Uganda: Exploring issues of forced migration at the IASFM 13 conference
07 July 2011

Higher education for refugees in Kakuma camp, Kenya. (Sophie Vodvarka/JRS)
Refugees should become citizens." (Dr. Stephen Malinga, Minister for Disaster Preparedness, Relief and Refugees in the Ugandan government)
Kampala, 7 July 2011 – For the past three days a colleague from JRS Uganda and I have been attending a conference on forced migration organised for the 13th time by the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM) in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. 

For three days around 500 academics, policy makers, practitioners as well as refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) from more than 20 countries came together at the Munyonyo Commonwealth Resort just outside Kampala to discuss issues related to forced migration, this year with a special focus on governance and transitional justice.

It's been an interesting three days, and I remain impressed with the variety of topics and perspectives. More than 25 panels per day, framed by plenaries and round-tables, screenings of documentaries, book launches and exhibitions gave an insight into the burning topics of forced migration today. Of course there is only so much you can cover with two representatives from the organisation but we did our best. And here's a spotlight of what we picked up:

Higher education for refugees in protracted situations

Even though this first panel focused on higher education it was made clear that education must be seen as a continuum, a pipeline in which all levels need to be seen together and one builds on the previous.

Sarah Dryden-Peterson started her presentation with some figures that are part of a report she prepared for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR): According to UNHCR, 76 percent of refugee children worldwide have access to primary education compared to 90 percent of non-refugee children. There are only 36 percent refugee students in secondary schools compared to 67 percent of non-refugee students. Just within Africa, there are huge differences: While in refugee camps in West Africa, 90 percent of the refugees have access to primary education, in East Africa it is only 20 percent. 

She noticed, however, that there is a huge discrepancy between priority and approach; at present only 39 percent of assessed needs in refugee education are met. In 2010, only four percent of UNHCR's annual budget was allocated to education with a strong focus on primary education. 

However, while refugee education has taken a back-seat in the past there now seems to be a new focus on refugee education, as Wenona Giles from York University in Canada said. "Can higher education open a new space to stop the silencing of refugees?" she asked. She also raised the question to what extent higher education can pose a threat to host countries, humanitarianism and the borders of the global north because it contributes to the strengthening of refugee voices. She further highlighted education as an expansion in people's ability to make strategic life choices – though I would want to add that these choices are very limited in a protracted refugee situation. 

Jennifer Hyndmann from York University highlighted that education often creates a pull factor or impedes repatriation, like in the case of a Sudanese refugee who had returned to South Sudan but sent his children to Kakuma refugee camp in north-west Kenya so they could continue going to school there. Hyndmann called for a change in the overall approach to protracted refugee situations, quoting Halima Ali, a Somali refugee who had lived in Kenya's overcrowded Dadaab camps and called the type of assistance provided in the camp "don't die – survival". Of course this becomes a serious problem when camps are no longer stop-gap measures but exist for an average of 17 years. 

Finally Jaqueline Strecker from the International Development Research Centre talked about how ICTs can be used in refugee environments. She had done most of her research in Kakuma which turned out to be a very well organised camp in terms of infrastructure compared to others. She found that 84 percent of the 80,000 refugees in the camp own mobile devices and 34 percent of mobile net users had never used a computer before. There is a considerable amount of initiatives to offer internet services through cyber cafés or online training courses and demand is high. 

In the discussion following the presentations a refugee who has waited for a scholarship from Windle Trust for the past two years pointed out that there is a serious lack of opportunities for higher education for refugees in Uganda. 

Close the camps and help refugees integrate locally

The conference was officially opened by Dr. Stephen Malinga, Minister for Disaster Preparedness, Relief and Refugees in the Ugandan government. Having been a refugee himself in the US for more than 20 years, Malinga knows what it means to be forced to flee. He appreciated that he was free to integrate into American society including the choice to become a doctor and thus contribute to national development. The minister turned out a great advocate for local integration. "Refugees should become citizens", he said. He explicitly asked the audience to challenge the idea of camps. "They've never really helped", he argued. Instead, refugees should integrate with the local population like it is already happening with Congolese refugees in western Uganda. He also drew attention to the fact that most tribes in East Africa are split by borders which should make integration easier. "We can't really think of refugees from neighbouring countries as foreigners", Malinga said. 

