Can refugees have same entitlements as citizens of the country: case study of Uganda’s progressive refugee policy

The world is witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. An unprecedented 79.5 million people around the world have been forced from home by conflict and persecution at the end of 2019. Among them are nearly 30 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. There are also millions of stateless people, who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement. World have been forced from Nearly 73% of refugees are hosted by neighbouring countries. The top five hosting countries include Turkey (3.6 M), Colombia (1.8 M), Pakistan (1.4 M), Uganda (1.4 M), and Germany (1.1 M)[1].

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Figure 1 Glance at basic statistics
related to refugees

The state of refugees in their host countries 

Refugees are defined and protected in international law. The 1951 Refugee Convention is a key legal document and defines a refugee as:  “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”  

The large majority, 84%, are hosted by developing countries (i.e. low and middle-income countries), some of them among the poorest countries in the world. Refugees are often perceived as a burden for the host country, putting pressure on public budget and service provision. Many refugees are living in host countries with limited economic growth and levels of development, and hence limited resources to cope with direct and indirect costs induced by refugees. South Sudan, Chad and Uganda face the largest refugee populations as a share of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Eight out of the top ten countries with the highest share of refugees in relation to their GDP are located in Africa, and several of them are among the poorest countries in the world. Hosting significant numbers of refugees have both economic and social impacts for host countries. A prevailing view is that refugees imply a net cost on economic and social development in the host country. Refugees can positively contribute to host countries’ economies through several channels. They can bring skills and contribute to the human capital stock, as well as stimulate trade and investment. Refugees may also create employment opportunities, and attract aid and humanitarian investments in, for example, infrastructure, which would benefit refugees as well as the society as a whole. On a macro perspective, refugees stimulate consumption, if for basic necessities. This triggers a supply response, with consequent investments in retail trade and transport and a boost in GDP (European Commission, 2016).

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Figure 2 Uganda Displacement Overview
Source: World Bank, 2016)

The first and immediate responsibility of a host country is to ensure provisions of basic amenities, such as food, water, decent housing facilities, etc. However, the governments of host countries refrain to mainstream refugees in their socio-political and economic law and order due to the fear of violence and destruction of public order. As a result, mass violations of human rights take place in the refugee camps located at places with sub-optimal living conditions. Is it really difficult to treat refugees as world citizens (if not as respective country’s citizens)? Uganda’s progressive refugee policy will give you an otherwise opinion.

 

Uganda’s progressive refugee policy: the way forward

  1. Uganda’s history of hosting refugees

Since 1959, Uganda has generously and continuously hosted refugees and asylum seekers. Since its independence, approximately 161,000 people per year from neighbouring countries have sought refuge in Uganda, mainly because of persistent conflict and instability in their home countries, especially the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, and Burundi. Uganda has a long tradition of hosting refugees. Before its independence, the country hosted European refugees fleeing conflict and violence. Soon after the end of the World War II, the British colonial administration offered refuge to thousands of Polish nationals. Some were resettled in various parts of Uganda; others moved to Tanzania and even Australia. Uganda hosted refugees from other European countries, including Germany, Italy, Austria, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, France, and Malta (Jallow et al. 2004). In 1955, after the collapse of the Anglo-Egyptian condominium of the Sudan, the Anyanya rebellion (the First Sudanese Civil War) led to the influx of 80,000 Sudanese refugees into Uganda. These early refugees were largely and spontaneously settled in northern Uganda, with some heading to urban centres like Kampala and Jinja, where significant communities of Sudanese Nubians were already residing. Seventeen years later, in 1972, following the Addis Ababa Accords, most of the Sudanese repatriated to Sudan. The second major influx of refugees took place in 1959 when about 80,000 refugees came from what was then the Belgian United Nations mandate Territory of Rwanda. To accommodate these refugees, the first gazetted refugee settlement was established in Oruchinga in south-western Uganda. Following the independence of Uganda in 1962, refugees from the newly independent states of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo continued to flow. As of December 2015, there were over 477,187 refugees and 35,779 asylum-seekers in Uganda, hosted in nine districts predominantly located in the northern, southern, and south-western regions of the country. The district of Adjumani hosts the most refugees—23.8 percent of the total refugee population, followed by Nakivale and Kampala district.

