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Lubbers: U.N. agencies must take corruption seriously

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February 28, 2001 


GENEVA-(AP) - Organized crime threatens to infiltrate United Nations aid to the world's most desperate people, the U.N. refugee chief said Tuesday, a week after the agency confirmed it is investigating alleged staff corruption in Kenya.

"It is a risk all over the world," Ruud Lubbers, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told The Associated Press. "Let us take that risk seriously."

In Nairobi, Kenya, U.N. officials are probing allegations that at least four staff members charged refugees thousands of dollars to be resettled in the United States or other Western countries.

UNHCR officials have said the investigation was launched at the Nairobi office in December 1999 and taken over by the U.N.'s central audit body in July 2000. They have not said when the inquiry will be completed.

UNHCR offers its services to refugees free of charge, but officials admit that the agency's "resettlement programs" - which give some refugees a chance to start a new life in a rich country - are likely to interest criminals involved in human trafficking.

Lubbers, who took over as high commissioner on Jan. 1, said he was encouraging staff members who had heard rumors of corruption in other parts of the world to come forward.

"I ask people: 'Have you heard something here or there? Put it on the table and let's look at it.' If there are other allegations, I want my people to take them seriously," Lubbers said.

He declined to name any other UNHCR office or country that was under suspicion but said that it was unfair to single out Nairobi or even Africa as the only place where corruption may be a problem.

UNHCR also is improving efforts to check that the refugees resettled are those who will benefit most and not those who can pay.

"Governments and banks have systems to check and control that they are strong enough against corruption and criminal elements penetrating in their institutions. We have to do as good as they," he said.

Lubbers plunged into what he called the world's worst refugee problem earlier this month, visiting camps in West Africa, where tens of thousands of refugees from Liberia and Sierra Leone are now trapped by fighting and local hostility in Guinea.

He also seeks a solution to the long-term refugee problem of Afghanistan, millions of whose people have fled to neighboring Pakistan and Iran. UNHCR's projects there have been hampered by lack of funds. Aid workers believe the international community has grown tired of the ongoing crisis.

"I am not giving in. I have become angry - really angry. It is simply not acceptable. We have camps in Pakistan in which the situation is so abominable we simply cannot go on," said Lubbers.

He said the international community had to accept its responsibility to help the refugees, but that the Taliban leaders, who rule most of Afghanistan, also had to do their part.

"The Taliban regime has to understand it is responsible for the people of Afghanistan. I have to find a way, as high commissioner for refugees, of explaining that it is simply not acceptable that Afghan people burden surrounding countries," said Lubbers.

Even if refugees could not immediately return to their homes, they should be able to return to Afghanistan and be looked after there, he added.

A former Dutch prime minister, Lubbers said much of the donor problem lies with Europe, even though it is generous in most of its aid to developing countries.

The European Union gave 21 percent of UNHCR's budget in 1995, but only 5 percent of last year's smaller budget of nearly dlrs 1 billion.

"If Europe would only spend a modest percentage of the budget which is needed yesterday for asylum, then UNHCR could do a better job," Lubbers said, pointing out that the refugees could be cared for in place and wouldn't need to come to Europe for asylum.

Next week Lubbers will meet with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Congress during a visit to the United States. He wants to encourage further support from the largest donor nation, which last year gave a record high 35 percent of UNHCR's budget.


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