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Officials inflate refugee numbers to get more aid

Wall Street Journal - January 24, 2005

Jay Solomon and Andrew Higgins, Banda Aceh – Government authorities here said they are investigating claims by an Indonesian anticorruption watchdog that the number of refugees in some Aceh camps has been significantly inflated by local officials seeking to get more aid – an early signal that graft might compromise some tsunami-relief work.

The allegations don't diminish the scale of the tragedy in Indonesia, where new government figures suggest the final death toll from the December 26 tsunami could rise to more than 200,000. So far, 94,584 people are confirmed dead and the number of people still missing exceeds 132,000, according to an official report released Sunday in Banda Aceh. This could push the total number of dead across South and Southeast Asia to about a quarter of a million.

A private Jakarta group working with the government, however, says it has evidence that some local officials in Aceh, the hardest-hit region, are raising the number of displaced persons so as to receive more aid.

Farid Faqih, coordinator for Government Watch – a private watchdog tasked by the government to help oversee the relief operation – said the military and local officials in a devastated area on Aceh's west coast had given starkly different figures for the number of displaced people. He said officials in Meulaboh had put the number of refugees nearly 20 times above a figure cited by a local military commander.

Alwi Shihab, the Indonesian cabinet minister overseeing the rescue operations, confirmed that figures often varied but said this was most likely because of the mobility of survivors. "You can count 500 in a camp today and tomorrow it can be empty" as people move on to other sites, he said. "This is not corruption."

He said some officials might inflate numbers to get more food and water but added "this is related to the security of human beings," not graft. "If you only have rice for two days, you want to take more. At this moment in this catastrophic event, I would discount corruption."

Still, Mr. Faqih, whose organization has been working to expose cases of official malfeasance since 1999, said the case in Meulaboh could signal a wider pattern of officials distorting figures for gain. Local officials in the town reported that 18,000 people had taken shelter at a government-run camp.

The local military commander reported just 967 people. Government officials say they are aware of the discrepancy and are looking into it. "This is very dangerous if the basic numbers aren't true," said Mr. Faqih, who said his agency has collected evidence of similar discrepancies elsewhere.

The UN, stung by the scandal surrounding the former oil-for-food program in Iraq, appointed PricewaterhouseCoopers as an independent auditor to monitor tsunami relief in Indonesia and other stricken countries. "Oversight will be particularly important," said Bob Turner, who heads the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital. "It's no secret that after oil-for-food, we expect greater scrutiny."

Indonesia's new president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, took office in October promising to combat corruption, which is rampant in the nation of more than 210 million people. Transparency International, a private watchdog, ranks the country as one of the most corrupt in the world.

Mr. Faqih, whose antigraft organization is working closely with the government in Aceh, said he had met Mr. Yudhoyono Friday and raised concerns about inflated numbers. The president visited Aceh for a ceremony marking Idul Adha, an Islamic holiday commemorating sacrifice. Mr. Faqih said Mr. Yudhoyono had assured him authorities would examine each case and that he welcomed private groups monitoring relief work.

The province of Aceh, the scene of a long-running campaign by insurgents seeking independence, has long faced accusations of widespread corruption. The sitting governor was detained shortly before the tsunami on charges of misallocating government money.

Anxious to keep relief work under central-government control, Jakarta appointed Mr. Shihab, a former foreign minister, to supervise the recovery operations. Mr. Shihab, in an interview Saturday, said Jakarta is tightening financial and other monitoring. He said it is setting up a database to compile figures from various sources to try to get an accurate picture of the number of victims and their needs. "We are open to all suggestions" about how we can fight potential corruption, he said.

The data system also will seek to track the amount of aid coming into the country and how it is being spent. While discounting the likelihood of significant corruption during the early stages of emergency relief, he said the risk will rise as money for rebuilding starts to be disbursed.

Both the UN and the US say relief work in Indonesia has gone surprisingly well so far. Concerns that the Indonesian military might impede movement of aid workers have evaporated and fears of severe food shortages and epidemics have diminished.