Sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) of forcibly displaced and stateless persons and other affected communities by aid workers causes irrevocable harm to victims and their communities. Even one incident of SEA breaks community trust and undermines the work of the entire humanitarian response. UNHCR works in close collaboration with sister UN agencies, non-governmental and civil society organisations, government and other partners to coordinate engagement, strengthen prevention and promote a victim-centred approach in response to SEA within the humanitarian and development systems. In emergency situations which continue to rapidly evolve, inter-agency and multi-sectoral coordination is of critical importance to ensure that protection from sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA) is effectively integrated into the emergency response from the outset, including prevention, risk mitigation, community engagement, safe and accessible reporting, and a victim/survivor-centred response.
While PSEA is the responsibility of all UNHCR personnel, at UNHCR, PSEA Focal Points (FPs) are formally appointed by the Representative and work to ensure PSEA is implemented within the operation in line with UNHCR policies. While certain activities fall under specific functional units, the PSEA FP provides guidance to all colleagues in their respective areas of responsibility to ensure PSEA is adequately implemented and mainstreamed across the operation. In large operations, more than one PSEA FP may be appointed. Usually, the PSEA FP represents UNHCR in the inter-agency PSEA Network.
In-country inter-agency PSEA networks serve as the primary body for technical level coordination and oversight of PSEA activities to prevent and respond to SEA and mitigate risks thereof. The network is responsible for implementing coordinated activities between members to minimize the risk of SEA by aid workers and associated personnel delivering humanitarian assistance, ensure effective response when incidents do arise, and raise awareness of PSEA. The network should also ensure collaboration and coordination with other sectoral working groups or clusters in relevant thematic areas to ensure that PSEA is mainstreamed across the response.
Close coordination amongst agencies is essential for PSEA efforts to be coherent and effective in an emergency response. Inter-agency coordination brings organizations together under a common situation analysis, strategy and approach, to ensure consistent messaging on PSEA to communities and stakeholders, build on good practices and expertise of partners, streamline procedures and mechanisms for reporting and referral, utilize shared tools and resources, ensure complementarity of interventions and avoid duplication, and increase overall efficacy of interventions.
In addition, coordination with various sectors / clusters is essential in order to mainstream PSEA prevention, risk mitigation and response across sectors, including mapping potential SEA risk areas by sector and taking actions to mitigate those risks, integrating PSEA messages into community outreach and capacity-building sessions, and ensuring multi-sectoral services and referral pathways are in place for survivors to access the support that they may require including safety and security measures, basic material assistance, medical care, psychosocial support or legal services as part of GBV response.
PSEA is a cross-cutting issue requiring a range of technical expertise. Working to prevent and respond to SEA is a collective responsibility for all actors in all sectors. For this reason, the PSEA Network is an independent, standalone structure and not a sub-group of Protection, GBV, Gender, or AAP.
PSEA inter-agency coordination in refugee, IDP, development and mixed contexts
Under the auspices of the Refugee Coordinator (UNHCR Representative) in a refugee situation and the Resident Coordinator / Humanitarian Coordinator (RC/HC) in a development or an internal displacement situation, an in-country PSEA Network should be established (if one does not exist already) as the primary body for technical-level coordination and oversight of PSEA activities. It is recommended that the PSEA Network is situated as a cross-sectoral group, rather than under a specific sectoral / cluster working group, given the cross-cutting nature of PSEA which requires mainstreaming across sectors and clusters. The PSEA Network should liaise regularly and closely with the broader inter/multi-sector coordination group.
For refugee emergencies, UNHCR has the role to take the lead to establish (if one does not exist already) and coordinate / co-chair the PSEA Network in accordance with the Refugee Coordination Model. For non-refugee emergencies, UNHCR should actively engage in the PSEA Network, which may include co-chairing if appropriate or required depending on the operational context. (See also UNHCR’s Policy on Emergency Preparedness and Response, paragraphs 7.1 and 7.2)
- The above structure is an example, to be adapted depending on the local context of the operation.
- UNHCR Representative / Refugee Coordinator is accountable for coordination of refugee response.
- UNHCR establishes sectoral coordination mechanisms, with government counterparts wherever possible. PSEA Network is part of RCM coordination structure.
