To be or not to be: urban refugees in Kampala.

Author:Bernstein, Jesse


In Uganda, refugee policy and programming is focused almost exclusively on providing protection and assistance to refugees residing in rural settlements. While international law allows refugees the right to freedom of movement and choice of residence, Ugandan legislation restricts refugees' residency to rural settlements, subjecting those who wish to live outside of settlements and in urban centres to severe restrictions. This study sheds light on the reasons refugees choose to reside in Kampala as opposed to rural settlements and the challenges they endure while attempting to sustain and support themselves. Research findings indicate that at all stages of exile, refugees in Uganda are put under pressure, either implicitly or explicitly, to relocate to settlements. The lack of progressive thinking and hence over-reliance on settlements as the mainstay of refugee protection and assistance has hampered reforms of refugee policy and hindered the broader involvement of municipal authorities in responding to protection and assistance needs of refugees in urban areas. Research findings suggest that many refugees have talents, skills, and abilities which would enable self-sufficiency in Kampala and other urban areas. However, these capabilities are currently undermined by a refugee regime which only promotes self-reliance in rural settlements. In an effort to enhance refugees' overall human security and to support their own efforts to become independent and self-reliant, this paper asserts that refugee policy in Uganda should be reformed to support refugees' decisions to choose their own places of residence, instead of restricting them to rural settlements.


En Ouganda, la politique, ainsi que la programmation, a l'egard des refugies est centree presque entierement autour de la protection et l'assistance accordee aux refugies vivant dans les zones d'installations rurales. Bien que le droit international accorde aux refugies la liberte de mouvement et de choix de reidence, la legislation Ougandaise restreint la reidence des refugies aux zones d'installations rurales, en imposant des restrictions severes a ceux qui veulent vivre a l'exterieur des zones d'installations ou dans les centres urbains. Cette etude met en lumiere les raisons pour lesquelles les refugies choisissent de vivre a Kampala, par opposition aux zones d'installations rurales, et les defis qu'ils subissent dans leur lutte pour se nourrir et subvenir a leurs propres besoins. Les recherches indiquent que pendant toute la duree de l'exil, les refugies en Ouganda subissent des pressions, implicites ou explicites, pour qu'ils s'etablissent dans les zones d'installation. Le manque de raisonnement progressiste, d'ou une trop grande dependance sur les zones d'installations comme pilier pour fournir protection et assistance aux refugies, a entrave les reformes dans la politique l'egard des refugies, et a empehe une implication plus poussee des autorites municipales pour repondre aux besoins de protection et d'assistance des refugies en milieu urbain. Les resultats des recherches donnent a penser que beaucoup de refugies possedent des talents, des competences et des aptitudes, qui pourraient leur permettre d'etre autonomes a Kampala et dans d'autres zones urbaines. Cependant, ces aptitudes sont actuellement entravees par un regime de refugie qui ne prone l'autonomie que dans les zones d'installations rurales. Dans un effort pour ame liorer la securite humaine generale des refugies et pour soutenir leurs propres efforts pour devenir independants et autonomes, cet expose affirme que la politique l'egard des refugies en Ouganda dolt etre reformee pour soutenir les decisions des refugies de choisir eux-memes leur lieu de residence, au lieu de les restreindre aux zones d'installations rurales.

  1. Background

    Uganda is generally known for its "generosity" to refugees. This perceived benevolence is based on Uganda's long history of hosting refugees and the practice of parcelling out land to them, as a means of enhancing refugee protection and livelihoods, and an avenue through which refugees can regain a semblance of normalcy and in the short term be self-reliant as they await a durable solution. This very assertion is paradoxically premised on a legal framework that barely protects and only minimally enhances refugee livelihoods. This is because the assumptions underlying the self-perception of the Government of Uganda (GoU) as generous to refugees and the international acclaim for Uganda's refugee policy and practice as generous are false: by preserving the settlement framework, policies and procedures governing refugee protection and assistance in Uganda, though seemingly cogent, remain, in fact, highly restrictive, ad hoc, and inconsistent (1) with the protection needs of refugees and the long-term goals of the refugee self-reliance policy. Current policy and practice instead compels refugees to reside in rural resettlements. Moreover, since the refugee status determination (RSD) process conducted in Kampala is integral to the experiences of refugees, this paper, focusing on the plight of urban refugees in Kampala, also sheds light on persistent problems with the RSD process (many of which have previously been documented by the Refugee Law Project (RLP), (2) and highlights a number of the ways in which the current assistance framework raises challenges to and dilutes the definition of the term "refugee."

