Government, UNHCR clash over refugee scandal

Wednesday February 26 2020
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Seeking help. Refugees wait for medical attention at a health centre in Bidi Bidi refugee settlement in 2017. FILE PHOTO

The conclusion of investigations into the mismanagement of refugee funds in the country depends on cooperation between the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and government investigation agencies, the minister for Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, Mr Hilary Onek has said.
The exact amount of money that was squandered has never been made public and it is not clear whether it is part of the Shs1.2 trillion ($350m) that was raised during a solidarity conference that was co-hosted by Uganda in June 2017.
A joint investigation conducted by the United Nations, the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) and Uganda government then discovered that the number of refugees in Uganda was inflated and resources intended to provide for refugees had been stolen.
Last month, Mr Onek complained in a January 27 letter addressed to the UNHCR country representative and copied to President Museveni and Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda that the UNHCR and World Food Programme (WFP) had become “obstacles in this investigation process.”
Yesterday, the minister told Daily Monitor that after reading from the press that UNHCR and WFP had vehemently refuted the claims in his letter, he now leaves the matter to them and the investigating agencies to find out a modality of concluding the investigations.

“I have done my part. Now it is up to them to continue because the letter I wrote to them I copied to the investigators. I have thrown that concern and so it is up to them now to start working together,” Mr Onek said yesterday.
The alleged mismanagement of refugee funds is being investigated by the Inspectorate of Government, the Directorate of Public Prosecutions and Police’s Criminal Investigations Directorate.
The minister said the investigations report is overdue and the investigators have complained that they have been failed by UN agencies which claim that their staff have diplomatic immunity.

“Whatever information they give is peripheral and does not answer the questions. I was just trying to set them up together to start making sure that they cooperate because there are no different standards for the UN and also other people. If someone is corrupt, whether you are in UN or not, if found guilty you face the law,” he said.
Mr Onek said the UN agencies have no option but to cooperate with the investigating agencies so that the allegations are put out of way as soon as possible in response to the donors’ demand.
Last year, the German government announced that it was withholding Shs390 billion ($106 million) of the funds it had promised during the solidarity conference. The decision follows the United Kingdom’s 2018 decision to suspend its funding.
Uganda officially hosts 1.3 million refugees and received $350 million from various donors in 2017.

UNHCR responds
Ms Duniya Aslam Khan, the UNHCR communication officer, said the agency has provided all information to the government’s investigation authorities.
“UNHCR appreciates the steadfast commitment of the Government of Uganda and the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) in combating issues of corruption identified in the Refugee Response Programme in early 2018 and the progress made since in this respect,” she said.
“We have made our staff available for interviews in the past, and diplomatic immunity in no way impeded the cooperation. We stand ready to make further personnel available for interviews if needed,” Ms Khan said.

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