Sanitary napkins, Bribery and Refugee Status Determination

By Molly Joeck

What do these three things have in common? They can all be found at the important-sounding and all-powerful Office of the Prime Minister, or OPM, in Kampala, an office that I am frequently obliged to visit in the context of my work at the Durable Solutions Unit at Refugee Law Project. The OPM is, essentially, the equivalent of the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board, granting new arrivals asylum seeker status, and then assessing them through a series of interviews as to their eligibility for refugee status, and, if they are lucky, eventually granting them this status. As with the IRB, and probably even more so, the process is very bureaucratic, difficult to navigate and opaque beyond belief.

On one particular day at work, I needed to bring some paperwork to OPM, the usual assortment of things: appeals applications, lost ID declarations, requests for the merging of family files, etc. There is one officer at OPM in particular who deals with these sorts of requests. I’ve never become clear as to what her exact title is, but for my purposes she holds God-like status, able to grant or refuse almost any of the requests I have. There are always crowds of asylum seekers huddled in the waiting room hoping to see her, but on this day I slipped into her office ahead of the throngs. Because OPM works frequently with RLP, they are relatively tolerant of our frequent meetings, and generally willing to let us pop into the office when we come by

The all-powerful god-like officer, whom I’ll call Vicky, was occupied with a client when I arrived, but quickly wrapped up her conversation to turn to me. She greeted me as the client stood up to leave, and the client had one last quick exchange with Vicky in Swahili before exiting the office. Seemingly in reaction to whatever words she’d just exchanged with her client, Vicky turned back to me, grabbing a box from behind her desk and placing it on the desk it front of me.

“Do you know these?” she asked me. It was a box of sanitary napkins. My mind was racing – why should I know these particular sanitary napkins? Did they have special magic properties? What was going on? I remembered a newspaper article I’d read when I first arrived in Uganda about a local entrepreneur’s new project – sanitary napkins made very cheaply out of local materials, affordable for girls attending rural schools and easily disposable, the main problems facing adolescent school-age girls coping with menstruation. I concluded that the sanitary napkins on the desk in front of me must be these new sustainable Ugandan-made pads.

“Yes, I think so,” I replied. “Aren’t they the ones made locally in Uganda?”

“No,” Vicky replied firmly, “they are international sanitary napkins,” (with extra emphasis on the word international, in case I should conclude that these were merely shoddy Ugandan-made products). “They are very good quality, the best available. Would you like to buy some?”

A representative of the Office of the Prime Minister of Uganda is trying to sell me sanitary pads? I wasn’t quite sure how to handle the situation. So I did what I usually do – I blurted out the truth. “I don’t use pads,” I replied.

Vicky’s curiosity was piqued. She leaned forward across her desk, looking very interested in what I had to say. “Ahhh, you use tampons?” she asked me.

“No, not necessarily,” I replied. Vicky was confused, and I felt that I had no choice but to embark on an explanation of alternatives to tampons and pads. Vicky was very curious, and asked lots of questions.

Once we’d finished our conversation about menstruation and sanitary napkins and tampons, we passed to what Vicky seemed to feel was the much less interesting subject: my clients and their futures as refugees in Uganda. Vicky’s attention waned visibly, and she rushed me through what I had to say.

“No, we can’t handle that – UNHCR has to deal with it,” in reference to a client who has been unable to obtain asylum seeker status for almost a year because of issues around his repatriation.

“OK, give it to me, I’ll look at it later,” in reference to a client whose testimony has been lost not once, but twice, by OPM, and as a result has been without status for two years in Uganda. And so on.

Evidently buying sanitary napkins is an easier mission to accomplish at the OPM than resolving issues of status for asylum seekers.

UNLESS the right sum of money enters the right person’s pocket, I was later to learn.

A group of RLP’s clients have formed an organization called the Association of Torture Victims, or ATV. ATV is supported by RLP, provided with space for meetings and occasionally given funding for its activities. In the last week of June ATV organized anti-torture day, inviting torture victims as well as various organizations involved with torture victims to attend. The event took place in the field of Old Kampala Secondary School, across the street from RLP. Three big tents were set up for attendees, and various speeches and performances took place, including music and acting.

