An independent panel has called for an investigation into a World Bank-funded project in Ethiopia following accusations from refugees that the bank is funding a programme that forced people off their land.

In a report, seen by the Guardian, the inspection panel – the World Bank’s independent accountability mechanism – calls for an investigation into complaints made by refugees from the Anuak indigenous group from Gambella, eastern Ethiopia, in relation to the bank’s policies and procedures.

The refugees claim the Protection of Basic Services (PBS) programme funded by the bank and the UK Department for International Development (DfID), is contributing directly to the Ethiopian government’s “villagisation” programme, introduced in 2010. The programme seeks to move people to new villages, but residents say this is done with little consultation or compensation, and that these sites lack adequate facilities.

In a letter sent to the panel in September, the refugees say some people have been forcibly relocated from their land, which is now being leased to foreign investors.

“These mass evictions have been carried out under the pretext of providing better services and improving the livelihoods of the communities,” says the letter. “However, once they moved to the new sites, they found not only infertile land, but also no schools, clinics, wells or other basic services.”

It says the government forced them to abandon their crops just before harvest, and they were not given any food assistance during the move. “Those farmers who refused to implement the programme … have been targeted with arrest, beating, torture and killing,” the letter says.

The refugees say they “have all been severely harmed by the World Bank-financed [project], which is contributing directly to the Ethiopian government’s villagisation programme in Gambella region”.

The letter says Ethiopian government workers, whose salaries are paid for through the PBS programme, have been forced to implement villagisation.

DfID has been criticised for failing to address abuse allegations in the South Omo region of Ethiopia, where residents told DfID and USAid officials of their experiences.

DfID is also embroiled in a legal action over its links to the villagisation programme. An Ethiopian farmer claims he was forcibly evicted from his farm. His lawyers, Leigh Day & Co, say DfID money is linked to these abuses through PBS funding in Gambella. DfID has said it is responding to the legal concerns and reviewing the allegations of rights abuses in Ethiopia.

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