NAIROBI — A Washington-based refugee advocacy organization released a report today blasting the humanitarian community, especially the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), of failing to responsibly handle sexual violence reports in a Tanzanian refugee camp. The camp houses roughly 100,000 people who have fled their homes in Burundi due to the violence that began in April, in response to President Pierre Nkurunziza's push for a third term.
That violence has left more than 400 people dead in Burundi and pushed another 220,000, half of them women and girls, outside the country as refugees.
"Essentially what we found is as early as June, agencies were reporting high levels of sexual violence that women and girls were reporting upon arrival in Tanzania. Despite that, the humanitarian community didn't ramp up," said Francisca Vigaud-Walsh, the senior advocate for women and girls at Refugees International.
The report lays much of the blame on UNHCR, which has taken the lead in coordinating the refugee response.
"Multiple sources [said] that those leading the response did not seem to have a firm grasp of the importance of minimum standards to reduce the risk of GBV [gender-based violence], or know how to implement them," the report says.
But Vigaud-Walsh also found that UNHCR directly interfered with a feedback mechanism other agencies built in order to field complaints from women about unsafe conditions in the camp.
The report says: "A hotline was established and complaint boxes were installed throughout the camp. UNHCR, however, demanded that the process be halted, and the boxes remained closed and the complaints unviewed. UNCHR, as the emergency response lead, determined that it should be at the helm of organizing such an effort."
The agency also refused to receive or respond to anonymous complaints, despite several best practices that require anonymity to protect victim confidentiality, including a 2013 inter-agency protocol, developed in consultation with UNHCR and focused on protecting refugees from sexual violence.
Joyce Mends-Cole, the UNHCR representative in Tanzania, said that this criticism is a misunderstanding. "I think what we’re saying is anonymous complaints are
very difficult to deal with, not that people can’t report anonymously," she told BuzzFeed News by telephone.
Mends-Cole said the agency has improved reception at the border, including referrals for sexual violence victims; has reached out to local communities to reduce fears about resource scarcity or competition, hoping that this will reduce crimes committed against refugees seeking firewood; and engaged with Tanzanian security authorities on issues like security patrols during firewood collection or police response to gender-based violence.
Mends-Cole also said the sheer number of refugees was a challenge to the agency. "It was difficult to manage totally in a circumstance where you had a continuing
emergency and a continuing influx," she said.
"I’m not going to defend us where we can’t be defended," Mends-Cole said, acknowledging errors in shelter protocols while noting that she had not seen the Refugees International report. "But I am going to put up a robust defense when we are maligned for the wrong reasons."
A living shelter for 200 people at UNHCR's Nyarugusu camp in Tanzania. The camp houses roughly 100,000 Burundian refugees.
The risks for women who live at Nyarugusu are multi-layered: Many have experienced sexual violence before they arrived in Tanzania; others experience violence when moving around outside the camp; and still others report incidents of and vulnerability to violence inside the camp itself.
Between May and June, agencies documented an average of 30 cases each month — nearly one every day — of sexual violence in or around Nyarugusu camp, the report says.
Women and men both told Vigaud-Walsh that women are vulnerable when they leave the camp to look for firewood, a journey that gets longer as supplies diminish.
But women who spoke to Vigaud-Walsh also told her they don't feel safe even inside the camp, in basic places like bathrooms, showers, or even their own shelters.
That's partly because UNHCR didn't follow basic protocols in building or maintaining camp structures, she said.
"I’m talking about no [gender] segregation of latrines; no wooden doors on latrines, just a plastic flap. Forget about a key," she told BuzzFeed News by phone from Washington. "It’s two to three families to one shelter, families that did not know each other."
Vigaud-Walsh, a veteran of humanitarian emergency response missions, said she had never seen such blatantly problematic conditions so many months into a crisis. "I was appalled," she said.
The Sphere Minimum Standards for humanitarian emergency response, established in 1997, call for gender-segregated toilets with lockable doors, in order to best protect women.
Sources told Vigaud-Walsh that some latrines originally had lockable wooden doors, but that refugees in need of cooking fuel dismantled the doors. When UNHCR protection staff were asked why those doors and locks had not been replaced, the answer was: "We cannot do everything for the refugees. They must contribute
with something," according to the report.
Mends-Cole acknowledged that UNHCR erred on this issue.
"In terms of the number of showers and latrines that were not properly done, I simply want to say, it was done wrong," she said.
Women also said that basic services like food distribution exposed them to risks of sexual and gender-based violence.
"I repeatedly got complaints that food distribution starts so late [that] they end at 6 p.m. Meanwhile, there is no lighting in the camp, and we know we have a problem of sexual violence [in the camp]," Vigaud-Walsh said. "Women and girls told me they were terrified of walking home at that time."
"It's a real problem that basic facilities and services are viewed as places of danger, rather than safe spaces," she said.
The UN agency has since sent a technical expert on gender-based violence to work in Nyarugusu, and Vigaud-Walsh said some things are improving. But so much damage had already been done, she said.
"These women already suffered tremendously in Burundi and during their flight to Tanzania. They are supposed to feel safe in a refugee camp," she said. "But the response was never designed in a way that took their needs into account. The Nyarugusu camp conditions increased their risk of gender-based violence."