One of the highlights of the day was a series of skits put together by members of ATV meant to communicate their experiences as asylum seekers in Kampala. OPM was one of the organizations featured in one of the skits. The actor playing an OPM representative, as part of the skit, asked an asylum seeker for money in order to process his application, a procedure which is meant to be free. The asylum seeker had no choice but to hand over the money in order to proceed with his application in a timely manner.

After the skits wrapped up, speeches began. Various people got up and spoke, including Mama Eunice, the much-loved head of the Legal and Psychosocial Department at RLP. Her heartfelt words drew much applause from the large audience.

The next person to take the microphone was a representative of OPM, who, after pronouncing some insincere words on the plight of torture victims, proceeded to launch into a defence of her agency, stating outright in response to the earlier skit that OPM officials never take bribes. This is not the way OPM operates, she explained. The agency is staffed by honest folks who wouldn’t dare do such a thing!

On this warm day in the middle of the school field with the sun beating down on us, this questionable statement drew the liveliest reaction of the day from the hot, hungry audience. The ATV members and other clients of RLP in attendance, who were numerous, began waving their arms in the air and booing so loudly that they drowned out the words of the OPM representative. Anyone who may have been dozing at that point was rudely awakened.

The message from the audience was clear. Do OPM representative take bribes? Ha! Is the sky blue? Do Ugandans eat matooke? The OPM representative, looking embarrassed and unsure of herself, rushed through the end of her speech and hurried back to her chair to take a seat.

I wonder how many Ugandan shillings you have to slide into an OPM representative’s palm to get a box of high-quality international sanitary napkins along with your refugee status determination. I suppose I’ll never know. But any women in Kampala looking for some top-notch pads, ask for Vicky at the OPM. Maybe she can help you out, for the right price of course.

Uncertainty looms over Rwandan refugees in Uganda as cessation clauses to be invoked on December 31, 2011

Nelly MarcouxBy Nelly Marcoux – Fears of unwanted repatriation have been spreading among Rwandan refugees and asylum seekers in Uganda over the last months.  In 2003, the signature of a Tripartite Agreement between the Governments of Rwanda and Uganda and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had laid the foundations of a framework to eventually repatriate Rwandan refugees.  Following its 6th meeting, held in 2009, the Tripartite Commission issued a statement to the effect that “the retention of refugee status by present Rwandan refugees (was) no longer justifiable or necessary”. At the 8th Tripartite Commission Meeting, it was finally decided that come 31 December, 2011, the cessation clauses of Uganda’s Refugee Act 2006, of the 1969 Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention and of the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Convention) would be invoked against all Rwandan refugees, causing them to be stripped of their refugee status.

Cessation of refugee status is a mechanism within refugee law which allows for the removal of international protection when it is deemed that the circumstances having justified its extension no longer exist.  It can be applied on an individual basis or to a group of refugees whose initial flight shares similar characteristics and motives. Certain conditions must be fulfilled to lawfully invoke such clauses: first, there must first be fundamental change in the circumstances existing in the country of origin; such change must be enduring, beyond transitory; and finally, state protection must be restored to the forced migrant. Exemption procedures are provided for those individuals who remain in need of international protection and those who, due to compelling reasons based on previous persecution, cannot go back.

Seventeen years after the 1994 genocide, as of January 2011 there were an estimated 16,300 Rwandan refugees in Uganda, with asylum seekers being numbered at approximately 11, 551.  These migrants have been coming into the country in successive waves, fleeing various conflicts since 1959.  Following the mass exodus created by the 1994 genocide, asylum seekers have been trickling in steadily into Uganda since 1998.   In March and April 2010 alone, for example, 1,312 officially recognised asylum seekers arrived in Uganda.

Rwanda boasts an impressive economic growth and rapid improvements in the areas of education and health; it is perceived as having achieved stability and as successfully managing the daunting tasks of promoting national reconciliation and nation building.  As such, the Rwandan government benefits from a favourable image in the eyes of the international community. In recent years, having deemed that it was time for its exiled nationals to return “home”, Kigali has invoked this record to support its claim; it has also pursued spirited means of repatriating its citizens, notably through the signing of tripartite agreements with Uganda and Tanzania. Increasingly, the idea that refugee status for Rwandans is “no longer justified or necessary” has gained currency in international discourse and accordingly, policies are put in place to encourage, facilitate or implement return.

