REFUGEE STATUS DETERMINATION IN UGANDA
Uganda, unlike Kenya, plays an active role in assessing the status of refugee applicants. Uganda's major piece of domestic legislation is the Control of Alien Refugees Act (CARA), which was enacted in 1960 before Uganda acceded to the Refugee Convention.72 CARA grants the "Minister in charge" the power to create a definition of refugee by statutory instrument (or regulation).73 Most of the remainder of CARA is focused upon what the title implies-controlling the presence of refugees in Uganda through limiting their freedom of movement. CARA also allows the minister in charge to appoint a director of refugees.
Uganda has developed a largely unregulated set of administrative practices for assessing the status of refugees. The Directorate of Refugees developed these between 1960 and the late 1980s. Prior to 1998, the Directorate of Refugees was located within the Ministry of Local Government. However, in 1998 the Ugandan government shifted responsibility for refugees from the Ministry of Local Government to the new Ministry of Disasters and Emergency Preparedness, which is located within the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM). This restructuring reflects a desire on the part of the Ugandan government to centralize the management of refugee affairs in Uganda.74 Within the Office of the Prime Minister, the Minister of Disasters and Emergency Preparedness oversees the work of the Commissioner for Refugees and the Senior Settlement Officer in the Refugee Directorate.
Uganda's parliament has been considering draft refugee legislation for the past two years. The current Bill would greatly improve the legal protections afforded to refugees in Uganda. The Bill would institute regularized procedures for determining the status of refugees, and the definitions and procedures applied would largely fulfill Uganda's obligations under international law. The Bill would require that the reasons for refusing status be provided to applicants in writing, and that applicants or their advocates may appear before the Refugee Eligibility Committee during appeals. In addition, the Bill provides for all of the rights and obligations of refugees as set forth in international law. The Bill also guarantees the same rights to refugees regardless of whether they are recognized through individual procedures, or through prima facie recognition.
Perhaps most interestingly, the Bill guarantees the freedom of movement rights of refugees, "especially for the purpose of study, professional training, gainful employment, voluntary repatriation and resettlement in another country." Although it is not clear how this provision would be interpreted, in order to avoid any doubt, it would greatly improve the Bill to include more "purposes" for which freedom of movement would be allowed (see recommendations in this report) and to clarify through what procedures refugees may seek to fulfill one of these "purposes." It is hoped that the Bill will be adopted in 2003.
Under the current process, there are at least four and up to six steps in the process of seeking asylum in Uganda, depending on the complexity of the case. Asylum seekers first register with the police, then they interview with counselors at InterAid, then they are interviewed by UNHCR and finally, they are interviewed by OPM. If the case cannot be decided at the level of OPM, the asylum seeker must interview with the Special Branch (the security arm of the Ugandan police), and have her case finally determined by the Refugee Eligibility Committee (REC, a panel of government officials). The following sections examine the role of each of these entities in more detail. While these descriptions may give the impression that the processing of asylum seekers is orderly and clearly understood by all participants, there are several problems that will be addressed below.
The Aliens Registration and Control Act [ARCA] requires that "every alien" register "within thirty days of his arrival in Uganda," and that the Minister in charge designate any immigration office or police station "to be registration centers."75 Every asylum seeker arriving in Kampala soon learns that, in fact, she must register at Old Kampala Police Station. Most asylum seekers go there to register within the first month of their arrival. For example, Zola R., a twenty-year-old Congolese woman, explained what she did when she arrived, alone, from the DRC.
When I arrived here I didn't know anybody so I just stayed at the bus station. I met a woman there who was Congolese. Her name was Binta. I talked with her a lot and she let me stay with her for two weeks. She gave me information on how to go to the police as a refugee. I got information together for two weeks. Then, the refugees showed me that police station and I went there to tell my story in late May or early June.76
Refugees who wait for several months before going to Old Kampala Police Station may face problems in their status interviews. UNHCR informed a Human Rights Watch researcher that "[w]e take the position that `within a reasonable time' refugees should register themselves with the police. If you stay for such a long time without registering, it cuts down on your credibility."77
Although there is only one police officer doing registration interviews each day, and sometimes asylum seekers have to wait a few days to be registered, Human Rights Watch did not receive complaints about delays during this part of the process. The police officer in charge of refugee registration at Old Kampala told Human Rights Watch, "I usually take four or five stories each day, but some days I take as many as ten."78
The registration interviews are generally short, and focus mainly on biographical information about each individual asylum seeker, albeit two refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch with particularly complicated cases had been interrogated by the police for several days.79 The reasons for flight are discussed, but not in any detail.