  1. Uganda’s refugee law, policy framework and development initiatives

The policy framework under which Uganda offers protection to refugees and asylum seekers is lauded as one of the most generous in the world. Refugees and asylum seekers are entitled to work, have freedom of movement, and can access Ugandan social services, such as health and education. Further, under this policy, refugees are availed with identity documents, such as Identity cards, birth, death, marriage, and education certificates. As a policy, all refugees living in settlements are provided with an agricultural plot on which to cultivate crops. Refugees can own property, lease land, and generally harness their commercial and professional expertise without interference. Because of these factors, Uganda offers refugees their best chance for self-reliance. Uganda’s door is open to all asylum seekers. It is lauded for having one of the best refugee law and policy regimes in the world (Owing and Nagujja 2014)[2]. According to Jallow et al. (2004),[3] “Both in policy and practice, there is a conducive environment for refugees in Uganda which deserves recognition.” Uganda has emerged as a country possessing a very receptive climate for refugees and “the place where the rest of the world can learn something about the treatment of refugees” (Faigle 2015). It is recognized that while Uganda is experiencing an ongoing “silent emergency” due to a “slow but steady” refugee influx, especially from the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and more recently, Burundi, it has nevertheless kept its asylum door open to all seeking refuge within its borders, a posture which Die Zeit has characterized as being both “generous and exemplary” (Faigle 2015)[4]

It is worthwhile to trace Uganda’s evolution of refugee laws and policy framework. The first colonial era law made no distinction between ordinary aliens and refugees. The Aliens Registration and Control Act, enacted by the British Colonial Office in 1949, contained draconian provisions for the handling and controlling of all aliens in Uganda, regardless of whether or not they were refugees[5]. For over four decades, the Control of Aliens Refugees Act of 1960 served as the principal domestic legislation regarding refugees, until the enactment of the 2006 Refugees Act. Today, the legal regime for the protection of refugees in Uganda is multi-tiered, comprising three essential dimensions: (1) international conventions and declarations, (2) regional agreements, and (3) national legislation and regulations.

After being admitted as a member of the United Nations, Uganda began the process of agreeing to a number of international and human rights instruments. In 1976, it acceded to the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees[6], complementary instruments that are universal in scope and constitute the legal foundation for the global protection regime for refugees. Uganda, as a major asylum country and a new Organization of African Unity (OAU) member, actively participated in the debates and negotiations leading to the drafting and conclusion of the 1969 OAU Convention governing the specific aspects of refugee problems in Africa[7]. The convention builds on existing international protection architecture and seeks to address aspects and challenges related the protection of refugees that are specific to the African continent and that, as a result, may not be adequately addressed in existing global refugee protection instruments. The main contribution of the OAU convention is its broadening of the international legal definition of the term “refugee” to include all persons externally displaced due to armed conflict as well as those fleeing political persecution and domination. The OAU convention also recognizes the right to seek asylum, and stresses that the granting of asylum, being essentially a “peaceful and humanitarian act,” should not be regarded as an unfriendly act by another country. It prohibits refugees from engaging in subversive acts or activities that are likely to cause tensions among OAU member states, whether by use of arms, through the press, radio or internet.

Rights and obligations of refugees

The 2006 Refugees Act and the 2010 Refugee Regulations embody key refugee protection principles and freedoms. They are derived directly from the international and regional refugee instruments that

Uganda ratified without entering reservations. The 2010 regulations were not only crafted to operationalize the provisions of the 2006 Refugees Act, but also to supplement the same with new and novel provisions where there were gaps. As a result, they contain a number of provisions that are radical, progressive, or innovative such as property rights and access to land, access to employment, freedom of movement, freedom of association, non-discrimination and equality before law.

