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Oxfam could lose funding over allegations that it exploited disaster victims for sex

A woman, who did not want to be identified, bags charcoal for cooking on June 30, 2010, in a government relocation camp in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, with more than 5,000 earthquake victims living in tents.

AL DIAZ, MIAMI HERALD/MCT

By AVI SELK AND ELI ROSENBERG | The Washington Post | Published: February 11, 2018

Oxfam, one of the world’s most prominent relief agencies, could lose its funding from the British government over reports that its workers exploited survivors of a massive earthquake in Haiti, and possibly other disasters, for sex.

It is a “complete betrayal of both the people Oxfam were there to help and also the people that sent them there to do that job,” Britain’s international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt, told BBC News, which noted that the nonprofit received $44 million in government funds last year.

Mordaunt spoke Sunday — three days after a Times of London investigation accused Oxfam’s then-director in Haiti, along with other workers, of running an illegal makeshift brothel after a 2010 quake devastated the country.

Oxfam has admitted to at least some of the wrongdoings alleged in the report, and the organization has promised an internal review and overhaul. “We are ashamed of what happened,” the nonprofit’s chair wrote in a statement Sunday. “We apologize unreservedly.”

But contrition may not be enough. The Times alleged that Oxfam tried to hide the years-old allegations from the public, letting its country director in Haiti quietly resign rather than firing him after he admitted to using prostitutes.

And the Guardian reported new accusations over the weekend: that the same man, Roland van Hauwermeiren, also was accused of hiring sex workers in Chad.

Mordaunt told BBC that she would meet with Oxfam officials on Monday, but she sounded unimpressed by the nonprofit’s promises to reform.

“If the moral leadership at the top of the organization isn’t there, then we can’t have you as a partner,” she said.

The Times’ report was based on sources familiar with the organization’s work in Haiti around that time as well as a report summarizing an internal Oxfam investigation into the allegations.

Oxfam was in the midst of a large effort on the island after the quake, which killed more than 200,000 people and left many more injured and displaced. The charity had a fund worth more than $100 million to provide relief supplies and help rebuild Haiti’s infrastructure, the Times reported.

The majority of Oxfam’s 230 staff members working in Haiti at the time are not accused of doing anything improper, but a small group of male aid workers living in Delmas, near Port-au-Prince, are suspected of turning a rented guesthouse into what a source told the Times the men called “the whorehouse.”

“These girls wearing Oxfam T-shirts, running around half-naked, it was like a full-on Caligula orgy. It was unbelievable. It was crazy,” the source told the Times about parties at the house.

In addition to the country director, six other workers left the charity after its internal investigation: Two resigned and four were fired for offenses such as “use of prostitutes on Oxfam property” and possession of pornography, the Times reported. The misconduct also included bullying, harassment and intimidation, the nonprofit said in its statement.

Oxfam said it had not found evidence to back one of the Times’ most explosive claims: that underage girls were involved.

When the organization closed its investigation, it issued a news release that mentioned “a number of instances of misconduct” but said nothing about the sexual and criminal nature of the suspected wrongdoings, the Times reported.

In its statement, Oxfam said it had informed its trustees, the government, as well as other major donors such as the European Union, the World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies of the investigation and the outcome. And it said it created a whistleblower hotline and a separate team to prevent misconduct in the future.

The Times reported Friday that the government secretary responsible for charity regulation was calling for Oxfam to provide more information about the staffers who had paid for sex in Haiti.

“These allegations are deeply shocking and Oxfam must now provide the Charity Commission with all the evidence they hold of events that happened in Haiti as a matter of urgency,” Culture Secretary Matt Hancock said, according to the Times.

Besides its international relief work, Oxfam has become prominent in the United States for attacking the Trump administration’s “slow and inadequate” response to Puerto Rico’s hurricane disaster last year.

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