- The PSEA Coordinator reports to the UNHCR Representative / Refugee Coordinator.
In mixed situations, where a Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) has been appointed and the populations of humanitarian concern include refugees, IDPs and other affected groups, the UNHCR/OCHA Joint Note on Mixed Situations Coordination (2014) applies and the PSEA Coordinator has a shared reporting line to the HC and the Refugee Coordinator / UNHCR Representative. On PSEA, UNHCR maintains overall coordination and leadership responsibilities for PSEA in the refugee response, while the configuration of PSEA coordination structure will need to be guided by the operational context, what structures already exist, and what would be fit for purpose and optimize results (e.g. separate PSEA Network for refugee response or merged PSEA Network covering both refugee and IDP operations). Moreover, the UNHCR Representative, as Refugee Coordinator, actively engages in coordinating PSEA efforts with the HC, shares updates on developments on PSEA in the refugee response with the HC and UN Country Team (UNCT)/ Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) and actively contributes to system-wide efforts maximizing resources, efficiency, and impact in addressing PSEA. In accordance with the IASC Vision and Strategy : Protection from sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment (PSEAH) 2022-2026 and the IASC’s Generic Terms of Reference for In-Country PSEA Coordinator, in country contexts where refugee situations are the predominant humanitarian concern, the PSEA Coordinator should be situated within the UNHCR office with a shared reporting line to the UNHCR Representative and the (D)SRSG/RC/HC as appropriate.
These considerations also apply in countries where there is a refugee response as well as a UN development coordination system under the auspices of the UN Resident Coordinator (RC). UNHCR maintains overall coordination and leadership responsibilities for PSEA in the refugee response and the configuration of PSEA coordination structures will need to be guided by the operational context, what structures already exist, and what would be fit for purpose and optimize results (e.g. sub-national PSEA Network for refugee response or integration into the national PSEA Network if one exists, etc). The UNHCR Representative, as Refugee Coordinator, actively engages in coordinating PSEA efforts with the RC, shares updates on developments on PSEA in the refugee response with the RC and UNCT and contributes to system-wide efforts maximizing efficiency and impact in addressing SEA.
In situations of mixed movements of refugees and migrants, UNHCR and IOM seek to achieve co-leadership of the response and establish adequate coordination mechanisms in accordance with the UNHCR-IOM Framework of Engagement. While guidance and models of coordination arrangements in mixed refugee / migrant movement situations is evolving, building on experience in the Coordination Platform for refugees and Migrants from Venezuela (R4V model) and other existing models, it is considered good practice to establish a cross-cutting PSEA Network as part of the inter-agency coordination structure for coordination of response to the mixed movements, in a similar way to refugee and mixed refugee / IDP situations.
The role of the Inter-Agency PSEA Network
The PSEA Network is responsible for implementing coordinated activities between member organizations to minimize the risk of SEA, ensure that systems are in place for effective response when incidents do arise, and raise awareness of PSEA in the operation. It provides technical level coordination and oversight on PSEA, including: developing and/or adapting country level strategies for endorsement by country-level leadership (e.g. UNCT / HCT, Refugee Coordination Forum, depending on the operational context), workplan, guidelines, procedures and mechanisms contextualizing global and/or regional guidelines and tools where applicable; carrying out joint SEA risk assessments; and organizing activities and advocacy for prevention, response and risk mitigation for PSEA. The PSEA Network activities should follow a victim-centered approach and respect the principles of safety, confidentiality, respect, and non-discrimination. For further information on the role of the Network, please refer to the Generic ToRs of an in-country PSEA Network available at the links below.
The Network should be open to all UN agencies, international and national NGOs, and local organizations operating in the response, and engage in outreach with relevant non-member organizations as part of ongoing activities. The presence of the PSEA Network does not lessen the responsibility of individual network members to develop, implement, and strengthen measures, activities and programmes internally for PSEA at the country level. Senior management within each member organization is accountable for PSEA within their organizations. However, the Network ensures that initiatives by agencies are well coordinated and provides a forum through which joint inter-agency efforts for PSEA can be undertaken collectively.
