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CANADEM's Humanitarian Response in Romania

~ A Zero-Tolerance Approach ~

Lauren Borg with UNHCR in Romania
Emergency Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Officer

Since the outbreak of conflict in Ukraine in February 2022, there have been over 1.8 million border crossings to Romania and over 107,000 refugees have been granted protection in the country. By January 2023, women and children made up the majority – 77% - of arrivals of refugees crossing the Ukrainian-Romanian border. The profile of most refugees from Ukraine – including female-headed households, older persons, and children - places them at heightened risk of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA), including that perpetrated by humanitarian workers.

Whilst accounts of sexual exploitation and abuse across different humanitarian and development contexts continue to emerge, UNHCR, as the lead coordinating agency in the Ukraine refugee response, prioritized Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) from the outset. I was deployed by CANADEM in August 2022 as an Emergency PSEA Specialist to work with UNHCR Romania. The involvement of humanitarian workers in sexual exploitation and abuse is a gross violation of the trust placed in aid workers by those they are most accountable to, i.e., the people they serve.

The risk of sexual exploitation and abuse, as bleak as it may sound, is likely to continue pervading humanitarian contexts, however, it is imperative that aid agencies and organisations continue their efforts to prevent incidents from happening in the first place and to operate safe and accessible reporting channels and to implement a victim-centred approach whenever they do. In pursuit of this, during my deployment through CANADEM, I have prioritized engaging UNHCR partners to ensure safeguards are in place and to provide support in building organizational capacity to prevent and respond to SEA.  

Several partners – many of which are smaller, local organisations - are new to humanitarian work, many having mainly worked on social projects prior to the influx of refugees in the country. Protection from SEA capacity was generally low, however, the desire to strengthen safeguards was evident from the outset. Having assessed partner capacity to prevent, mitigate and respond to sexual exploitation and abuse by personnel, I developed action plans with partners to build up safeguards and capacity across the organisation ranging from internal policy, HR processes, reporting channels, investigation procedures and victim assistance. UN agencies require partner organisations to meet core standards on PSEA.  My deployment through CANADEM supported UNHCR in having dedicated staffing capacity on PSEA. This has contributed to ensuring that partners are supported in meeting all requirements of those standards, directly contributing to strengthening the overall protection environment for those in need of humanitarian assistance.

Building organizational capacity for protection from SEA is paramount to bringing about cultural change within humanitarian organisations and ensures that accountability is placed on organisations and their personnel. Only then can systemic change be realized and zero-tolerance policies towards sexual exploitation and abuse be concretely enforced.

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