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Legal initiatives for refugees in Uganda

Colman Ntungwerisho's picture
Children make up more than half of the refugee population in Uganda. Photo: Jay Hsu, flickr


According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the refugee population in Uganda is estimated at 1.15 million people. This makes Uganda one of the largest refugee-hosting countries in the world. South Sudan alone is the source of more than one million refugees, with 86% of these comprised of women and children. They occupy settlements in rural districts in Northern Uganda such as Adjumani, Moyo and Arua. It is also the home to one of the world’s biggest refugee camp, Bidi Bidi, which hosts a quarter of a million refugees.

Refugees are perhaps one of the most vulnerable groups in Uganda. They lose everything they own, and many witness horrendous atrocities and they are often reduced to a life of dependence on humanitarian aid. This state of vulnerability is even worse in protracted refugee situations, where thousands of refugees from one country have lived in exile for five or more years.

I am proposing several legal initiatives, which, if supported by the World Bank and other development organizations, could be a solution to the vulnerability of refugees, and one of the avenues for achieving sustainable development. For the disenfranchised, the law can be a powerful tool which they can use to exercise their rights. In addition, rights provide protection for vulnerable groups such as refugees, which enables them to pursue and achieve development.

Support for access to justice programs for refugees is key, along with initiatives that aim to remove barriers such as long distances to courts, language, high legal costs and lack of legal knowledge—especially as it relates to refugee rights.

For example, mobile courts in refugee settlements could bring justice closer to the people and encourage community participation. Guaranteeing access to justice can also be a gateway for refugees to exercise other rights that they may not be aware of. When equipped with legal information, refugees can rely on the law for protection or seek remedies before the court.

The Refugee Act of Uganda requires refugee response programs are handled by the central government, including ReHoPE, a strategic framework designed to bridge the gap between humanitarian and development support. Decentralizing this strategy could bring services closer to those who need them.

Support for education programs for refugees, particularly those aimed at upholding the right to education, are vital because more than half of the refugee population in Uganda is made up of children. In fact, UNHCR estimates that refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school than their non-refugee counterparts. Presently, the emphasis is only on primary and secondary education. As a result, refugees do not have access to tertiary education and vocational training. For most, it is unaffordable and government resources are constrained.

Scholarships for tertiary education for refugee children could help solve this problem. With scholarships, brilliant and excelling refugee students could attend universities, while the rest could be provided with scholarships at Business, Technical Vocational Education and Training (BTVET) institutions that teach vocational skills like carpentry and craft making. Giving refugees access to such education would equip them with the skills to enable them to compete favorably for employment opportunities from which they can earn money and become self-reliant. Ultimately, their education would enable them to become instrumental in the reconstruction of their home countries when the causes of displacement end and they are finally repatriated.

Support for the economic empowerment of refugees can be done by availing funds through the government, micro-finance institutions or commercial banks to provide soft loans to refugees without the requirement for collateral. Access to cheap credit without the requirement for collateral is especially important for refugees because they are not expected to own any property since they usually lose everything they own.

These initiatives will not only help to provide a sustainable solution to the current refugee crisis and enable refugees to become self-reliant, they will also go a long way in helping the World Bank to achieve its twin goals of ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity.

This blog post is one of several winning proposals from the first LJD Week 2018 Law Student Contest for Development Solutions, a competition for young African students to present innovative legal solutions to development challenges. The top two winners, Mawunya Kudu and Colman Ntugwerisho, were invited to present their proposals to the LJD Week 2018 audience; see their presentations here.