The PSEA Network is not responsible for investigating or adjudicating complaints. Within UNHCR these functions rest exclusively with the Inspector-General’s Office (IGO), or in case of allegations against individuals employed by other agencies the entity that employs the individual against whom a complaint has been alleged, in line with internal policy and procedures.
To ensure adequate coordination capacity in a rapidly evolving environment, it is highly recommended that a dedicated PSEA Coordinator is appointed to coordinate and represent the PSEA Network (or support the PSEA Network in coordination with the network co- chairs if the latter are different from the Coordinator), particularly in a refugee emergency where UNHCR is responsible to take lead. The PSEA Coordinator is responsible for reporting on Network activities, including progress made against key objectives and priorities. The PSEA Coordinator also represents the Network in relevant coordination bodies and advises actors in country on good practice to support effective PSEA implementation. PSEA Network Co-chairs take an active role at the Network level in convening and managing network meetings and events and help coordinate and oversee the PSEA Network Action Plan. In operations where there is no PSEA Coordinator position available in the country, the Coordinator role will usually be divided between the co-chair agencies as appropriate. In some countries the PSEA Coordinator may serve as the Network Chair or co-chair.
Relationship between the PSEA Network and other inter-agency coordination groups
It is important that the PSEA Network and PSEA Coordinator ensure close coordination with inter-agency coordination structures and focal points for GBV, child protection, accountability to affected people (AAP), community-based protection and other sectors / clusters, with a view to ensure effective inclusion of SEA victims in GBV referral pathways and services, inclusion of SEA in communication with communities planning and messaging and the development of feedback and response mechanisms, integration of PSEA in programmes for groups at heightened risk (including children, persons with disabilities, older persons, women at risk, and LGBTIQ+), and assessment and mitigation of SEA risks in programming by sectors / clusters such as camp management and coordination, shelter, WASH, health, food, education, etc.
Member organizations of the PSEA Network will be represented by their PSEA focal points, who actively participate in the meetings and activities of the Network on behalf of their organizations. Additionally, membership to the network is also open to sector / cluster coordinators, who are strongly encouraged to attend PSEA Network meetings in order to improve two-way coordination between sectors / clusters and the network and ensure that PSEA considerations are integrated in multi-sectoral programming.
PSEA in the Inter-Agency Programme cycle
In refugee contexts, in order to mainstream PSEA across the Refugee Response Plan (RRP) cycle, it is important to look at the full programming cycle, i.e. collecting information on PSEA through multi-sector needs assessments (MSNAs); developing PSEA indicators (both regionally and nationally); and informing the planning process and the information provided to RRP partners on the topic. Please also see the Guidance on Reflecting PSEA in RRPs (link accessible to UNHCR staff only).
In IDP contexts, integrating PSEA in the Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) is critical to embed PSEA within the cluster system as a standard and integrated part of the humanitarian response and to ensure that PSEA activities are properly resourced. PSEA indicators should be integrated into the humanitarian needs assessments overseen by OCHA, as its findings shape the country-level Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO). The HNO is then used as a basis for the design of the HRP. Integrating PSEA in each cluster chapter reflects the importance of building strong relationships with each of the clusters. Please also refer to the OCHA Guidance Note on Reflecting PSEA in the HRP.
Role of partners involved
- Host government authorities: The Government has the primary responsibility for the protection of forcibly displaced and stateless persons. Therefore, engagement of national and local governmental structures early on is essential for the success and sustainability of inter-agency coordination on PSEA. Without government support and buy-in, it will not be possible for the PSEA Network to undertake its roles and responsibilities. As SEA can also be perpetrated by government officials, it is important that the relevant authorities are included in initiatives for awareness-raising, capacity-building sessions, and risk assessment and mitigation as appropriate.
- UN agencies, international and national NGOs: It is important that agencies designate PSEA focal points who coordinate PSEA activities within their organization and actively engage in the PSEA Network. Based on their area of expertise, experience and available resources, such agencies may take on the co-chair role of the PSEA Network, contribute to the work of the PSEA Network, take lead on specific activities in coordination with other Network members, and ensure linkages with sectors / clusters to promote mainstreaming of PSEA.
