Corruption in UN Refugee Agency Poses Questions for Donor Support

Uganda is home to one million refugees from the Great Lakes region and South Sudan, among other key migrant-sending countries. Wikimedia Commons.

Uganda is home to one million refugees from the Great Lakes region and South Sudan, among other key migrant-sending countries. Wikimedia Commons.

A United Nations audit revealed on November 29 that the UN Refugee Agency lost “millions of dollars” due to corruption and misconduct, Reuters reports. The Office of Internal Oversight Service’s (OIOS) investigation disclosed that the UNHCR was responsible for “inflated bills, fraud, and non-compliance with rules.” Uganda is home to one million refugees from the Great Lakes region and South Sudan, among other key migrant-sending countries. Although Uganda’s government has been heralded for implementing open-door refugee policies, offering refugees access to resources, and fostering in-country refugee mobility, the recent news illustrated the limits of the response. According Eleanor Burns, the director of the Internal Audit Division of the Office of UNHCR, “the weak risk culture and internal control environment in the UNHCR operations in Uganda contributed to serious risk management and control deficiencies and accountability lapses in operational and administrative activities.”

The investigation also revealed an updated figure of the number of refugees in Uganda, which were 25 percent higher than figures previously reported; evidence that the Office of the Prime Minister of Uganda was “unable to provide the OIOS documentation to substantiate” that civil servants were working on projects for the UNHCR while paying a $283,000 allowance to its staff on an annual basis. In response to the audit, UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said that the “majority of the actions resulting from these reviews have been implemented even before the final audit report was released.”  

According to the IRIN News Agency, the UNHCR’s spending increased to $205 million in 2017 from $125 million the year before; the European Union and the United States accounted for 80 percent of the UNHCR’s funding in 2017.

The OIOS made “important recommendations” that are critical to addressing “significant and/or pervasive deficiencies or weaknesses.” The IRIN News Agency reports that the European Commission previously announced that the case would be referred to its anti-fraud office. The unfortunate news has negative implications for donor support, which has remained a continuous problem across the continent. The World Food Programme, for example, recently asked the US for $6.5 million to assist over 12,000 refugees in Zimbabwe.