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Uganda’s liberal refugee policy from a security perspective

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First published by Change of Guards Blog on April 9, 2015

The 1960 Control of Alien Refugee Act

This Act required refugees to reside in gazetted settlement camps. They would only be allowed to leave the camp with permits for specified purpose and duration. Only a few were allowed to live in urban settings i.e. those with security concerns, health care, pending resettlement to third countries and those with proven self sufficiency. At the time and throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, Uganda was host to mainly Rwandese, Congolese and Sudanese refugees.

However, despite that restriction of movements policy, many Rwandese Tutsi refugees left the camps and settled among the locals, acquired local names, property, and jobs both in government and the private sector. This way they went as far as enlisting into the host country’s security services and participated both in the defence and overthrow of the Iddi Amin regime. During the post Iddi Amin governments, Rwandese refugees played a key role in fighting the UPC government alongside Museveni’s NRA and brought him to power.

Having been at the helm of the country’s military and political power base, they organised/planned the invasion of Rwanda that culminated into the 1994 Genocide. After taking over government in Rwanda, those who wished to return to Rwanda did so and those who wished to stay remained. However, RPF combatants who opted to desert the army would flee and settle with their relatives in Uganda and the government could not identify them. The inclusion in the 1995 Constitution of the Banyarwanda as one of the indigenous tribes of Uganda automatically cancelled their refugee status. The Congolese refugees who had earlier fled the political turmoil of the 60s and 70s had long returned to their country. Its the Southern Sudanese refugees fleeing the then SPLA war against Khartoum that dominated the refugee situation in Uganda during the 90s.

Refugee Management in Uganda

The Refugee Act of 2006 that repealed the 1960 Control of Alien Refugee Act created a Department of Refugees (DOR) under the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) and a Ministry of Refugees. There are in place a number of traditional refugee camps like Nakivale and Oruchinga in Isingiro district, Kyaka II and Rwamwanja in Tooro, Kyangwali in Hoima, Kiryandongo in Masindi, and then in West Nile and Northern regions there is Paralonyo, Rhino Camp, Mvebi, Madi Okollo and the integrated camps of Adjuman district.

Unlike the usual overcrowded refugee camps, settlement camps are designed in such a way that each house hold is allocated a plot of land sufficient enough to cultivate and sustain it food requirements and even sell the surplus. Refugees in the settlement camps share with the locals the same social services provided by the government. The government provides civil servants, drugs, health workers, teachers and security officers to the camps.  A good number of local and international NGOs supplement government in providing for these refugees.

Currently Uganda has about 400,000 registered refugees originating from DRC, South Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Eritrea and Ethiopia. South Sudan provides the highest number followed by DRC and Somalia. Majority of these refugees live in settlement camps about 50,000 registered refugees live in urban settings more especially in the capital Kampala. There are about 5000 so called returnees who were expelled from Tanzania in 2013 that are accommodated at an ungazetted camp at Sango Bay. Their status is not clear but government is planning to resettle and issue them with national IDs. There are former Congolese M23 combatants who are accommodated at the Bihanga military camp and whose status in Uganda is not clear. These are foreigners inside a military camp where a citizen is restricted from accessing!! While majority of refugees in Uganda are registered, there are thousands out there settled among the locals without the knowledge of the authorities.

Refugee status determination process in Uganda

For those who upon entry into the country are received by the authorities and taken to the settlement camps, it is the Settlement Commandant who carries out their registration. For the asylum seekers who upon entry into the country they proceed to the capital Kampala, they are required to report to the Crime Intelligence unit at Old Kampala Police Station for registration. At the Police station, they are issued with a Registration Card and instructed to proceed to the DOR in the Prime Ministers office. At the Prime Minister’s office, they are registered and given an appointment for an interview.

Each registered house hold is issued with an Asylum Seekers Attestation renewable after three months till a decision is made by the Refugee Eligibility Committee. The asylum seeker returns to the Police station for another interview.  Successful applicants are issued with Refugee IDs by the OPM and given the option of either staying in the city or proceeding to the settlement camp. For those whose applications are not successful, they have the option of appealing and the appeal interview is conducted by the Police’s Crime Intelligence Unit. For majority of refugees in Uganda, they do not go through this process but simply qualify under the Prima facier (on the face of it) arrangement or automatic recognition. Imagine with the outspoken corrupt tendencies by the Uganda Police, such sweeping powers are prone to abuse thus serious security breach.

