26 March 2018

Uganda: Officials Extort Sex From Refugee Girls

Photo: Daily Monitor
South Sudanese arrive at the reception area of the Palorinya Refugee settlement in Moyo District.

You could have heard a pin drop, as I did not know what to do, sat crossed-legged in a blue plastic chair in one corner of the quickly arranged motel room in Nakulabye, a Kampala suburb, while she stripped, sat on the bed with her back against me and said nothing, apart from sniffling and wiping her face with her right palm.

The ticking of my wrist watch was the only noise in the room. The awkward calm was running into its eleventh minute, when she asked "are you doing it?"

Jolted by the question and yet trying not to appear to, I changed positions in the chair thrice while clearing my throat--and eventually found the words " I don't want to do it: I just wanted to see if it really happens."

That is when she turned to face me, with a trace of bewilderment in her eyes wide open.

The suburban horror story

It started with a missed call from an unknown number an hour earlier, on the last Tuesday of February. Upon returning the call, a seemingly placid male voice on the other side picked up immediately and said, "Boss, how are you? My name is TK."

"I received your number from a friend who told me you wanted to eat fresh Ethiopian p***y. I have a new one and very young--17 years you will like her. Are you free I bring?"

Early February as the refugee scandal involving officials in Office of Prime Minister (OPM) and the UN agency for refugees, UNHCR, unfolded, a source had told me of pimps in town, brokering 'hot' refugee women and young girls around hotels to some serious buyers, including high ranking officials.

The network is very wide but closed; that, if you called randomly, you are likely not to succeed but if anyone, perhaps a mutual acquaintance or friend recommended you, you can even have the "goods" delivered to you.

Here I was, stunned by the call as the voice on the other side prodded on. I disclosed that I was in fact just lounging at office, so "I am free."

TK then recommended the meeting point, which turned out to be a motel, and within a snap of a finger I was on a boda boda to Nakulabye.

The motel rooms ranged between Shs20,000 and Shs50,000 based on the size, so I booked the cheapest and was handed a room number 15.

TK called again as I took steps to the room upstairs, asking if I had arrived, and I told him the room number. In no minute someone was knocking on the door, and there he was--seemed in his mid-30s, donning blue faded jeans, plimsoll sneakers and a black t-shirt.

After a brief chit-chat at the door, I handed him the agreed Shs100,000 as brokerage and delivery fees, he then spoke to someone outside and signaled them in.

"Enjoy," he said as he closed the door.

No pleasantries whatsoever: she headed for restroom, surfaced a minute later, stripped and stood there looking at me in the chair, then moved and sat on the opposite side of the bed.

Next was the awkward muteness in the room. After assuring her that "I am not doing it" but opened up about the exact nature of my mission, she remained confounded--matters made worse by her grasp of English.

I had just returned from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, two days before, so I started the conversation from the things I had encountered, in an attempt to further break the ice which took close to 30 minutes.

Eventually she opened up and said she was 17 years old and that she had left Ethiopia a month earlier through Kenya, and the Malaba border point with a group of other girls on the pretext of coming as "refugees."

In Kampala they were helped through the refugee registration bureaucracy, from Old Kampala Police Station OPM.

After successfully being processed that is when it dawned on her that, perhaps she was better off back home as a waitress in Jimma, the largest city in south-western Ethiopia, in the troubled Oromia region.

I was her second customer, she confessed. Her first customer, three days earlier, at a plush hotel in Muyenga, had burnt her with a cigarette in the back, and in fact she had three first aid plasters in the back--the thought of the previous experience, she said was why she was sniffling.

After about two hours, her fee was initially Shs80,000, I handed her Shs150,000 and piece of paper with my mobile number, to contact me in case of anything.

Three weeks later during course of this joint Daily Monitor/NTV investigation, I received a call made from a landline number, turned out it was a payphone at Old Kampala delivering disquieting news. A female voice on the other side, in not so good English, said 'I lived with Molla" and that she had given her my number to call me.

"Molla died Thursday by (Sic) cocaine. We are burry Saturday. Bye," the brief call announced last Sunday evening, and went off. This, I was yet to independently verify, but with the several firsthand victim accounts I had so far collected while undercover: I do not rule out anything.

The dark refugee sex trafficking

According to the UN agency for refugees-- UNHCR, the country is home to more than 1.4 million refugees. Verification of the actual number is ongoing after, as this newspaper reported the OPM refugee scam last month, it emerged that OPM and UN officials were mismanaging refugee operations.

The scam being investigated by UN independent investigators and Uganda's security organs includes among others, inflating numbers, dubious sub-contracts and selling relief items.

Uganda, ranks in 5th position of countries with large refugee populations, and prior to the scandal that prompted the visit by the UNHCR High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi on January 30, to set the ball rolling in sorting out the mess, was hailed globally as one of the best places to be for refugees.

However, for long, according to official and unofficial account, during the months long investigations by this newspaper established that officials were aware of the maleficence of sexual abuse and exploitation of refugees.

The exploitation and abuse, our investigations show, is two-way traffic--some OPM, police and aid agencies' officials use their powers to coerce young refugee girls and at times the most desperate for relocation to other countries into sex, while the refugee communities themselves, have individuals who have established themselves as big time pimps: these at times lure young women from their home countries in promise of job opportunities but on reaching Uganda register them as refugees and start brokering them around town.

Accusations

One Burundian refugee, 24, narrated her ordeal of a senior OPM official requesting for either money or sex on order to process her permanent refugee identity card last year. After failing to raise the $300 (Shs1m) the official wanted, she caved in to sleeping with him and subsequently got the card, and a pregnancy. She now has a seven-months-old baby, but little means to fend for her.

