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Uganda to probe UN staff over ‘stolen aid’

This file photo, taken on April 14, 2017, at the Bidibidi health center in the Northern District of Yumbe in Uganda shows refugees from South Sudan sitting as they wait to receive treatment. (By AFP)

Uganda said on Thursday it was widening a probe of government officials who allegedly stole aid intended for refugees to include UN staff, amid concern the scandal may hold up donor cash needed for the country's surging refugee population.

Allegations that officials may have inflated refugee numbers to skim aid and engaged in other types of fraud have angered donors and embarrassed a country whose open embrace of a huge influx of refugees from South Sudan's war has won global praise.

The minister for relief, disaster preparedness and refugees, Hilary Onek, told a news conference: "We are investigating all, including the international community... whether there was connivance together with our staff."

Asked whether that covered the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN's refugee agency, known as UNHCR, he said: "All of them are going under scrutiny."

A UNHCR spokesman in Geneva, Babar Baloch, said the UN agency would cooperate with the Ugandan investigation. The UNHCR said last week the probe was initiated after it and WFP brought "grave misconduct by officials" to the attention of authorities.

"UNHCR is encouraged to see Uganda’s resolve to fight fraud and corruption," Baloch told Reuters on Thursday.

Uganda says it is hosting about 1.4 million refugees, more than a million of them from South Sudan, whose four-year civil war has uprooted a quarter of the country's population.

Refugee children from South Sudan walk in the Bidibidi resettlement camp in the Northern District of Yumbe, Uganda, April 14, 2017. (Photo by AFP)

Others have flooded in from neighboring Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Uganda was widely praised for opening its borders, offering refugees a plot of land for cultivation, and allowing them free movement and employment rights.

But rising refugee numbers have overwhelmed the available funds, and the WFP had to reduce its food rations last year to cope.

A senior Western diplomatic source in Kampala told Reuters that UNHCR informed donors in Geneva on January 19 of allegations of relief mismanagement. The UN then notified the Ugandan government.

Allegations include "large-scale sale of food and relief items," and irregularities in the supply of water, the diplomat said. Onek said the investigations also covered suspected food and cash fraud, bribery, and the trafficking of refugee girls.

Five officials in the office of the prime minister, including a senior technocrat, have already been suspended.

Onek said the government, which initially registered refugees itself, has begun checking its numbers using UNHCR's biometric system and is concerned donors may hold up cash until the allegations are resolved. An aid summit held in Kampala in June drew in pledges of more than half a billion dollars.

Rosa Malango, the UN resident coordinator in Uganda, said it had begun investigating the allegations. The European Union is also investigating.

(Source: Reuters)

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