Urban refugees

In 2009 the UNHCR released its urban refugees’ policy. In October 2009 while addressing the organising committee of the AU summit on Refugees, Museveni advocated for urban refugee settlement. He argued that: “…….. why can’t we think of refugees outside camps because land will not always be there.” About 5000 urban refugees were registered in Kampala alone by the department of refugees. They have established residential zones i.e. Kisenyi for Somalis, Katwe Kevina, Old Kampala and Massajja for Congolese, etc. They come to the city either from escaping the hard life in the settlement camps or directly from their home countries and in some rare cases from third countries of transit.

They form associations, set up own schools, establish own born again churches, initiate group projects etc. At Old Kampala, Primary School, out of the 900 pupils, 400 are refugees. A good number of local and international NGOs work with urban refugees in Kampala city. The urban refugees are involved in all sorts of business enterprises to make ends meet and of course including crime. They have their own community leaders and well set out networks whereby they receive and help the new arrivals to access the refugee status process. In July 2012, a visiting top US diplomat commended Uganda’s policy on urban refugees but during the function the Mayor for Rubaga Division decried the behavior of some of these urban refugees describing them as a security threat thus: “some of them come with pistols and sharp objects.

They are very uncooperative and do not respect hygiene of the places they live.” The Refugee Department carried out a massive registration exercise in 2014 for urban refugees in the city before issuing them with one year renewable IDs. In the West Nile and some parts of northern Uganda, a good number of South Sudan refugees who fled the recent insecurity simply rented houses in urban centers. In November 2014 Refugees Minister Hillary Onek directed local authorities to register all such urban refugees.

Refugee freedom of movement

Refugees have a right to travel documents, access to employment opportunities, freedom of movement and to own property. In return they have the obligation to abide by the laws, maintain public order measures, not to endanger state security, not to engage in political activities etc. The Uganda government relaxed rules to enable refugees make a living in the country; find work and settle. The government argued that refugees who contribute to the economy through generating wealth should be able to travel freely out of Uganda without being locked in one place. On top of issuing IDs, the government unveiled the Refugee Passport in 2014.

It was aimed at assisting them seek, study, do business and access medical opportunities abroad. The 32-page Blue passport booklet is titled: “Republic of Uganda, Convention Travel Document. It is issued by the Passport Control Officer at the same cost like a normal citizen’s passport. Inside the front cover it is clearly printed that it is issued in the name of the President of the Republic of Uganda who is requesting and requiring all those to whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to affords the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.”

It is valid for ten years as long as the refugee status still holds. The bearer enjoys visa free travel privileges extended by signatories to the 1951 refugee convention. Whereas a normal UN Refugee Travel Document is issued in accordance with Article 28 of the UN Convention of July 1951, the Uganda design bears the July 1967 Convention. The Uganda model is a unique design to suit the sinister designs of the regime.

Refugees or immigrants

The Great Lakes, South Sudan and Horn of Africa regions have experienced conflicts that have left millions displaced. Refugees are identified by the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. For decades, South Sudanese sought asylum in mainly Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia. Somalis have been dominant in Kenya with a few ending up in Uganda in recent times. Rwandese Tutsi refugees were dominant in Burundi, Tanzania, Congo and Uganda. Burundian Hutu refugees were prevalent in DRC and Tanzania. Following the take over of power by Tutsis in Rwanda, it was the turn of Hutus to flee to mainly DRC and Tanzania.

Burundian Hutus who would flee the Tutsi dominated governments were initially hosted by the former Hutu dominated government of Rwanda, Congo and Tanzania. Following the take over of Tutsis in Rwanda and the subsequent invasion of, the Burundian Hutus relocated to Tanzania. Following the independence of South Sudan, its refugees repatriated in big numbers only to return following the recent conflict. Rwandese Hutu refugees were forcefully repatriated from Tanzania in 1996. Recently Tanzania granted citizenship to thousands of Burundian refugees of the 1972 lot and repatriated thousands of the 1993 lot.  Following the armed conflicts in DRC following the overthrow of Mobutu, Congolese from the eastern region have sought asylum in Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda.

Although a number of Rwandese Hutus were repatriated from eastern DRC, thousands still remain there among them those bent of fighting the Kigali regime. When the going gets tough for these Hutus in Congo, they relocate to either Tanzania, Uganda but pose as being Congolese. Even Burundians who did not want to go home from Tanzania claim to be Congolese. The same applies to Rwandese Hutus who had earlier sought asylum in Tanzania claiming to be Burundian had to relocate to Uganda while claiming to be Congolese. Genocide suspects and other innocent Hutus haunted by the frequent threats from the government in Rwanda find safe heavens in Uganda.

