London, UK
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Increases in complaints about sexual abuse and harassment by aid workers are likely a sign that more victims feel able to come forward following closer scrutiny of the sector and increased safeguards, the British Government said on Tuesday.

Aid agencies have come under pressure over the issue in recent years after it emerged that Oxfam staff used prostitutes in Haiti during a 2010 mission - a scandal that snowballed into widespread reports of harassment and abuse in the sector.

Haiti Port au Prince Oxfam mural

An Oxfam sign is seen on a wall in Corail, a camp for displaced people of the earthquake of 2010, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on 17th February, 2018. PICTURE: Reuters/Andres Martinez Casares/File photo.

Addressing a report by lawmakers, the government said sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment by aid workers on humanitarian missions happens "far too often", and pledged new measures to support victims and punish perpetrators.

"We believe that the extent of the problem has long been, and remains, under-reported," it said in response to the International Development Committee report.

"In the short to medium-term, therefore, an increase in the number of concerns reported is likely to be a positive sign that reporting channels are working and that victims feel able to come forward."

Numerous large aid organisations reported an increase in allegations against their staff after the Haiti case came to light in 2018.

Experts and victims' advocates have said the sector is failing to tackle the issue, with the IDC saying it remains the "the last safe haven for perpetrators" in the report - published in January.

Oxfam last week faced further accusations of sexual harassment and other forms of misconduct in the Democratic Republic of Congo when details from a letter from 22 current and former staff were published by The Times newspaper.

They said concerns had been reported by staff members as far back as 2015.

Oxfam said last week it had suspended two staff as part of an ongoing external investigation into the Congo allegations, and had informed Britain's aid sector regulator, the Charity Commision.

"We are acutely aware of our duty to survivors, including in supporting them to speak out safely," a spokeswoman for the charity added in a statement.

A domestic abuse bill currently going through parliament that will extend the jurisdiction of British courts to cover certain sexual offences committed abroad could help ensure perpetrators are brought to justice, the government said.

The Foreign Ministry is looking at barriers to carrying out criminal background checks on aid workers, it added, and Britain has also agreed to contribute to a United Nations' trust fund for victims of sexual exploitation.

However, it warned that in fragile and conflict-ridden areas support for victims was often lacking.

The government response was "a step in the right direction", said Sarah Champion, the IDC chair, though she noted that it had not taken up all the report's recommendations.

"There must be zero tolerance for exploitation of some of the world's most vulnerable," she added in a statement.