UNHCR: Above Morals

When the Protectors Became the Abusers

At UN's high command, it's dinner as usual, but lower down, protected by diplomatic immunity, staff are a law onto themselves... Kenya’s government recently stopped recruitment of domestic workers to the United Arab Emirates pending an investigation into human trafficking.

In Brief

  • The United Nations High Commission for Refugees seems to have turned a blind eye to an employee’s gross mistreatment of her domestic worker
  • A lawyer working for an agency that claims to protect the vulnerable, Nancy Kwamboka Moindi not only lied to the South African consulate in Nairobi when she recruited a domestic worker – it turns out the girl worked without pay and under harsh conditions
  • When contacted by uSpiked to explain herself, Moindi spinned tales – but the most curious was her attempt to convince us that an expired airline ticket could still be used
  • Eventually the girl returned home only to face threats of black magic and intimidation from Moindi’s family

After an initial attempt by a UNHCR expatriate staff member to ship her into South Africa without an Entry Permit (Visa), Jacky, a young woman from Kenya, subsequently found herself trapped as an unpaid illegal house help (domestic worker). The treatment she received during her first seven months of this modern day slavery makes the behaviour of the legendary 16th century Countess Erzsébet Báthory seem positively saintly...

  • Is it standard for your employees to be allowed and encouraged to be involved in issues that clearly violate human rights?
  • What responsibility does the Commission take for victims of slavery at the hands of your employees?
  • How many of your employees across the world are so indispensable that they can openly be involved in such abuses without any consequences?
  • If a UNHCR employee is allowed to have a foreign domestic worker or house help, does the Commission provide any kind of support including medical aid for them? Does the Commission take any precautions to ensure that those associated with the Commission do not contravene the laws of the hosting country and / or both International Laws and International Humanitarian Laws?
  • Is it the UNHCR’s policy that whatever your employees do outside your offices would have nothing to do with you?
  • Do all your employees enjoy the diplomatic protection accorded under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations?

UN Agency that cares little of the victims

These were the concerns uSpiked Investigative Team had raised with Melissa Fleming, the head of Communications and Public Information who also doubles as the spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva. After initially thanking us for our patience and undertaking to look into the matter, she later informed us that she had referred our queries to the office of the Inspector General.

Soon thereafter, in an unsigned communication from the office of the Inspector General, we were told: “We are writing from the Investigation Service of the Inspector General’s Office (IGO) at UNHCR HQs, Switzerland. The IGO is the UNHCR authority mandated to investigate allegations of misconduct by persons who are contractually linked to UNHCR.”

Whoever wrote the communiqué confirmed that a case number had been issued in respect of the matters we had raised before concluding: “Please note that UNHCR takes allegations of misconduct very seriously. All UNHCR staff must comply with the UN Staff Rules and Regulations, as well as with local laws.”

While promising to undertake their own investigations, the unsigned communication further requested more specific details surrounding our concerns, which we duly provided.  However the matter appeared to have been pushed to a future ‘to-do-list’, with no assurances nor any commitment as to when their investigations, if any, would be completed.

Oblivious of the crimes being committed by his staff, Commissioner Guterres looks the other way.

Nobody working under UNHCR’s High Commissioner, H.E António Guterres, appears ready to take responsibility for possible cases of staff impropriety. This has left us wondering whether this is the norm at the UN agency.

Would such cases be handled differently if the victim, whom we shall only call Jacky (to protect her from further torment), was one of Commissioner Guterres’ two children?

The uncertainty has prompted us to bring this despicable story to the public. The victim deserves to be given a voice. Hopefully, her story could help other unsuspecting victims who are being enticed to travel to foreign lands only to be enslaved at the hands of UN expatriate staff. 

The main villain in this sorry tale is a Kenyan-trained multilingual lawyer, Nancy Kwamboka Moindi, who is attached to UNHCR’s Cape Town office. From her bio in our possession, she would best be described as a ‘human rights lawyer’.

Born May 20 1977, Moindi has worked in multiple regions with the UN agency since 2003 as Protection and Resettlement Assistant. Before that, she was attached to and associated with organisations such as Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA-Kenya), Kangemi Women’s Empowerment Center (KWEC) and Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Regional Office for East and Horn of Africa. All these previous engagements are vital to this tale as what you are about to read will leave you in no doubt that her actions were not due to ignorance, but were part of a well-calculated malicious scheme.

After completing her immediate previous engagement with the UNHCR in Ethiopia where she held the position of Resettlement Expert, she reportedly took up a position in Pretoria with the same UN Agency sometime between 2012 and 2013 (the Agency has declined to confirm exactly when she commenced the appointment in Pretoria and it is difficult to believe her version, as all her communications to us remain questionable).