- Community-based organizations (CBOs) and community-based structures: Community-based organizations and structures are often the bridge between affected communities and organizations. CBOs and community-based structures have a good understanding of the needs, views and situation of the community, and also often enjoy great trust within communities and can provide links between agencies and the communities that they serve. Therefore, they are ideally situated to help identify relevant entry points to feedback and response mechanisms, communication channels for effective community outreach and awareness-raising, identify protection risk areas including SEA risks, and social and cultural dynamics that must be taken into account in designing appropriate and relevant prevention and response mechanisms. They also have responsibility to ensure PSEA in their own activities and projects, with the support of UNHCR and other larger organizations and PSEA Network as appropriate.
- Forcibly displaced and stateless persons: It is important that PSEA Networks closely engage with and work in partnership with affected communities. Consultations with girls, boys, women and men in affected communities, including those of diverse backgrounds and groups at heightened risk, to help to design and tailor PSEA messages, information campaigns, community outreach strategies, and feedback and response mechanisms to ensure that they are effective in reaching the community and are accessible. Furthermore, engaging the community in programme design, adjustment, implementation and monitoring of interventions will also allow more ownership by the community and sustainability.
Sector / cluster coordinators: Close engagement with sector / clusters is key to ensure that PSEA is mainstreamed across the emergency response, including integrating SEA prevention, risk mitigation and response assessment and mitigation of SEA risks in programming by sectors. To this end, sector / cluster coordinators are strongly encouraged to attend PSEA Network meetings, and the PSEA Network and PSEA Coordinator must maintain channels of communication with relevant sector working groups / clusters through the inter-sector / cluster coordination group and bilaterally where appropriate.
UNHCR’s role and accountabilities
As noted above, UNHCR has leadership and coordination responsibilities in refugee situations, in line with its mandated accountabilities and reflected in the Refugee Coordination Model (RCM). For refugee emergencies, UNHCR therefore has the role to take the lead to establish (if one does not exist already) and coordinate the PSEA Network in the refugee response in accordance with the Refugee Coordination Model. It must also ensure that referral pathways and services are in place for the provision of needed assistance to SEA survivors, in line with a victim centred approach, through inclusion of SEA victims in GBV and child protection referral pathways. For non-refugee emergencies, UNHCR should be actively engaged in the PSEA Network, which may include co-chairing if appropriate or the situation so requires, depending on the operational context.
In accordance with the UN system-wide “Guidance Note: Requirements and procedures for all United Nations entities on information on allegations of sexual exploitation and/or abuse related to United Nations staff and related personnel and implementing partner personnel with the most senior United Nations official in country” dated 8 June 2023, as well as the “UNHCR Internal Guidance Note to UNHCR Representatives on Sharing Incident Information on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse with Resident and Humanitarian Coordinators” of June 2023 (links accessible to UNHCR staff only), UNHCR Representatives are also responsible to share information on SEA allegations related to its personnel and personnel of UNHCR funded partners with the Resident Coordinator (RC), Resident and Humanitarian Coordinators (RC/HC), Special Representatives of the Secretary General (SRSG) and Heads of Mission (HoM), depending on the country context.
In addition to engagement in inter-agency PSEA efforts, UNHCR remains accountable to ensure that mechanisms and measures are in place to prevent and respond to SEA and to mitigate risks thereof throughout its programmes, while ensuring that a victim-centred approach is applied throughout all related processes and procedures. (Please refer to entry Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) for further details)
Senior level coordination responsibilities
While everyone has a responsibility to prevent and respond to PSEA, Senior Management has a particular coordination role at the strategic and leadership level – to promote a multi-functional approach to PSEA in inter-agency response; pool resources to enhance what’s being done; burden share; and identify what needs strengthening. Whether as Heads of Office, Sector / Cluster leads, or Inter-Agency Coordinators – their role is to cultivate a culture of collective responsibility, and create a space where members reflect honestly on SEA risk areas in their organisations and sector / cluster programming, seek support from others, raise concerns, acknowledge shortcomings and commit to agreed actions.
In refugee contexts, the PSEA Network reports directly to the Refugee Coordinator, who is also the UNHCR Representative. The Representative, therefore, has overall accountability and strategic oversight for PSEA inter-agency coordination within the refugee response.
Policies and guidelines
Office of the Senior Coordinator for Prevention of and Response to SEA / SH ([email protected])
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