Last Updated: Friday, 21 October 2016, 15:45 GMT

World Refugee Survey 2008 - Uganda

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 19 June 2008
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, World Refugee Survey 2008 - Uganda, 19 June 2008, available at: [accessed 22 October 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

UGA figures


Uganda hosted some 235,800 refugees and asylum seekers, most from Sudan, but also from the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo-Kinshasa) Rwanda, Somalia, Burundi, and other countries.

The majority of Uganda's 162,100 Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers arrived over the course of Sudan's North-South civil war starting in 1983. In 2006, following Sudan's 2005 peace treaty, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) began to repatriate Sudanese refugees. In 2007, poor security in southern Sudan slowed the process but the agency helped about 7,400 refugees return. Uganda recognized new asylum seekers from Sudan on a prima facie basis until May.

Since August, following fighting between rebels and Government troops in the Kivu region of Congo-Kinshasa, tens of thousands of Congolese refugees fled to the southwest, where nearly 30,000 of them stayed. The Congolese population numbered around 41,800, with the Government recognizing some 7,500 prima facie during the year.

Most of Uganda's 21,200 registered Rwandan refugees and asylum seekers lived in the Nakivale, Oruchinga, Kyangwali, Kiryandongo, and Kyaka settlements in the west and southwest of the country.

Uganda received about 7,000 Kenyan refugees in January 2008, following election violence that started at the end of 2007.

Some 17,500 refugees repatriated and nearly 500 resettled to third countries.

Refoulement/Physical Protection

In October, Uganda forcibly returned 3,000 Rwandans without warning. At 2 a.m., police surrounded the Kibati zone of Nakivale refugee camp and loaded them onto trucks for Kigali under UNHCR monitoring. Some managed to take a few belongings with them but had to leave behind livestock and other property. The Government's Refugee Eligibility Committee (REC) assessed their claims earlier in the year and denied some of them status, which many did not appeal, and UNHCR reportedly did not consider them people of concern. UNHCR advised refugees that if they feared persecution in Rwanda, they did not have to return, and both the Ugandan and Rwandan Governments reportedly claimed the return was voluntary.

Ugandan officials screened for deportees with official refugee documents, but deported some of them anyway and many perceived the return to be forced. Some complained that returning would put their lives in danger. A number returned to Uganda, a few claiming to be Congolese from the North Kivu Province. After the Refugee Law Project publicized concerns of Burundians in Kibati that the Government might return them as well, the REC conducted new determinations and granted over 600 of them refugee status.

In January 2008, ethnic Luo militia reportedly crossed into Kipraen, pushed some 30 Kenyan Kikuyus into a river where they drowned, decapitated another, and infiltrated another camp near Malaba. With UNHCR's support, the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) separated refugees in settlements by ethnicity.

The Refugees Act 2006 took effect in May but the Government did not implement its status determination procedure. The new Act provided for refugee protection defined by the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Convention), its 1967 Protocol, and the 1969 Convention governing Specific Aspects of the Refugee Problem in Africa (African Refugee Convention), to all of which Uganda was party. Uganda maintained reservations to the 1951 Convention's rights to exemption from reciprocity requirements and exceptional measures, property, association, access to courts, work, and administrative assistance; its allowance of provisional measures; and its restrictions on expulsion.

The new Act's refugee definition included persons fleeing from persecution for not conforming to "gender discriminating practices." In situations of mass influx, the minister in charge of refugees could also allow groups of asylum seekers to remain in the country up to two years with the same rights the Act gave refugees. To apply for status under the new Act, asylum seekers would submit written applications to REC within 30 days of entering. The Act entitled applicants to hearings and to legal or other assistance, and the REC had to provide rejected asylum seekers the reason for rejection in writing. The REC had 90 days to make a decision. The Act provided for appeals with evaluations of rejected cases by an independent board. The board could not overrule REC decisions but had to refer them back for reconsideration. Counsel could represent clients before both REC and the board and UNHCR could attend board proceedings in an advisory capacity.

During 2007, however, refugees still had to interview with the Special Branch Police and the OPM upon arrival. Once in a settlement, they registered with the camp administration and UNHCR. The REC continued to review applications based on interviews conducted by police and UNHCR representatives, did not allow asylum seekers to present themselves in person before the REC, and took more than 90 days to make decisions. Although applicants could have counsel in the process, neither they nor their counsel could appear before the REC. The REC did respond to lawyers' letters and calls of inquiry regarding clients' cases.

UNHCR could grant mandate refugee status to asylum seekers whose requests the REC had denied. UNHCR attended all REC hearings and found no cause to intervene. The OPM referred about 20 cases to UNHCR for further review. In all cases, Uganda was the second country of asylum and OPM requested UNHCR's information about the refugees' status in the previous country of asylum.

Detention/Access to Courts

In April, security guards reportedly held 67 Somalis at Entebbe airport, outside Kampala, waiting for unspecified guarantees from UNHCR.

Soldiers detained a Rwandan refugee in a police station for over a week without any charges and police resisted releasing her on bond, reportedly holding the woman because they wanted her husband, also a Rwandan refugee, on allegations of treason. A complaint to the Ugandan Human Rights Commission led to her release. Authorities arrested a Congolese refugee for allegedly participating in a demonstration.

Reportedly based on orders given by InterAid, authorities arrested and detained a Congolese refugee pastor who had been demanding medical help, but eventually released him.

