Major refugee aid fraud under investigation in Uganda, U.N. reveals

A major corruption scandal, possibly involving millions of dollars intended for the world’s most desperate people, is brewing amid some 1.3 million refugees in Uganda, the biggest single host nation for refugees in Africa and a poster-child for United Nations-sponsored humanitarian efforts in a region horrifically stricken by drought and civil war.

Ugandan and U.N. officials are close-mouthed about the magnitude and extent of the wrongdoing, which is now under investigation by Ugandan authorities. A press statement from U.N. officials in Uganda, however, declares that the scandal involves “gross mismanagement, malpractices in the registration of refugees, fraud, corruption, trafficking of girls and women, and threats to U.N. staff.”

Another release from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the U.N.’s refugee relief agency, refers to “faking documents on delivery of food assistance as well as demanding refugees pay bribes to access various services that should be free of cost.” Food assistance in Uganda involves not only food supplies but according to the website of the U.N.’s World Food Program, cash assistance for refugees.

Along with faking documents, the scandal appears to have involved significant falsehoods about the number of refugees receiving aid—and perhaps of the number of refugees in Uganda overall.

Among other things, a spokesperson for U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres told Fox News that the Ugandan government “has asked UNHCR to implement a verification of the refugee population very rapidly,” meaning “within two to three months.”  UNHCR “is mobilizing significant human and financial resources to do this,” the spokesperson added, “using UNHCR tools including a reliable biometric system.”

A subsequent statement from the European Union, a major U.N. aid donor in Uganda, indicates that the EU’s own fraud investigators may be getting involved.

In Washington, a USAID spokesperson told Fox News that “we join our partners in calling for a swift and thorough review of refugee operations in Uganda to ensure services effectively assist those in need. The USAID Office of Inspector General is monitoring these reports, and the United States supports the ongoing investigations into these allegations.”

According to the U.N.’s Financial Tracking Service (FTS), the world organization spent some $333 million on humanitarian aid in Uganda last year, largely for the torrent of refugees from South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Burundi and other countries. Of that total, nearly a third--$102 million—came from the U.S.

The Uganda relief budget for 2018 is about $470 million, of which only about 10 per cent has so far been funded, again according to FTS.

Reuters has reported that five Ugandan officials, including a commissioner in the office of Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda who is responsible for refugees, have been suspended pending the probe.

Unverified local press accounts have alleged that in addition to officials in Rugunda’s office—which is responsible for the overall refugee aid program and now, it appears, for the scandal investigation-- officials associated with UNHCR itself are involved.

For its part, the U.N. says it uncovered the scandal itself, brought it to Rugunda’s attention, and called for the government to investigate, initially through a letter from the U.N.’s top official in Uganda, Rosa Malango.

One source of the U.N. suspicion about the scandal was apparently a series of spot checks carried out during 2016 and 2017 on the number of refugees actually receiving aid.

According to the Guterres spokesperson, “the results in some cases was a drop of between 15 to 25 percent” in the actual vs. reported  numbers of refugees at various locations—even without the biometric technologies UNHCR is now going to bring to the verification effort. Unverified local press accounts have put the discrepancies even higher—in one case, more like 70 percent.

The spokesperson for Guterres did not respond to direct questions from Fox News about possible involvement by UNHCR or government officials.

What is clear, however, is that much more is at stake in the Uganda scandal than even large-scale theft, intimidation and sexual abuse among some of the world’s most vulnerable and already-abused people, who are desperately in need of support.

Among other things, skepticism about foreign aid donations, especially within the Trump administration, is at an all-time high, even as the unprecedented global refugee crisis shows no sign of abating.

President Trump’s proposed foreign aid budget for 2019 already calls for steep cuts in funding for USAID and the State Department, though the proposed cuts are likely to be ignored by Congress. In its statement regarding the Ugandan scandal, the European Union says “it is indeed of utmost importance to address swiftly and thoroughly any allegations of malfeasance in order not to impair…the public support from the European taxpayers.”

Uganda itself has long been hailed in the international aid community as a model for other nations to follow as the U.N. seeks to orchestrate a new Global Compact on Refugees, aiming  to broaden international support for dealing with the refugee crisis. (The Trump Administration, which bowed out of U.N.-sponsored negotiations on a global compact on migration, supports the refugee compact, which will be chewed over during international meetings this year.)

Uganda has offered an “open-door” policy toward refugees flooding across its borders, and it has also handed over plots of land and opportunities for refugees to integrate themselves into the local economy. This has come at great cost to the country’s overstretched social services, and it has not prevented the country’s biggest refugee camp, Bidi Bidi  (population, about 270,000), from becoming the biggest in Africa.

Any failure of Uganda’s risky refugee experiment could deal a major blow to the entire U.N.-sponsored orchestration of a global refugee effort.

The suddenly improved verification effort for refugees points to another problem for the U.N.—how good are its humanitarian numbers at all under the circumstances?

While Guterres’ spokesperson says that the U.N.’s “face-to-face” biometric registration techniques are “used all over the world, including by some governments directly,” the truth of the matter in Uganda is that U.N. relief agencies were apparently taking the government’s word for it—at least until the spot checks gave anyone pause.

A number of major non-government humanitarian agencies consulted by Fox News said that biometric verification of refugees have long been a fundamental part of their operating procedure, precisely to guarantee fair distribution of aid and also to prevent diversion.

The apparent reliance on government say-so is in keeping with a general U.N. emphasis on “national execution” of as many aid policies as possible, meaning that governments and their designates actually carry out U.N. policies, with the international organization operating as a funding pass-through and ostensible monitor.

There have also been public warnings of the looming possibilities for scandal.

In March 2017, the non-profit humanitarian organization Refugees International, or RI, which says it does not take money either from governments or the U.N., issued a lengthy field report on Uganda, with a section devoted to such warning signs.

The report noted that the Ugandan Prime Minister’s office (OPM)  was exercising “tight control” over where non-government organizations could conduct relief work, and making them seek permission to work in refugee settlements.

Refugee International field workers were told by aid workers that even though the government was not supposed to have any say in choosing contractors who would work with humanitarian NGOs on aid distribution,  “aid organizations were allegedly denied access to settlements after rejecting a contractor that OPM suggested”—a warning sign of possible collusion.

They also heard that “OPM allegedly delayed approving projects for months because of disagreements over the choice of a contractor.” The field report also says that U.N. officials “did not deny the government’s involvement in these decisions.”

Aid donors also knew of the untoward pressures, Refugees International reported, but their response was tepid at best, at least until RI brought the matter to their attention.

In fact, the uncovering of the Uganda scandal may actually point in a novel direction—of the U.N. beginning to move against its longstanding habitual passivity in the face of similar aid scandals, which was outlined in a scathing report by the U.N.’s own watchdog Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) in mid-2016.

The 133-page report summarized a nine-month investigation that covered “fraud detection, prevention and response” across 28 U.N. organizations and discovered that the world body was only marginally engaged on all three topics.

Among other things, the JIU inspectors pointed to anemic levels of fraud detection that were likely not signs of U.N. virtue but a lack of effort in pursuing the topic.

The watchdogs noted that the sprawling array of U.N. organizations did not even have a common definition of “fraud,” and workers at a large array of U.N. organizations “did not perceive a clear commitment on the part of the senior management to tackle fraud in their organizations.”

As it happens, the head of UNCHR at the time was Antonio Guterres, who left the job to become U.N. Secretary General in 2017.

Whether the U.N. is truly now bestirring itself to stop the theft and diversion of money intended for the people who most desperately need it of course, remains to be seen—not least, in the discreet investigations now supposedly underway in Uganda.