World Refugee Survey 2009: Uganda
Uganda hosted some 155,400 refugees and asylum seekers, most from the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo-Kinshasa), but also from Sudan, Rwanda, Somalia, Burundi, and other countries.
The majority of Uganda’s 57,300 Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers arrived over the course of Sudan’s North-South civil war starting in 1983. In 2006, following Sudan’s 2005 peace treaty, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) began to repatriate Sudanese refugees.
2008 Events Summary
There were no reports of refoulement from Uganda, but some Rwandan and Ethiopian refugees reported fears that agents of their respective governments were operating in the country and would abduct them.
Uganda did not detain refugees for traveling outside designated settlements in 2008, although on some occasions refugees only escaped detention by bribing police officers. The Refugee Law Project provided legal aid to 12 refugees during 2008, including some arrested on false charges.
Nearly 47,000 Sudanese returned to South Sudan with UNHCR and Government assistance during the year.
Beginning at the end of December in 2007, roughly 12,000 Kenyans fled post-election violence to Uganda, but by the end of the year only 2,100 remained in Uganda. Uganda granted them refugee status prima facie. Ugandan officials banned sale and consumption of alcohol in a refugee camp for Kenyans after reports of drunken refugees attempting to rape women and generally harassing others.
In January, a Kenyan militia reportedly crossed into Uganda to behead a Kenyan refugee and throw 30 others into a river where they drowned. Officials also reported an attempt to poison food served to Kenyan refugees, but the plot was disrupted.
Beginning in August, almost 31,000 Congolese fleeing conflict in the North Kivu province of Congo-Kinshasa crossed into Uganda. Uganda transferred 10,600 to Nakivale camp and housed 10,000 Matanda transit center, a temporary facility set up to accomodate them. Around 6,500 remained living in communities along the border in Kisoro district, while roughly 3,500 remained living in communities in Kanungu district. In the wake of the new arrivals at Nakivale camp, cholera killed 3 refugees and sickened 66.
In August, a group of about 30 Congolese refugees reported being flogged by Ugandan police when they were picked up in Kampala for relocation to Nakivale camp. The refugees had been camping in an open area while trying to legalize their stay in the capital because they found the camps unsafe, but police awoke them at 3 a.m. by beating them with canes before loading them onto a bus to the camp.
The Ugandan military announced in November it would turn 40 armed Congolese policemen who fled to Uganda over to either the Congolese Government or the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo-Kinshasa.
On a November visit to Nakivale camp, Uganda’s minister for relief and disaster preparedness threatened to refoule a group of Somali refugees after they walked out of a speech he was giving.
In December, local government official threatened Ugandans with prosecution if they harbored Congolese refugees in their homes.
Law and Policy
The Refugees Act 2006 took effect in May 2007, although the Government has not implemented its status determination procedure. The Act provides for refugee protection defined by the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Convention), its 1967 Protocol, and the 1969 Convention governing Specific Aspects of the Refugee Problem in Africa (African Refugee Convention), all of which Uganda is party to. Uganda maintains reservations to the 1951 Convention’s rights to exemption from reciprocity requirements and exceptional measures, property, association, access to courts, work, and administrative assistance; its allowance of provisional measures; and its restrictions on expulsion.
The Act’s refugee definition includes persons fleeing from persecution for not conforming to “gender discriminating practices.” In situations of mass influx, the minister in charge of refugees can also allow groups of asylum seekers to remain in the country up to two years with the same rights the Act gives refugees. To apply for status under the new Act, asylum seekers must submit written applications to REC within 30 days of entering. The Act entitles applicants to hearings and to legal or other assistance, and the REC has to provide rejected asylum seekers the reason for rejection in writing. The REC has 90 days to make a decision but the Government had not implemented the new procedures by year’s end. The Act provides for appeals with evaluations of rejected cases by an independent board. The board cannot overrule REC decisions but has to refer them back for reconsideration. Counsel can represent clients before both REC and the board and UNHCR can attend board proceedings in an advisory capacity.
Refugees still had to interview with the Special Branch Police and the OPM upon arrival in Kampala. Once in a settlement, they register with the camp administration and UNHCR. The REC continues to review applications based on interviews conducted by police and UNHCR representatives and do not allow asylum seekers to present themselves in person before the REC and takes more than 90 days to make decisions. Although applicants can have counsel in the process, neither they nor their counsel can appear before the REC. The REC generally responds to lawyers’ letters and calls of inquiry regarding clients’ cases.
