World Refugee Day is commemorated every year on the 20th of June. In 2012 the theme was “One family torn by war is too many.” The emphasis on family cannot be overstated because the wellbeing of every individual is strongly related to her or his access to family support.
Definitions of family vary from place to place and culture to culture. For some, family is defined primarily in terms of biology; for others, it is used to describe close social relationships, such as those found between the members of a church congregation or a particular workplace; what is common to all these diverse understandings, is that family is a source of support and strength, and that it is within families that important interpersonal and social relational skills are established and practiced. It is here that qualities of honesty, respect for self and others, generosity and accountability; conflict resolution and peace building are grounded in people.
Unfortunately, war attacks and undermines all varieties of family, whether the immediate nuclear family, the extended family, or the non-biological ‘families.’ War uproots people and destroys livelihoods at a physical level; disrupts social fabrics and systems leaving people and families with deep internal wounds. At the same time, war and the experience of being a refugee can at times lead to the creation of new families, and new forms of solidarity to fill the gaps in biological families.
According to UNHCR statistics, Uganda currently hosts more than 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers from Burundi, DRC, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan. Out of this population, about 40,000 constitute the urban refugees who live in Kampala, and the remaining are rural settlement based refugees. However, these numbers have recently been increasing due to an influx of refugees from Democratic Republic of Congo as a result of a fresh wave of conflict there.
Refugee Families in Uganda
While the war led to their physical displacement, families continue to be bedeviled by other circumstances in exile. Six key challenges continue to pose a serious risk to family life for refugees;
1. The question of sustainable livelihoods presents gloomy pictures for refugees who because of language barriers cannot access employment that would allow them to earn a decent life. This is compounded by unplanned changes in gender roles that often trigger negative reactions in the form of domestic violence and loss of social status, especially for men because of the separation from their families
2. Refugee families continue to grapple with trauma resulting from a range of forms of violence they have suffered, not least their experiences of rape, torture, destruction of family property, murders, extreme discrimination and xenophobic attacks. Such trauma can have dramatic adverse effects on family cohesion, productivity of household members, children’s learning, and overall well-being
3. Poor or no access to comprehensive health care services due to lack of resources has a profound impact on resource management in families and often leads to family breakdown as members fail to cope with the magnitude of the problems related to particularly the loss of the support from killed or separated family members
4. Many refugee families are faced with dire living conditions in slum areas characterized by poor housing, poor sanitation and high crime rates. This is compounded by over-crowding in small single rooms occupied by large families, with an inevitable loss of privacy for adults and children alike
5. Many refugee families cannot afford proper education for their children. Children enrolled in the primary level frequently have no access to secondary level, and those who somehow manage to go through the secondary level have no access to tertiary institutions. This leaves families in a disempowered position since no comprehensive development happens without proper skills
6. Unaccompanied refugee children are highly vulnerable yet there are no proper structures in place to assist in receiving, reintegrating, resettling, or fostering and monitoring them. For many unaccompanied refugee children, repatriation is not an option since they cannot trace their homes nor family property Unaccompanied children therefore find themselves at extreme risk of human trafficking, sexual exploitation, child prostitution, and other forms of abuse, yet they cannot defend themselves. They are exposed to sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS which all require expensive medical care. This situation has resulted in child mothers who themselves need care.
1. The Government of Uganda needs to acknowledge that since Uganda is surrounded by conflict prone areas, refugees will be a feature of Ugandan society for the foreseeable future. As such, they too need to their rights to be respected and protected. Refugee issues need to be mainstreamed and integrated into government service provision budgets, particularly health care and education.
2. There is an need for the establishment of reception centers and development of a comprehensive foster care system to address the needs of unaccompanied minors. The probation and welfare department in the Ministry of Gender and Social Welfare needs to become more proactive to significantly cover refugee children in its interventions. This will to a great extent minimize the exploitation of the children and improve on their wellbeing
3. The host communities need to be sensitized through more community policing and outreaches to enable them to understand the plight of refugees and the general conditions refugees are surrounded with. It is important to keep in mind that being a refugee is a condition unpredicted and anyone can find themselves in foreign country and shall need the same protections that refugees in Uganda demand.
4. A comprehensive and coordinated psychosocial service provision to cover both psychotherapy and counseling needs to be developed to cover the challenges of trauma and to mitigate the extreme conditions of helplessness and hopelessness caused by loss of family members and the negative consequences of being displaced from their country of origin.
5. Where refugees are able to form support groups and associations which can play a role as surrogate families, such initiatives should be supported and encouraged.
6. The government of Uganda must actively get involved and participate in the regional transitional justice and peace building processes through regional bodies like the East African Community, Great Lakes region forum, IGAD and the African Union to ensure that war situations that result in torn families are nipped in the bud.
Courtesy: The Refugee Law Project
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