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OPM hit by fresh multi-billion refugee scandal

Thousands of fake refugees have been detected in registration records for camps in northern Uganda, a setback for efforts to improve the integrity of the country’s refugee response after a much larger fraud scandal made global headlines in 2018.

An aerial view of Bidi Bidi refugee settlement taken on 5 April 2017 amid the arrival of South Sudanese families fleeing war. Uganda is Africa’s largest refugee-hosting country, but fraud concerns have dented confidence in relief efforts.

This story was originally published by The New Humanitarian.

Thousands of fake refugees have been detected in registration records for camps in northern Uganda, a setback for efforts to improve the integrity of the country’s refugee response after a much larger fraud scandal made global headlines in 2018.

Over 6,000 false identities were discovered last year in records for three settlements, according to a UN letter circulated in late January 2023 to donors and diplomats, and obtained by The New Humanitarian.

The fraud was first detected by UN agencies but involved individuals from the Ugandan Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), which oversees refugee affairs. The workers were in charge of registering refugees on databases used by the UN to distribute aid.

Fourteen individuals are having their contracts terminated by the OPM and have been forwarded for criminal investigation, according to the letter, co-written by the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) and the World Food Programme (WFP).

Frank Walusimbi, an associate communications officer at UNHCR, said the case shows that anti-fraud controls are working better than in 2018. During that episode, Ugandan government officials fabricated 300,000 so-called “ghost refugees” over several years.

“The identification of the irregularities by UNHCR and WFP and the quick action of the Office of the Prime Minister, responsible for refugee matters, signals that there has been progress since 2018,” Walusimbi told The New Humanitarian.

However, the UN letter and interviews with aid, diplomat, and donor sources, highlight enduring vulnerabilities with the refugee registration process and underscore fears that fraud could be more widespread in settlements.

While some donors and diplomats commended the government for taking action following the recent discovery, other aid workers said investigations by the OPM were slow to get going, with inquiries not commencing until late 2022.

“We kept asking for feedback [from the government], what has been done, what is the progress? But nothing happened,” said a senior aid official with direct knowledge of the case. They asked not to be named to preserve working relations with the government.

Douglas Asiimwe, acting refugee commissioner at the OPM, did not respond to detailed questions from The New Humanitarian but said the matter had been “handled” and that UN agencies and partners had been briefed on “actions taken and on the way forward”.

Smaller-scale fraud

Uganda is Africa’s largest refugee-hosting country, offering protection to more than 1.5 million people, mostly from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The government is in charge of registering refugees, while food and other humanitarian assistance is mostly provided by the UN and NGOs.

The country’s refugee programme has been widely praised for promoting self-reliance among refugees, and is seen as an example for refugee-hosting efforts. The next Global Refugee Forum – the largest global international gathering on refugees, which is organised every four years – will be hosted in Uganda in December.

Still, the 2018 scandal and related mismanagement by UNHCR dented confidence in relief efforts. And key Ugandan and UN officials involved in the case appeared to avoid legal and professional repercussions, a recent investigation by The New Humanitarian found.

The 2022 discovery was initially made by WFP officials in the northwestern Rhino settlement, which is mostly home to South Sudanese refugees. A similar fraud was later discovered in two other settlements – Bidi Bidi and Kiryandongo.

Two aid officials with knowledge of the fraud in Kiryandongo and Rhino said it involved low-level registration staff employed by the OPM, which has been hit by a smorgasbord of corruption scandals in recent years.

The nature of the graft varied in the camps, according to the aid officials. However, a common scheme involved OPM workers taking bribes from refugees to increase the size of their households.

The false records – mostly disguised as related to new births, according to the UN letter – entitled the refugees to additional humanitarian assistance, either in cash or through food rations.

By contrast, the 2018 fraud involved much higher-level OPM officials who bloated registration lists and diverted large amounts of food aid, which they then sold on markets.

Though the recent graft was smaller in scale, it was discovered amid a funding crisis that saw refugee response organisations raise less than half of the $804 million they requested from donors in 2022. Food rations were cut as a result of that gap.

A positive story?

Many viewed the recent fraud discovery as a good news story, according to aid officials and meeting minutes from Uganda’s Refugee Humanitarian Partners Group (RHPG) – a forum for aid agencies and donors – that were shared with The New Humanitarian.

For example, two diplomats from donor countries that fund Uganda’s refugee response, and who were briefed on the fraud, emphasised how monitoring systems were able to detect the problem.

Similarly, a donor official quoted in RHPG meeting minutes from January said the handling of the case demonstrated “how far we have come” – a reference to steps taken since the 2018 scandal and which echoes the view of Walusimbi and UNHCR.

During the 2018 episode, UNHCR was accused by other humanitarian agencies and NGOs of failing to act on warning signs that the government’s refugee numbers were heavily exaggerated.

