Refugee Rights should be ex­er­cised in Uganda in im­ple­men­ta­tion, as well as they state on pa­per

By: SHAMI­RAH MA­TOVU

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.