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Plight of the Refugees and IDP’s in Uganda By Raïs Neza Boneza


The recent history recent history in the Great Lakes region of Africa has painfully illustrated the insufficient commitment for an international response to forced and mass migration. Efforts to ensure international protection for refugees have been repeatedly frustrated as states have expressed an increased reluctance to offer asylum, particularly concerning security and stability for recipient states.

In the case of the Great lakes Region; displaced people, or refugees, are people who have been separated from each other, and their families or land due to various reasons which may include wars, famine or other disasters. They are unable to find where their other family members are. They are unable to get to them because they live in an area controlled by a hostile government.

Jeff Crips (2000) observed that from the 1990s, two main regions of displacement in Africa were formed, in the west; centered around Liberia and Sierra Leone and including Guinea, Guinea Bissau and Côte d’Ivoire.  The second and larger region starts from the centre of the continent, especially from Angola to the Horn of Africa.

Within these two areas, the flow mechanism is mostly described as forced migration due to armed conflicts, or political instability. These regions function in a system of “a matrix” (Peace By Africans’ Peaceful Means, Raïs Boneza), which normally are composed in three epicenter on the continent. Conflicts can start from one epicentre and be propagated to another. As Bethuel Kiplagat state, Africa is presently host to three partly overlapping conflict systems: In West Africa with the epicentre presently in the Ivory Coast, but previously in Sierra-Leone and Liberia; in the Horn of Africa with the epicentre presently in Sudan; and in the Great Lakes Region where the epicentre was previously in Rwanda, but presently in the DRC (African conflict epicentres, by Raïs N.Boneza). In the case of the Great –Lakes region, it is clear that countries in the region are both recipient and producer of forced migrants due to the cyclical instabilities in the region.

This paper is an account of my experience as refugee and peace practitioner in the Great-Lakes region. It focuses on the geography of asylum and refugees status as applied in The Great Lakes and particularly in Uganda. This paper will try to discuss briefly the plight of the refugees and displaced people in Uganda, and present a possible therapy in dealing with forced migration in the region.


How did refugees come to Uganda?

Uganda has a long history of conflict and ethnic upheavals. It is nowadays host to numerous refugees. According to China View in its article of 29th August 05 entitled “Uganda, UNHCR struggle with refugee predicament,”Uganda is host to about 230,000 registered refugees from neighbouring countries. Among them; 188,000 are from Sudan, 20,000 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), 18,000 from Rwanda and 4,000 from other countries. There are also some 40,000 refugees who are not registered. In total there are 68 refugee settlement camps in the country.

In the region, local languages and terminologies do not differentiate between IDPs and Refugees. There are several reports of resurgence on the use of force against refugees and the increasing disregard for the voluntary nature of repatriation. Both situations tarnish the role and authority of UNHCR in Uganda.

There has been a “semblance” of peace and economic growth in Uganda, but insurgence, violent communal clashes and armed conflicts have plagued three areas of the country for years, causing death to more than 10,000 people. Since the 1990’s Uganda has played key roles in armed conflict in the region, resulting in regime changes with thousands of civilian casualties. In 1994, with the RPF re-invading Rwanda (See. March 24, 2004, article,The U.S. and the Genocide in Rwanda 1994″Information, Intelligence and the U.S. Response by William Ferroggiaro, George Washington University). Another example is Uganda in 1997 with Kabila’s rebellion which brought an end to Mobutu’s regime in DRC /ex-Zaire.

Internally in Uganda, the Lord Resistance Army operating in the Northern Uganda mainly in the districts of Gulu, Apac, Kitgum and Lira, and the Allied Democratic Front in the western side of Uganda along the DRC border with Uganda forced a large population to relocate. The number of IDPs rose dramatically from around 400,000 in March 2002 to the current total of nearly two million, after the government launched a military operation, code-named “Operation Iron Fist”. The Ugandan army (UPDF) was allowed to attack the LRA rebels’ rear bases in southern Sudan under an agreement with the Sudanese government (Global IDPs, August 2005).

After Sept. 11, The Ugandan government has adopted a drastic new legislation under the guise of war on terror, namely the Anti-terrorist act in 2002 (Judge S. B. Bossa and Titus Mulindwa International Commission of Jurists 15.sept.2004), that has worsened the situation of displaced people. Many of them have become street destitute in Kampala. Others live in shanty locations around the city with poor health, hygiene and sanitation. Some of the refugees in Uganda especially those who come from Kenya are victims of cattle rustling in their areas like the Pokot tribe near the Uganda border in Moroto District.

The immigration policy in the Great-lakes region is not defined in term of Humanitarian assistance but in terms of state “regimes” security and stability. The refugee influx has been one of the causes of instability in the region. As the executive director of the World Food Program, James Morris stated in 2003 at the UN council, despite some progress in the last few years, large pockets of refugees and IDPs remain a continuing source of political friction, violence and insecurity in Africa. Large concentrations of refugees and IDPs often degrade the environment, further aggravating relations with indigenous groups.

