Uganda is a developing country with meagre resources but despite that, the country is leading the way in terms of refugee response. For this, says Charlie Yaxley, the UNHCR Associate External Relations Officer in Kampala, Uganda deserves special praise. “Uganda has a unique policy towards refugees,” says Yaxley, “It already has land which has been designated for refugees before they even come.
In addition to the free land, the refugees have freedom of movement around Uganda. They are also allowed to seek employment; they are able to get jobs, to try and sustain themselves.
“They can try and open businesses if they wish. This is opposed to so many other countries which require refugees and asylum seekers to stay in camps all the time”.
Yaxley told The Independent in a recent interview that UNHCR commends the government for this “exceptionally generous policy.”
Pecos Kuliloshi’s refugee life in Uganda is perhaps the best example of how Uganda’s refugee policy which is praised around the world as one of the most progressive works.
Kuliloshi fled his home in Kiziba village in Bukavu, South Kivu, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in November 2000 at the age of 23. This was at the peak of the Congolese civil war that led to the ousting of the late Congolese president, Laurent Kabila, from power. Kuliloshi was a member of a human rights advocacy group.
Full of ideas and bubbling with energy at the time, Kuliloshi remembers demonstrating against the foreign armies’ massive violation of human rights of eastern Congolese. He fled when he got to know of plans to neutralise the leaders of the group.
He remembers being helped by Catholic priests from Bukavu who gave him some little money and transported him through Jomba via Goma to Southwestern Uganda.
“I crossed with the Father to Uganda as if we were going to buy groceries,” he says. “I later boarded a bus headed for Kampala to seek safety, hoping to return home as soon as the situation normalised.”
It has never.
No easy life
When Kuliloshi arrived in Kampala, everything around him seemed different. He only spoke his native Mashi, Lingala, French, and Kiswahili languages.
At a time when refugees were not allowed to stay in urban areas like Kampala, except in the settlements, Kuliloshi insisted on staying in the city.
“Life was never easy,” he says.
Back in Congo, Kuliloshi had graduated with a diploma in education and was teaching French, Philosophy and Psychology but when he arrived in Uganda, he soon realised that the knowledge he had was of no value unless he learnt English.
He had to start from scratch but at least there were chances of him trying to forge a new life. He says he was free to move anywhere in Kampala. He embarked on doing odd jobs, especially on road construction.
“That is how I used to survive; buying food, clothes and shoes,” he says.
But this kind of work was too hard for him and in 2003 he got a softer job as a cleaner in a hospital.
Kuliloshi took the decision to integrate in the Ugandan society in 2005. When he decided to learn English, the British Council library in Kampala proved a good place to start.
“That is where I would spend a lot of time reading books with the help of a dictionary,” he says.
One day Kuliloshi who is a Catholic chanced on a mass at Christ the King Church in Kampala which was organising a youth conference. He attended and got friends who convinced him to join the St. Joseph Choir. He agreed but on one condition: he would only join a choir which sings in English.
“That helped me to grasp words and to this day, the English I speak is because of the choir.”
Today Kuliloshi is fluent in both English and Luganda– the most widely spoken local dialect from Central Uganda. He seems to be at peace and quite familiar with Kampala life.
But as another refugee; Saleh Idres Adam, testifies, anyone fleeing their country does not have to be as familiar with Kampala as Kuliloshi to feel safe in Uganda.
“Life in Kampala is difficult. We are refugees and we don’t have work and we don’t have capital to start business,” says Adam, “But I choose Uganda because it is secure and peaceful. When I am here I feel grateful that no one is going to disturb me.”
Adam fled Khartoum, the capital of his home country, Sudan, in 2010 because, he says, he was fed up with the discrimination of black Sudanese by Arabs. He says this escalated during the Darfur conflict.
“The Sudanese government and the Janjaweed militia attacked the Darfurian people because they are jealous of our resources which they want to take control of. We have gold, uranium, oil and everything, that is why they came to Darfur to clear us.” “We are very rich,” Adam tries to explain the reasons as to why the Darfur conflict has been raging on for more than a decade.
Some humanitarian and relief agency accounts say the conflict has cost 400,000 lives, and displaced over 3 million people.
At the height of the conflict, Adam was in Khartoum pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Agriculture. Communication between him and his family suddenly got cut off and to this day, Adam says, he does not know what happened to his family.
He tried to continue with his studies but the discrimination of Darfurians in Khartoum worsened.
“There were killings and arrests,” he told The Independent in a recent interview, “My security was no longer guaranteed.”
Although he was three years into his five year Agricultural degree programme, he decided to leave.
Adam is probably six feet tall, dark-skinned and has sparkling white teeth. When he speaks in English, he does so slowly and cautiously. He speaks with a heavy Arabic accent and struggles to pronounce certain words. He says he arrived in Kampala in 2011, via South Sudan. He says there are 500 refugees from Darfur who now call Kampala home.
Big numbers, progressive policies
Adam and Kuliloshi show why Uganda is being praised around the world for its progressive approach to the refugee issue.