Someone from the audience promptly asked when he intends to start dismantling the camps and if he would need a volunteer. The minister was also asked about the refoulement of Rwandan refugees in 2010 who were forced onto trucks returning them to Rwanda. However, the fact that he said he was not aware of any Rwandans being forcefully returned was met with disbelief because not only had the media highlighted this incident, aid organisations had also sent press releases and published reports drawing attention to this serious human rights violation.

Male refugees and gender

A documentary produced by the Refugee Law Project (RLP) which hosted the conference, gave insight into the struggles of male refugees who have been sexually abused. The definition of rape in Uganda and Sudan only refers to acts committed by men against women, so men literally are not allowed to be vulnerable. At the same time there is a considerable number of men who have been abused by other men or even women. 

One example given was women in combat in the country of asylum who had forced men to have sex with them, infected them with Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) and mistreated their sexual organs. In a country like Uganda where homosexuals can be fined with a life-long prison sentence men are hesitant about reporting such cases to the police. They also refrain from seeking medical treatment. 

"They always get to hear the same question: Are you homosexual?" explained a staff member of the Refugee Law Project which through its counselling sessions has had a lot of interaction with male victims of Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV). And while donor money flows in abundance for SGBV programmes targeting women, there are hardly any funds available to assist male victims. 

Men are disempowered

It is estimated that in the IDP camps of northern Uganda, 60 percent of women have been sexually abused. Why such a high number? Apparently the major reason is the disempowerment of men. Traditionally, they are seen as the providers and protectors but when confined to a congested camp where aid organisations provide food and soldiers security, they cannot carry out their traditional tasks any more. Instead, women take over and assume that role. Aid organisations have contributed to enforce this shift in traditional roles by reverting to handing out food rations to women because they discovered that they were more reliable. 

There is a high percentage of alcohol and substance abuse in those camps with figures ranging around 70 percent and mostly it is the men who are affected. Many women who still maintain traditional expectation regarding their husband's role take off with soldiers because they feel they can provide security and be "real" heads of the family. 

While, during the discussion, another RLP staff portrayed it as a form of emotional and non-physical violence that women leave their husbands or that aid organisations decide to entrust women with food distribution there was also a different opinion. One man in the audience asked why traditional role models could not be challenged by this process. He gave the example of post-war Germany where women did most of the work and refused to go back to their traditional role once their husbands came back from war. After all, the fact that the understanding of the role each gender assumed changed is no justification for sexual violence, irresponsibility or substance abuse.

Iraqi "guests" in Syria

The protection of urban refugees was another topic high on the agenda. Xenophobia in South African cities was one aspect highlighted while another one was the situation of Iraqi refugees in Damascus, Syria. Syria is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and there is no law regarding refugees, so the country is under no obligation to protect refugees. UNHCR is just tolerated and so are around 14 international aid organisations which can be expelled any time, depending on the government's will. Refugees are allowed to attend Syrian schools and can get medical assistance through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. They have, however no right to work because once they cross the border, they are welcomed as "guests" or "visitors". As a consequence, many Iraqi refugees who are now in the country and have used up all their savings are in a very precarious situation. 

There are no camps in Syria, so most refugees live spread among the local urban population. There are no figures either, because the government does not allow any assessments and does not make its border statistics public. But estimates suggest that one million refugees live in Syria. 

Since no needs assessment can be carried out, aid organisation find it difficult to determine the kind of assistance they should give. Also, the level of resources among Iraqi refugees varies to large extents. It is generally hard to get access to information as researchers or journalists are not allowed into the country and refugees are hesitant to speak freely because phones are tapped and emails monitored. 

Finally, Iraqi refugees don't call themselves "refugees" which might have to do with the connotation to the Palestinian situation with which they do not want to compare themselves because it offers no perspective of peace or return. 