    Until May 2006, the Control of the Aliens Refugee Act (CARA), (3) which required refugees to live in settlements and to only move out of settlements with the permission of the Settlement Commandant, (4) was the legal basis of Uganda's refugee policy. The CARA has long been criticized for being antiquated and not reflective of the rights afforded to refugees in international law. (5) In attempting to dispel this criticism, the Department of Disaster Preparedness and Refugees in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM/DDPR) has been contradictory in its responses. OPM has argued that refugee protection and assistance in Uganda is in practice governed by international law, and that the policy which requires refugees to reside in settlements is in fact to the advantage of refugees themselves and in the interest of Uganda's national security. On the other hand, OPM acknowledged that the CARA, with its emphasis on refugee control, was restrictive in its approach to assistance and protection (6) and therefore that a new law should be enacted to address such shortcomings. (7)

    Thus, prior to the new Refugee Act, which was assented to by the President of Uganda on 24 May 2006, the CARA was the legal basis for refugee settlements and the law governing refugees' protection and assistance. The new Refugee Act, hailed as a progressive document throughout Africa as it defers to several international human rights and refugee laws, retains the settlement policy. (8) In practice, therefore, what exists today--and for the foreseeable future--is a policy that focuses assistance and protection on refugees living in settlements, and not those refugees who chose, for various reasons, to live outside such restrictive spaces. (9) As has been demonstrated in previous studies, (10) however, refugee settlements and camps are not conducive to conditions which enable refugees to fully enhance their Capabilities to be independent, an intended goal of Uganda's settlement policy.

    The current focus of Uganda's refugee policy therefore ignores the unknown number of refugees who live outside settlements, especially those in urban areas such as Kampala. Although the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was in the process of ascertaining the number and identities (11) of urban refugees in Uganda, as of April 2005, it had acquiesced to OPM's settlement policy and officially recognized only 210 individuals on its urban refugee caseload, out of an estimated number of between 10,000 and 50,000 which it established itself. (12)

    Moreover, OPM and UNHCR's understanding of urban refugees appears to be limited to refugees in Kampala, to the exclusion of those in other urban centres, for instance, Mbarara, Kyenjojo, and Arua town centres. (13) This raises questions regarding the definition of "urban refugees" employed by both OPM and UNHCR and highlights the lack of a coherent and cohesive urban refugee policy. Refugees in Kampala are only recognized if they have been referred from settlements to obtain medical assistance, to await resettlement, or on account of other protection or security concerns. This small group cited above therefore represents a minute fraction of refugees who have been referred from settlements. (14) By focusing assistance and protection on refugees who live in settlements, current refugee policy in Uganda undermines refugees' freedom of movement and the right to choose their place of residence, as stipulated by Article 26 of the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (hereinafter referred to as the Refugee Convention). In addition, it unnecessarily fragments refugees into many categories.

    Recently, OPM has begun to allow refugees to remain in Kampala and provide identity documents to them if they can prove "self-sufficiency." (15) By demanding evidence of employment and residency, (16) OPM argues that this criterion for demonstrating self-sufficiency discourages those who cannot support themselves from remaining in the city. (17) However, limiting the issuance of identity documents to those who can prove "self-sufficiency" though using such arbitrary criteria is discriminatory and violates the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention: the Convention does not link refugee status to economic status.

    In contrast to refugees living in settlements, who receive initial assistance in the process of becoming self-reliant, refugees in Kampala who are not listed on UNHCR's urban caseload do not receive any targeted assistance, except...

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