An uncertain future for Rwandese refugees in Uganda

kelly_mcmillanBy Kelly McMillan

Last Wednesday afternoon, cell phones started ringing throughout RLP. In hushed, urgent tones, reports began circulating among refugees and staff: Rwandese asylum seekers were being forcibly repatriated from Nakivale refugee settlement in Western Uganda. Interpreters were quickly reassigned from consultations and testimony taking, as RLP staff and volunteers scrambled to figure out what was going on in Uganda’s largest refugee settlement, located several hours from Kampala.

Within hours, reports were confirmed: dozens of Rwandese asylum seekers (whose claims for refugee status had been rejected in a recent sitting of Uganda’s Refugee Eligibility Committee (REC)) were lured to basecamp with promises of food, and claims that their status rejection would be reconsidered. There, rejected asylum seekers were herded onto lorries by Ugandan soldiers. As reality began to set in and chaos erupted (people running in all directions), soldiers fired shots into the air, people were injured, and families separated. At least five lorries filled with asylum seekers left Nakivale settlement for the Ugandan-Rwandan border. [See RLP/IRRI joint press release].

As in Canada, Uganda’s Citizenship and Immigration Act provides for a review process for rejections of asylum seekers’ claims. The Act also provides for procedural safeguards for the deportation of those who have exhausted all avenues for appeal. These forcible removals thus violate Uganda’s own refugee law, not to mention the principle of non-refoulement in international law.

The removals are also part of a troubling political landscape that Rwandese asylum seekers and refugees in Uganda are currently facing… On which more later!

*Internship undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)

Refugee law and … witchcraft law?

kelly_mcmillanBy Kelly McMillan

When I first learned I would be wWitchcraft Actorking with the Refugee Law Project’s legal aid clinic, I had in mind several types of issues I might be dealing with: refugee status determination and appeals, tenancy law, family law…

Witchcraft certainly wasn’t on the list.

Yet, during interviews and information sessions held prior to and during a recent twelve-day field visit to Kyangwali Refugee Settlement in Western Uganda, witchcraft was one of the most pressing legal issues raised by authorities and refugees alike. In fact, when our team of eight legal officers and counselors first arrived at the settlement to introduce ourselves to the Camp Commandant’s office, Uganda’s Witchcraft Act was prominently displayed in various locations, apparently to serve some kind of deterrent effect.

Far from an expert on legal pluralism, I have been racking my brains to remember what my first year Foundations class might have had to say about reconciling something like witchcraft with a modern legal system like the one in place in Uganda. For someone who doesn’t really believe that people can turn into dogs or snakes, or eat another person from a distance, it is hard to imagine how these kinds of allegations could form a basis for any legal action at all. (So I wasn’t surprised to hear from Kyangwali Settlement’s Assistant Camp Commandant that lack of evidence is the principal reason for the few prosecutions under the Witchcraft Act!)

Nonetheless, the practice of witchcraft, whether one believes in it or not, is widespread throughout Uganda’s refugee community and beyond. A number of my clients cited instances of witchcraft as the main threat to their security in Uganda. Child sacrifice for the purposes of witchcraft is an ongoing problem that has recently received a lot of media attention here in Kampala, after the kidnapping and beheading of three young boys.

Correspondingly, the reality of witchcraft has slowly been incorporated into Uganda’s common law legal system. I am told that use of witchcraft is one basis for a provocation defense for murder in Uganda’s criminal law. The Witchcraft Act sets out penalties for those suspected of practicing witchcraft, or for being in possession of items used for witchcraft.

Upon further investigation, our team in the field discovered that a number of the alleged instances of witchcraft in the settlement were actually cases of children dying from malaria, an extremely common and largely preventable and treatable illness. So once again, I am left wondering about the adequacy of a purely legal response to many of the realities refugees here are facing. The whole witchcraft thing is beyond me, but has definitely provided me with some interesting – and very unexpected! – food for thought.

*Internship undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)

Law as a tool for development?

kelly_mcmillanBy Kelly McMillan

After finishing an undergraduate degree in international development studies, I was eager for some “real field experience”. Sure, I had participated in a number of valuable development-related internships in Canada, but I wanted a taste of how Development (as industry) operates on the ground. In 2006, I headed to Cameroon to participate in a 10-month internship on housing rights. I touched on a wide range of projects over those months, from trainings on income-generating activities for women, to facilitating the commercialization of local produce, to improving an existing microcredit facility, to organizing workshops on gender-based violence, to offering legal information seminars on housing and family law issues.

It was this last experience that ultimately motivated me to study law. Over the course of that year, I was exposed to a number of consultants in various fields passing through the organization and offering their expertise with concrete, tangible results. I felt my background in IDS was insufficient to allow me to make any really meaningful contribution. In particular, I was frustrated by the small scale of the community-based interventions I was involved in, and was discouraged by the lack of immediate results in some of the more policy-oriented initiatives. I felt that law—and community legal services in particular—would be my own “tool” to use to further women’s rights in the international context.

