely on testimonies by the children themselves, have raised awareness of a very serious problem. Although unverified, the sheer number and similarity of accounts provided by the children leave no doubt that this problem requires immediate, coordinated action and thorough investigation.
"I have ordered a two-pronged approach:
"The first is an investigation that we actually began organising in December as the apparent scope of the problem began to emerge. A team of experienced investigators is now in the region, working to establish the facts.
"Evidence found against individuals will bring swift disciplinary action. As Secretary-General Kofi Annan has stated, we have a zero-tolerance policy for such behaviour. There is absolutely no place in the humanitarian world for those who would prey on the most innocent and vulnerable of the world's refugees - the children. Aid workers must adhere to the highest standards of conduct.
"Second, we are working closely within the UN system and with our humanitarian partners on implementing several remedial measures, ranging from increasing senior-level international presence and monitoring in the camps to identifying children who are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and ensuring they get the help and protection they deserve.
"Some of the children said they and their families were not getting adequate aid. This is symptomatic of a wider problem faced by humanitarian agencies: poverty and a lack of assistance make refugees more prone to exploitation.
"One year ago, my first major field mission as High Commissioner was to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. The region was in crisis. Since then, much progress has been made with the help of hundreds of dedicated humanitarian workers - national and international - from scores of agencies and organisations. It is now extremely painful to see the enormous good done by our Sierra Leonean, Guinean, Liberian and international colleagues tarnished by the actions of a minority.
"It is particularly distressing to read the accounts of the children. Many were already traumatised, growing up in a region that has been torn by years of conflict, greed and unimaginable brutality. A refugee camp - no matter how well it is run - is no place to spend a childhood. But those children who do escape the horrors of war to reach our camps deserve at the very least a safe, decent and secure sanctuary where they are provided the basic necessities of life. Anything less is nothing at all.
"In my first 14 months as High Commissioner for Refugees, I have had to make some very painful decisions because UNHCR in the past few years has not received the resources it needs to fully implement many of its programmes for refugees around the world. Other organisations have faced the same stark choices - what do we cut and where? Throughout, all humanitarian agencies have tried to ensure that at least minimum standards are met so refugees worldwide receive the basic essentials of life in a safe and secure environment.
"The tragic testimonies of these young people make it heartbreakingly clear that those standards are not being met in West Africa. We must do more and we must do it now."