Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page


Refugees in Kenya and Uganda have fled persecution or civil war in their countries of origin. This report has shown that refugees suffer ongoing abuses of their human rights even after they reach their new countries of asylum. Many refugees flee from the insecurity and inadequate assistance that have been plaguing Kenya and Uganda's camps for years on end to Nairobi or Kampala, others arrive directly in these cities after leaving persecution and abuse at home.

Once in the city, refugees encounter overburdened agencies with neither the resources nor the ability to help all of them. Others find something much worse: governmental hostility to their presence in urban areas, vulnerability to rape or other forms of physical attack, police abuse, and harassment by agents from their countries of origin.

Kenya and Uganda's preference to house refugees in camps only exacerbates these problems. In Kenya, police continue to harass refugees arrested in the city and magistrates deport them, in violation of refugees' fundamental rights. And in Uganda, there is little investment in providing protection to urban refugees because they are expected to live in camps, or because the Ugandan government itself is the cause of refugees' insecurity.

The expectation that refugees will find all the protection and assistance they need in camps is contradicted by the problems documented in this report. However, the trend in Kenya at least is to make the confinement policy more stringent. Human Rights Watch was informed that the government of Kenya and UNHCR plan to transfer all status determination interviews from Nairobi to camps.116 This will only compound the marginalization and vulnerability of newly-arriving asylum seekers in urban areas, increasing their risk of suffering human rights abuses similar to those documented in this report since they will have no place to turn to regularize their status.

The benign neglect or hostility of host governments; UNHCR's misguided urban refugee policy, insufficient funding, and unwillingness to challenge host government polices; and the ignorance of donor governments about the specific needs of refugees living in urban environments means that human rights abuses against urban refugees are in plain view, but remain "hidden" to those who have responsibility to take corrective action.

Yet there are also signs of hope, including UNHCR's new focus on the problem of "protracted refugee situations," or long-term refugee camp situations that Human Rights Watch has analogized to the problem of indefinite detention in this report. UNHCR is clearly looking for solutions for refugee groups, such as those in Kenya and Uganda, with "no durable solution in sight."117 In a recent policy document, the agency renews emphasis on the out-of-favor solution of local integration for long term refugee populations and also proposes that development assistance to countries of asylum should include a view of refugees as "agents of development."118 In addition, the government of Uganda, by allocating land for refugees to cultivate and by allowing some refugees to work in urban environments, has recognized that refugees can contribute a great deal to the development of Uganda's economy.

While not all refugees have the need or desire to live in urban areas, there are several reasons why host governments, UNHCR, and the international community should allow some refugees to reside in Nairobi and Kampala, and why programs which cater to refugees' protection and assistance needs in the cities should be improved.

Long-term camp confinement imposes limits on freedom of movement that in and of themselves are serious violations of the human rights obligations of Kenya and Uganda. Governments and UNHCR should consider ways in which camp stays can be avoided for refugees who have few prospects of returning home, or for those with specific reasons for being in the city.

Allowing for the lawful presence of some refugees in urban areas could help, rather than hinder, both governments' ability to combat some forms of crime. If some categories of refugees had legal rights to remain in Kampala and Nairobi, the incentives for corruption, harassment, fraud, or other criminality would be reduced. When refugees in urban areas are registered, counted, and their presence is regulated, criminals will lose the ability to prey upon legitimate refugees, to masquerade as "refugees," or to counterfeit refugee documentation.

Moreover, cities are among the few places in developing countries where UNHCR and NGOs already have an infrastructure and offices, and where refugees can be included in overall development programming without creating the entirely false economy and environment of a refugee camp. The educational, infrastructure and employment needs in cities like Kampala and Nairobi are virtually endless. Promoting economic growth in urban areas would help refugees and nationals alike.

Finally, personal security problems facing urban refugees are also security risks for host governments. Stopping the activities of security agents in large cities would not only better protect the rights of refugees, but would improve the domestic security situation for Kenya and Uganda. Security fears also limit the economic contributions that refugees can make. Refugees in Kampala and Nairobi are often so afraid for their security that they do not venture out of their homes during the day, and therefore cannot work even when they have the permission to do so. Extremely well educated and highly skilled refugees often end up trapped in cramped shelters in urban environments. Both governments could make much better use of these refugees' skills in urban areas.

The first step towards stopping the police harassment, unsafe living conditions, arbitrary arrests, and physical insecurity of refugees living in Nairobi and Kampala would be to allow some categories of refugees to live there lawfully. At the same time, greater investments must be made in the refugee protection and assistance programs in urban areas that are currently overburdened and ineffective. This is why not only host governments and UNHCR, but also donor and resettlement governments have a very crucial role to play in improving the situation for urban refugees in Nairobi and Kampala.

116 Human Rights Watch interview with UNHCR officials, Nairobi, Kenya, April 19, 2002.

117 See UNHCR Africa Bureau, Discussion Paper on Protracted Refugee Situation in the African Region, October 2001.

118 Ibid.

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page