Uganda, through the 2006 Refugee Act and the 2010 Refugee regulations, has domesticated many of the principles of the 1951 Refugee Convention which defines the rights of refugees. These include the right not be expelled, except under certain, strictly defined conditions; the right to work, the right to housing, education, public relief and assistance, freedom of religion, access to the courts; right to freedom of movement within the country and the right to be issued identity and travel documents.
UNHCR, together with the Office of the Prime Minister, leads the co-ordination of the refugee response.
As soon as the refugees cross Ugandan borders, the government works in collaboration with UNHCR and other local refugee agencies to register and issue civil identity documents to individual refugees, decide on asylum applications and appeals, deploy civil servants, health workers and teachers to refugee settlements; and contribute medical supplies and staff to refugee operations.
Several refugee settlements have been setup around the country in the districts of Arua, Adjumani, Moyo, Kyenjojo, Hoima, Masindi and Isingiro. Active settlements include Nakivale, Oruchinga, Kyangwali, Kiryandongo, Paralonya, and the integrated camps of Adjumani. There are options for asylum seekers and refugees to stay in urban areas like Kampala as long as they can be self-reliant.
According to the UNHCR, Uganda is currently hosting the biggest number of refugees in its history. This makes it the ninth-largest refugee hosting country in the world and fourth-largest host country relative to national GDP.
Yaxley told The Independent that UNHCR has since 2014 seen a record number of refugees as more people flee their homes in Burundi, South Sudan, DR Congo, Central African Republic, Syria, Ukraine and Iraq. Yaxley says Uganda currently gets between 3,000-4,000 new arrivals every month.
Today, Uganda hosts up to 460,000 refugees mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Somalia, Central African Republic, Egypt, Pakistan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Eritrea, and Sri Lanka.
By May, there were 71,949 refugees living in Kampala with 45% of these being children. An equally bigger number of this population is adolescents, youths and women.
70 year history
Uganda’s experience with refugees dates back to the colonial era. At the peak of the Second World War in 1942, for instance, the country hosted 7000 Polish refugees (mainly women and children) in Nyabyeya and Kojja in Masindi and Mukono districts respectively.
Scholastica Nasinyama, the executive director of InterAid, a local NGO that has been helping refugees to settle in Uganda since 1988 says their goal, together with UNHCR, is to give refugees in Uganda hope.
“The refugees are Uganda’s guests and they need to get that assistance at the same level as us,” says Nasinyama who has in particular worked with refugees for the last 20 years, moving through the ranks to the top at InterAid.
“We try to make local communities understand who refugees are; why they are here in Uganda; what role each one of us has to play as well as inform them that refugees are supposed to access public services at the same level as the rest of the Ugandans.
“We explain to them the uniqueness of the refugee needs. We explain to them why there could be unique situations that the refugee children, for instance, may present at school.”
“We go out to the schools to do group counseling to both refugees and the local children; we also explain all this to senior male and female teachers to deal with individual children with unique challenges.”
At the InterAid offices near the Buganda Kingdom seat at Lubiri in Rubaga Division, it is not unusual to find groups of urban refugees engaged in training to acquire business and other entrepreneurship skills.
“This training helps them to start some small businesses, mobilise savings and live within their means.” “We get ideas from them; then we transform them to build a business plan,” Joram Mwebaze, a trainer told The Independent recently after taking Congolese refugee youths through a business planning session.
At the nearby Antonio Gutterez Community Centre in Kampala’s Rubaga Division, another group of mainly Congolese women attend a handicrafts making class.
But this centre plays another important role in the lives of urban refugees. Hundreds of refugee youths turn up here every evening to surf the internet and connect with the world; they play football, volleyball and football here while others choose to keep their music talent alive by practicing. The idea is to help them get together and do something meaningful in their lives, says Nasinyama.
Agnes Mujawayesu, a Rwandan refugee who arrived in Uganda a decade ago with her two daughters leads one of the women’s groups called Abisunganye.
Her entry into Uganda was also difficult. But she never pitied herself. It was not long before she started getting involved with local NGOs which help refugees live a fairly decent life in the city. She joined other groups to learn how to make art and crafts.
She now teaches female refugees to make crafts. She has about 30 members in her group. The group comprises Congolese, Burundian, Rwandan and Ugandan nationals.
They make key holders, bags, and other simple interior decorations. But like the rest of the low income earner Ugandans who accuse Kampala Capital City Authority’s law enforcement officers of harassment, Mujawayesu also says her members struggle to find a market for their creations.
Nasinyama hopes the new legal framework will enable the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), the UN and other local NGOs come together and try to improve the refugee services not only in the refugee settlements but also in urban areas like Kampala.
She is happy refugee development issues have now been included in the second National Development Plan.
“We are beginning to look at refugees as part of us.”
“Today it is them, tomorrow it may be us. It is our turn to help the refugees because we are brothers and sisters. You never know what tomorrow might bring,” she says.
But even then, we still remind the refugees about the laws of Uganda.
“If you are a guest in Uganda, you must observe the laws; you must know the systems and procedures and behave like any of the Ugandans.”