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.

The Myth of a Durable Solution

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.”

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