Why would one abandon home to solely face the harsh world? What could push a sober human into embarking on a journey without an absolute destination only to trek miles to anywhere? British-Somali Poet Warsan Shire says, “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” Evidently, there is a score of pressing grounds including cultural norms and beliefs, desire for economic prosperity, search for better standards of living, droughts, hurricanes, and floods, wars, and conflicts that can push people into seeking asylum. Some people are internally displaced while others are forced to cross borders thus becoming refugees.
According to Concern Worldwide U.S, 20 people are forced to leave their homes every minute and the global total forcibly displaced people currently stands at 65 million, 10 million stateless and 22 million are refugees in a foreign land. These statistics justify the dreadful inflow of refugees in Uganda which currently hosts over 1.4 million refugees, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
The inflated inflow of Refugees to the country is largely attracted by Uganda’s Open Door Policy on refugees which accords refugees from different countries including Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Somali, South Sudan, among other countries, relatively easy access and transition. Further, Uganda’s Refugee Policy under Act 21, Refugees Act 2006 allows refugees lawfully staying in Uganda rights to have access to employment, equal rights to primary education and health care as nationals, engage in business, rights to equal opportunities, enjoyment of all human rights, protection from discrimination along all lines (gender, age, race, color and many others.), freedom of worship and movement.
Even if it is ranked as a country with one of the best refugee policies in the world with excellent policies on paper, Uganda has practically failed to observe refugee rights according to the stories narrated by refugees. During the Third Annual Human Rights Convention 2019, the Centre for Policy Analysis (CEPA) hosted a breakaway session on refugee rights focusing on promoting inclusion and protecting of refugee rights. The conversation was moderated by CEPA’s Program’s Manager Eshban Kwesiga with an exhaustive panel of 5 panelists: Jannette Kahindo, a Congolese urban refugee, journalist and fashion designer, Donnas Ojok, co-founder RISE-UP HUB, Thijs Van Laer, from the International Refugee Rights Initiative Asiimwe John, Researcher and Policy Analyst with Parliament Watch, and Mayan, from the Network of South Sudan Civil Society Organisations.
The session revealed untold stories on refugee rights in Uganda displaying the gap between the policies on paper and their implementation. Janette as an urban refugee, presented a moving case against the housing conditions of urban refugees, drawing an imaginary picture to the audience of a single room with mattresses on the floor accommodating more than 8 people without any degree of privacy. She further unfolded worse cases of families sleeping in shifts on empty stomachs holding a multitude of fears including loosing for their lives and sexual violence.
“Sometimes I even run out of words. I was sexually abused and the police didn’t do anything,” she said, tearfully narrating her sex violence experience. “I got a firstborn son whose father I don’t even know. I went to the police and they just told me; “We cannot do anything, just move on, go give birth and continue with life.” That’s why sometimes when something happens to me, I know even if I go to the police and I pull out a refugee card, I just know that’s the end, no one will even care.” Janette is only 24 years and already a single mother with two children whom she says are all products of sexual violence.
Violation of refugee rights in Uganda is not limited to rights to shelter and protection against sexual violence according to the stories told by panelists in the session. Some rights like the right to communication are unconsciously violated due to the language barrier as Mayang explained. Others like legal justice abused as a result of negligence and others are violated intentionally. “In Uganda, when I get an issue and maybe I’m arrested, it’s very hard for me to get a person to make a process” explained Mayang who happens to be a Sudanese refugee expressing the hardships faced by refugees in acquiring legal justice.
Asiimwe also unfolded her experience on legal justice for refugees during her research. “As much as we are trying to give the refugees their basic rights when it comes to legal justice, it’s a different thing. First of all, the settlements are very far from the towns and when a refugee commits a crime, they go way beyond the 48 hours because for example in Kyangwali, there is a schedule of when they should be taken to court. Sometimes that day comes when the suspects are in cells but the police don’t have fuel to take them to court” she narrated.
In the urge to resolve these violations the Government of Uganda should consider sensitization of refugees and persons of authority on refugee rights to intensively understand them. Further, the construction of refugee shelters should be considered to improve the housing conditions of urban refugees. As a resolution to violation of the right to communication, the government should consider equipping refugee with the basics of the commonly spoken languages in Uganda like Luganda, Kiswahili, and English. To improve legal justice for refugees, the government of Uganda should set refugee courts in settlements that handle minor cases and also provide refugees with lawyers.