So, four years later, I was thrilled to have been selected for McGill CHRLP’s internship placement at the Refugee Law Project. I have already worked for two legal clinics in Montreal, and love the satisfaction that comes from solving a real human being’s concrete problem. It was a perfect combination of my IDS background and legal skills.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as so much of a shock to me that a few short weeks into my internship, the things that seemed less significant to me in my first overseas experience are the exact ones I find starkly absent in my present placement—namely, small-scale income-generating activities, vocational training programs and microcredit facilities! Not to mention an overarching philosophy of what is trying to be achieved.

On one of my first days, a counsellor at RLP summed up the general feeling of frustration I have since heard echoed by a number of RLP staff: “I refuse to counsel a hungry refugee!”

For someone who had initially been so optimistic about the promise of legal aid in development, this was a disturbing thing to hear. I have been thinking about it more and more: legal aid and psychosocial support is well and good, but is not enough for a person who fails to meet even the basic daily needs of herself and her family. Many refugees wait outside RLP all day without a meal. Many of the children cannot attend school for want of funds for transportation, uniforms and supplies and so instead work as house girls under oftentimes harsh conditions. I have heard the children themselves articulate education as their single biggest priority. As Intake Officer, a majority of my clients’ problems are not really legal, but medical or financial.

Although, admittedly, one organization cannot do everything, perhaps CONGEH did have the right recipe after all: an integrated approach focusing on finding sustainable ways to meet communities’ basic needs first, with some small resources to address individual legal problems in the short-term, but with a greater emphasis on preventing the legal issues from arising through information campaigns. I certainly don’t have an easy answer to this (surely there isn’t one), but now I have an even greater respect for (and am more in tune to) the priorities as identified by refugees, rather than donors.

So while Uganda’s theme for this year’s world refugee day (June 20th) is “Self-Reliance: Life Beyond Relief Aid”, I am perplexed by an almost total lack of services available to Kampala’s refugees to assist them in actually building such a life. For a person who has just lost everything, a start-up loan could go a long way…

A snapshot of the first four weeks

kelly_mcmillanBy Kelly McMillan

The first four weeks of my stay here in Kampala, Uganda, have been a whirlwind. If I didn’t contribute to this page earlier, it’s not for want of subject matter. Rather, I have been trying to wrap my head around everything I have been seeing and experiencing—both in my daily life and in terms of the legal issues I have been exploring in my internship.

Children and youth from the refugee community participate in an SGBV workshop at Old Kampala Primary School, May 15, 2010

Children and youth from the refugee community participate in an SGBV workshop at Old Kampala Primary School, May 15, 2010

Since my arrival, I have been busy getting lost in the chaos of Kampala’s taxi parks; learning to say “I don’t eat meat” (silia nyama) and other choice phrases in Luganda; sampling Ugandan cuisine (posho [known elsewhere in East Africa as ugali], matoke [mashed plantain], mputa [Nile Perch]); listening to  stories of the Buganda kingdom; venturing through congested markets on the shores of Lake Victoria (ten minutes from my house); not to mention dealing with such common occurrences as power outages, water shortages, vehicle break-downs and flash flooding! Just getting through the day in Kampala has proved exhilarating, to say the least.

At work, the learning curve has been just as steep. The Refugee Law Project is a large, bustling NGO of approximately 65 local and international staff, interns and volunteers. RLP is part community legal clinic, part crisis centre, part public policy advocate, part research institute, and part language school. At any given moment, dozens of refugees from a handful of countries can be found milling around the front courtyard waiting for legal or counseling services; attending English-language classes in the back; or even—in the case of one refugee women’s association—giving back by cleaning the office on a Friday afternoon.

I work in RLP’s Legal & Psychosocial Department (LPD). I spent my first two weeks assisting with the planning and execution of a week of events to raise awareness on sex and gender-based violence in the refugee community, including a children’s workshop, a police training and a roundtable discussion with stakeholders.

More recently, I have started doing “intake”, which is essentially the front line of RLP’s services. I listen to the client’s story and if her situation falls within one of the LPD’s program areas, I schedule a moment later in the week to take the client’s detailed testimony (everything from her experiences in her country of origin to her life here in Uganda). If the problem does not fall within RLP’s mandate, I refer the client to another organization.

One of my passions as a law student has been community legal services, and I am certain that interacting with RLP’s clients will be the most rewarding aspect of my time here. Nonetheless, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for some of the stories I’ve listened to over the past two weeks. So while my first month has been largely devoted to settling into a new city, a new culture and a new workplace environment, I have also taken the time to step back and reflect on some the social and legal issues facing Kampala’s refugees. I look forward to sharing these thoughts in later posts.

*Internship undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)

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