Those who have the means move further south in countries like Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and South Africa. In Uganda, some immigrants don’t even report to the authorities but simply settle among the communities. Lack of land in Burundi and Rwanda has also contributed to the migration of their citizens to Uganda by first claiming refugee status before melting into the communities and settling down, that way they acquire land and then arrange to have more of their friends and relatives to join them too. In Uganda, Rwandese and Burundians take advantage of their closeness to the Bafumbira of South Western Uganda by claiming and being viewed as Bafumbira while seeking to settle in other areas of the country including urban settings. This arrangement has been exploited by criminals who escape justice.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has an arrangement whereby it helps to resettle a small number of refugees from the country of first asylum to other countries overseas like the US, Canada, Australia and some European countries. Thousands of Rwandese, Congolese, Sudanese, Somalis etc. refugees residing in the Great Lakes region have benefited from this arrangement. Like is happening in across the Sahara Desert in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe by those from the horn of Africa, there are irregular movements within the Great Lakes region in pursuit of the same.

Those who are already refugees are reluctant to repatriate in anticipation of being resettled overseas while those seeking better economic prospects just pack their bags before crossing the frontier to claim asylum in order to try their luck on being relocated by the UNHCR. For the economically hard hit Rwandese Tutsis from inside Rwanda, the false claim of being Banyamulenge qualifies them for refugee status. That is how you find a particular refugee is registered in a number of countries in the region but under different names and nationalities.

They have overtime mastered the art of articulating false claims that convince the authorities who handle refugee status eligibility. Owing to the above, there is a lucrative business involving human trafficking revolving around the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region and connecting to Southern Africa regions and the French Islands of Mauritius and Mayote. The other Somali youths rounded up in Kampala last year and indicted for terrorism including two girls could be victims of such irregular movement of the so-called refugees. Also, that is how many of them are always visiting their home countries to check of families and friends, attend weddings and burials or get holidays when the school term ends. In so doing they manage cross-border illicit trade in precious minerals and other merchandise.

Israeli’s African refugees swap

In 2014 it started as a rumour that Israeli had reached a secret deal with the Kampala regime to receive and keep Eritrean, Ethiopian and Sudanese refugees repatriated from Israel. The deal was alleged to involve receiving and keeping them in the country or helping them to transit to their home countries. In return Israeli was to supply Uganda with arms and agricultural support. The regime in Kampala vehemently denied the existence of such a deal but shortly after an Israeli arms dealer was arrested at Entebbe over illegal importation of arms into Uganda. In court the suspected arms dealer claimed that it was the government of Uganda that was importing arms from the Israeli Weapons Industry.

The Permanent Secretary Ministry of Defence of Uganda owned the arms but there was no trace of any payments for the arms made by Uganda and the matter just ended there. Investigative Journalists traced two Ethiopians, Barahawa Fransa and Jamal Nesredin Hassan as two Ethiopians residing in Kampala who had already been dumped in Uganda from Israeli under the arrangement. Earlier in 2011 Museveni had made frequent visits to Israeli and currently there is a big group of Ugandans undergoing training in Agriculture in Israeli. It is only last week that Uganda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs acknowledged the presence of the arrangement thus: “…. this matter has been raised before us, and since it is getting serious, we should look into it.”

This followed Israeli’s announcement that 2000 African refugees were ready to be dumped into Uganda and Rwanda. Under the arrangement, the government of Israel gives the affected refugees 7000 US$ to the affected refugees in return for accepting to leave Israeli voluntarily. The Kampala regime could be attracted by those few dollars that the refugees are bringing with them.

Crime

It is not by coincidence that the following incidents involving people who are not Ugandans have take place of recent: –

–    The star state witness in the trial of the 2010 terror attack in Kampala, a one Mugisha Muhamad claims to be a Ugandan citizen born in Rwanda in 1983. That he relocated to Uganda in 1998 for fear of reprisal attacks by genocide perpetrators. That he stayed in Nakivale camp though he was not a registered refugee in Uganda and had no refugee status. That while at Nakivale camp he converted to Islam and left the camp later to South Africa, Kenya and Somalia where he trained with Al-Shaabab. His cross examination continues in court and we are yet to hear more shocking revelations.

–  July 2012 a Rwanda Genocide suspect, Kwitonda was arrested in Kampala by the Police. He had fled Rwanda in 2001 and had been a resident of Kasubi in Kampala. Police acknowledged that the suspect had been giving huge sums of cash to security officers to evade arrest.

