Uganda’s refugee protection regime

by Charity Ahumuza Onyoin

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Charity holds a Bachelors Degree in Laws from Makerere University, a Post-graduate Diploma from the Law Development Centre (both in Kampala) and a Master of Laws Degree in Human Rights from Central European University, Budapest. She is an advocate of the High Court and subordinate courts in Uganda. Charity is a human rights practitioner with 7 years’ experience in the field of forced migration and currently works as the Access to Justice Programme Manager at the Refugee Law Project.

Since the 1940s, Uganda has generously hosted refugees from Africa and beyond. Today the majority of Uganda’s refugees and asylum seekers originate from neighboring countries affected by conflict including South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. As a country at the center of a troubled region, Uganda has received praises for its generous policy towards refugees. In the last three years however, international attention towards the country’s refugee policy has increased following the migrant ‘crisis’ in Europe and South Sudan conflict. States and critics alike are turning to the country now hosting the largest refugee population in Africa to draw lessons and analyze the practicability and sustainability of its generous refugee policy.
The refugee context in Uganda is very dynamic and constantly changing. In June 2016, the refugee population stood at about 573,173 with the majority coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. Many of these refugees were settled in the western and south western parts of Uganda in gazetted refugee settlements. From July 2016 onwards, Uganda began to receive about 4,000 South Sudanese daily, fleeing major unrest in the world’s newest country. Today, the refugee population stands at over 1,252,470 (about 3% of the total population in Uganda). Half the refugees are South Sudanese, with multiple new refugee settlements having been set up in the northern part of the country. Currently, the largest settlement is Bidibidi, with about 270,000 refugees and the population ratio of refugees to nationals in some districts is 2:3.

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Uganda’s progressive refugee law and policy framework

The legal regime for the protection of refugees in Uganda is enshrined in Uganda’s Refugees Act of 2006 and Refugee Regulations of 2010. The Refugees Act mirrors several international and regional instruments including the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1969 Organisation of African Unity Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. This legal regime has been hailed as one of the most progressive in the world.
Previously Uganda’s refugee management and protection was governed by the Control of Aliens Act Cap 64 of 1960 (CARA). The Act was largely inconsistent with international standards relating to refugees and the 1995 Constitution of Uganda; it failed to establish the criteria upon which individuals would claim refugee status and individuals would become refugees by an order of the minister; it lacked processes and structures for refugee status determination, and provided only for group status, rather than individual status determination. The Act also restricted refugees’ to residing in the settlements and made it an offence to leave the settlements without permission. It also specifically excluded any possibility of citizenship for refugees regardless of the period spent in Uganda.
While the provisions of the CARA were not followed to the letter, the 2006 Act nonetheless brought a new dawn for asylum seekers and refugees in Uganda. It provided for structures, procedures and fundamental rights of refugees and asylum seekers in Uganda. The key rights and freedoms include: the right to an identification document; to own and dispose of movable and immovable property including land through leases and other contracts; to access elementary education and tertiary education upon recognition of relevant certificates and diplomas; to engage in agriculture, industry and commercial trade; to practice one’s profession upon recognition by competent authorities; access to informal and formal employment opportunities; access to courts and legal assistance and intellectual property rights. The Act also provides for freedom of worship and freedom of movement with the same limitations for public order and national security as apply to nationals. Refugees are free to settle in both urban areas and rural refugee settlements which has allowed for interaction and integration with host communities. The Regulations provides for allocation of land to each refugee family for agricultural use, exemption from work permit fees, special attention for vulnerable groups including unaccompanied minors and participation of voluntary organisations in refugee assistance.

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This framework has allowed for the establishment of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) to complement government interventions. The Refugee Law Project (RLP), an out-reach project of the School of Law Makerere University, is one such initiative. Established in 1999 with the core goal of providing free legal assistance to refugees and asylum seekers, the RLP has expanded its mandate to providing direct legal and psychosocial support services to forced migrants in Uganda including refugees, asylum seekers, deportees and internally displaced persons. With seven offices and close to 100 staff, the RLP operates under five thematic programmes namely: Access to Justice, Gender and Sexuality, Mental Health and Psycho-social wellbeing, Conflict Transitional Justice and Governance, and Media for Social Change. From an advocacy perspective, the Refugee Law Project works to bring the hidden realities of refugees to the fore. Examples include highlighting the place of forced migrants in transitional justice, the extent of conflict-related sexual violence affecting men alongside women, the challenges facing LGBTIQ asylum seekers, the denial of bail to refugee offenders. 
The government has also taken practical steps to promote refugee protection, self-reliance and peaceful co-existence with host communities. In 1998, the government in partnership with UNHCR introduced the self-reliance strategy with the aim of reducing donor reliance and addressing socio-economic needs of both refugees and host communities. The ReHoPE strategy was also established promote peaceful co-existence between host and refugee communities through ensuring that host communities benefit 30% from assistance provide to refugees and. Today in some districts, this ratio has moved from 70:30 to 50:50. Rather than looking at refugees as a burden that depletes a country of its resources, Uganda sees refugees as contributors to national development. In fact, the Settlement Transformative Agenda developed by the Office of the Prime Minister was added to the draft National Development Plan II (2015/16 -2019/20). Further, following the Universal Period Review Cycles of Uganda in 2011 and 2016, Uganda has drafted the National Action Plan on human rights and included refugees under Objective 5. While this policy is not without fault, it provides important lessons from which other states can learn.
Today, the South Sudanese influx is testing Uganda’s celebrated refugee framework to its limits. However, credit must be given to the Government and local communities for receiving refugees and settling them on land that has mostly been donated by the locals. Uganda insists and rightly so that it will not back down on its international obligations and that it will stand by this policy and provide safety to refugees. A solidarity summit has been planned at the end of June 2017 as Uganda chooses to stand with refugees in commemoration of World Refugee Day on 20 June (13 June 2017).