By Molly Joeck
Refugee Law Project is spread across three rectangular-looking buildings on a short red dirt road in Old Kampala, across from a primary school with a sign affixed to its fence that reads, “Virginity is good.”
These buildings are like labyrinths once you enter, with winding hallways and offices of every size and shape piled upon one another. After a month, I still don’t know my way around every corner of all three buildings. I’m only beginning to feel like I understand where all the doors and hallways in my building lead, and how I can use the back door to go print a document without making my way through the main hallway, where I am bound to encounter a client seeking a follow-up appointment, waylaying me and causing me to forget why I’d left my office in the first place.
At the beginning of the week, when new clients are received and assessed, the courtyard outside the main building, and even the street below (not the sidewalk, for there are no sidewalks), are bustling with refugees and asylum seekers. Winding my way through these crowds of people to my office in the mornings, I can hear old men and young women, toddlers and teenagers, families and friends, chatting to each other in French, Somali, Lingala, Kinyarwanda, English, Amharic, and any number of other languages. The liveliness of it is both inspiring and overwhelming. The diversity of RLP’s clients and their backgrounds means that I am never bored, but the daunting reality of how many people are in need of assistance weighs heavily on my untried shoulders.
My office is on the second floor of the main building. I am in a unit called Durable Solutions, which is just one piece of the puzzle that is the bigger department, Legal and Psychosocial Services. In my first week here, having read through some documents explaining the mandate of the Durable Solutions Unit (or DS), I felt like I would be right at home. DS provides client-based legal services that fall squarely within the domain of refugee law, which I have studied and worked in more than any other field of law in the past three years. Though the disparate nature of the problems asylum seekers face means that we address a myriad of problems, the main mandate of DS is, as its name indicates, to find, facilitate and implement durable solutions for refugees.
Durable solutions refers to the aspirational notion that a long-term solution should be sought for refugees, rather than the temporary, precarious reality that so many of them live. This seems particularly important in the Ugandan context, where, unlike in Canada, accepted refugees have no avenue towards any sort of permanent resident or citizen status in their country of asylum, short of marrying a Ugandan citizen.
What are these durable solutions for which my unit is named? There are, in theory, three: repatriation, local integration or resettlement.
Though I have only been in Uganda for one month, my skepticism for the first two of these solutions is already firmly established. The majority of the clients I see have fled the DRC, Somalia, or Rwanda. Without knowing a lot about the issues specific to each of those countries, it is not hard to guess that refugees from these source countries are not very warm to the idea of being repatriated, which means return to their countries of origin. I have not yet had one client ask about the option of repatriation, and a quick survey of my colleagues who have been here for much longer than me revealed that, though once in a blue moon a client might come along who is curious about repatriation, that is the exception rather than the rule.
The fear of return among many refugees, which makes them so hostile to the suggestion of repatriation, certainly seems to me to be well-founded. Life in Uganda is not easy for refugees- tens of thousands of them live in camps, a life I can hardly fathom, where the local dish posho (milled maize cooked into a rubbery cake) is the daily sustenance, and life is restricted to a tiny plot of land with very little freedom of movement. Those who live in Kampala struggle to scrape together enough shillings to rent some sort of abode and feed and clothe their families, making them very vulnerable to attack, theft, and other forms of urban violence. If the situation were more stable in these refugees’ home countries, they would be able to return to a place where they understood the language, where their culture is not the minority, where their families would be nearby. However, their resistance to repatriation is founded upon a deep-rooted fear of the violence and repression that these source countries are still mired in.
And local integration? I have trouble understanding how this can even be on the list of durable solutions in a country like Uganda where, by definition, refugees are in a temporary situation by virtue of their status. Should UNHCR decide that the danger that refugees fled in a certain source country is no longer present and invoke the cessation clause of the Refugee Convention (as it has in the case of Rwanda), refugees can be faced with the suspension of their status, and the possibility of powerful pressure to “voluntarily” repatriate. Not to mention the discrimination and exclusion refugees can face in Uganda for both practical reasons, such as language, as well as cultural reasons. Local integration is not a durable solution.
Which brings us to resettlement- the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for many refugees. While I would characterize my daily tasks at RLP as diverse, it is true that the vast majority of the clients who come to see me want only one thing: resettlement. I have spent hours and hours explaining that the criteria for resettlement are very rigourous, that many who apply are refused, that the process takes years, that a short-term solution should be thought of first…that, that….but all too often it feels like my explanations fall on deaf ears. For these refugees know that, in reality, resettlement is the only way to a truly durable solution. Defeated by the thought of eking out a meagre existence in Kampala or, worse, in a camp, and traumatized at the thought of returning to their country of origin, the only way out they see is resettlement to a third country.
This is the hardest part of my job- facing person after person, women, men, Rwandese, Somalians, and trying to explain gently that their dream of building a life in a country free of violence and persecution is, at least for the moment, unattainable. Or facing someone who has been through the gruelling process of resettlement- interview after interview, and years of waiting, only to be told they have been rejected because the date they gave for their brother’s death does not synch with the account given of that event by their sister, or cousin, or brother, and trying to explain that re-applying is not really an option, that there is no way to appeal, that there is really nothing to be done.
I can’t help but feel like there is no durable solution. The unit I work in should be renamed, perhaps. “Short-term solutions,” or “Long-term aspirations,” or “Unrealizable dreams.”