Our position is clear, and has been reiterated on a number of occasions by our High Commissioner: sexual misconduct is unjustifiable and must be eradicated from UNHCR operations.

With some 15,000 staff and affiliated workforce working primarily in the field, in permanent and direct contact with vulnerable people, UNHCR is one of the biggest and most operational UN agencies. Our programmes last year aimed to benefit more than 67 million people, and were implemented together with more than 1,000 partners.

We work in an environment shaped by significant power differentials and deeply rooted inequalities, including gender inequalities, in which the conditions that can give rise to sexual misconduct exist.

"There is no place for sexual exploitation, abuse or harassment at UNHCR, an organization that is dedicated to serving and protecting others."

UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi

The overwhelming majority of our staff are deeply committed professionals, many of whom are working in difficult environments, sometimes risking their own safety and well-being. But our organization is not immune, and – like others – we have seen instances in which our own colleagues or partner staff have used their positions of power to exploit others.

These actions inflict intolerable harm on the victims and their families, run counter to the very values for which UNHCR stands, and undermine the work and credibility of our organization.

For this reason, we have taken a series of decisive actions over recent years to reinforce our mechanisms for preventing and responding to sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment.

UNHCR now has a well-established, effective safeguarding team, with a global remit, which includes the Inspector General’s Office, the Ethics Office, the Legal Affairs Service and the Staff Welfare Services, among others. A Senior Coordinator was appointed in March 2018 to lead UNHCR’s work on sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment.

The High Commissioner's IASC Championship on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse and Sexual Harassment

Since September 2019, the High Commissioner has been the IASC Championship on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse and Sexual Harassment. Find out more on his three key priorities to help strengthen the fight against sexual misconduct.

Greece. Refugees and migrants arrive in Lesvos.

Meet Diane Goodman, UNHCR's Senior Coordinator on sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment.


There is a frequent confusion between sexual exploitation and abuse on the one hand, and sexual harassment on the other. The main difference relates to who is the victim (also called “survivor”).

  • Sexual exploitation and abuse affect persons of concern.
  • Sexual exploitation is defined as an actual or attempted abuse of someone's position of vulnerability (such as a person depending on you for survival, food rations, school books, transport or other services), differential power or trust, to obtain sexual favours, including but not only, by offering money or other social, economic or political advantages. It includes trafficking and prostitution.
  • Sexual abuse means the actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force, or under unequal or coercive conditions. It includes sexual slavery, pornography, child abuse and sexual assault.
  • Sexual harassment affects personnel and is defined as any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favour, verbal or physical conduct or gesture of a sexual nature, or any other behaviour of a sexual nature that might reasonably be expected or be perceived to cause offence or humiliation to another. Sexual harassment is particularly serious. It can interfere with work, be made a condition of employment or create an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment.

Learn more on actions we are taking to tackle sexual misconduct:

  1. Prevention and awareness raising

UNHCR works systematically to identify and reduce risks, including risks of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment, in all its operations.

Eradicating sexual misconduct requires us to pay attention to the values and attitudes that underpin our behaviours, and the structures or systems that support or reinforce these behaviours.

In 2002, we introduced a UNHCR Code of Conduct, which all personnel are required to sign. This code is the subject of mandatory refresher training each year, with a strong focus on values and inclusion, diversity, and gender.

Two online courses on the prevention of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment are likewise mandatory for all personnel. All mandatory management training courses also include a focus on how to create and lead an inclusive and respectful work environment, with specific modules on the prevention of sexual misconduct.

We also have a network of over 300 protection and other staff in our field offices with specific focal point responsibilities related to prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, including through carrying out training and awareness raising activities and engaging with partners. We believe that their presence on the ground is a key factor in helping identify and support victims.

  1. Encouraging survivors to come forward

We are acutely aware of the enormous difficulties that survivors of sexual exploitation or abuse, or sexual harassment, face in coming forward, and of the deep professional and personal considerations – and even fears – that may prevent them from doing so.

We are striving to address these concerns, by ensuring that reporting mechanisms are known, accessible and trusted, and that victims who report sexual misconduct feel safe and protected.

To achieve this, we are adopting a survivor-centred approach that places the rights and protection of victims, survivors and persons directly affected at the centre of our actions. Actions include improving the experience of recourse, providing better medical and psycho social support, strengthening our policies, and developing additional protective measures for those who have experienced or witnessed such abuses.

We are also strengthening mechanisms to ensure that all cases of sexual exploitation and abuse are reported, using a wide range of complaints mechanisms , including face to face engagement, mobile phone technology and call centres.

Messages from our High Commissioner and other senior managers to our workforce have consistently and strongly encouraged victims to speak out, and underscored the mandatory obligation for all colleagues to report on situations or interactions that may give rise to concerns of sexual exploitation or abuse.

Information on disciplinary measures taken is shared with all colleagues. We firmly believe this information, together with a robust follow-up on allegations, helps inspire confidence in the system and demonstrating accountability in action.

We are currently updating our policy to protect whistleblowers and survivors, to align with the Secretary General’s Bulletin on Protection against Retaliation, which seeks to ensure that colleagues are protected from harm as a result of reporting misconduct or cooperating with an official audit or investigation.