In Uganda, some of these measures involve severe restrictions on livelihoods, and have resulted in an overall decrease in the protection afforded to Rwandese refugees.  For instance, as a means of “encouraging repatriation” and “promoting self-reliance”, Rwandan refugees in Ugandan settlements have seen their land confiscated and have been forced to rely on rations only for survival, the rationale behind that policy being that attachment to land constitutes a factor undermining repatriation. Decreases in rations and in access to other services have also been reported.  Such policies have severely curtailed refugees and asylum seekers’ ability to ensure their food security or to engage in income generating activities

Although it is important to acknowledge that a vast number of migrants have successfully returned to and stayed in Rwanda, questions remain: why are so many Rwandans reluctant to go back?  Why have some promptly made their way across the border again after returning voluntarily, choosing the hardships of refugee life over repatriation?  Several reasons have been cited by the latter to explain their decision; for instance, many report having been unable to recover the property left behind during the initial flight, and having faced violence in attempting to do so.  Others mention fear of persecution on various grounds, or of the potential abuses of the gacaca system, set up to implement transitional justice following the 1994 genocide; and many Hutu refugees report fearing blanket accusations of participation in and responsibility for the genocide.

Furthermore, several human rights abuses and restrictions on civil and political freedoms in Rwanda have been documented, prompting the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative to issue the following statement in its 2009 report on Rwanda’s application for membership of the Commonwealth:

There are considerable doubts about the commitment of the current regime to human rights and democracy. It has not hesitated to use violence at home or abroad when it has suited it.

Arbitrary detentions and restrictions on political activity and freedom of expression are also reported, notably on account of the implementation of legislation against “genocide ideology”, a set of legal instruments emphasizing national unity and reconciliation by banning “ethnic classifications or any discussion of the country’s diversity”; some critics allege that this law, as currently implemented, works to suppress public debate around issues relating to ethnicity, and to stifle criticism of current government policies.

Also of concern are the circumstances surrounding two instances of forcible return of Rwandan refugees conducted in recent years, which have raised the alarms of the international community.  In October 2007, some 3000 Rwandan ‘rejected’ asylum seekers “illegally” in Uganda, were expelled at gunpoint, in the early hours of the morning.  On July 14, 2010, at Nakivale  and Kyaka refugee settlements, over 1,700 Rwandans refugees and asylum seekers were told to gather to receive food rations or obtain the results of their asylum applications from the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM); they were then rounded up by the military and loaded onto trucks which drove them across the border. Two individuals died and 26 were injured as they attempted to jump off the trucks; families were also reportedly separated, as parents were deported while children remained in the settlements.  It is significant to note that Rwandan officers were on the premises during the operation which, according to Salima Namusobya, legal officer at the Refugee Law Project, was “coordinated between the governments of Rwanda and Uganda.”   Notwithstanding the obvious problems associated with this way of proceeding, from a strictly legal point of view, these operations have deprived refugees and asylum seekers from exhausting the appeal procedures provided for Refugee Status Determination in Uganda’s Refugees Act, 2006”; they also violated principles of international law prescribing that repatriation must be conducted in safety and dignity.

Months away from December 31, and despite the seriousness and widespread character of these concerns, the paucity of information available publicly about the implementation of cessation, even among refugee agencies, and NGOs, is surprising.  Uncertainty lingers with regards to roadmaps, timeframes and modalities of implementation; questions also remain concerning the institution of mechanisms to ensure that all those in need of international protection will be able to access the recourses to which they are entitled under domestic and international law.

Refugee law provides for three durable solutions, namely local integration, repatriation and resettlement to a third country. Yet in the case of Rwandan refugees, repatriation seems to be strongly emphasized to the detriment of the remaining two options.  As a result, Rwandan refugees in Uganda face pressure such that their situation has been qualified as “constructive refoulement” by some analysts.  Non-refoulement, a cornerstone of refugee law, bars states from returning anyone to a place where they would risk persecution.  Yet, the indiscriminate application of cessation to all Rwandans risks creating such a situation by failing to account for the circumstances of individuals who run very real risks, should they be compelled to repatriate.  Any solution prematurely withdrawing international protection to individuals in need of such protection, in violation of fundamental principles of refugee law, would be anything but durable.

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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