Inclusion and Protection of Refugee Rights: A case of Uganda
Uganda continues to be the largest refugee hosting country in Africa with nearly 1.45 million refugees, which represents 3 percent of Uganda’s entire population. 82 percent of all the new refugees are women and children of whom more than 60 percent are under the age of 18, with twelve of Uganda’s 121 districts hosting the overwhelming majority of the refugees. Moreover, approximately 92 percent live in settlements alongside the local communities, mainly in northern Uganda or West Nile (Adjumani, Arua, Koboko, Moyo, Lamwo and Yumbe) with smaller numbers in central, mid-west (Kiryandongo and Hoima), west (Kyegegwa, Kamwenge and Isingiro) and south western Uganda. Worse still, urban centers are home to eight percent of the refugee population, especially Kampala the capital city (these are referred to as urban refugees; they prefer not to be in camps so they come to urban areas and strive to make their lives better).
Whereas the ability of refugees to contribute to the societies of their host communities depends on factors like the policies of their host governments, budgets of humanitarian organisations, availability of public services, health of local and regional economies and priorities of international development actors, both nationals and refugees are affected by local and regional developmental challenges like inadequate access to health care, education, justice and accommodation.
Uganda’s policy entails inclusion over marginalization; this is expressed through the placement of refugees in settlements rather than camps; provision of small plots of land for settlement and/or agriculture intended to enable them become self-reliant. Further, refugees are allowed to move freely, attend school, and participate in both social and economic activities of their choice. This has been fostered through cultivating an environment that supports the self-reliance and resilience of entire communities including refugees among them.
Yet in spite of all the efforts mentioned above, refugees still face a lot of challenges including but not limited to:
Host communities are not involved in policy making and implementation. The acquisition of land for refugee settlements from host communities for instance, is often taken for granted and presented as a straightforward process in which local communities simply give up their land out of solidarity with refugees with the hope that the settlements will enhance development and stimulate economic growth. In reality, the process is highly problematic as a recent International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) paper showed some communities in the Acholi region, where land was recently acquired to accommodate South Sudanese refugees, are both skeptical of the government’s intention to return the land and feel the process of its acquisition was neither transparent nor inclusive. Since the mass influx of refugees from South Sudan, there have been reports of similar grievances in other parts of northern Uganda. In addition, some of the people displaced from land that was used for refugee settlements in the mid-west are still awaiting resettlement. The failure to sufficiently take into account the multiple local contexts in which refugees are being hosted is the core driver of conflicts.
Reception, registration and refugee status determination, limited capacity of border authorities and reception staff, as well as shortfalls in coordination among key partners, creates delays and backlogs in registration and issuance of documentation.
There is sexual abuse/ harassment of women and children from both fellow refugees and persons of authority. With significant numbers of women and children, the refugee populations in Uganda are highly vulnerable to Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV), including Persons with Specific Needs (PSNs). More so, emotional and psychological trauma is common among refugees who have experienced violence or have witnessed violence perpetrated against family or community members. The most reported SGBV incident among South Sudanese refugees was physical assault (44 percent), followed by psychological violence (24 percent), rape (11 percent), forced and early marriage (7 percent) and sexual assault (6). Further, under reporting of SGBV cases remains a major concern, due to a variety of factors including fear of stigma, shame, family reaction and dissolution, perception of SGBV as a private matter, or lack of confidence in reporting channels. Consequently, prevention and response services are not adequate to effectively address the protection needs of a growing population, with many SGBV survivors relying on community structures that often re-victimize them instead of serving their interests. Also, delays in accessing justice and limited human and financial resources are huge challenges to the provision of quality and effective services.
Inadequacies in accessing justice especially in remote areas where the presence of the judiciary and the police are limited or non-existent. In most settlements, the number of police officers is insufficient to respond to the needs of an increasing population, especially female police officers, which contributes to the hesitance of female refugees to come forward and report Sexual Gender Based Violence incidents. Lack of transportation and poor access to communication means are an additional challenge facing the police deployed in refugee settlements across Uganda.
Urban refugees including South Sudanese, Somalis, Eritreans, Congolese and Burundians still remain with very little assistance and are still excluded from any support beyond a legal status, and sometimes cannot access even that. Language barrier, securing a meaningful job for immediate sustenance while they seek more sustainable opportunities is difficult as some labour markets do not permit migrants due to the limitations that exist such as an overwhelming youth bulge, limited vacancies and government restrictions. Furthermore, these challenges are exacerbated by the fact that refugee numbers are ever increasing yet budget allocations for these projects have stagnated.
In response, funding organisations should try to increase and revise their budgets regularly so as to cater for the new refugees and all refugees and stake holders should be included in the planning and budgeting process so as to find holistic and inclusive solutions.
In order to reduce the lengthy processing time for asylum seekers awaiting Refugee Status Determination (RSD), there is a need to strengthen the capacity and accelerate the work of the Refugee Eligibility Committee (REC) and an interministerial body in charge of RSD for asylum seekers who fall outside the prima facie recognition. The Refugee Appeals Board (RAB) also needs support to be able to review on a more regular basis the cases of asylum seekers rejected at first instance. Additional human resources, equipment and better internet connectivity are needed to address delays in registration in most locations. When asylum seekers and refugees fail to be timely registered, they may be unable to access certain services or experience delayed service provision.
Sensitization and advocacy in host communities and refugee settlements should be done to reduce any negative perceptions and challenges that may emerge between the two communities. A sustainable relationship between the two communities is also necessary especially in the long run to ensure co-existence. Both communities will have to learn to understand cultural norms and values. The host communities should be sensitive to the needs of the population of the refugees bearing in mind that they have gone through traumatic situations.
 UNICEF, 2018 Uganda Humanitarian Situation Report: https://reliefweb.int/report/uganda/unicef-uganda-humanitarian-situation-report-april-2018
 UNHCR, 2019 Uganda Refugee Response Plan (URRP): http://reporting.unhcr.org/sites/default/files/Uganda