Uganda Refugees Act Launch: Hope to Assylum Seekers
Despite our occasional differences of opinion, we share a commitment to maximising the enjoyment of rights by asylum seekers and refugees in Uganda. Firstly, we warmly welcome the launch of the Refugees Act. If we just consider the title of the old legislation – Control of Alien Refugees Act – we know what it was all about: control. The new Refugees Act, in sharp contrast, makes far greater move towards promoting the enjoyment of rights by refugees.
Secondly, we are very aware of the time-delay between legislation being approved and even launched, and its full operationalisation. At one level, this is a matter of ensuring that the various regulations are finalised and put in place, for example, establishing an appeal committee for asylum seekers whose claim of status has been rejected. At another level, it is about ensuring that people know about the new act; when we consider the various actors who need to know about the provisions of the act, starting from obvious ones like the immigration and police, through judiciary and all the way down to the LC1s of areas hosting refugees.
Knowledge and attitudes at times diverge. We may know that a certain group has rights, but our attitude towards them may not reflect this knowledge. When a group has been seen as an object primarily of control for half a century, as was the case under the Control of Alien Refugees Act, certain control-oriented attitudes are likely to be deeply entrenched. Attitudes are linked to practice; without increasing knowledge and shifting attitudes accordingly, practice towards refugees is unlikely to change (one of the practices we would particularly like to see shift is the practice of tying material assistance to living in rural refugee camps – whether that is where a person fits best or not!)
|Sudanese Refugees at Lama Camp in Uganda Photo:Courtesy|
The launch of the Act is the important milestone in developing an appropriate legislative framework, and an equally important first step in what will be a relatively long and complex process of shifting knowledge, attitudes and practice towards refugees in Uganda. This process should begin without undue delays.
Indeed, at the request of the police commissioners, we have already been holding some training workshops on the new act at key police stations in and around Kampala, focused on stations which have large populations of refugees they deal with on a regular basis. What is clear from these is that there is considerable interest by police officers to know more, and that where refugee rights have not been respected it is generally due to lack of knowledge rather than any deliberate intention to abuse.
Some of the key issues affecting refugees require further work. In an information session for refugees on the complex resettlement process, one of our clients tried to argue, to much applause, that resettlement was a right. I had the unpleasant task of clarifying to him, in front of all his fellow-refugees, that there is no such thing in law as the right to resettlement, and that this remains a highly discretionary durable solution. The other two durable solutions, namely repatriation and local integration, are also not without their problems, as the recent call for voluntary repatriation of Rwandans has highlighted yet again. Many refugees do not understand exactly how voluntary repatriation operates.
The burden is upon us all, whether OPM or UNHCR or organisations such as RLP, to clarify to refugees that voluntary repatriation is just that, voluntary, and that those who choose not to go back to not automatically lose their refugee status. The cessation of status has not been invoked and that needs to be made clear again and again.
Local integration is also not yet an option, even under the new Refugees Act. Indeed, the years which a refugee spends in this country do not count towards him or her acquiring Ugandan citizenship. When we consider that there are refugees in Uganda who have been here for three or even four decades, whose children and grandchildren have been born and brought up in a condition of near state-lessness, this really requires further thought. Bayisa Wakwoya, with whom we had many important discussions during his time as head of protection in the Kampala office used to talk of these as ‘vintage case-loads’; what we know about vintage wine is that it can either get better and better or, alternatively, it turns to vinegar in the bottle.
Internationally, just as no one has the right to resettlement, there is as yet no right to a durable solution. As a result, many refugees spend whole lifetimes in a state of suspended animation, unable to advance in any of the areas that give us a sense of a life worth living, whether in terms of establishing a family, pursuing an education, or developing a career. To get refugees to be seen as ‘real people with real needs’ (the theme of this year’s World Refugee Day) still needs a lot of work.
The lack of a right to a durable solution is not peculiar to Uganda; it does not yet exist anywhere in the world. We should not lose sight of the larger goal which also still needs to be pursued, namely: to ensure that refugees do not just enjoy their right to life, but are also able, as we say in the UK, to ‘get a life’.
The implications of an ever stronger East African Community will be on the institution of asylum within the region. Are the different presidents of Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya as tightly bound together? If so, what will this do for refugees?
Dr. Chris Dolan
Director, Refugee Law Project
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