  1. Factors that influence the generous policy framework

The openness and generosity of local Ugandan communities toward refugees is partly related to the fact that many Ugandans have themselves been refugees or internally displaced at one time, including people in government positions (Jallow et al. 2004)[8]. Even Uganda’s current President Yoweri Museveni fled to Tanzania in the 1970s and lived there as a refugee. Another factor often cited regarding the openness of Uganda is the cultural, linguistic, and ethnic affinities between Ugandans and many of the refugees from across the border. A question commonly raised is: why does Uganda not seem to suffer from “asylum fatigue syndrome” as other countries often do when faced with chronic refugee inflows, even ones of shorter duration and magnitude? Indeed, Uganda continues to maintain an open door policy and, over time, has established what is widely considered to be a liberal and excellent record as a country of refuge. Observers seeking to explain this unique and outstanding humanitarian record have advanced a number of possible reasons such as the shared ethnicity among communities living along all of these countries’ borders is another important contributor, with nearly half of Uganda’s 64 constitutionally recognized indigenous communities having become administratively divided from their kith and kin by the colonial borders.

Limitations

The Ugandan refugee policy is impressive but limited in one important way. The most impressive aspects include: (1) having an open door policy to all asylum seekers regardless of nationality or ethnicity; (2) granting refugees relative freedom of movement and the right to seek employment; and (3) providing each family of refugees with a plot of land for their exclusive (agricultural) use.

  1. But while the legal framework provides generous support for the integration of refugees, it does not provide a permanent solution for those who can neither repatriate nor be resettled in another country. People in this situation remain refugees in Uganda for life, a fate also shared by their children and even their grandchildren, who have no hope of obtaining citizenship. Refugees can, however, vote and be elected at the village level per Section 46(3) of the Local Government Act and the constitution.
  2. Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, 1995, implicitly excludes refugees from becoming Ugandan citizens, whether by birth or by registration. Theoretically, a refugee could obtain citizenship by naturalization under Article 13 if the parliament enacted a law permitting it, but politically, this has not been done. And while it is possible in principle for refugee “foundlings and adopted children” to attain Ugandan citizenship per Article 11, the constitution denies refugees who are born in Uganda and their children citizenship by registration if the “mother of his or her parents or any of his or her grandparents was a refugee in Uganda.

Conclusion

Although Uganda is lauded with most progressive refugee policy in the world, a shift in the philosophy of refugee assistance is also crucial: refugees should be viewed as economic actors in charge of their destiny (development approach) rather than as beneficiaries of aid (humanitarian approach). One of the key aspects behind’s Uganda’s success is the social cohesion in the host communities and refugee communities, the World Bank and UNHCR assessment reports highlight that citizens of Uganda perceive ‘special privileges’  (as accorded to refugees and asylum seekers in 2010 act) as the state favouring refugees above its own citizens. The classic situation that many host countries face today or have faced previously. An important limitation of an otherwise progressive refugee policy and legal framework relates to the inability of refugees to acquire Ugandan citizenship regardless of how long they remain in the country. This leaves many refugees in a protracted refugee state when the durable solutions of return or resettlement are not possible. This reiterates that although refugees can be treated as ‘humans’ by certain states with the help of progressive law and order framework, but the governments of these respective states will persistently refrain them to be their ‘country’s citizens’.

 

 

[1]  https://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html

[2] Owing, E., and Y. Nagujja. 2014. “Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place, Challenges of Refugees with Disabilities and Their Families in Uganda.” In Crises, Conflict and Disability: Ensuring Equality, edited by D. Mitchell and V. Karr, Routledge.

[3] Jallow, T., J. Tournée, A. Mwesigye, H. Schierbeck, F. Kasahura, R. Mayanja et al. (2004). “Report of the Mid-term Review: Self-Reliance Strategy (1999–2003) for Refugee Hosting Areas in Moyo, Arua and Adjumani Districts, Uganda.” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Government of Uganda

[4] Faigle, P. 2015. “Die Landgabe.” ZEIT Online (May 27). http://www.zeit.de/feature/uganda-fluechtlinge-land- schenkung


 

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