Detention/Access to Courts
Securing the release of refugees, especially on police bond, is difficult because authorities demand two Ugandan nationals as sureties even though the law does not specify the nationality of sureties. UNHCR protection officers regularly visit refugees in detention centers.
Refugees and asylum seekers generally could vindicate rights in court but the Government located refugee settlements as far as 60 miles (100 km) from courts, and refugees required permission to leave.
In its reservations to the 1951 Convention, Uganda reserves the right not to provide refugees with more legal assistance than it generally gives foreigners. It also reserves the right not to help refugees with documentation unless UNHCR ask and reimburse it.
The Refugees Act provides that recognized refugees “shall…be issued with an identity card in a prescribed form stating the refugee status of the holder for purposes of identification.” Asylum seekers receive renewable identification cards good for three months while the REC reviews their cases. If the REC grants them refugee status, they receive an official refugee identity card. All refugees living in urban areas receive this form of identification, but refugees who live in settlements have to request cards from administrators, and students, businessmen, and those seeking medical treatment have priority. Uganda issues only ration cards to refugees authorities recognized prima facie, which camp authorities recognize as identification. Outside camps, police and authorities generally recognize refugee identification cards and asylum seeker documents but not the ration cards.
Freedom of Movement and Residence
The Refugees Act 2006 guarantees freedom of movement to refugees in Uganda, but UNHCR and OPM aid is limited to those living in settlements. Refugees who wish to leave have to request movement permits from administrators and provide dates and reasons for travel. Many leave without permission.
The Refugees Act 2006 guarantees the right of refugees to international travel documents, which are usually valid for 90 days from the date of issuance and renewable every two months. To obtain them, refugees have to apply through OPM and provide proof of their reasons for travel, length of stay abroad, and other travel details. Students require letters of admission, medical patients have to provide evaluations from Ugandan medical institutions explaining why no one could treat them in Uganda, those traveling to see family have to provide a letter of invitation from the family member, and business travelers have to provide proof of a legitimate business. Uganda does not provide international travel documents for asylum seekers.
Right to Earn a Livelihood
Under the Refugees Act 2006, recognized refugees enjoy the same right to work as nationals. Refugees do not require work permits in Uganda. OPM issues refugees letters explaining their status and rights, including the right to work. Asylum seekers, however, do not have the right to work.
Refugees do not enjoy the benefits of social security, unemployment, or disability insurance, nor does labor legislation protect them.
Refugees are free to establish businesses and do not require permits. They enjoy the right to own property, both movable and immovable, and acquire assets. They are free to lease land, but refugees have to obtain permission from the Minister of Land and Environment in order to own it. Refugees in settlements where land is especially fertile farmed successfully but movement restrictions prevented them from selling their produce in urban markets and required them to rely on Ugandan intermediaries. Asylum seekers can not own businesses, property, or other assets.
In its reservations to the 1951 Convention, Uganda reserves the right to abridge refugees’ property rights “without recourse to courts of law or arbitral tribunals, national or international,” if it deems it in the public interest. It also reserves the right to deny them freedom of association and rights to work it may grant nationals of states with special treaties, such as those of the East African Community.
Public Relief and Education
Although Uganda generally cooperates with UNHCR and aid agencies to assist refugees living in settlements, OPM asks aid agencies to inform it about any plans to assist refugees living outside them. Kampala officials normally do not budget for refugees, restricting their access to education and health services.
Refugees enjoy the same rights to free primary education as nationals.
The 2005 Poverty Eradication Action Plan (2004/5-2007/8) the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development prepared for international donors deals with refugees as a disaster to manage, but highlights self-reliance and allows that refugees can “become an asset.” The Plan notes, however, “Being an emergency issue, expenditure on refugees is not treated as part of the [Medium Term Expenditure Framework].” The latter includes the goal of increasing growth to seven percent by removing bureaucratic barriers to investment; improving transportation infrastructure and utilities; modernization and commercialization of agriculture; improving rural access to finance and strengthening small and medium-sized businesses; and enhanced environmental sustainability.
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