At least 1.19 million people will be in need of resettlement in 2017, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In 2015, 107,100 people were admitted to third countries for resettlement, less than one percent of the 16.1 million refugees of concern to the UNHCR that year.
Australia granted 15,552 visas to people under the offshore resettlement component of its Refugee and Humanitarian Program in 2015-16. This included cases referred to Australia by the UNHCR and cases accepted through the Special Humanitarian Programme, where people are sponsored by an Australian individual or organisation.
High demand for a limited number of places in third countries such as Australia means that, for many, the resettlement process may involve lengthy waiting times with decisions made based on factors that may not always be clear to applicants and their families.
There is no queue
At times, the resettlement process can seem very unfair. The Australian government may receive the equivalent of 10 applications for every visa granted. For example, in 2014-15, a total of 62,709 people lodged applications under the offshore component of Australia’s resettlement programme.
Many of these (unsuccessful) applications would seem to fit the eligibility requirements. In fact, decisions are made not just because someone meets the eligibility criteria, but also because of other factors that may not be apparent to the applicant or their family.
And, despite public perception, there is no orderly queue for resettlement. Someone who has only just been referred to Australia for resettlement may be granted a visa before a person who has been waiting for five years, depending on factors like vulnerability and government processing priorities. In addition, restricted access to UNHCR and Australian embassy offices and the lengthy waiting times at different stages of the process, can also create frustration and confusion about the process.
In this context—where people are in great need and when resettlement places are scarce and processes are complex and protracted—those seeking resettlement may be vulnerable to fraud, corruption and exploitation.
What is resettlement fraud?
Fraud may involve staff or persons contracted by the UNHCR or any number of external actors, including individuals posing as “brokers,” or members of NGOs, foreign embassies or host governments who seek to influence resettlement outcomes.
The UNHCR details several examples of fraud in Chapter Four of its Resettlement Handbook (2011). These include: charging a fee for resettlement services; drafting false refugee claims; facilitating preferential processing (even without demanding a fee or favour); or deliberately losing, destroying or failing to process a case.
The handbook describes the potential for exploitation schemes involving persons who pose as brokers claiming to have access to the UNHCR or a government’s embassy or consulate and the ability to achieve or influence resettlement outcomes.
“Such scams may involve coaching refugees on false claims or promising false documents, interview spots, or a place in the group of next departures,” the handbook explains. “To help convince potential victims, such persons may show photos of themselves with UNHCR staff; wear fraudulent ID tags and cards; drive vehicles with false UN plates; use false UNHCR signs and logos; or even set up false UNHCR offices or internet websites.”
In the course of our own work, the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) has heard of people paying large sums of money to ‘agents’ to facilitate resettlement, of confidential application documents being shared with people who do not work for the UNHCR or the Australian embassy, and of people ‘buying’ the stories and even case numbers of other people.
Awareness and prevention
RCOA staff have raised issues of corruption, fraud and exploitation in resettlement processes in various consultations, including with representatives of the UNHCR as part of our ongoing advocacy work in Geneva, and with representatives from the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The broader issue is on the radar of a number of governments and organisations. For example, the Canadian government recently warned of false information being given to displaced Syrians asking them to deposit money in exchange for resettlement services. Other statements issued variously by the UNHCR, the IOM, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection in Australia, and the Australia Embassy in Jordan, warn of fraudulent offers of resettlement assistance online, including via email.
In the UNHCR’s Strategic Framework for the Prevention of Fraud and Corruption (July 2013), the agency outlines a range of internal measures adopted with the aim of preventing fraud and corruption in resettlement processes. These include:
- Development of a database to track resettlement fraud occurrences around the world.
- Issuance of revised Baseline Standard Operating Procedures on Resettlement in 2011 with specific anti-fraud measures including the introduction of resettlement fraud vulnerability checklists to be completed by field offices.
- Revision of the Resettlement Learning Programme in 2011 for UNHCR staff to include a fraud awareness section.
In various consultations and trainings on the issue, the UNHCR emphasizes that all humanitarian services provided by the refugee agency, the IOM and their partners are free of charge and anyone seeking compensation for such services is committing fraud.
Making a complaint
To make a complaint about corruption or other misconduct within the UNHCR, details of how to do so, including an online complaint form, are available here. The Inspector General’s Office (IGO) within the UNHCR is responsible for investigating all allegations of staff misconduct.
Complaints about the conduct of IOM staff can be emailed to: Ethics&ConductOffice@iom.int
More details are available here on the IOM’s webpage for the Office of the Director General.
Other useful resources
- The UNHCR has produced a range of printable posters, hosted on its Refugees-lebanon.org webpage, warning people against fraudulent brokers and false information spread via text message and online (in Arabic and English).
- ‘Beware of Fraud,’ a video produced by the UNHCR depicting an unscrupulous broker (in Arabic with English subtitles)
- ‘The Truth Has no Hiding Place,’ a video produced by UNHCR Kenya on resettlement fraud (English subtitles)