David Obot, the Executive Director of InterAid, explained the rationale for involving the police in registration. He explained to a Human Rights Watch researcher that it was important to involve the police because: 1) some refugees are criminals; 2) some refugees who need protection need to be able to go to the police; and 3) involving the police demystifies the refugees' fear of the police and gets police involved in refugee protection. He said, "We try to inform them that interaction with the government is important. It is because of the need to involve the government that we developed the program in which refugees register with the police."80 While Human Rights Watch questions the focus on the criminality of refugees, our research did reveal that many of the officers at Old Kampala are sensitive about the rights and problems of refugees. At the same time, however, this sensitivity has not permeated all of Uganda's police, since officers have also seriously abused the rights of refugees, including one violent incident that occurred at Old Kampala police station and was documented by Human Rights Watch.81
Intake Interview with Social Workers at InterAid
In no more than a few days after registration with the police at Old Kampala, asylum seekers are brought to InterAid for an interview with one of that organization's counselors. This aspect of the process is not directly a part of status determination, but is used to identify at-risk asylum seekers or those with acute assistance needs. It is significant that UNHCR in Kampala (in contrast to UNHCR in Nairobi) was sensitive to the need to identify at-risk refugees, and therefore inserted this step into the process. InterAid explained which services the social workers might refer asylum seekers to as a result of the intake interview:
At the second interview here at InterAid with intake counselors we identify women with children, the seriously ill, unaccompanied minors, and people with security problems. We provide emergency assistance-either cash, medical assistance, [or] placements in security houses. 82
However, it was not evident to Human Rights Watch that all at-risk individuals do indeed receive the necessary assistance or referrals as a result of their interviews at InterAid. Four of the seventy refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Kampala had received any assistance as a result of the intake interviews. UNHCR reported assisting only two hundred and seventy-four "security and medical cases, women-at-risk and special protection cases" in 2001.83
Interview with UNHCR Protection Officer
After the asylum seeker has been interviewed by one of InterAid's intake counsellors, he or she is interviewed by UNHCR. This is the first time that the merits of the individual case for asylum are considered in any detail, and the UNHCR interview is held usually a few days after the InterAid interview.
UNHCR protection officers spend anywhere from twenty minutes to several days assessing the merits of a particular case. Once UNHCR has seen an individual applicant, the file is sent on to the Office of the Prime Minister. In most cases, UNHCR recommends that OPM grant prima facie status to refugees fleeing war; this is the case with the majority of Sudanese or Congolese refugees. However, in other cases, OPM will consider the merits of the case.
Interview with the Office of the Prime Minister
OPM considers the merits of all cases that are not obvious prima facie cases. Those who can be granted individual refugee status are given that status, but before they are given the necessary documents, the refugees have to sign an agreement stating that they will be completely self-sufficient if they choose to live in Kampala. This is very problematic as many refugees are fleeing to the city for their protection, and yet do not have the means to survive by themselves.
Those asylum seekers who may have had a history of imprisonment, and basically all asylum seekers from Rwanda and Burundi, those with complicated stories, and those who were under suspicion for whatever reason are referred to the Special Branch, the security wing of the Ugandan police, for an interview.
Interview with the Special Branch
The Special Branch has no adjudicative function in the status determination process. Its role, as explained to a Human Right Watch researcher, is to prepare notes on an individual asylum seeker's case for the consideration of the REC.84 Despite this seemingly innocuous role, the Special Branch is not a clerk's office for the REC, it is the security arm of the Ugandan police department. The Special Branch is charged with the task of "collect[ing] and process[ing] intelligence on suspect persons, organisations or activities that could threaten [Uganda's] national security and public safety, or likely to cause a breach of peace."85 Given this function of the Special Branch, asylum seekers are especially frightened of appearing before it, a subject that is addressed more fully below.
