By Sally Hayden
NAKIVALE, Uganda — Mamadou remembers the harsh lights.
He had been captured by the security forces in his home country and taken to a room in a police station he described as a "container," then moved to a prison.
Once there, men in uniforms beat him, before tying and squeezing his genitals and raping him, he said. He believes some were police, and some military intelligence.
“I have been tortured physically, psychologically, and gang-raped.”
Years later, Mamadou has found uncertain refuge in the Nakivale refugee settlement, a sprawling green expanse in southwest Uganda.
His experiences left him emotionally fragile, and he suffers from high blood pressure. “I am not really strong,” he said.
Though he has begun to move from “victim to survivor of sexual violence,” Mamadou also said he quickly realized the refugee settlement he moved to was far from the safe haven he had imagined.
Instead, he says, he soon became the victim of another type of abuse rampant in refugee camps: corruption.
Mamadou, whose name has been changed and country of origin left out because of security fears, was among almost 20 people in the Nakivale refugee settlement interviewed for this investigation who said refugees are exploited by officials demanding bribes for everything from:
Most expensive, they said, is resettlement to another country, usually in the West, through the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. It can cost 1 million to 3.5 million Ugandan shillings ($268-$938) for a person, $5,000 for a family — money that refugees believe is shared among certain UNHCR staff and brokers, who may be aid workers for other organizations or members of the refugee community.
What happened to Mamadou and other sexual assault survivors in the Nakivale camp shows how the most vulnerable migrants can be exploited and preyed upon again in refugee camps, afraid to speak out for fear of losing access to services, with nowhere left to turn.
Through drawings and coded phrases, other men who had survived sexual violence also started sharing their stories of brutality, torture and humiliation that forced them to flee their homes and come to this sprawling, but isolated, Ugandan refugee camp of more than 100,000 people.
Stigma and a lack of support often stop men from reporting what they have been through. A recent report by the Women’s Refugee Commission listed sexual violence as a reason males leave their home countries to try and reach Europe, and found it was also “commonplace” against boys and men along smuggling routes in North Africa.
“For those men who are fleeing conflicts and who have also been detained in connection with those conflicts, we see a high prevalence,” said Karen Naimer, the director of the Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones for the U.S.-based non-profit Physicians for Human Rights, which documents rights abuses around the world.
Sexual violence is a form of torture meant to humiliate, as well as to destroy individuals and communities, she said. “In the context of detention, it’s certainly a tactic that’s used widely with respect to men…This is a tool that’s used really widely around the world.”
Naimer said if a victim doesn’t get proper support the trauma can last a lifetime, causing depression and affecting sexual health.
Director of the Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones for Physicians for Human Rights
In Nakivale, Mamadou did find a kind of healing. It took him a long time to begin to speak about the sexual violence he had been through, but when he did, he found he was not alone.
In 2013, Mamadou banded with other survivors of sexual violence to form Men of Peace. The organization’s name symbolized the future they were hoping for. It brought together more than four dozen refugees who had escaped war, brutal abuse and torture in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda and other countries in the region.
Though most of the group’s members did not identify as gay, the organization also formed against the backdrop of Uganda’s infamous anti-homosexuality bill, then being debated in Parliament. Police and government officials did not understand the difference between gay people and male sexual violence survivors, several Men of Peace members said, and they were badly stigmatized because of it.
The men gathered to support one another in dealing with recurring trauma and discrimination in their communities, which was exacerbated by the debate inside the country. Some were taunted and called girls’ names; others said neighbors ostracized them completely.
Together, they planned to campaign for counseling, legal protection and medical care. First, members say they asked government employees in the Office of the Prime Minister, which works with refugees, for help in finding an office. Several said they were asked to pay a bribe of 1 million Ugandan shillings ($268) in exchange, which they couldn’t afford. When asked about corruption in the camp during an interview in October, the office’s assistant commander, Bruno Asiim, denied it is a problem. Asiim didn’t respond to further requests for comment.
Men of Peace members then say they approached the U.N. refugee agency for support. They say the agency’s protection officer, Henry Bataringaya, was assigned to help them.
According to seven people aware of events at the time, Bataringaya quickly began demanding money, which he claimed would help the group’s members to win resettlement. The men were clearly vulnerable and had a good chance of being accepted — with his support, they quoted Bataringaya as saying.
All the members of Men of Peace interviewed for this investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation, said they have experienced corruption repeatedly in Nakivale. One said he had to pay 100,000 Ugandan shillings ($27) to the hospital for a document acknowledging he had been tortured, and $81 for a police report after he was attacked in the settlement. Another said he had to pay government employees $81 to begin receiving food rations.
For poor refugees desperate to escape a life of subsistence and exploitation, resettlement is seen as a holy grail, though an expensive one. Described as a “life-changing experience” by the UNHCR, resettlement is an opportunity to start a new life in another country, usually in the West, that only around 1 percent of the world’s refugees ever benefit from.
Those chosen should be those most in need, said Kay Bellor, the vice president for programs at the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of nine organizations that helps refugees coming to the U.S. She said there’s not one specific characteristic or experience that makes people vulnerable: those who qualify could be single mothers or sexual violence survivors, or from a range of other backgrounds. Before the Trump administration began drastically reducing the country’s intake, Bellor said the U.S. had a long history of taking in vulnerable refugees.
Refugees who resettle, Bellor said, “enjoy permanent protection from forced return to the country where they were persecuted.”
“Their children are safe and they are able to go to school,” she said. “They are able to rebuild shattered lives.”
