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Investigating social – economic protection obstacles for Refugees amidst COVID-19 lockdown in Uganda 

Theophile Sugira *

Refugees and asylum seekers like other law subjects are protected by laws and their rights in Uganda are ones of the constitutional rights. Their rights are enshrined in Ugandan domestic law and international refugee treaties ratified by Uganda. These include inter alia, Convention relating to the Status of Refugees signed in Geneva on 28 July 1951, Protocol of 31 January 1967 relating to the Status of Refugees, and the Organization of African Unity’s Convention of 10 September 1969 governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa.  According to these international instruments, refugees and asylum seekers are vulnerable groups that have the right to certain rights such as rights to dignity, rights to be protected against all forms of discrimination through appropriate legislative, institutional and other measures, in order to guarantee that their rights are respected. Despite the scientific development and all measures in place to protect them, it has become clear that the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and of measures used to contain it, follows pathways of inequality and disadvantage across Uganda. In Uganda, refugees and asylum seekers were not spared. Uganda implemented restrictions on border travel in March 2020 to contain the spread of COVID-19, halting admission of new asylum-seekers into the country whereby closure of Refugee Reception Offices was imposed during the national lockdown and left refugees and asylum seekers in limbo regarding their status in Uganda.

 Thus, the aim of this paper will be to understand the contours of how the pandemic has reflected, reinforced, and deepened inequalities and resulted in human rights violations within the asylum seekers, displaced people, and refugee community during lockdown. It will raise awareness about the issue in order to propose appropriate measures to improve the promotion of refugees’ rights in Uganda in such crisis situations. It will also demonstrate the role of law and human rights in addressing and mitigating its effects and finding ways to build back better as well as exhibit what the pandemic reveals about our past and our future in protecting refugees.

  1. Background

It’s now a year and one month later since the declaration of the national disaster due to the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, which was followed by the national lockdown. All public and private offices and institutions were shut down, except the very few that provided essentials services. The Cabinet of the Republic of Uganda at its sitting of 23rd March, 2020, in line with the implementation of the Directives by H.E the President on the management of the Corona Virus Pandemic, resolved that all Public Services offered by the Ministry of Internal Affairs that involve direct contact with clients be suspended for the next 30 days effective Tuesday 24th March 2020.

The Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), through the Directorate in charge of Disaster Preparedness, Management and Refugees were also among those that were closed down and its services were limited. On Thursday, March 26, 2020, a statement on the suspension of services by the ministry of internal affairs was issued. This was done to ensure repatriations of Ugandan citizens and permanent residents who were stranded abroad and to allow foreign nationals to depart the Country. Closure of these offices meant that permits and visas couldn’t be easily issued or renewed. As measures continued to be eased at different levels of the lockdown, certain immigration services were, however, gradually re-opened.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs issued an instruction that all visas and permits that expired or were due to expire on, before, or after 25 March 2020 should be deemed valid. A similar directive was applied by the OPM whereby an extension which ran from 26th March to 31 July 2020 suggested but not directly expressed that all refugees (or asylum-seekers) permits that expired during the said period remained valid. As it was in other different sectors affected by COVID-19, the government continued to give blanket extensions of the timeline periodically. Firstly, it was extended to 30th September 2020 and then to 31 January 2021. Considering that COVID-19 cases continued to increase that time, there was a possibility that this date would be extended further. More importantly, the stated blanket extensions entailed that foreign national expired visas and permits were considered to be valid if they expired around or during the lockdown.

Regarding the situation of refugees and asylum-seekers, the public and private institutions took an opportunity as well to be informed that the permits of refugees and asylum-seekers are deemed valid and they shouldn’t be rejected away when trying to access important services simply because there was an ongoing closure of their reception offices. All the rights, benefits and obligations of refugees and asylum-seekers are by principle deemed to remain the same and they shouldn’t be penalized when it is clear that their permits expired during the lockdown. It is not disputable that the Refugee Reception Offices had been closed since the start of the lockdown and remain closed until the office of the Prime Minister decides otherwise.