We are also strengthening survivor and witness protection, which we recognize is difficult in certain contexts in which we work. Psychosocial and medical support is made available, along with interventions to facilitate reintegration within the community.

  1. Investigations and disciplinary actions

In recent years, we have strengthened the capacity and expertise of our investigative and disciplinary processes, to ensure timely and effective handling of sexual misconduct cases, which is crucial to ensure accountability. Sexual misconduct cases are prioritized in both the investigatory and disciplinary processes.

UNHCR’s Office of the Inspector General (IGO) is an independent internal body responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct that involve people or entities with a direct contractual link with UNHCR.

The IGO is staffed with professional investigators, including senior female investigators, who all have previous and extensive experience in the police or the military, or who worked for international tribunals or in similar functions for other international organizations. Investigators have received a specific training on how to handle sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment cases.

The IGO also provides training to our field operations to raise awareness of procedures, strengthen confidence in the system and share best practices. It also provides training on sexual misconduct to our partners.

UNHCR also has a dedicated team of professional lawyers in its Legal Affairs Service, including employment law specialists who are experienced in advising on sexual misconduct.

In 2018, UNHCR received 34 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse involving its personnel and 83 allegations involving partners and other entities with whom we have a contractual link.

Of these allegations, UNHCR’s IGO finalized 21 investigations, some of which had been opened in 2017. One case involving UNHCR personnel and three involving implementing partner personnel were substantiated. The concerned member of UNHCR personnel was dismissed. In addition, our partners investigated and substantiated 16 cases of sexual exploitation and abuse involving their workforce. The concerned staff members were all dismissed.

In 2019, the IGO received a total of 121 complaints of sexual exploitation and abuse, demonstrating a slight increase in reporting from 117 complaints in 2018. Of the 121 complaints, 98 complaints implicated implementing partner personnel, representing an 18 per cent increase from 2018. In contrast, a 32 per cent decrease in complaints against UNHCR personnel was recorded, dropping from 34 to 23. Of the investigations that were opened in 2019 by the IGO, two complaints against UNHCR personnel were concluded to be unsubstantiated while seven investigations are ongoing with a further four under assessment. A total of 28 investigations were finalized by our implementing partners, finding 18 complaints to be substantiated, leading to dismissal of the subjects or their resignation.

In 2018, UNHCR’s IGO finalized 10 investigations into sexual harassment involving UNHCR personnel. Allegations were substantiated in five cases that were referred to the Division of Human Resources to undertake the disciplinary process.

In 2019, the IGO finalized two investigations into sexual harassment against UNHCR staff which were found to be substantiated, and relevant disciplinary measures are now pending. There are currently nine investigations ongoing with an additional nine under assessment.

Following investigation, if the allegations are substantiated, UNHCR personnel found to have engaged in sexual exploitation and abuse have their employment terminated, in line with our ‘zero tolerance’ policy. Perpetrators of sexual harassment are also normally separated from service, and in both cases are banned from being rehired.

We work closely with the Office of Legal Affairs of the United Nations in New York to ensure that credible allegations of sexual misconduct that may amount to criminal conduct are referred to the national authorities for criminal prosecution. The United Nations systematically cooperates with national authorities on referrals, including through appropriate waivers of immunity of UN personnel. Both we and the UN Office of Legal Affairs regularly follow up on the status of cases referred to national authorities.

We have also taken a number of measures in terms of vetting and reference checking both internally and through interagency efforts to ensure that perpetrators do not move from one organization to another.

UNHCR systematically checks references, and asks job applicants to formally state whether they have been the subject of an investigation. This allows us to proceed with swift termination of employment in cases where the statement is subsequently found to be untrue.

We also have an internal database of disciplinary measures imposed on all personnel, including dismissals, and these individuals, including those who resign before the completion of an investigation, are not rehired.

In addition, we are part of a number of UN efforts to address this, including in the roll-out of the inter-agency databases on sexual misconduct. We are participating in a UN task force which is developing a “uniform protocol” that looks to strengthen a common approach across the UN system for how allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse involving implementing partners are reported, prevented and addressed.

  1. Working in Partnership

UNHCR is fully committed to working in partnership to eradicate sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment. We have a zero tolerance approach to sexual exploitation and abuse by our partners and have embedded robust measures in the management of our relationships with them to address risks and ensure accountability.

All Project Partnership Agreements make specific reference to values and standards of professional conduct, and require that procedures are in place to prevent, detect, investigate and report on misconduct, with specific reference to sexual exploitation and abuse. Breaches are grounds for termination of the partnership.

We are also actively engaged in the strengthening of their awareness and capacity. Since 2013, UNHCR’s Office of the Inspector General has organized 14 regional workshops for partners across the world, covering investigations carried out by NGOs, how to report sexual exploitation and abuse, and zero-tolerance.

UNHCR is also participating fully in inter-agency efforts to eradicate sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment. This includes participating to the work of the Special Coordinator on Improving the UN Response to Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, the Victim’s Rights Advocate for the United Nations, and the UN Chief Executives Board (CEB) Task Force on Sexual Harassment. UNHCR also co-shares a task team on sexual exploitation and abuse set up by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), an inter-agency forum for coordination, policy development and decision-making involving the key UN and non-UN humanitarian partners.