Refugees:

State and Its Partners Have Implemented Several Antifraud Measures but Could Further Reduce Staff Fraud Risks

GAO-17-737: Published: Jul 31, 2017. Publicly Released: Jul 31, 2017.

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The United Nations estimates that there are more than 21 million refugees worldwide. The State Department works with Resettlement Support Centers (RSC) to review applications for resettlement to the United States.

According to State and RSC officials, some RSC staff have occasionally taken advantage of their positions to commit fraud. For example, they have collected money from vulnerable refugees, even though the resettlement process is free.

We found that RSCs have implemented several measures to reduce the risk of staff fraud, however, we recommended three actions to further prevent, detect, and mitigate risks.

Antifraud Signage in Selected Refugee Resettlement Support Centers

Photographs of antifraud signs that State requires all RSCs to post.

Photographs of antifraud signs that State requires all RSCs to post.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Thomas Melito
(202) 512-9601
melitot@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The Department of State (State) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have worked together on several measures designed to ensure integrity in the resettlement referral process. State and UNHCR have established a Framework for Cooperation to guide their partnership, emphasizing measures such as effective oversight structures, close coordination, and risk management. Working with State, UNHCR has implemented standard operating procedures and other guidance that, according to UNHCR officials, provide baseline requirements throughout the referral process. UNHCR also uses databases to help verify the identities of and manage information about refugees. These systems store biographic information such as names, personal histories, and the types of persecution refugees experienced in their home countries. They also maintain biometric information, such as iris scans and fingerprints.

Figure: Technology that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Uses to Register and Verify Refugees

Figure: Technology that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Uses to Register and Verify Refugees

To reduce the risk of fraud committed by staff at the nine Resettlement Support Centers (RSC) worldwide, State and RSCs have instituted several antifraud activities, many of which correspond with leading antifraud practices, but key gaps remain. Overseen by State, the organizations that operate RSCs hire staff to process and prescreen applicants who have been referred for resettlement consideration. According to State and RSC officials, RSCs have experienced staff fraud. Officials said that instances of staff fraud are uncommon, but they illustrate risks to the integrity of RSC operations. To manage these risks, State and RSCs have established a number of activities consistent with leading antifraud practices. For example, officials from all nine RSCs stated that they assign staff fraud risk management responsibilities to designated individuals. State has also worked with RSCs to develop and implement controls to ensure program integrity. However, RSCs face challenges implementing some of these controls. Additionally, State has not required RSCs to conduct regular staff fraud risk assessments tailored to each RSC or examined the suitability of related control activities. Without taking additional steps to address these issues, State and RSCs may face challenges in identifying new staff fraud risks or gaps in the program's internal control system as well as designing and implementing new control activities to mitigate them.

Why GAO Did This Study

According to UNHCR, as of the end of 2015, more than 21 million people had become refugees. In fiscal year 2016, the United States admitted nearly 85,000 refugees. State manages the U.S. refugee admissions program (USRAP). UNHCR referred 61 percent of the refugees considered by the United States for resettlement from October 2011 to June 2016, and State worked with staff hired by nine RSCs to process their applications. Deterring and detecting fraud is essential to ensuring the integrity of USRAP.

GAO examined (1) how State works with UNHCR to ensure program integrity in the UNHCR resettlement referral process and (2) the extent to which State and RSCs follow leading practices to reduce the risk of fraud committed by RSC staff. GAO analyzed State and UNHCR data and documents; interviewed relevant officials; conducted fieldwork at UNHCR offices in Denmark, El Salvador, Jordan, Kenya, and Switzerland; interviewed senior officials from all nine RSCs; and visited RSCs in Austria, Jordan, Kenya, and a suboffice in El Salvador. This report is based on GAO-17-446SU, with certain sensitive information removed.

What GAO Recommends

To better assess and manage risks of fraud committed by staff at RSCs, State should actively pursue efforts to ensure RSCs comply with program integrity measures; require each RSC to conduct regular risk assessments tailored to its operations; and use these assessments to design, implement, and revise control activities to mitigate risks of staff fraud. State agreed with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact Thomas Melito at (202) 512-9601 or melitot@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: The State Department concurred with our recommendation and agreed with GAO's assessment that these measures will support efforts to reduce staff fraud at Resettlement Support Centers (RSC). According to State officials, the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) has developed new guidance to enhance monitoring of RSCs. They explained that a new monitoring and evaluation framework serves as the foundational document for this guidance, which has incorporated and formalized PRM's existing RSC monitoring practices and established further requirements to address gaps identified by internal and external evaluative processes. According to the officials, the framework outlines roles, responsibilities, and tools for program officers and refugee coordinators. These responsibilities include formalizing and expanding monitoring of RSC compliance with the Program Integrity Guidelines. In addition, in March 2018, State signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between PRM and the International Organization for Migration, which operates several RSCs around the world. The new MOU covers the processing of refugee applications at RSCs, among other things. The MOU includes the Program Integrity Guidelines and requires IOM to adhere to each of the required guidelines where feasible, including those related to instances of fraud.

    Recommendation: To support efforts to reduce staff fraud at RSCs, the Secretary of State should direct the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration to actively pursue efforts to ensure that RSCs comply with required, applicable measures in the Program Integrity Guidelines.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: In July 2017, we reported that the Department of State (State) had instituted Program Integrity Guidelines outlining a number of measures meant to reduce incidents of fraud committed by staff at Resettlement Support Centers (RSC) worldwide. While we reported that State had taken some steps to assess staff fraud risks at RSCs, we also reported that not all RSCs conduct assessments at regular intervals and that are tailored to their programs and operations. As a result, we recommended that State should update guidance, such as the Program Integrity Guidelines, to require each RSC to conduct regular staff fraud risk assessments that are tailored to each RSC's specific operations. State concurred with our recommendation and in August 2018, State issued revised Program Integrity Guidelines that included a requirement to conduct annual staff fraud risk assessments at each RSC.

    Recommendation: To better identify risks from RSC staff fraud, the Secretary of State should direct the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration to update guidance, such as the Program Integrity Guidelines, to require each RSC to conduct regular staff fraud risk assessments that are tailored to each RSC's specific operations.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: In July 2017, we reported that the Department of State (State) had instituted Program Integrity Guidelines outlining a number of measures meant to reduce incidents of fraud committed by staff at Resettlement Support Centers (RSC) worldwide. While we reported that State had taken some steps to assess staff fraud risks at RSCs, we also reported that eight of nine RSCs do not regularly assess the suitability of existing staff fraud risk controls. As a result, we recommended that State should update guidance, such as the Program Integrity Guidelines, to require RSCs regularly review RSC staff fraud risk assessments and use them to examine the suitability of existing staff fraud risk controls and revise those controls as appropriate. State concurred with our recommendation and in August 2018, State issued revised Program Integrity Guidelines that included a requirement to conduct annual staff fraud risk assessments at each RSC and examine the suitability of existing controls.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that control activities are designed to mitigate identified RSC staff fraud risks, the Secretary of State should direct the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration to regularly review RSC staff fraud risk assessments and use them to examine the suitability of existing staff fraud controls and revise controls as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

 

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