Social-economic impact

Under the Refugees Act 2006, this category is entitled to economic activities in Uganda and enjoys the same right to work as nationals. Refugees are allowed to set up businesses with a license from the local municipality[1]. But due to lockdown measures their rights were infringed upon, for example, some were turned away when they wanted to apply for renewal of social grants or social relief of distress. In other cases, the Face Technologies offices in charge of renewing professional driving permits had been refusing to renew them due to the expiration of refugee permits. Refugees and asylum-seekers have been struggling to register businesses and Intellectual Property, to apply for trading licenses with Uganda Registration Services Bureau, and for admission to basic government-provided health care and primary or high education. Some employers were reluctant to recruit refugees or asylum-seekers whose documents have expired or to renew their employment contracts. They also find it difficult to open new bank accounts. It is, therefore, surprising that organs of the state were reluctant to accept the permits of refugees and asylum-seekers on the ground of their expiration. It is important to recall that the OPM issues temporary documents for asylum seekers valid for a period of ninety days from the date they are issued, and thereafter subjected to be renewed every three months[2]. These disappointments add to the existing problems refugees and asylum-seekers face when trying to access public services. Findings of various studies indicated that refugees and asylum-seekers are, traditionally excluded from social grants to avoid the high impermissible costs that may be incurred by the state should they be included in various socio-economic programmes[3]. This exclusion is grounded in the notion that a great percentage of asylum-seekers are economic migrants or job-seekers who do not fall within or deserve refugee protection[4]. Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 relief grants were not granted to refugees and asylum-seekers despite the latter being the most vulnerable group.

The main question that we have to ask ourselves is to what extent refugees and asylum-seekers are entitled to socio-economic rights and benefits, public services or COVID-19 relief measures? Indeed, this is a controversial question complicated by the national understanding that refugees and asylum-seekers are in the country to benefit from the fruits of democracy. This view disregards the fact that Uganda acceded to international refugee treaties and incorporated these treaties into its legal system through the Refugees Act 21 of 2006 (as amended). This Act provides that refugees are entitled to all rights in the Bill of Rights, except those rights that are expressly reserved for citizens. Provisions of the Constitution provide everyone with the right of access to adequate housing (or shelter), health care services, sufficient food (or basic nutrition), sufficient water, social assistance and social security as well as education. This seems to indicate that refugees and asylum-seekers are entitled to socio-economic rights or services.

The Refugees Act read through the lens of constitutional provisions, signals Uganda’s intention to offer effective protection to refugees and asylum-seekers, to respond to their suffering caused by past persecutions in their home countries or by disasters occurring in Uganda. The onus rests on Uganda to restore their self-reliance, participation and agency as well as to protect their dignity. This can only be done if they are given access to public services. Documenting refugees and asylum-seekers and timely renewal of documents are core mechanisms to make such access possible.

Unlike other foreign nationals, refugees and asylum-seekers are, irrespective of the temporary nature of their stay, not required to be self-reliant and economically independent in order to be admitted into the country. Rather, they are admitted because of humanitarian reasons and should thus be offered the necessary humanitarian protection. However, during lockdown and after, various institutions providing public services have relied on expiration of permits of refugees and asylum-seekers to refuse them the services they are entitled to; services that they need to live a dignified life. The refusal of such services on the ground of the expiration of a permit is inconsistent with the ministerial directives issued by the Ministry in charge of Refugees Management (OPM) for compliance with the lockdown regulations.

The question refugees and asylum-seekers ask themselves is whether the OPM values their wellbeing as much as it does that of citizens. The Refugees Receptions offices had been closed on the ground that long queues at these offices may facilitate the spread of the COVID-19 virus if people don’t adhere to social distancing, wearing of masks, and sanitizing of hands. However, we saw the same queues (or crowds) at different markets, downtown like Kikuubo serving citizens. There were also always huge crowds with not much social distancing during the 2021 concluded election campaigns.

Refugees and asylum-seekers feel that the closure of reception offices works to frustrate their access to services and not to protect them. Furthermore, they felt that the closure will cause a huge backlog that the OPM will find hard to recover from. It should be noted that for many years the OPM has been unable to clear the backlog of refugee status appeals, certification applications and appeals. When the lockdown began in March last year, the issue of backlog was not yet resolved.

  1. Recommendations

 As explained extensively above, the Refugee community in Uganda expressed how they felt about the suspension of various rights in the course of the struggle against the pandemic.

The socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 to the refugees in Uganda have led to posing the question of what the country should do to protect vulnerable refugees from suffering harm during the lockdown. Some measures can be put in place to address concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic among urban refugees. The Government has the right under the law to take measures to protect the population from pandemics. In a constitutional democracy that permission is a state of exception, not an open-ended license to suspend individual rights and rule by decree. But where the line is drawn between permissible and impermissible state action is by no means clear. A balance must be struck in every instance between the protection of public health and the protection of individual rights and freedoms. The pandemic has shown how difficult striking the right balance has been for many countries and specifically in Uganda. It is precisely in a state of exception that constitutionalism and the state’s positive duty to protect rights matter the most. Yet, it is also in the state of emergency that individual rights must be balanced against the interest of the public as a whole.

As Uganda is a signatory to international refugee treaties, treaties incorporated into its legal system through the Refugees Act, this gives refugees and asylum seekers protection under the Bill of Rights. But the observed closure of refugee reception offices during lockdown leaves refugees and asylum seekers in complete undocumented limbo. We argued that while these measures may be broadly effective against the pandemic, they carry some risks particularly for vulnerable groups such as asylum seekers and refugees.

In light of the above, the refugee reception offices should reopen and serve refugees and asylum seekers to avoid future irregularities stemming from accumulated backlogs. The reopening will restore hope for refugees and asylum seekers for access to services they deserve.

  1. Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the vulnerabilities faced by refugees and asylum-seekers during lockdown in Uganda. Consequently, as the country continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, preparedness and response should provide support that looks at the whole person by considering, their mental health needs, and their physical, emotional, social and economic wellbeing.  We argue in other words that the approach to be used should take into account the whole population including asylum seekers and refugees. A special recognition of the condition of asylum seekers and refugees is important given their vulnerability and specific circumstances. A holistic response to this pandemic demands appreciation of the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 on all vulnerable groups including refugees. That special attention to the predicament of asylum seekers and refugees during preparedness and response plans for the COVID-19 pandemic will not only worsen the disastrous impacts of COVID-19 to this group but also poses greater risks and challenges to the host communities. This cry out supports the principle of ‘leaving no one behind that is promoted by the United Nations (Lancet Migration, 2020) to avoid that that a certain section of the population, asylum seekers and refugees, in this case, is left behind.

References

  1. The Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, 1995.
  2. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees signed in Geneva on 28 July 1951,
  3. Protocol of 31 January 1967 relating to the Status of Refugees
  4. The Organization of African Unity’s Convention of 10 September 1969 governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa.
  5. Refugees Act 21 of 2006 (As amended) published in the Uganda Gazette No. 47 Volume XCVIX dated 4th August 2006.
  6. Atukunda, N. (2020 Mar 22). Uganda confirms first coronavirus case. The Sunday Monitor [Internet]. Available from: https://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/Uganda-r egisters-first-Coronavirus-case/688334-5499930-13fqak2z/index.html.
  7. Bohnet, H., & Schmitz-Pranghe, C. (2019) [Internet]. Uganda: A role model for refugee integration?, 2/2019, 2/2019 https://www.ssoar.info/ssoar/handle/docum ent/62871
  8. Malaba, T. (2020 Mar 29). Urban refugees cry out for help amid lockdown [Internet]. Daily Monitor. Available online from: https://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/Urban-refugees-cry-out-help-amid-lockdown/688334-5508266-p9lqbg/index.html.
  9. (2019a). Global trends forced displacement in 2018 [Internet]. Geneva. Available from: www.unhcr.org/5c6fb2d04

*  Theophile Sugira is a lawyer. He holds a Masters’ Degree in Criminal Justice (LLM) from the University of Cape Town. His research interests include International Human Rights Law, International Humanitarian Law, Criminal law, Criminology, cybercrime, and International Criminal Law. email address: nyembless@gmail.com

[1] See Section 33 of the Refugees Act 21 of 2006 (As amended).

[2]  See Section 24 of the Refugees Act 21 of 2006 (As amended).

[3] Bohnet, H., & Schmitz-Pranghe, C. (2019) [Internet]. Uganda: A role model for refugee integration?, 2/2021, 2/2021 https://www.ssoar.info/ssoar/handle/docum ent/62871.

[4] Unhcr. (2019a). Global trends forced displacement in 2018 [Internet]. Geneva. Available from: www.unhcr.org/5c6fb2d04

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