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GOV’T STUCK WITH 20,000 REFUGEES AS NEW UNHCR REG’N SYSTEM FAILS

By John V Sserwaniko

Barely a month since it became operational, the new refugee registration system (technically known as V4 and BIMS) has broken down resulting into backlog in refugee registration process. The defective system (which some MPs have criticized for breaching the Refugee Act that preserves the registration mandate for the GoU) was imposed by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) after succeeding in soiling Uganda’s image by alleging existence of ghost refugees on the register. The March-October 2018 verification exercise report was recently released and found no such ghost refugees existed. Yet the UN system leaders (like Rosa Malango of UNDP) had already discredited Uganda by falsely alleging existence of corruption in refugee management manifested in creation of ghost refugees. Their original claim (which the government Media Center recently dismissed as sham) was that out of 1.4m refugees, more than 360,000 were ghosts to facilitate stealing of funds meant for refugee operations. At the Media Center press conference, the new UNHCR Country Representative Joel Boutroue was flanked by line Minister Eng Hillary Onek as local and international journalists gathered to witness the release of the report that clearly exonerated Ugandan officials.

REFUGEE BACKLOG;

The Ugandan refugee system works following a well-laid procedure that briefly operates as follows: on arrival, every refugee reports to Old Kampala Police Station refugee desk (for Kampala’s case) to be issued with a Yellow Card. This card is testimony that the security agencies have verified and established a particular refugee doesn’t threaten Ugandan security. This leads to an appointment being granted for the day when that refugee reports to the OPM refugee center in Old Kampala for the status-granting process to begin. Each nationality is designated a day (Monday for Somalis, Tuesday Congolese, Wednesday Sudanese, Thursday Eritreans, Ethiopians, Rwandans & other nationalities). Friday is for uniquely vulnerable groups like newly born babies produced by refugees already here. There is a category of OPM refugee staff called Status Interpretation Officers (mostly lawyers) who interview these people and prepare documentation on which the Verification Committee (VC) bases to grant or reject one’s application. The VC comprises of reps from UNHCR, ISO, ESO, Police, CMI, OPM & State House among others. In total, 10 entities are represented. Except for countries were existence of war conditions is well known and doesn’t require verification, all the refugees must be interviewed and relevant paper work subsequently prepared for consideration by the VC. Those from countries with active armed conflict are technically called Prima Facie refugees-and South Sudanese until recently fell under this category.  The VC is so important because without a record of their decision, no status (either refugee or asylum) can be granted. Due to resource constraints, they meet 6 times a year (at least once every 2 months). As their meeting and decision is awaited, potential refugees are identified and granted Asylum Seeker status valid for three months. This period is meant to enable the VC to sit and decide to grant or disallowing one’s application for refugee status though cases of unsuccessful refugee applicants are rare. For every session, the VC sits for a full week because there are always many application cases to consider.

20,000 REFUGEES STUCK;

For the last 2 VC meetings, over 20,000 refugee applications were considered and granted but the process can’t be completed for the applicants (now on asylum status) to know their fate. Why? The new refugee registration management system UNHCR imposed recently to replace the one of the GoU is defective with improperly functioning biometrics and therefore very slow. The registration officials using V4 & BIMS system installed by UNHCR now take 1hour handling one refugee case as opposed to the old system which served 12 refugee applicants per hour (spending 5 minutes on each). Whereas the new UNHCR-controlled system was meant to keep all the pre-existing refugee data and only improve on what the GoU had in place, over 50% of the data (for old refugee cases) is missing. For instance data on things like assistance location, occupation, education level and contacts regarding old refugees (that previously existed) is all missing in the new UNHCR system. This means more time is lost trying to recreate that information in case the matter being handled pertains to refugees who arrived earlier (updating) and are already living in Uganda e.g. those coming to renew their identification documentation. The new system omits other refugee information regarding things like referrals or even notifications. This means all this information has to be captured afresh. Yet without all that information, very important documentation like refugee or asylum seeker identification cards/documents can’t be printed. Even for those that seemingly have everything on the system, their IDs can’t be readily printed because the new UNHCR system says “error” each time an attempt is made to print the refugee IDs. These identification documents are very crucial because without them, one can’t access refugee services like food and other necessities supplied under the UN system. Yet that isn’t all. There are fears all these inconveniences risk making Uganda less attractive for people seeking refugee because difficulties resulting from the UNHCR registration system run counter to the generous and liberal refugee policy for which Museveni’s Uganda has globally been renowned in the past few years. Each time such problems have been encountered on the system, the UNHCR office has been notified but the expatriate ICT experts sent to help have failed to resolve the problem. Yet our efforts to get comment from the UNHCR were futile at the time of posting this story. Whereas our emailed inquiries to UNHCR country rep Joel Boutroue hadn’t been replied, Duniya Aslam Khan who speaks for the same agency declined comment saying he was far away in the field without clear network access. Insisting he would remain electronically unreachable up to 27th November, Duniya referred us to his office colleagues Kemlin Furley and Yona Tukundane who also remained elusive when reached with our inquiries. Duniya Aslam promised to follow up and get in touch when he returns to “better network coverage” area after 27th November. Line Minister Eng Hillary Onek, who in a previous interaction indicated readiness to always clarify to this news website, too didn’t take our calls. Neither did he reply our text messages on the matter. We established that because of the defect in the new system, much of the data regarding new arrivals remains “impossible” to load onto the V4/BIMS information system.

IMPENDING ARRESTS; Yet there is growing nervousness amongst close to 30,000 refugees/asylum status seekers that Police and other security agencies will soon pounce on them and detain them for suspected criminal activities (like terrorism) because such mop up operations intensify every festive season. “Fears for impending arrest amongst our members are only escalating as the Christmas season draws near because lack of identification documents [which OPM and UNHCR are failing to issue because of the anomalous new UN system] makes them vulnerable to being mistaken for terrorism and other criminal activities leading to arrest,” said one of the refugee leaders we spoke to for this article. Many feared speaking on record in case reprisal consequences result from the authorities.

ERITREANS BITTER;

The most aggrieved are Eritrean refugees whose numbers have lately been increasing majorly for two reasons. Firstly, they are running away from the conscription policy which Asmara recently escalated requiring all young men who have just clocked 18 to compulsorily serve in the army. “Whereas they officially say one must render national service for at least 18 months many have ended up being held for as long as 15 years. This is something many parents are running away from by sending their teenage sons here for refugee status the moment one nears 18,” said an Eritrean refugee leader. “In some cases it’s an entire family-the parents and their teenage sons running away from such conscription.” Previously, many Eritreans found South Sudan more convenient for its geographical proximity but they have lately resorted to Uganda because gaining entry and refugee status in South Sudan is increasingly becoming harder. “The closing of the South Sudan avenue also explains the Eritreans’ increased interest in Uganda as their refugee destination and that is why Thursday which is their day at the OPM is these days the most crowded. There is a lot of chaos and one of these days people might collapse and die in the line struggling to reach registration tables at the OPM refugee center on Sir Apollo Kaggwa road near Old Kampala,” said the Eritrean refugee leader who was uncomfortable having his identity disclosed. For comments, call, text or whatsapp us on 0703164755.

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