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Tackling sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment

Tackling sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment

UNHCR partner sits on the floor and talks with a refugee woman

UNHCR partner trains refugee women in gender-based violence counselling.

With some 18,000 personnel based primarily in field operations across the globe, in direct contact with forcibly displaced and stateless people, UNHCR is one of the biggest and most operational UN agencies.

UNHCR works together with more than 1,000 partners who have direct contact with communities to serve more than 110 million people globally.

UNHCR works in very diverse contexts and often complex environments where significant power differentials and deeply rooted inequalities, including gender inequalities, can exacerbate the risks of exploitation, abuse, and harassment. UNHCR is committed to fighting inequality, empowering survivors, and preventing and responding to sexual misconduct wherever it occurs.

There is no place for sexual exploitation, abuse or harassment at UNHCR, an organization that is dedicated to serving and protecting others.

UNHCR comprises a large, diverse, and profoundly committed workforce, many of whom often work in difficult environments, sometimes risking their safety and well-being.

The risks of sexual exploitation (SEA) and abuse and sexual harassment (SH) are often exacerbated in high-risk and complex contexts, resulting in heightened vulnerabilities of the forcibly displaced and stateless people we serve and power differentials among colleagues.

UNHCR is not immune to incidents of sexual misconduct, and we have seen instances in which our own colleagues or partner staff have used their positions of power to exploit others. When this occurs, immediate action is taken to respond to the needs of victims. The most severe disciplinary measures are imposed if allegations of sexual exploitation, abuse, or sexual harassment are established following a disciplinary process. Anyone working for UNHCR who engages in sexual misconduct can expect to have their employment terminated.

Sexual exploitation, abuse, and sexual harassment inflict intolerable harm on the victims*, their families, and their communities and undermine the work and the very values UNHCR stands for. For this reason, the organization has taken concrete steps to reinforce our mechanisms for mitigating the risks of, preventing, and responding to SEA and SH and ensuring that victims receive the support they need.

UNHCR’s Strategy and Action Plan against sexual misconduct

UNHCR’s strategy and action plan for tackling sexual misconduct

In 2018, UNHCR defined a new approach for tackling all forms of sexual misconduct. 

Recognizing the common root causes of both SEA and SH, the High Commissioner appointed a Senior Coordinator to lead and coordinate the Organization’s efforts to tackle sexual misconduct in a unified manner and guided by a global Strategy and Action Plan. The Office of the Senior Coordinator on PSEA and SH comprises a team of technical experts overseeing and coordinating policy development and implementation, field support, training and learning development and delivery, victim support, interagency engagement, external relations, and communications related to tackling sexual misconduct.

The team is supported by a cross-functional working group made up of relevant entities, including the Inspector General’s Office, the Ethics Office, the Ombudsman’s Office, the Legal Affairs Service, the Division of International Protection, the Division of Human Resources, the Division of External Relations, Enterprise Risk Management, the Division of Strategic Planning and Results, the Field Security Service, the Innovation Service and works closely with the Regional Bureaux and a network of more than 400 PSEA focal points across all operations.

Building on the 2018 and the 2020-2022 strategies, key achievements made in 20182019 and 2020, 2021, and lessons during the High Commissioner’s IASC Championship on PSEA/SH during the COVID-19 pandemic, UNHCR launched an updated 2023-2025 Strategy and Action Plan.

Reporting misconduct

Reporting misconduct

A key organizational priority is to ensure that reporting mechanisms are known, accessible and trusted and that victims who report sexual misconduct feel safe and protected.  

UNHCR’s Inspector General’s Office (IGO) acts as an independent internal oversight body.