The 8th to the 10th of September 1994, Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), The Addis Ababa Document on Refugees and Forced Population Displacements in Africa was adopted by the then OAU/UNHCR, Symposium on Refugees and Forced Population Displacements in Africa. The meeting was held in commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the adoption of the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems governing the specific aspects of refugee problems in Africa and the twentieth year of its entry into force. In its second part, recommendations and debate on the roots and causes of Refugees flows and other forced displacement in Africa read:

Refugee flow is a symbol of the crises which afflict many societies in Africa. In particular, most of the refugee flows are the result of armed conflicts and civil strife. Ethnic intolerance; the abuse of human rights on a massive scale; the monopolization of political and economic power; refusal to respect democracy or the results of free and fair elections; resistance to popular participation in governance; and poor management of public affairs all play a part in forcing people to flee their normal places of residence.

However, on the macro level, The Global context plays a non negligible role. For example, the continued economic liberalization policies accepted by most countries have brought out latent political and ethnic conflicts. While the causes of these conflicts are many and varied, the structural adjustment policies of the IMF/World Bank are surely a significant contributing factor.

Meredeth Turshen (1998) stated that:

… the policies of the international financial institutions, notably the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, which have weakened African states and helped create power vacuums, have contributed to the rise of conflict. By imposing financial austerity and structural adjustment programs that shackle the state as provider, the international financial institutions have undermined the ability to legitimate African states to govern and respond to people’s needs (Turshen, 1998: 4).

On the Fifth point of the 2000 Dakar declaration on the cancellation on third word debt, it read: Debt and SAPs are the cause for the aggravation of unemployment, the destruction of families leading to the rise of delinquency and prostitution, the worsening of women’s socio-economic conditions and daily life, the ecological degradation of the continent and wars with their cohorts of refugees and displaced persons.

2. Prognosis

Settlement policy in Uganda

When asylum seekers arrive in Uganda they are supposed to declare or report to the nearest police post on border. However, practically all asylum seekers travel directly to Kampala. In the view of refugees, Kampala can be considered as a’ safe town. Many have reported a desire to be physically proximate to the offices of UNHCR, for a feeling of safety. Many have felt that remaining in a border area would continue to jeopardise their physical safety. Notice that most of the refugees coming to Uganda are exiling into a land while often are too involved in the instabilities of their homeland.

Legally, Uganda derives its refugee management programmes from the Control of Alien Refugees Act (CARA), which requires all refugees to reside in settlements.3Refugee settlements are maintained by the Directorate of Refugees under the Ministry of Disaster Preparedness, and Refugees in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), and are located in rural areas where refugees are allocated plots of land for agricultural activities. Refugees must obtain permission from settlement commandants before leaving settlements. While it has been acknowledged by OPM that the CARA is restrictive in its approach to refugee assistance and protection,and that therefore OPM does not apply the CARA in practice, the law still is the legal basis for refugee settlements and remains the law governing refugees in Uganda. Although the government has recognized the failure in its migration policy and it has agreed to pass a new refugee bill in 2000 stipulating that:

Under the current policy, Uganda grants work permits to skilled refugees such as doctors and teachers, who end up living mainly in Kampala. It gives others the right to undertake casual work, such as construction – and also allows them to live in settlements, as opposed to tented camps, where they can build homes and grow food.”

Inter Press Service, Fawzia Sheikh

Meanwhile currently the majority of refugees, who reside outside the settlements, are categorically not eligible for such assistance. Refugees in settlements are normally supposed to be provided with services such as healthcare and education. But Those in Kampala communally called “Urban Refugees” are left with no assistance.

(Uganda and UN denies assistance to urban refugees AdvocacyNet News Bulletin – Number 40, June 27, 2005 )

Problems such as accessing basic needs to healthcare or nutrition are a common burden experienced and faced by refugees as well as other Kampala residents. But refugees in Kampala are at a first hand victim of discrimination when regarding access to education and employment. According to the UN Convention and Protocol as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights refugees are entitled to the same rights as the nationals in the hosting nation. But The Refugees policy in Uganda is discriminatory and in contrary contradiction to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees providing for the right of refugees to choose their place of residence and to move freely within the territory of the country of refuge.

Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) stated policy is to provide refugees identity documents only to those refugees who either opt to move to a refugee settlement, or who can prove self-sufficiency in Kampala. This policy has no basis in law. Article 27 of the 1951 Convention provides for the right of refugees to be issued with identity papers—it does not make provision for making the right to identity documents dependent on economic means, or any other limiting factor. There is are no basis in law for either UNHCR’s protection mandate or Uganda’s obligations to refugees to be restricted to refugees who agree to live in settlements. The government provides two options to asylum seekers: 1) go to the settlement once refugee status is granted or 2) return to your country.

An asylum seeker who flees over the border, but refuses to register for refugee status (because of an unwillingness to move to the camp) can be considered an illegal alien, which exposes him/her to arrest and deportation. The policy of villagization has been more promoted to a greater extent by Uganda security forces instead of integration.

