UN refugee staff in Africa trained to detect scams

Identity and document fraud, staged security incidents, fake medical reports and bribery are among the main subjects on the curriculum for United Nations staff working in resettlement programmes for African refugees as part of an intensified battle against scams. “It is clear that the vast majority of refugees are law-abiding,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) director for resettlement services Vincent Cochetel told a recent training workshop for 30 participants from more than a dozen UNHCR offices in eastern, central and southern Africa. “However, fraud – from individual cases to larger scale criminal enterprises – serves to undermine and even threaten this important protection tool,” he added in a written message to the two-day workshop in Nairobi, Kenya. The course was also attended by representatives of the United States, Canada and Australia, three of the major resettlement countries, as well as an International Organisation for Migration (IOM) official. Similar training workshops are planned for West Africa and Asia. The training is one of a number of initiatives undertaken by the resettlement service to enhance counter-fraud activities. “It is particularly reassuring to us to see that UNHCR is doing something about resettlement fraud and that there is transparency in dealing with it. It gives us more confidence,” Canadian diplomat Tracy Vansickle said. In 2001, resettlement programmes for more than 150,000 refugees in Kenya were suspended after it was discovered that a criminal network had infiltrated UNHCR’s refugee status determination process to force bribes from people seeking resettlement in third countries. Measures have since been introduced to prevent such fraud, but the agency remains on the alert for new scams, including use of the internet. Mr. Cochetel said it was essential to step up efforts to combat resettlement fraud because “the consequences can be detrimental, above all, to refugees as resettlement programmes may be suspended indefinitely as a result of fraud.” In the class on identity fraud, a UNHCR protection officer cited a refugee from Eritrea who had presented herself as an Ethiopian national because she believed this would boost her chances of resettlement. The refugee spoke Amharic, a language spoken in both Ethiopia and Eritrea, which made early detection of the fraud difficult. Another case cited involved Burundian refugees presenting themselves as Rwandan nationals. Rwanda and Burundi have the same ethnic composition. In other cases, refugees registered non-family members as relatives to benefit from more aid. When it came to processing for resettlement, they claimed that the relative was dead. “We have seen false death certificates, particularly when families are unable to produce children registered in the family unit,” a protection officer told the workshop. UNHCR staff were urged to remain vigilant for “red flags” of possible fraud or corruption such as sudden unexplained wealth of individuals involved in resettlement. “If your systems are weak and the management oversight in resettlement is modest or inadequate, it all comes together to create an opportunity for fraud,” Ted Tunis, the lead trainer at the workshop, warned.

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