Government officials knew about aid workers’ sex abuse but tried to keep it quiet, claims ex-Development Secretary Priti Patel. It follows allegations Oxfam staff paid people – possibly underage – for sex in Haiti and Chad.
The British aid agency faces a crunch meeting with International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt on Monday, which could see it stripped of its £34-million ($47-million) annual government funding.
Oxfam has rejected accusations that it covered up stories of its staff using prostitutes in Haiti in 2011. The personnel involved were on a relief mission following the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed some 220,000 people. An internal inquiry into sexual exploitation, downloading of pornography, bullying and intimidation found there had been a “culture of impunity” among staff during the operation.
A confidential report from the investigation in 2011 concluded that children may have been among those abused. A source with knowledge of the case claims they saw footage of a party that they described as “like a full-on Caligula orgy,” with prostitutes wearing Oxfam-branded shirts, the Times reports.
Following the incident, Oxfam’s country director on the island, Roland van Hauwermeiren, resigned after admitting to using prostitutes at a villa rented for him through the charity’s funding.
Oxfam was hit with more allegations on Sunday that its staff had also exploited vulnerable women in Chad. Former staff who worked for the charity in the country alleged that women believed to be prostitutes were repeatedly invited to the Oxfam team house there, with one adding that a senior member of staff had been fired for his behavior in 2006.
Patel has claimed British government officials “at the highest levels” knew about sexual abuse by aid workers, but tried to keep it hushed up. She told the Sun she fought a battle with her own senior staff, who did not wish to highlight the growing scandal last year.
She has spoken out about what she branded a “culture of denial” across the aid world which has been going on for years.
“Officials at the highest levels knew about this sort of thing,” she said. “Why was a government department not calling for prosecutions, and taking money away from Oxfam as far back as 2011? People need to go away and ask questions about why they didn’t do more at the time.”
As the scandal deepened over the weekend, it also emerged that 120 workers for Britain’s leading charities were accused of sexual abuse in the past year alone. Fears have been sparked that abusers have specifically targeted aid organizations.
Paying for sex is against Oxfam’s staff code of conduct and in breach of United Nations statements on the behavior of aid workers, which the charity supports. Prostitution is illegal in Haiti.
Oxfam said it did not report any of the incidents to the Haitian authorities because “it was extremely unlikely that any action would be taken.” None of those accused has been arrested or faced any criminal charges.
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