"We have always known about these reports, and they are being looked into as part of the ongoing investigations," the state minister for Relief and Disaster Preparedness, Mr Musa Ecweru, told Daily Monitor on Tuesday.

"I want to tell you we want to live no stone unturned this time around," he added. While the sex exploitation of refugees stretches from settlement camps in West Nile and South Western Uganda, where some refugee women sleep with officials in turn for relief items, the most vulnerable group are the urban refugees--those who opt to settle around Kampala, ostensibly because there are already established relative communities mainly from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, Somalia, and Burundi. The established pimps, some of whom according to multiple accounts, are known to or work with OPM and police, our investigations showed they are always skulking around the different refugee offices, especially the verification centre at Old Kampala Secondary School playground where they ensnare their targets.

According to UNHCR, there are about 100,000 urban refugees mostly from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, Somalia, and Burundi and lately the South Sudanese community is growing as well.

Mr Bornwell Kantande, the UNHCR's country representative, said they are aware of the exploitation reports, some of which have appeared in the media. "Normally we have avenues for those allegations to be presented to UNHCR," he said.

"The allegations are taken seriously and we do have a very strict regime in dealing with them. We have a zero tolerance for sex abuse and exploitation," Mr Kantande said during an interview in Kampala.

He added: "These are serious issues which touch on the dignity of refugees, and we do everything we can to address them, so the victims can keep reporting them."

The UNHCR boss, however, said he was not aware of any complaints lodged against any of his staff as regards coercing or manipulating refugee women into sexual activities to either get them documentation or relief items. Sexual abuse and trafficking of refugees is a little-acknowledged facet of the refugee crisis world over. However, it is a very real part of life for many forced to flee their homes, especially in DR Congo and South Sudan.

Deep-rooted problem

In camp areas where families are unable to generate an income, it is not uncommon for women to become the sole earners through sex work. Some are forced by husbands and parents, others do so through the sheer necessity of survival.

Others are unaware of their coercion into the trade until it is too late, particularly the Somalis, Ethiopians and Eritreans.

These mostly come with intentions of living in Kampala, according to Mr Julius Isabirye, the head of Refugee Registration Desk at Old Kampala Police Station.

After being profiled, processed and issued with temporary certificates that enable them to travel around, they are then forwarded to OPM for issuance of the permanent certificates and further management.

Unlike their contemporaries in settlement camps, urban refugees are not housed, fed, nor given any other form of assistance.

"So this makes them very vulnerable and easy to target," he added.

"From what we have gathered is that these brokers come from within the communities and have lived here for a very long time: so they know their way around and use all sorts of tricks,"he said.

Mr Isabirye, however, denied claims that officers under his command charged with profiling and processing refugees at times also sexually exploit the vulnerable women.

"We have only heard about those reports, gathered from our intelligence from within their communities," he said adding that "Our desk stops at processing refugees so we cannot deal with such complaints and we don't even know whether they are reported."

"For long, since I took office, we have had a battle with these brokers. We keep arresting them but given their status as refugees, how to deal with them strongly becomes difficult for us, and most times they get out on police bond."

The trap

These brokers, as Molla explained, and our investigations showed, then use violence, debt bondage (fees spent in transporting them), threats, lies, and other forms of coercion to compel the young women to engage in commercial sex.

Some, according to first-hand accounts, have been infected with HIV and others impregnated and left to fend for themselves and their children.

Some refugee women, especially the young, recent and 'most' good looking are pimped through a closed network where a buyer has to be known to the brokers, or is recommended by an acquaintance. Calling up a broker randomly and asking for a girl usually raises suspicion.

Our investigation

Contacts. During the joint Daily Monitor/NTV investigations, at first we called some well-known brokers on their well-known mobile phone numbers, but on declaring our motives--of wishing to get women, even at a fee as high as $100 (Shs360,000)--it was clear they were suspicious, no matter how hard we tried to trap them.

Successful trial. However, on the third trial we went through acquaintances, last Friday we had a group of girls-- a mix of Congolese and Kenyans delivered to a venue of our choice around Kampala.

Places. The second attempt during our investigation, was to frequent a number of places around Kabusu, Rubaga, Mengo, Old Kampala, Kisenyi, Bakuli and Nakulabye in Kampala, where we were told that refugees women/girls are pimped. You would never guess that in one of those places, girls were being sold.

Challenges. At these places, some hang-outs--bars, hotels and motels, it turned out that indeed they were offering the desired refugee girls/women, but each presented own challenges. For example, at one hotel in Mengo where Eritreans are pimped, you had to be a patron and to become so is really another long story.

At other hangouts, some refugee women engaged in commercial sex posed as waitresses but if a customer requested or had password, they would be served. The fees still range between Shs80,000 and Shs100,000. One of them intimated to me that out of Shs80,000, Shs30,000 is for the pimp.

During a stakeout in Kabusu some local [Ugandan] sex workers expressed loathing for Somali and Ethiopians women whom they accused of taking over business "because they look better" yet they charge an arm and leg for the same service--and which the consumers are happy to foot.

Way forward. Both minister Ecweru and the UNHCR boss said they are willing to take action if the victims step forward. But all the victims talked to expressed fear, mostly of the officials involved. Besides, they looked at themselves as being helped to be granted haven in Uganda so they would rather grumble quietly at some of the problems afflicting them.

Global reports. Across the globe, sex trafficking according to the UN agency for labour--International Labour Organisation (ILO), is said to be worth $99b and involving over 5 million victims. Since this illegal trade takes place largely underground, it seems likely that coming up with responsive policy is difficult.

So how best can the problem be tackled?

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