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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.

Tackling sexual exploitation and abuse against the people we serve, together with sexual harassment in the workplace, is a top priority for UNHCR.

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 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 challenging 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.

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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 and the most severe disciplinary measures are imposed if allegations of sexual exploitation and 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.


Reporting misconduct

It is our priority to ensure that reporting mechanisms are available, known, accessible and trusted and that victims and witnesses who report sexual misconduct feel safe and protected.


How to report 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 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 Ombudsperson’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.

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The 2023-2025 strategy builds on the work of the past five years to further strengthen PSEA and SH capacity at the operational level.

The team also 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, critical achievements made in 2018, 2019, 2020, and 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

The five pillars of the strategy are:

  • Ensure that a victim-centred approach guides all UNHCR’s work on sexual misconduct;
  • Equip and empower UNHCR personnel to mitigate the risks of, prevent and respond to sexual misconduct;
  • Engage with affected communities, NGO partners, nontraditional actors, and governments as key partners to address sexual misconduct;
  • Strengthen organizational and operational accountability mechanisms in tackling sexual misconduct;
  • Maintain UNHCR’s role as a key stakeholder in interagency and system-wide efforts.

This updated 2023-2025 Strategy and Action for Tackling Sexual Exploitation and Abuse and Sexual Harassment places emphasis on strengthening capacity at the operational level in close partnership with internal and external stakeholders.

The Strategy and Action Plan outlines the organization’s comprehensive approach to coordinating and implementing risk mitigation, prevention, and response efforts across all divisions, regional bureaux, and operations in a holistic and multifunctional manner while also maintaining strong interagency engagement to ensure that global policy development speaks to UNHCR’s operational realities. 


UNHCR’s journey towards a victim-centred approach