Most cases are referred to U.S. authorities by the UNHCR before they go through a separate screening process.
“If UNHCR determines that they’re a refugee and determines that they need resettlement, then we might get that case,” Bellor said.
Interviewees described certain local UNHCR staff as eager to exploit people desperate for a new start, away from countries where they still fear danger, instability and a crushing lack of opportunity. This follows similar claims by refugees in Sudan last year.
In on-the ground interviews in Nakivale, 13 refugees said they had been asked for money or paid money to UNHCR staff, brokers, government officials or staff from UNHCR-associated aid agencies.
One survivor described bribes demanded during resettlement as an integral part of the economy for local aid workers.
Member of Men of Peace
And other needs suffer, they say. While pressuring the group to hand over bribes, Bataringaya failed to assist them with separate, more modest, aims, according to multiple Men of Peace members who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals. Initially, they said, he asked for 2 million Ugandan shillings ($536) from each member for resettlement, eventually lowering the figure to 1 million ($268). As sexual violence survivors, he said, they had a good chance of being accepted by another country because their situation was so precarious in Uganda.
“We are very poor and couldn’t get that money,” one Congolese victim remembered.
Reached through his UNHCR email, and then on the phone, Bataringaya says he was questioned about these allegations before, but his name was cleared last year by the UNHCR’s internal investigative body, the Inspector General’s Office (IGO). He wouldn’t give more information, directing me to speak to the IGO directly for more information. “The IGO knows my situation,” he said.
Like other refugees interviewed for this series, the sexual violence survivors in Nakivale reported the corruption they came up against to the UNHCR, but said they only suffered more afterward. The UNHCR’s Inspector General’s Office lacks the independence, local knowledge and desire to properly investigate, according to former and current UNHCR staff and two former U.N. investigators. Dozens of refugees across five countries, interviewed as part of this investigation, say the IGO has tended to clear allegedly corrupt officials rather than supporting refugees who are victims of them.
UNHCR spokesperson Cecile Pouilly denied this, saying, “Every report or allegation of fraud, corruption or retaliation against refugees by UNHCR personnel or those working for our partners is thoroughly assessed and, if substantiated, results in disciplinary sanctions, including summary dismissal from the organization.”
Pouilly also said that sexual violence “is an issue of major concern to UNHCR and unfortunately a terrible reality for many refugees, both male and female survivors.”
“UNHCR regularly refers survivors of sexual violence to resettlement, and this is one of the elements that are taken into account when assessing the vulnerability of individual refugees,” she said. “However we also work hard, and in close cooperation with partners, to ensure that a range of services are made available, including medical and psychological support, and other appropriate responses, to survivors wherever they are.”
In 2015, members of Men of Peace say they took a chance, trekking to the UNHCR office in the town of Mbarara, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) away, to report the shakedowns, so Bataringaya wouldn’t spot them. They said that rather than acting on their complaints, UNHCR officials referred them back to Nakivale. Next, the men say they complained to Pietro Fossati, UNHCR’s head of resettlement in Nakivale at the time. All that happened, according to seven testimonies, is that Bataringaya was pulled from working with Men of Peace, though he remains a UNHCR staff member. Afterward, they say his colleague Peter Ssenteza made a telephone call to a member of the group, demanding, “Why do you want to get resettlement for free?”
When asked about claims against Bataringaya, UNHCR spokesperson Cecile Pouilly said the agency can’t comment on individual staff members.
Ssenteza denies making any such call, and said any refugee can complain at any time to the IGO if they have a problem. “Fraud couldn’t go undetected for even one day,” he said, adding that refugees try to break down staff who are strict about rules by making allegations against them. Ssenteza said staff should have a right to take legal action against any refugee who defames him. He wouldn’t confirm whether the IGO has ever investigated him.
In 2016, an investigation was carried out in Nakivale, following complaints from other refugees. A team of IGO investigators from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva visited in November that year. They were headed by Coralie Colson, whose LinkedIn profile says she’s been employed as a senior investigations specialist by UNHCR since 2013.
Shortly before the scheduled interview, Men of Peace members said one of them received a call from a local UNHCR staff member, who knew about the upcoming IGO interviews, even though the investigation was supposed to be confidential. This made them apprehensive.
The group sent a representative to speak to Colson on behalf of them all, disclosing what they had been through fully for the first time. Colson promised she would help, but nothing happened, they say. One year later, witnesses were told by email that the investigation was being closed with no further action.
Member of Men of Peace
When contacted for comment, Colson forwarded my email to Henrik Malmquist, the head of the IGO’s investigation service.
Malmquist said the description of how complaints by the Men of Peace had been handled “makes me very concerned,” and asked that information be shared with him confidentially “without compromising your sources.”
Said Malmquist, “We are all professional investigators with solid backgrounds from law enforcement, military, or other international organizations and are well placed to handle the most sensitive information.”
Despite Malmquist’s saying the IGO was completely independent, he also referred the query to Adrian Edwards, a UNHCR global spokesperson, who responded, saying the IGO team who visited Nakivale had found “suspected interference with witnesses, including possible coaching of them,” which “meant the allegations could not be substantiated and the case had to be closed.”
Meanwhile, the Men of Peace say they feel more at risk than ever, afraid to speak out and equally afraid of staying quiet and suffering.
“Since then, there are problems — I don’t sleep at home, I change places all the time,” a Congolese refugee said, as another explained he never takes the same route home for fear of being attacked by other refugees who resent them for speaking out. He believes the UNHCR would not step in to help the men if something did happen.