However, we can confirm that in July 2013, after settling in Pretoria, she called for her then-four-year old son to join her. Chaperoning the son would be Jacky, the young Kenyan woman whom she had left in charge of him back in Kenya. The same woman had worked for her as a house help in Ethiopia for about two months sometime in 2012.

A Nairobi-Johannesburg airline ticket was bought for the duo and Moindi arranged to receive them at OR Tambo International Airport. But in what now appears to have been an attempt to abuse the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, this highly-trained lawyer with nearly a decade’s experience of protecting and resettling refugees on behalf of the UNHCR failed to secure an Entry Permit (VISA) for Jacky while ensuring that there was one for her son.

The explanation she had offered to Jacky was that her office (UNHCR) in Pretoria was going to organise everything with the South African Department of Home Affairs. How Kenya Airways allowed her to board their morning flight from Nairobi for Johannesburg on July 27, 2013 without an Entry Permit is another story, but upon landing at OR Tambo on Board Kenya Airways Flight KQ273, the chaperone was denied entry into the country.

While Moindi’s son was allowed in and united with his mother, Jacky was placed on a Kenya Airways’ midnight flight back to Nairobi that same night. She did not get to see her passport until she landed back at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport the next morning. It was to take another three months for Moindi to conclude the final part of her scheme.

When Jacky presented her own bank statement and a return airline ticket at the South African Consulate in Nairobi, she was granted a Temporary Visitor’s Permit and she finally arrived in South Africa in September 2013.

Of course this lawyer knew that Jacky was not coming into the country as a visitor, but as her ‘domestic worker’. Why did she mislead the South African Consulate? Could this be the norm for all UN staffers? Or are UNHCR expatriates marching to the beat of a different drummer - one that is incompatible with the explanation provided to us by the anonymous writer from the Inspector General’s offices? If it’s the latter, then could the UNHCR be failing to clearly communicate what is expected of their staff around the world?

We have confirmed that this lawyer lied or at least misled the Consulate in Nairobi. And Jacky arrived in the country on a 25-day temporary permit… visiting her sister or cousin, depending on who asked.

Nancy Moindi, Protector-turned-abuser

Of course, she immediately got to work as Moindi’s house help. uSpiked’s team has been told that an application was made to the Department of Home Affairs to change her status from visitor's to study (we haven’t been offered any proof of any such application ever being made). But even if true, according to the Immigration Act of 2002 it is never as simple as walking into a shop. There has to be some very strong motivation to have an already-granted status altered and this lawyer must have known that. 

Within weeks of Jacky starting her domestic duties, Moindi relocated from Pretoria to Cape Town. This great ‘human rights lawyer’ bought two air tickets for herself and her son before hiring a male driver called Sunday (Sunday is a Nigerian freelance driver based in Pretoria) to drive her car plus some of her belongings, including Jacky, for the 1,500km-trip to Cape Town. [Not a bad idea: with a stranger in charge of her possessions, she must have needed someone she knew quite well and trusted to watch over the driver – uSpiked editor]. The journey took sixteen hours with just a few stops to refuel the car and coffee.

On arriving in Cape Town, Jacky continued with her duties as a house help or domestic worker. But as we were later to discover, she was working without pay and without the legally-accepted permit allowing her to work and live in the country: she was an illegal alien.

Being an illegal immigrant and working without being paid were only the start of Jacky’s nightmare. During the 2014 Easter holidays, Moindi decided to take an extended break, and she returned to Nairobi with her son leaving Jacky alone to look after her house and personal belongings in Cape Town. As they were departing from the Mother City, Moindi reportedly handed Jacky (who had by then worked for nine months without pay) a mere R100 (US$9). She also ensured that there were no provisions left in the house.

A loaf of bread R7.99, 2l fresh milk  R17.69, 2kg of rice 17.89, 2l cooking oil - R26.99, white sugar R22.95… leaving change of R6.49

How long can R100 last in the City of Cape Town? [A loaf of bread R7.99, 2l fresh milk  R17.69, 2kg of rice 17.89, 2l cooking oil - R26.99, white sugar R22.95… leaving change of R6.49], and that can hardly even buy any vegetables. Unfortunately, Jacky had to spend the R100 on over-the-counter cough syrup to manage a bad bout of flu.

She had to rely on the support of neighbours for food for the several days her ‘boss’ was holidaying with her family back in Kenya. That was the first time one of our journalists was alerted to her predicament. With the intention of seeking a solution, we encouraged her to demand remuneration for the work that she had been performing as well as legalisation of her status. Alternatively, we suggested that Moindi (her boss) could facilitate her safe return to her own family – after all, that is what UNHCR does: reuniting families.

So Jacky confronted Moindi when she returned to Cape Town just over a week later. We have been reliably informed that Moindi agreed to pay her R2,500 (US$225) per month back-dated to September 2013, but would make the payment in installments. Of course, the pledged installment payments never materialised and soon another foreign national (from the Democratic Republic of Congo) was introduced to the household to take over Jacky’s duties. Labour law experts we have talked to call this practice ‘job impoverishment’.

