By John V Sserwaniko
For months now, the relationship between Ugandans working for UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and their expatriate bosses hasn’t been very good. Ugandans have been skeptical that the top UNHCR leadership (closely working with others in the UN system in Kampala) are bent at hiding behind the alleged existence of ghost refugees in order to take the refugee registration and data management mandate from the government of Uganda. This has always created mistrust and Ugandans have for a while been treated by their UNHCR bosses with hostility. This only escalated recently when the verification exercise pushed by the UN pushed government to accept in the end exonerated Uganda and showed no ghosts had been created on the refugee register. The latest finding by the UN-led verification process means that the Ugandan officials never caused any financial loss through ghost refugees as had previously been alleged by powerful lobbyists in the UN system. The aim was to discredit Uganda and justify the taking over of the refugee registration mandate. Registration is important because whoever controls it, has the exclusive possession of all the refugee-related data and the money from the resultant fundraising. Verification began in March and has been on until last week when the final report came out exonerating Uganda of ghost refugee allegations. During verifications, the wedge only widened as the Ugandan employees kept protesting why the exercise was being used by UNHCR to carry out many other activities totally ultra-vires the original terms of reference. In the end, many of the big men in the OPM refugee department (including Commissioner Gerald Menhya) had to be sidelined by the UNHCR top leadership after their inquisitiveness became too much.
Besides being sidelined, the Ugandan UNHCR employees (aka OPM staff working with UNHCR) have endured three months without pay at a time their expatriate counterparts are swimming in dollars and living in the upscale Kampala suburbs of Kololo and Ntinda. We interacted with some staffers working in the Nakivale Settlement who had no kind words for UNHCR Uganda country representative Joel Boutroue for subjecting them to so much destitution. “We have families and therefore many financial obligations to shoulder but it’s now three months without pay. How are we expected to run our families? Someone must be deliberately doing this in Kampala to frustrate some of us to leave these jobs so that they can justify the outsourcing of the same work to the international NGOs which they always favor in total disregard of the GoU policy of BuBu which requires increased usage of local content,” ranted a UNHCR Ugandan employee based in Kyangwali. Angrier sentiments were expressed at the Nyakabande Settlement in Kisoro district where resentment towards UNHCR seemed even more pronounced. We also visited the settlement in Hoima and interacted with workers who were equally bitter. “We don’t know what is going to happen because we ordinarily expected answers from Kampala [the OPM refugee department] as we can’t raise our complaints to UNHCR directly. But at the headquarters in Kampala, guys are equally appalled because they too including the Commissioner [Menhya] haven’t been paid,” said another refugee workers in the Kyangwali settlement.
In total, UNHCR is responsible for close to 500 Ugandans (OPM staff) fully employed in the refugee management and operations across the four refugee regions of Arua, Adjumani, Mbarara and Hoima. There are Refugee Desk Offices (RDOs) in all these places. Under each of these RDOs are a number of refugee settlements (called camps in other countries). Each settlement has full time Ugandan employees who do daily work including coordinating the registration of new arrivals of refugees which occurs on a daily basis. Besides the work being too much, Ugandans also don’t live under very good conditions while doing this sort of work. The consolation always is in the fact that there is decent good pay at the end of the day because the least paid of these now grumbling Ugandan UNHCR staff earns at least Shs1m per month. Knowledgeable sources told this news website that the total monthly wage bill for the Ugandan employees come to around Shs1bn. Problem now is that the UNHCR head office in Kampala has deliberately refused paying them for now three months. We emailed UNHCR head Joel Boutroue and he was yet to respond to our inquiries at the time of posting this story. His Communications Manager Duniya Aslam Khan was equally unavailable for comment on the official media liaisons cellphone.
Gerald Menhya, who heads the OPM refugee department which supervises all the UNHCR-employed Ugandans involved in refugee management and operations, said there was no point denying what is already an open secret. In anonymous interviews with this news website, some employees had blamed him of not pushing hard enough to get UNHCR pay their salary arrears but Menhya was defensive and sounded powerless. “Why would they be angry with me? Why would I be sitting on anybody’s salary? I can only give what UNHCR gives me and for the last three months they haven’t given us anything. We depend on UNHCR to operationalize refugee responses up to 98% meaning my people can only be paid when they give us the money. The salaries come from UNHCR and not government of Uganda,” said Menhya who too has missed his UNHCR remuneration for the last three months along with his subordinates. But unlike his juniors, Menhya was understanding and sympathetic to UNCHR rather than being resentful. “The UNHCR Kampala office depends on fundraising and contributions come from the UN system, the US and other western capitals and I think the delay in paying has been because UNHCR hadn’t received the money as yet from the usual sources,” said Menhya imploring staffers to remain patient. “The good thing there is light at the end of the tunnel and we shall get them paid most likely next week because I’m reliably informed money has finally come.” He added: “By the way I’m very surprised this matter can come to the press yet those project employees are by now supposed to know that with the kind of funding UNHCR depends on such things are often expected. It’s regrettable that this has happened but it could happen again this being the UN system and the way UNHCR goes about fundraising.” For comments, call, text or whatsapp us on 0703164755.