How identity is formed in exile

What happens to a refugee's identity when he or she has lived 20 years in exile with no chance to return home? And how does that affect local integration? Through her research with Liberian refugees in Buduburam camp in Ghana, Jennifer Byrne from Madison University tried to explore what "makes" identity among refugees in protracted situation. She found that there are four key dimensions: ethno-cultural (place of birth, origin of parents, ethnic ties), civic (political system, education etc.), liberal (in this case liberal ideas specifically about Liberia as a land of freedom and opportunities) and the tribal dimension. 

Out of 34 interviewees only four supported local integration. "I have been in Ghana for 13 years now and I feel like I've been wasted. There are no opportunities to realise myself", one Liberian refugee had told her. But one concern was also that most Liberians are still hoping to be resettled to the US and for this reason, do not want to accept the idea of integrating locally in Ghana.

The concept of home

Another case presented was Rwanda. Bernadette Iyodu from the RLP interviewed more than 150 Rwandan refugees in Ugandan to find out how they think about Rwanda as their home. At present, Ugandan hosts 27,000 Rwandan refugees and asylum seekers while there are another 50,000 spread across the Great Lakes region. On December 31, 2011 the cessation clause of refugee status will be invoked upon those Rwandans who fled the country until 1997. However, there is some confusion because the Rwandan government does not seem to make this distinction and wants to apply the cessation clause to all Rwandan refugees which would result in all asylum seekers from Rwanda being categorically denied refugee status. 

It turned out that elderly refugees considered Uganda home. They did not want to return to a land where their children were tortured and could not face the idea of getting used to a new environment at their age. 

A 20-year-old Rwandan lady whose parents were killed during the genocide had been denied asylum in Kenya and Tanzania. So she returned to Rwanda where the local Gacaca court asked her to pay one million Rwandan Francs (USD 1,180) for a crime committed by her brother who she had lost touch with. She failed to pay, was jailed, tortured and fled to Uganda. If she returned to Uganda, she would risk being hanged for failing to pay the money. For her, Uganda is home and she would want to have Ugandan citizenship. 

But according to Ugandan law, refugees are denied citizenship. While any person who has resided in the country for 20 years can apply to be a Ugandan citizen, refugees do not have this option. They are expected to return home. 

Which solution is durable?

Instead of promoting repatriation as the preferred durable solution, researchers called for more flexibility. It was stressed that a solution can only be durable when it fits the situation of that particular group of refugees. 

For many, resettlement to a third country is not an option. Refugees from countries like Rwanda or Liberia are not considered for resettlement anymore. If you look at the overall numbers of refugees, less than one percent is resettled every year. The US, for instance, considers refugees for resettlement who are in special circumstances (disabilities, no other durable solution, elderly), who come from former communist countries and refugees who through resettlement can reunite with their family. 

An Ethiopian refugee in the audience expressed his anger at the fact that refugees considered for resettlement are usually tested for HIV and rejected if they are found to be positive. "This is a clear violation of human rights!" he said. He also requested that the inconsistencies on the ground be discussed rather than the laws. 

Transitional justice

During a plenary session, Brian Kagoro of the Development Foundation of Zimbabwe provoked the audience with some controversial thoughts on transitional justice. The expressions he used to refer to injustice committed by the state were unusual, too. Referring to "Operation Murambatsvina" during which, in 2005 bulldozers destroyed illegal settlements in the Zimbabwean capital Harare, he spoke of the governments intention to "disappear the poor". 

"And then, they are hugging you back to poverty", he described the authorities' attempt to ask for forgiveness, describing a random minister who would show up in his black Mercedes, crying some tears before leaving to continue to business as usual. "It pays to be unjust as long as you can regret it briefly", Kagoro said. 

He then stressed the fact that in Africa, guilt perceptions are always collective but this is often not taken into consideration. "If you take Idi Amin to The Hague, has the collective aspect been dealt with?" he asked. Lastly, he challenged the audience by asking them to not only talk about protection for refugees but to also  bear in mind that, as has been seen in the past, displacement can easily be a source of anti-statism, and with support from the international community is as dangerous as an overthrow. 