Usual Scenario

A Sudan national fleeing the conflict affecting his motherland; He speaks the same local language as the people just over the border in Uganda. He is from the same tribe (Maybe Acholi, or Lwo etc…) with the same culture and traditions. Perhaps, he has a few relatives who happened to reside on the Uganda side when the borders were demarcated (superficially imposed under colonisation) on his people. But because of the injustice and insecurity imposed on his people, he has to choose between to fly, or staying in fear and being self-censured or jailed in a remote settlement without freedom of movement. Between the daily Gunshot and the dependency on international donors providing to him the next poor meal; He had made a choice. But,for what price? To an uncertain future? What about security conditions in the camps,exposure to sexual violence, or forced recruitment in various armed groups? Why should someone who shares the same cultural heritage, language or ethnical group is considered as a threat in Uganda?

If someone has relatives to support him just over the border, why should he be forced to relocate to the settlement camps (where there is no such support network)? Thus OPM with support from UNHCR should provide identity documents to all refugees regardless of where they choose to reside or their economic means.

3. Therapy

Macro Level

The presently new global order has become a catalyst for facilitating the movement of goods including arms across frontiers. A matter of fact, the most globilized tools nowadays are weapons symbolize[d] by “Kalashnikov” and the green note symbolizde by “US Dollar” (See Global Torment by Raïs Neza Boneza, T:ap 2003). Thus, Globalization has succeeded in deepening the woes of the people.

How can the poor escape the wrath of globalisation and its unresisting effects?
As an addition to the internal factors, the then superpowers rivalling that mainly became a characteristic of the 1980s spurred a massive stimulus to civil conflict and militarization in Africa and elsewhere. The political ideological difference that influenced internal socio-political regime provided enough platforms for foreign intervention as well as armed competition, in their attempt to impose their political systems.

But the west and the eastern blocks succeeded in planting and nurturing the seed of discord leading to subversive activities in several countries for instance the war in Angola or the assassination of Lumumba were masterminded by agents of western powers.

These events brewed tension in the country’s body politic, leading the people to seek asylum elsewhere, as well as encouraged political factionalism in the country. Though the cold war is over, its legacy of violent opposition is still having negative implications.

Economic integration, and the end of superpower rivalry have reduced the number of wars between states, but brutal civil conflicts continue to kill hundreds of people every year. Thus, globalization has far worsened the refugee situation in the world over than it has helped to solve it; of course we are not oblivious of charitable organizations that provide a number of supports to the refugee crisis. For instance, the Red Cross, Oxfam, etc. to make the life of refugees livable in all parts of the world. But in her book Jennifer Hyndman, Managing Displacement: Refugees and the Politics of Humanitarianism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 253 pp. argues that the UNHCR and NGOs, by subscribing to a naïve myth of “unity in diversity” (i.e., that despite our many differences we are all one), are blind to the hierarchies of domination and oppression endemic to refugee camps. Hyndman describes the structural violence of “colonialism of compassion,” mainly the western humanitarian tradition. Hyndman sees the organizational structure of refugee camps like in Kenya as a cause of the high rate of physical violence between refugees.

Preventive measures are more desirable than remedial. More emphasis should be put in peace, equality, development strategies. The frontiers of the freedom of globalization should be re-examined. “National and global governance have to be reinvented – with human development and equity at their core”, said the Human Development report.

Micro Level

A process of regional integration based on equal cooperation must be implemented in the region. Humanitarian assistance, development must be accompanied with dynamics of conflict transformation on the local level and on the regional level as well. Host countries in the region such as Uganda, should accommodate the OAU declaration on the definition of the refugees adopted in 1969 and apply it. In case of crisis or catastrophe; refugee settlements need to be demilitarized, and not manage in terms of security control but in terms of humanitarian needs. The definition of protection put forward by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which defines protection as “encompassing all activities aimed at obtaining full respect for the rights of the individual in accordance with the letter and the spirit of the relevant bodies of law (i.e. HR law, IHL, refugee law).” In particular, given that the 1951 Convention provides for refugees’ right to freedom of movement. The UNHCR should work together with the Ugandan government to ensure that refugee protection in the widest sense is extended not only to refugees but also local populations whose life is at some point compared to those of refugees. This condition frustrates locale populations who feel neglected and are not given more attention. This condition can lead to unnecessary conflict. Integration policies and environmental development should not be sidelined in Humanitarian rescue operations.

In conclusion: It is preferable that host states should not be directly involved in the instability or conflict in the countries producing refugees and so refrain from providing bases from which refugees could launch attacks on their country of origin. The enactment of the Constitutive Act of the African Union has created an opportunity for more robust and effective action to protect refugees and ensure security on the continent, including potential for the development of new monitoring and intervention mechanisms. It is important that the new governing and operational structures of the African Union clearly define their relationship with current sub-regional arrangements and that they take a multi-sectoral approach to responding to emergencies involving refugees.

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