In need of the bedroom that Jacky was occupying, the UN staffer instructed her to pack her belongings and go wherever she so desired. Being an illegal immigrant, Jacky didn’t know where to go or what to do. She came back to our team, requesting whatever assistance we could offer.

We consulted several immigration and human rights lawyers who informed us that the same person who had fraudulently brought her into the country must facilitate her safe return to her home country – in this case Kenya.

Armed with the information we had sourced on her behalf, Jacky returned to the abusive Moindi to demand the means to get back to Nairobi as well as full settlement of what she was owed. She was given a photocopy of an e-ticket for Johannesburg-Nairobi aboard Kenya Airways. However, when she showed us the copy, we immediately noticed that it was an expired airline ticket intended for use in December 2013. Also, Moindi was expecting her to book (and pay) for herself a bus ticket for the 1,400km journey from Cape Town to Johannesburg.

Moindi ignored our numerous attempts to talk to her on the phone. But when we sent her an email requesting an explanation of her improprieties and further demanding to know why she was giving a young illegal foreigner an expired e-ticket, she attempted to convince us that the ticket was good enough because it had never been used. We also asked whether she herself had ever travelled by bus between the two cities, and how Jacky could be expected to find her way from the Johannesburg bus terminals to OR Tambo International Airport in time for her flight that never was.

“I would like to add that I have done my best to take care of Jacky to the best of my ability. And if I failed, then let God be the one to decide on this..."

Not knowing that we already had a great deal more information than she would have been comfortable with, she wrote: “I would like to add that I have done my best to take care of Jacky to the best of my ability. And if I failed, then let God be the one to decide on this. I have paid her what I consider to be a reasonable salary, provided her with EVERYTHING she needed, paid for her medical expenses, taken her for holidays, and allowed her time off work. And if this is the response that I get after what I did for her then I now understand what “ahsante ya punda ni mateke” means.” [That is a Swahili saying meaning a donkey’s gratitude is a kick].

She concluded her email by warning uSpiked: “Finally: a kind request - Please check the veracity of the statements you are making as people’s lives are at stake here.”

What was at stake, in fact, from her point of view, was nothing more than the fear that her iniquitous ways would be exposed, and we reminded her of that.

Two days after making it clear that uSpiked is not just about exposing injustices in society, but also endeavours to seek the means of making right the wrongs inflicted on the voiceless, we received in our inbox copies of a freshly-booked airline ticket for Johannesburg-Nairobi (Kenya Airways) and another domestic one for Cape Town-Johannesburg (Mango Airline). Both tickets were for August 23, 2014.

With the new Immigration Regulations in effect, Jacky knew that she would be banned from visiting South Africa again for some time, but that was a price she was ready to pay to escape finally the torturous life she had endured for nearly a year and to be reunited with her family.

Melissa Fleming, the spokesperson who follows stock responses

To ensure that she travelled without any hiccups, uSpiked’s journalists shadowed her all the way to OR Tambo where she signed the (DHA-46) Form 19 that declared her as an ‘Undesirable Person’ for having over-stayed her Temporary Permit by 327 days.

But back in Kenya her problems were far from over. When Moindi learned that we were still on the case, she had her mother, Macrina Gati Moindih, try to force Jacky to call us off. The efforts, in the form of phone calls and text messages, were not short of harassments. The rescued young woman has been called all sorts of abusive names and threatened with black magic should she not put a stop to the journalists who were planning to expose her daughter.

We have had our team verify the ownership of the source cellphone number from which the calls and text messages originated and there is no doubt that the mobile line is registered to the older Moindi with an 'h'.

We provided all these details on request to the office of the UNHCR's Inspector-General who simply gave us a Case No. COM-14-1105. What could the slow pace of their investigations mean? Could it be possible that the number of cases being filed against UNHCR global staff is too high for the resources available to the Inspector General’s office? We returned to Melissa Fleming to respond, at least to our earlier general queries.

After our latest reminder, Fleming, who also receives her official emails on her iPhone, wrote: “Apologies, I must have missed your previous e-mail while travelling.” [And she must have left her iPhone at the office - little did she know that our system tracks and monitors all activities from our system and someone surely opened and spent time reading our numerous reminders]... the dog ate my homework excuse at play in the 21 century.

“I am sure you received notice that this case was being looked into by the office of the Inspector General. I am not in a position to comment further but I can point you to this link to our Code of Conduct…”

In essence, Fleming threw us a challenge to go through the fifty-page UNHCR staff Code of Conduct and accompanying Explanatory Notes, a challenge we gladly accepted. See Editorial: The Deceptive Paper Rules.

 Additional Reports by Eddah Njoki in Nairobi

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