Friends of Refugees

A U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program Watchdog Group

Mapping out power differences the starting point to giving the vulnerable a voice

Posted by Christopher Coen on July 5, 2012

Trying to root out abuse of refugees in the humanitarian community at the international level has been much more difficult than anticipated. Some of the variables involved – including the role of power in the relationship between an aid worker and a person in need, giving the vulnerable a voice, transparency, and leadership (high level commitment) – are no doubt also at the heart of various problems in national resettlement programs. IRIN Humanitarian News and Analysis has an article that discusses the barriers to rooting out refugee abuse, and could give us insite into solving problems in the US resettlement program as well:

DAKAR, 4 July 2012 (IRIN) – How much has really changed since NGO Save the Children, and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) published a report that shocked humanitarian agencies a decade ago, when it exposed sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) perpetrated on disaster-affected communities in West Africa by aid workers, peacekeepers and other community members?

The 2002 report documented abuses perpetrated by 67 individuals across 40 agencies. Accountability experts and aid workers say abuse has continued in UN agencies and NGOs, but the extent is unclear…

Abuse of power

Some feared their confidentiality would be breached, or there would be retribution by the perpetrator, or aid might be withheld from them. They lost trust in the process when their complaint was not acted upon.

These fears underline the role of power in the relationship between an aid worker and a person in need. Save the Children found that most of the individuals who had experienced SEA were orphans, separated children, displaced people, the poorest families, and those most dependent on assistance, almost all of them female.

Working with survivors and mapping out the power differences, including those in communities, is the starting point to giving the vulnerable a voice, said Oxfam’s West Africa gender change manager, Margherita Maffii…

…The point is to admit that sexual exploitation and abuse exists, and deal with it, said one aid worker.

Everyone needs to make the issue more visible – there should be regular training, and more transparency on SEA, say aid workers.

Most agencies are very reticent about communicating on the issue. Even Save the Children, which vigorously pushed for more transparency by humanitarians, no longer publishes statistics on its website or in its annual report, and could not provide the statistics when asked. Staff declined several IRIN requests to be interviewed.

The IASC review and others have urged aid agencies, donors and UN leaders to take a variety of actions to proactively stamp out sexual exploitation and abuse, including re-adopting IASC’s leadership role, launching intensive PSEA [preventing SEA] activity in five pilot countries, and giving PSEA activities a budget line by including them in funding appeals and cluster work plans. Progress is being made on some of these fronts.

Leadership is the key to progress, aid Patel. “PSEA competes with a lot of other things in terms of what needs to be done, but if you don’t have high-level buy-in, then any good work you do could be under threat.”

In a sense the humanitarian community’s approach to PSEA “defines who we are”, said a seasoned aid worker who has worked on the issue. “If we are causing harm to people, this isn’t who we are supposed to be at an essential level, and surely we cannot accept that.” Read more here

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