Annan shock at sex abuse claims
LONDON, England -- The United Nations and a leading charity have launched an inquiry into allegations that relief agency staff sexually exploited refugee children in Africa.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he was "shocked and disturbed" at the news there may have been extensive sexual exploitation of refugee children in by relief agency staff.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and Save the Children UK said the investigation centres on reports of sexual violence and exploitation of children in refugee camps in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
"Much of it allegedly perpetrated by workers locally employed by national and international NGOs (non-government organisations) as well as by U.N. agencies including UNHCR," the UNHCR said in a press release published on its Web site.
It added: "Based largely on children's testimonies collected during a 40-day mission to the region in late October and November, the team reported evidence of 'extensive' sexual exploitation of refugee children in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
"In all three countries, workers reportedly used 'the very humanitarian aid and services intended to benefit the refugee population as a tool of exploitation,' the team said."
In a statement Annan called for a thorough and urgent investigation of the allegations.
He said there was a "policy of zero tolerance for any such acts perpetrated by anyone employed by or affiliated with the United Nations."
The statement said Annan "intends to act forcefully should any of these allegations be confirmed."
The UNHCR/Save the Children inquiry found that "in addition to aid workers," there were "allegations of sexual exploitation against children by international peacekeepers and community leaders."
It added: "In all, more than 40 agencies and organisations and nearly 70 individuals were mentioned in various testimonies."
Paul Nolan, child protection manager for Save the Children UK, said the inquiry team discovered "a fairly widespread culture of exploitation."
He told the Associated Press: "A whole range of people in a position of authority and trust were abusing those positions. All in return for sexual favours."
Some of the consequences were early pregnancy, teenage motherhood, and high-risk behaviour that exposes children to sexually transmitted disease, like HIV.
The victims were overwhelmingly girls, he said, but there were some reported incidents involving boys who were victimised.
The investigators made clear they were not in a position to verify the allegations or to name suspects.
Nolan said children told the investigators many individuals, including security forces, extracted favours in exchange for the food and relief-agency services.
"Services were withheld unless they provided sexual favour," he said.
"The kids are in a desperate situation. In order to survive, they have to make the choice between going without food or selling themselves, the only currency they have left to them."
Nolan said the investigation found that the problem was, "widespread, quite possibly endemic and which also included people who were actually in place to provide those refugee children with the care and protection they were entitled to."
He added: "It's a problem we know has been around for some time.
"There have been abuses in the past. What this does, is show in very stark terms, in the words of children themselves, the kinds of experiences they are being subjected to."
The U.N. Refugee Agency and the children's charity announced the general findings before publication of the report, which is in the early stages, Nolan said.
"We wanted to raise peoples' awarenesses to the problem."
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