In the run up to the November Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), the Violent Crime Crack Unit (VCCU, now referred to as the Rapid Response Unit or RRU) arrested and detained seven refugees, including six Congolese and one Somali, reportedly tortured several of them and did not allow them to have access to lawyers or relatives. The military arrested, detained, and later charged two refugees with disobeying lawful orders when they failed to vacate a flat so that CHOGM could use it as a security area. The police did not attend the hearing to provide evidence against them.

Securing the release of refugees, especially on police bond, was difficult because they demanded two Ugandan nationals as guarantors even though the law did not specify the nationality of guarantors.

UNHCR protection officers regularly visited refugees in detention centers.

Refugees and asylum seekers generally could vindicate rights in court but the Government located refugee settlements as far as 60 miles (100 km) from courts, and refugees required permission to leave.

In its reservations to the 1951 Convention, Uganda reserved the right not to provide refugees with more legal assistance than it gave foreigners generally. It also reserved the right not to help refugees with their documentation unless UNHCR asked and reimbursed it.

The Refugees Act provided that recognized refugees "shall ... be issued with an identity card in a prescribed form stating the refugee status of the holder for purposes of identification." Asylum seekers received renewable identification cards good for three months while the REC reviewed their cases. If the REC granted them refugee status, they received an official refugee identity card. All refugees living in urban areas received this form of identification, but refugees who lived in settlements had to request cards from administrators, and students, businessmen, and those seeking medical treatment had priority. Uganda only issued ration cards to refugees authorities recognized prima facie, which camp authorities recognized as identification. Outside camps, police and authorities generally recognized refugee identification cards and asylum seeker documents, but not the ration cards.

Freedom of Movement and Residence

The Refugees Act 2006 guaranteed freedom of movement to refugees in Uganda, but UNHCR and OPM aid was limited to those living in settlements. Refugees who wished to leave had to request movement permits from administrators and provide dates and reasons for travel. Many left without permission.

About 20,000 refugees lived in Kampala and UNHCR had an urban caseload of between 200 and 300 per month, most from settlements seeking medical treatment, legal assistance, or resettlement.

Initially, Kenyan refugees stayed at reception centers, such as the Busia integrated primary school, but by late February 2008, officials moved them to Mulanda transit center.

The Refugees Act 2006 guaranteed the right of refugees to international travel documents, which were usually valid for 90 days from the date of issuance and renewable every two months. To obtain them, refugees had to apply through OPM and provide proof of their reasons for travel, length of stay abroad, and other travel details. Students required letters of admission, medical patients had to provide evaluations from Ugandan medical institutions explaining why no one could treat them in Uganda, those traveling to see family had to provide a letter of invitation from the family member, and business travelers had to provide proof of a legitimate business. Uganda did not provide international travel documents for asylum seekers.

Right to Earn a Livelihood

Under the Refugees Act 2006, recognized refugees enjoyed the same right to work as nationals. Refugees did not require work permits in Uganda. OPM issued refugees letters explaining their status and rights, including the right to work. Asylum seekers, however, did not have the right to work.

Refugees did not enjoy the benefits of social security, unemployment, or disability insurance, nor did labor legislation protect them.

Refugees were free to establish businesses and did not require permits. They enjoyed the right to own property, both movable and immovable, and acquire assets. They were free to lease land, but refugees had to obtain permission from the Minister of Land and Environment in order to own it. Refugees in settlements where land was especially fertile farmed successfully but movement restrictions prevented them from selling their produce in urban markets and required them to rely on Ugandan intermediaries. Asylum seekers could not own businesses, property, or other assets.

In its reservations to the 1951 Convention, Uganda reserved the right to abridge refugees' property rights "without recourse to courts of law or arbitral tribunals, national or international," if it deemed it in the public interest. It also reserved the right to deny them freedom of association and rights to work it might grant nationals of states with special treaties, such as those of the East African Community.

Public Relief and Education

Although Uganda generally cooperated with UNHCR and aid agencies to assist refugees living in settlements, OPM asked aid agencies to inform it about any plans to assist refugees living outside them. Kampala officials normally did not budget for refugees, restricting their access to education and health services.

A cholera outbreak in a refugee camp at Bunagana in Kisoro district in January killed one refugee, and 30 more required hospitalization. A meningitis outbreak in Rhino Camp in northern Uganda in January killed 4 people and sickened more than 70. The outbreak eventually spread to a Sudanese town, killing 5 people and leaving 60 others seriously ill. Refugees had access to national health services, and Sudanese received vaccinations against meningitis before repatriating.

Refugees enjoyed the same rights to free primary education as nationals. The Universal Primary Education schools in Kisoro were full, however, preventing refugee children from attending.

Congolese refugees at Bunagana received food, shelter, and hygiene essentials from UNHCR. Kenyan refugees at Busia camp complained in January 2008 that they had not received food for four days after they arrived in the camp. OCHA later reported that the Government of Uganda and OPM provided security and food aid to the Kenyan refugees.

UNHCR's Development Assistance for Refugees program aided both nationals and refugees, but this focused on subsistence agriculture and did not include self-settled refugees.

The 2005 Poverty Eradication Action Plan (2004/5-2007/8) the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development prepared for international donors dealt with refugees as a disaster to manage, but highlighted self-reliance and allowed that refugees could "become an asset." The Plan noted, however, "Being an emergency issue, expenditure on refugees is not treated as part of the [Medium Term Expenditure Framework]." The latter included the goal of increasing growth to seven percent by removing bureaucratic barriers to investment; improving transportation infrastructure and utilities; modernization and commercialization of agriculture; improving rural access to finance and strengthening small and medium-sized businesses; and enhanced environmental sustainability.

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