By August 2018, Uganda was home to over 1,500,000 refugees mainly from South Sudan, DR Congo, Burundi and Somalia with women and girls constituting over 80%. This influx is attributed to Uganda’s welcoming refugee policy. In fact, Uganda refugee policy has been hailed as one of the best in the World. In reality however, this legal framework is premised on confinement of refugees to designated settlements for purposes of avoiding what government calls alien refugees. This confinement is also to facilitate targeted but economical support to whoever is granted refugee status.
However, for different reasons, some Refugees opt out of designated settlements. Those who chose to opt out of settlements are not eligible for government and UNHCR support. This policy stipulates that whoever decides to opt out of settlements forfeit their rights to all formal assistance and have to find own housing,
employment and basic services. Opting out of settlements/camps whether with a legal status or not implies that such a Refugees no longer has a legal presence within GoU protection and service delivery system. As a result, very little is known about self-settled refugees and circumstances they live. In fact, during a National engagement meeting between OPM and hosting DLGs held in Kampala – August 2018, the Commissioner in charge of Refugees confessed that such alien persons don’t exist in Uganda and that real Refugees live in gazetted settlements with a few urban caseloads especially in Kampala and other big townships.
Despite the legal requirement for Refugees to live in designated settlements, circumstances that them to opt out and self-settle still exist. For instance, more recently, Koboko town has seen rapid growth in the number of self-settled Refugees mostly from South Sudan and DR Congo. Others come to Koboko and other townships after fleeing refugee settlements in and around Arua, Adjuman, Yumbe, Kyaka II and other settlements. In Koboko for example, most self-settled Refugees opt to reside in the town due to its unique position and Koboko neighbors DR Congo and South Sudan borders implying
many economic opportunities for self-reliance and social integration. The precise number of self-settled refugees is still unknown. Refugees argue that they flee settlements after feeling unsafe and material hardships that are worse than hardships faced when home. This reality is a contradiction to the justification of confinement to settlements. There are two categories of self-settled Refugees. Those registered with government and those not in GoU’s system. Those registered with OPM but later opt out of settlements, cannot be merely referred to as aliens because leaving camps does not mean that they cease to be Refugees.
Since not recognized by legal frameworks, self-settled refugees are not integrated by hosting district local governments into their development plans and budgeting processes. Hosting DLGs planning and budgeting do not take into account the presence of extra persons yet these self-settled refugees continue to access key services especially education, health, water and sanitation, waste management and environment. This has created enormous pressure on existing service delivery systems. Under the Local Government Act – 1997, DLGs are obliged to provide for whoever is in within their areas of jurisdiction yet existing legal frameworks constrain them to plan for extra persons outside settlements. Recognizing self-settled refugees as aliens by Government is illogical and undermines key refugee protection frameworks including ReHoPE and CRRF that aim at achieving self-reliance and social integration. It also endangers Uganda’s commitment to international Refugee rights conventions.
Conclusion: GoU should reconsider targeting refugees who opt out of settlements and legally support DLGs to plan and integrate them into DDPs.
By Moses Muwanga – partner coordination and governance expert