Asylum seekers who are referred to the Special Branch are given a personal biographical information form that they can fill out and return. When the form is returned, they undergo an interview with one of four officers who staff the Special Branch. During the interview, the officers at the Special Branch do not consider the notes prepared by UNHCR on the individual applicant's case. Instead, they only review notes prepared by the Old Kampala police and OPM while preparing their own notes on the individual's case. It is on the basis of the notes prepared by the Special Branch that the individual's case is considered by the REC.
Decision by the Refugee Eligibility Committee (REC)
The members of the REC include officials from nine government ministries and the senior protection officer of UNHCR (in an advisory capacity). The REC considers the totality of the file as prepared by the police, OPM and the Special Branch. UNHCR attends the meetings of the REC with its own notes from its interviews with refugees, but it can only advise the Committee and has no voting rights. Moreover, asylum applicants or their representatives have no right to appear before the REC and the deliberations and decisions are based on documentary evidence only.
Applicants who are granted status may present their reasons for preferring to remain in Kampala. If these reasons are accepted, as already noted the refugee must sign an agreement indicating that he or she will not rely on NGOs for assistance and will be completely self-sufficient. If the reasons are rejected, or if the refugee does not agree to self-sufficiency, he or she is directed to go to one of the refugee settlements. Applicants who are denied status have no right to appeal the decision of the REC. A review may be requested, but "usually only if there is new information for REC to consider."86 Rejected applicants are given ninety days to leave Uganda.
Mandate Status from UNHCR
In rare, and often high-profile cases, UNHCR grants refugees in Kampala status under the agency's "mandate."87 However, because the Ugandan government usually has already rejected these cases, UNHCR normally must search for resettlement opportunities for these mandate refugees in a third country of safety.
Once their status has been recognized, refugees living in Kampala may raise their need for resettlement with the Ugandan government or with UNHCR. The Ugandan government also refers cases it has identified as being in need of resettlement directly to UNHCR. Only those cases warranting additional review will be examined for possible referral according to criteria established in UNHCR's Resettlement Handbook. A threshold inquiry is whether the refugee is vulnerable in the country of first asylum. If he or she is found to be vulnerable, then refugees fulfilling one of eight criteria may be referred. These criteria are: legal and physical protection needs, survivors of violence and torture, medical needs, women-at-risk, family reunification, children and adolescents, elderly refugees and refugees without local integration prospects.88
UNHCR then refers the potential case for resettlement to one of several resettlement governments. The governments accepting the highest numbers of refugees from East Africa are the United States, Canada, Australia, and Norway.
72 Uganda acceded to the Refugee Convention and its Related Protocol on September 27, 1976.
73 See CARA, Section 3(1).
74 See, e.g. Tania Kaiser, UNHCR's Withdrawal From Kiryandongo: Anatomy Of A Handover, October 2000 (available at http://www.unhcr.ch./refworld/pubs/pubon.htm.).
75 See ARCA, Article 1(1); and Article 4(1).
76 Human Rights Watch interview with refugee, Kampala, Uganda, April 15, 2002.
77 Human Rights Watch interview with UNHCR protection officer, Kampala, Uganda, April 8, 2002.
78 Human Rights Watch interview with deputy officer, Old Kampala Police Station, Kampala, Uganda, April 9, 2002.
79 Human Rights Watch interviews with refugees, Kampala, Uganda, April 9, 2002.
80 Human Rights Watch interview with InterAid, Kampala, Uganda, April 8, 2002.
81 See text accompanying note 316, above.
82 Human Rights Watch interview with InterAid, Kampala, Uganda, April 8, 2002.
83 See UNHCR, Community Services Report, 2001.
84 Human Rights Watch interview with officer at the Special Branch, Kampala, Uganda, April 16, 2002.
85 See "Facts About the Ugandan Police," (available at http://www.police.go.ug/intelligence.html).
86 Human Rights Watch interview with Ugandan government official, Office of the Prime Minister, Kampala, Uganda, April 8, 2002.
87 See note 172, above, for a discussion of UNHCR mandate status.
88 See UNHCR, Resettlement Handbook, Chapter 4.