–  On 14th January 2015 another Rwandese Genocide suspect, Jean Paul Birindabagabo was arrested in Mpigi where he had been a Pastor at Buwama after he crossed from Congo years earlier.

–    In June 2014 15 armed attackers on a Pentecostal Church in Kyegegwa left three dead including a Police Officer who had rushed to the scene to intervene, one of the victims Beata Mukashaka bears a Congolese Tutsi or Rwandese name but was found to be a resident of the area that has historically had no Rwandese. Three suspected attackers i.e. Hakizimana Abdu Salim (the Imam of the local Mosque), Hassan Mubarak Awera alias Sazimana Silvester and Niyosenga Ibrahim Tulole mysteriously died in Police custody. They had been part of the 18 suspects rounded up by locals and security agents as they emerged from a sugar plantation where they had been hiding.

Later on, the army ambushed and killed a one Abdul Aziz and captured James Muhamad Kahungu. The army Spokesperson said: “These people are known in the area. Even the one killed was identified by the father. They are Islamic extremists and they have been telling people to convert to Islam.” Police also arrested and paraded the commanders of the group they had arrested from Ibambala Forest whom they claimed had revealed vital information in which the group had been recruiting and training under the guise of spreading the Muslim faith. Top leaders of the group were identified as Yahaya Sharif Kalemba from Kanungu and Abdurahim from Kabale. Some of the above names of the suspects sound Rwandese; could they be part of the groups who just sneak into Uganda, acquire land and settle?

–   It is alleged that when Kagame’s former bodyguard Lt Joel Mutabazi fled Rwanda and sought asylum in Uganda, he sent for his firearm that he had left hidden in Rwanda. Once delivered in Kampala, he used it to stage manage an attack on himself so that the government could speed up the process of granting him refugee status and eventual relocation overseas by the UNHCR. Indeed, following this incident, his personal security was enhanced by putting in place police guards and accommodation in a Hotel. It is said that that firearm was later thrown in a pit latrine in Kampala but maybe it is out there doing damage to Ugandans. How many arms are brought into the country by refugees?

–    In 2011 dissident Rwandese Journalist was shot dead in Kampala and the following day is when an alleged stage managed attempt on the life of Lt Joel Mutabazi was made. Six months later another Rwandese refugee Jerome Ndagijimana had his throat split open in Kampala. In another incident, a Rwandese refugee alleged to have been kidnapped by agents of the Rwanda government, tortured and dumped in the city council mortuary. While it is true that the Rwanda government sends hit squads to harm dissidents, it is also likely that some criminal refugees stage manage or carry out real harm against one another in order to enhance the much craved for relocation overseas by the UNHCR.

–   In January 2015 three suspected government drugs thieves were arrested. The three, Ruisagara John, Ntale Sunday and Nyiringirimana Jean Pierre confessed to stealing and selling the drugs and other medical equipment to neighbouring countries. Given the fact that all the suspects bear Rwandese names, it is also highly possible that their stay in Uganda and free movement to run their drug syndicate is under the guise of being refugees.

Conclusion

Uganda’s liberal refugee policy is healthy on humanitarian grounds. However, there may not be in place sufficient safe guards to ensure that the system is not abused and exploited by criminals disguising as refugees. The regime is bent on tapping the huge donor community funding for refugees and improving its international image without minding much on national security. Museveni in particular is interested is managing a scheme of selective resettlement of certain communities in Uganda.

On 7th February 2013 Museveni chaired a cabinet meeting that passed the National Land Policy. Among the major highlights of the policy is a section dealing with CROSS-BORDER POPULATION MOVEMENTS. Under this section it is argued thus: “Cross-border population movements are frequent as a result of conflict, ecological and environmental stress or interactive accommodation among cross-border communities sharing common heritage and culture.

A significant proportion of these populations sometimes end up being classified as either refugees or internally displaced persons. Settlement or resettlement of such populations often leads to severe strains on resources and/or serious environmental damage. Government will develop a framework to regulate, manage and mitigate the negative consequences and maximise the positive impacts of cross-border population movements.

Government will respect the regional and international conventions governing the settlement and treatment of refugees and internally displaced persons. Negotiate protocols for the reciprocal treatment and settlement of mass cross-border movements and jointly implement with neighbouring countries, measures for effective border management, control and supervision.”  From the above it can be said that according to Museveni, there are no refugees in Uganda but cross-border communities sharing common heritage and culture.

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