An internal UN audit published in late 2018 found that UNHCR had failed to leverage its funding to the government to secure access to the refugee registration platform, which was managed by the OPM and contained the falsified figures.

UNHCR now has access and control over the registration system and was therefore able to pick up on various anomalies, which several sources said indicates an improvement in control measures.

The UN letter states that UNHCR and WFP also raised concerns with the government between April and July 2022, as the fraud was discovered. That contrasts with 2018, when UNHCR was accused by aid workers of not wanting to confront the government.

Weak oversight

Still, several emergency aid actors who spoke to The New Humanitarian expressed concern about the fraud discovery, as did donor officials quoted in RHPG meeting minutes.

According to an aid worker based in Kiryandongo, and interviews with three refugees who live there, fraud may have gone undetected for several years. All described various ways in which registration procedures have been corrupted by low-level OPM officials.

According to interviews with refugees and aid workers in Kiryandongo, the settlement stopped accepting new registrations in 2016 after reaching maximum capacity. The only exception was the newborn children of existing residents.

As a result, registration officials started offering to register new arrivals as newborns in return for a bribe. This shows a shared interest between low-level OPM officials and refugees looking for a place to stay in a settlement that is formally closed.

Bruno Braak, a postdoctoral researcher at Leiden University in The Netherlands, said the fraud was well-known at the time when he was conducting research in Kiryandongo in 2017 and 2018.

“This was the source of lucrative and standardised corruption among some street-level OPM officials,” Braak said. “New arrivals could effectively buy refugee protection from particular OPM officials.”

The fraud in Rhino, meanwhile, was enabled by weak oversight of OPM registration workers by their OPM supervisors and settlement commanders, according to the UN letter and interviews with humanitarian workers who described it as a worrying weakness in the registration process.

The letter states that false identities disguised as new births in existing refugee households were added to databases without appropriate documentation such as birth notification cards or certificates.

“The [settlement] commander wasn’t doing regular cross-checks of what these [OPM registration officials] were doing,” said the senior aid official, referring to the situation in Rhino. “He just had trust in them.”

The aid official argued that the fraud in Rhino was detected fortuitously. They said a technical glitch in UNHCR’s systems prompted a review, which then led to the discovery of large increases in the sizes of certain families.

However, Walusimbi said there was no glitch and that irregularities were identified using “routine data quality checks” and safeguarding measures introduced since 2018. Walusimbi said the “area of weakness” identified by the recent fraud “is now being corrected.”

Still, the vulnerability of the registration system is also underscored by data from a feedback helpline launched in late 2018 by aid agencies so that refugees can request information or make complaints about corruption and other issues in settlements.

The data – contained in the RHPG meeting minutes – shows that the most common misconduct complaints made in 2021 and 2022 by refugees were for issues around registration; 250 claims were made in total.

Delayed investigation

The time taken by the OPM to conduct an inquiry has also triggered mixed reactions.

Walusimbi said the OPM commissioned a team in August 2022 to investigate the allegations. He said the inquiry was completed during “the fall”, and that a request was made for a police investigation in December.

“Unlike in 2018, OPM established a committee to investigate the identified irregularities, and swift action was taken to identify and address the issues as well as institute punitive measures against the perpetrators,” said Walusimbi.

However, the senior aid official said the gap between April – when the fraud was first detected – and the time the OPM began its investigations on the ground raised eyebrows among humanitarian actors.

The official said some blamed the delay on bureaucracy at the OPM, while others considered it an attempt to avoid accountability. “Many thought nothing was going to happen,” said the official.

Similar concerns are also expressed in the RHPG meeting minutes. They contain a quote from one diplomat who said, “the timeline of the OPM investigation does raise many questions”.

Though certain OPM staff are now facing criminal prosecution for their roles in the fraud, research conducted on past anti-corruption trials has often revealed flaws in these processes.

As was the case in the aftermath of the 2018 case, trials rarely target fraud ringleaders, and they are often deliberately drawn out by the government in the hope that the international community will lose interest.

Endemic corruption

Stamping out misconduct by lower-level government workers in refugee camps will require tackling a culture of corruption at the OPM and Uganda in general – on top of technical fixes – aid officials and anti-corruption campaigners said.

“OPM, at the national level, is implicated in these local [fraud] processes in various ways,” said Marlon Agaba, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda (ACCU). “You cannot trust OPM to investigate on its own [staff].”

The most recent scandal at the OPM emerged in February and concerned the diversion of iron sheets by officials, including government ministers. The sheets were intended for residents of Karamoja, Uganda’s poorest region.

The senior aid worker said that if ministers are known to be stealing aid, then registration workers in refugee settlements are likely to follow suit. “Of course they look for ways to profit,” the official said.

Agaba of the ACCU said the OPM isn’t the only institution that needs reforming. “We, as a country, lose close to 20% [of the national budget] to corruption,” Agaba said. “OPM works in this context.”

Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.


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