August 3, 2002 - New York Times: Attacks on Peace Corps Volunteers Found Rising

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Peace Corps Library: Special Reports: July 25, 2002 - GAO Reports on Safety and Security of Volunteers: August 3, 2002 - New York Times: Attacks on Peace Corps Volunteers Found Rising

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Attacks on Peace Corps Volunteers Found Rising

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Attacks on Peace Corps Volunteers Found Rising*

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Attacks on Peace Corps Volunteers Found Rising


WASHINGTON, Aug. 3 Reported assaults on Peace Corps volunteers abroad more than doubled over the last decade, and organizational problems in the agency may be limiting its ability to ensure volunteers' safety, a study by the General Accounting Office has found.

President Bush has proposed doubling the size of the Peace Corps, to 15,000 volunteers, and expanding its presence to dangerous countries, including Afghanistan.

Critics say that since Sept. 11 Americans abroad face increased risks and that expanding the Peace Corps presence might put volunteers in harm's way.

"I've been to Afghanistan, and it's a dangerous place for a young person," said Representative Martin T. Meehan, Democrat of Massachusetts, who requested the accounting office report after a volunteer from his district, Walter J. Poirier, 22, of Lowell, disappeared in February 2001. Mr. Poirier was working on a tourism project in the Zongo Valley in Bolivia, three hours from La Paz.

Four volunteers have been killed since 1997.

In a letter to Mr. Meehan last year, Robert H. Hast, managing director of the G.A.O.'s Office of Special Investigations, said although Mr. Poirier had failed to follow procedures for new volunteers, apparently failing to register his housing arrangements, the Peace Corps associate director in the region had essentially "lost track" of him.

Incidents of "major physical assault" on volunteers, attacks with weapons or injuries, rose to 17 per 1,000 in 2000, up from 8 in 1991, the report said. In addition, "major sexual assaults," including rape, fluctuated in that period, with a high of 12 in 1997 and a low of 8 in 1995.

Peace Corps officials attribute some of the increase in reported assaults to more reliable data collection. They say the agency began new safety measures last year, including adding security officers and improved training.

The full extent of violence against volunteers may be significantly higher because many crimes go unreported, the report said. The report suggested that organizational problems in the Peace Corps were most likely worsening the problem. A five-year employment limit for supervisors, intended to keep the agency innovative, has resulted in "a situation in which the agency staff are continually `reinventing the wheel,' " the report said.

The report also found that directors in the 70 or so nations that have invited the Peace Corps were largely autonomous, complicating the task of keeping tabs on volunteers and ensuring safety. Most volunteers, Peace Corps officials said, are in isolated locations.

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