An investigation carried out by Uganda;s independent Daily Monitor has revealed that a racket involving government officials is involved in sexual exploitation of under-age refugee girls.
According to the newspaper, the exploitation and abuse, is two-way traffic—some OPM, police and aid agencies’ officials use their powers to coerce young refugee girls and at times the most desperate for relocation to other countries into sex, while the refugee communities themselves, have individuals who have established themselves as big time pimps: these at times lure young women from their home countries in promise of job opportunities but on reaching Uganda register them as refugees and start brokering them around town.
One Burundian refugee, 24, narrated her ordeal of a senior OPM official requesting for either money or sex on order to process her permanent refugee identity card last year. After failing to raise the $300 (Shs1m) the official wanted, she caved in to sleeping with him and subsequently got the card, and a pregnancy. She now has a seven-months-old baby, but little means to fend for her.
“We have always known about these reports, and they are being looked into as part of the ongoing investigations,” the state minister for Relief and Disaster Preparedness, Mr Musa Ecweru is quoted by the paper.
In camp areas where families are unable to generate an income, it is not uncommon for women to become the sole earners through sex work. Some are forced by husbands and parents, others do so through the sheer necessity of survival.
Others are unaware of their coercion into the trade until it is too late, particularly the Somalis, Ethiopians and Eritreans.
These mostly come with intentions of living in Kampala, according to Mr Julius Isabirye, the head of Refugee Registration Desk at Old Kampala Police Station.
After being profiled, processed and issued with temporary certificates that enable them to travel around, they are then forwarded to OPM for issuance of the permanent certificates and further management.
Unlike their contemporaries in settlement camps, urban refugees are not housed, fed, nor given any other form of assistance.
“So this makes them very vulnerable and easy to target,” he added.
“From what we have gathered is that these brokers come from within the communities and have lived here for a very long time: so they know their way around and use all sorts of tricks,”he said.
Mr Isabirye, however, denied claims that officers under his command charged with profiling and processing refugees at times also sexually exploit the vulnerable women.
“We have only heard about those reports, gathered from our intelligence from within their communities,” he said adding that “Our desk stops at processing refugees so we cannot deal with such complaints and we don’t even know whether they are reported.”
“For long, since I took office, we have had a battle with these brokers. We keep arresting them but giventheir status as refugees, how to deal with them strongly becomes difficult for us, and most times they get out on police bond.
The scam being investigated by UN independent investigators and Uganda’s security organs includes among others, inflating numbers, dubious sub-contracts and selling relief items.
Uganda, ranks in 5th position of countries with large refugee populations, and prior to the scandal that prompted the visit by the UNHCR High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi on January 30, to set the ball rolling in sorting out the mess, was hailed globally as one of the best places to be for refugees.
However, for long, according to official and unofficial account, during the months long investigations by this newspaper established that officials were aware of the maleficence of sexual abuse and exploitation of refugees.
According to UNHCR, there are about 100,000 urban refugees mostly from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, Somalia, and Burundi and lately the South Sudanese community is growing as well.
Mr Bornwell Kantande, the UNHCR’s country representative, said they are aware of the exploitation reports, some of which have appeared in the media. “Normally we have avenues for those allegations to be presented to UNHCR,” he said.
“The allegations are taken seriously and we do have a very strict regime in dealing with them. We have a zero tolerance for sex abuse and exploitation,” Mr Kantande said during an interview in Kampala.
He added: “These are serious issues which touch on the dignity of refugees, and we do everything we can to address them, so the victims can keep reporting them.”
The UNHCR boss, however, said he was not aware of any complaints lodged against any of his staff as regards coercing or manipulating refugee women into sexual activities to either get them documentation or relief items. Sexual abuse and trafficking of refugees is a little-acknowledged facet of the refugee crisis world over. However, it is a very real part of life for many forced to flee their homes, especially in DR Congo and South Sudan.According to the UN agency for refugees— UNHCR, the country is home to more than 1.4 million refugees. Verification of the actual number is ongoing after, as this newspaper reported the OPM refugee scam last month, it emerged that OPM and UN officials were mismanaging refugee operations.
Global reports. Across the globe, sex trafficking according to the UN agency for labour—International Labour Organisation (ILO), is said to be worth $99b and involving over 5 million victims. Since this illegal trade takes place largely underground, it seems likely that coming up with responsive policy is difficult.
So how best can the problem be tackled?
More details on this story you can access from www.dailymonitor.co.ug
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