Who wants to read more about his ideas can do so in his book: Chaos and transition in Zimbabwe, published by Prestige Books. 

Life after the blood diamonds

Who has worked in Sierra Leone or watched the movie "Blood Diamonds" might wonder how a society lives on after 11 years of traumatising war. The Finnish Refugee Council produced a one hour documentary, interviewing victims from both sides – amputees as well as former (child) soldiers. "I'm an incomplete human being and I feel discouraged", said one amputee. "Most of the time we were high and so you feel at ease doing wrong", said a former child soldier. 

The country's capital, Freetown, has long been considered the Athens of West Africa. Among many other things, it boasts the oldest university in the region, dating back to 1827. Now, it is the lowest ranked country on the Human Development Index (HDI). Just to give one example, there is no electricity in Sierra Leone. More than 90 percent of the country is lit by candles. 

Diamonds are still a source of income for many people. Someone working in diamond mining, which is mostly done in the river, earns USD100 a year. "The nearer you are to the diamonds, the poorer you are", one man said. The miners are divers. They go to the bottom of the river, a huge stone tied to their leg dragging them down. Their counterpart, waiting in a boat pumps oxygen through a tiny pipe. Some, especially the young boys who do it for the first time, never come back up. The more experienced ones spent three-four hours below the water and as a consequence, many of them turn blind. Most of the diamonds go to Brussels. 

The film closed with a touching example of how reconciliation and forgiveness can actually happen. John, a former child soldier, now sings in a band with amputees and Salomon, an amputee, pays his college fees. 

Find the right approach to therapy for each situation

One panel explored how forced displacement affects the mental health of refugees. A clinical psychologist stressed that each ethnic community needs their own approach. In some communities men don't talk to women about their problems. Among the Congolese, women isolate those who have been raped, and Somali women will never admit they have an issue while being in front of a man. He also re-emphasised the need to integrate western and traditional approaches and methods of therapy. There was no doubt about the fact that demand for psychological support and counselling is huge among those forcibly displaced. 

Governance, gender, sexuality and forced migration

The issue of sexual minorities was the last big topic discussed at a plenary session during the conference. It was brought up during several panels as well as documentaries and exhibitions. All this before the background that Uganda passed a very controversial anti-homosexuality bill in 2009 which led to several Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transsexual-Intersexual (LGBTI) activists being killed or burnt in their homes, the last one on Monday morning at 5am, hours before the conference started. 

Today, 76 countries have criminal prohibition to consensual same sex conduct and of these five provide death penalty. "Everyone concerned with forced migration must be concerned with LGBTI", said Chris Dolan, Director of the Refugee Law Project in Kampala and one of the panellists. Referring to rape (both male and female) in conflict environments, he refused to only look at it as a weapon of war. Instead, he stressed the fact that research in this area needs to get to the bottom of sexual violence instead of dealing with the symptoms. He urged that the "why" of the violence in this context be explored. "What is going on with the individual perpetrator? If a young guy is recruited by militias and told at gunpoint to rape his mother, how does that translate into the sexual excitement needed to penetrate her? This has not been explored on an intellectual level", he said. 

During the discussion following the presentations, Barbara Harell-Bond, founder of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford asked whether, maybe, it was Britain that contributed to today’s system of suppression. She shared her experience of Sierra Leone in the 1960s when people openly admitted they were gay and held special positions in society. Another example quoted were Ugandans refusing to give sexual favours to the allegedly gay Buganda king because European missionaries had told them it was a sin. 

Also discussed was the question of how to find out if a refugee who has fled persecution because he belongs or is perceived to belong to the LGBTI group really tells the truth. A culture of disbelief seems to be evident in the context of the UK. Suggestions to come up with a catalogue of questions to determine the truth was, however, not considered an appropriate tool. Instead, four common themes should emerge in every real story. These are: difference, stigma, shame and harm. If these appear in a refugee’s story, they are a clear indicator for an LGBTI case, according to S Chelvan who is a barrister specialised in such cases in the UK. 


By Angelika Mendes
JRS Eastern Africa Communications Officer