By providing a forum for expert exchange on the current refugee crisis, KAS Uganda, together with their partner, Young Leaders Think Tank, sought to formulate ideas on how to better combat refugee management in a sustainable manner. The participants of the roundtable discussion, which was held on the16th August 2017 in Kampala, comprised of members of the Young Leaders Think Tank, independent researchers, lawyers and refugee rights advocators, journalists, and members of international organisations as well as civil society organisations.
Opening the Forum, KAS Programme Officer Donnas Ojok presented the key findings of the report in East Africa’s refugee management, which was compiled together with members of the Young Leaders Think Tank.
The statistics and insights presented highlighted the mixed results of the various refugee policies and practices across East Africa since independence. Donnas Ojok argued that the many irregularities and shortcomings of the refugee policies of the individual countries highlighted the need for a common East African policy framework on refugee management. Ojok proposed that ECOWAS’ refugee policy framework could possibly serve as a point of reference for creating a comprehensive refugee management framework for an increasingly interconnected and interdependent region like East Africa. Concluding his presentation, Donnas Ojok remarked that formulating a self-reliant policy framework is not a linear process as it will face both natural and man-made obstacles, which is why the process must be open to discussion and contestation.
The input presentation of the discussion was held by Dr Frank Ahimbisibwe, a scholar specialised in refugee affairs, and senior lecturer at Mbarara University of Science and Technology. Similar to Donnas Ojok, Dr Ahimbisibwe shared his very personal experiences with refugees, growing up in an area that hosted large numbers of refugees from Uganda’s neighbouring countries. After providing an overview of the current refugee situation in Uganda and other East African countries, the scholar explained the different obstacles that impede proper management of refugee populations. These included: the contested role of the state in managing refugees, the perceived economic strains on the host country, a lack of awareness of the host communities on the rights of refugees, increased xenophobia from host communities due to land and employment competition, as well as irregularities between law and practice that further endanger refugee livelihood in the host country even if the law is on their side.
Frank Ahimbisibwe presenting his paper at the round table discussion.
In addition, Dr Ahimbisibwe noticed a trend in reluctance of refugees to repatriate voluntarily, putting further tension on the relationship with host communities. In conclusion, he put emphasis on the fact that cooperation of all East African countries will be even more imperative with the increased threat of climate change as a driving factor for the creation of refugees.
On the basis of Dr Ahimbisibwe’s input presentation, the roundtable discussion was opened for all participants. The issues discussed centred around issues of lack of financial support from donor countries to properly cater for refugee populations, questions of responsibility and accountability, as well as inadequate infrastructure to host refugee populations. Particular emphasis was put on the situation of urban refugees and the bureaucratic hurdles they face since they do not live in formal refugee camps but are still constrained in their choice of residence. Nevertheless the biggest obstacle to better refugee management identified by the participants was the prevalence of tribal splits and conflicts within the refugee camps.
Daniel Joul, Chairperson of the South Sudan Youth Forum in Uganda on National Dialogue, called for increased intervention of the host government to hinder this from occurring. Another participant countered that it is not the responsibility of the host government, but rather that of civil society organisations to ensure ethnic tolerance. Dr Ahimbisibwe answered this concern by agreeing that there is indeed an issue of ethnic conflicts within refugee camps, since many refugee populations still bring a conflict mind-set into the refugee camps, causing rifts and conflicts between warring parties. According to the scholar, a political solution to conflicts in refugee camps is needed, under the guidance, for example, of regional organisations such as IGAD, EAC, or AU. Another participant proposed civic education as a way to promote multiculturalism and ethnic coexistence among refugee populations.
The discussions also highlighted the need for stronger civil society activism to spread civic awareness among both host and refugee communities, a clearer definition of the term ‘refugee’, and most prominently, a need for a comprehensive refugee management framework formulated and agreed upon by all EAC member states.
Closing the event, Mathias Kamp, KAS country director, highlighted the importance of smaller forums on refugee management parallel to larger conferences. He also praised the work of Dr Ahimbisibwe and all participants present for advocating for better policies on refugee management in East Africa.
The various conflicts across eastern Africa have not only put a strain on the countries engulfed in violence, but also their neighbouring countries, who must handle the influx of refugees into their communities amidst already existing domestic economic hurdles. The East African Community’s (EAC) lack of a common framework on refugee management has made for great inconsistencies on policy and practice among the different member states