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Why the UN Policy on Refugees in Urban Areas is not good enough.

The UNHCR Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas (2009) came after many changing circumstances in the world of refugees. The original (1997) policy addressed concerns of security and vulnerability of the refugee population, but almost ten years later the refugee experience looks very different due to rapid urbanization. Today, “almost half of the world’s 10.5 million refugees now reside in cities and towns.” The previous policy did not account for the change in demographics of the movement of people and the new vulnerabilities they faced as they moved into cities.

The document lays out the intent of the motivation for a renewed policy, the objective principles, the inherent limitations, and plan for implementation. The two principle objectives being: 1) “to ensure that cities are recognized as legitimate places for refugees to reside and exercise the rights to which they are entitled; and 2) to maximize the protection space available to urban refugees and the humanitarian organizations that support them.”

The writers of the policy recognize the need for each locale to apply the policy in its own appropriate way. They also concede that, “If those goals are to be achieved, an appropriate resource base will be required, coupled with effective cooperation and support from a wide range of other actors, especially those host governments and city authorities in the developing world that so generously host the growing number of urban refugees. In this respect, UNHCR encourages states to respect and give practical meaning to the principle of international solidarity and responsibility-sharing.”

Furthermore, the UNHCR recognizes that each locale does not operate in the same way. “Some countries with urban refugee populations have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and provide refugees with a legal status, residence rights and the right to work. In other countries such conditions do not prevail. In some countries where camps exist, refugees are officially obliged to stay there. In other countries, the movement of refugees from camps to urban areas is either permitted or tolerated.” The relevant nature of this document both makes it ineffective and open for poor implementation within urban neighborhoods where refugees are trying to make a life for themselves

Kampala shopping district

The policy outlines protection of refugee rights to ensure all refugees living in urban areas “are treated as equals before the law and are not subjected to any form of discrimination by law enforcement agencies.” The UNHCR also holds “states” accountable to “ensure that refugees in urban areas enjoy access to the social welfare systems that are available to nationals.” In addition, the UNHCR offers capacity building support to governments that do not feel they can follow through with these efforts.

The UNHCR outlines a plan for implementation which includes: providing reception facilities, undertaking registration and data collection, ensuring that refugees are documented, determining refugee status, reaching out to the community, fostering constructive relations with urban refugees, maintaining security, promoting livelihoods and self-reliance, ensuring access to healthcare, education and other services, meeting material needs, promoting durable solutions, and addressing the issue of movement. It appears to be comprehensive in its purpose, but what good is policy without enforcement?

Refugees face many struggles, especially women and children. Insecurity, trauma, lack of opportunity, lack of language skills in new host country’s native tongue, are all challenges that must be overcome for a refugee to create a self-sustaining livelihood. The 2009 policy provides hope for refugees living in urban areas, yet that hope quickly fades if we look at how the policy takes shape on the ground.

View of Kampala city

My perspective on the effectiveness of this policy from my own experience as a former refugee living in Uganda and serving refugees through my non-profit grassroots organization at the same time. According to the UNHCR’s 2009 implementation of the policy (listed above), I do not see the impact it has made in many African urban areas especially in Uganda thus far. The UNHCR has not instituted any new reception facilities considering more than 95,000 registered refugees in Kampala. Once you arrive, you are on your own. Some refugees stay at the police station, in the street, or in church halls.

There are only two big (and well-funded) organizations that serve urban refugees in Uganda, InterAid (NGO founded by UNHCR to follow through with the topics outlined in the 2009 policy) and Jesuit Refugee Services, which does not receive funding resources from the UNHCR. These organizations and the Office of the Prime Minister (local government) do not know where refugees live and how they are living. So they are failing in their effort of “reaching out to the community” or “fostering constructive relations with urban refugees.” I lived in Kampala for more than five years, but I never saw any of the refugee personnel or government personnel coming to my home. This situation applies to thousands of refugees living in Kampala.

There has never been security of refugees in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. Police officers do not know much about refugees, so they discriminate against them. Many refugees experience death threats or are even assassinated because of their political affiliations. Other refugees are beaten up and robbed but the police do not follow up. Some are arrested for no reason and kept in jail because they cannot pay the bail.

Furthermore, UNCHR does not actively promote “livelihoods and self-reliance.” Refugees in Kampala are allowed to work, but few local employers hire them. Refugees must create their own work, starting small businesses to support themselves. Discrimination occurs when refugees are trying to access healthcare, education, rent, transportation, and even buy food in the markets.

Busy downtown Kampala bus station

Many local Ugandans view refugees as a burden on society, as Uganda is already struggling with poverty. Ugandans especially view the Congolese and Sudanese as coming with much wealth due to the natural resources of gold, silver, and diamonds, oil from their country. They will then try to charge high rent or higher transportation fees.

Many refugees in Kampala do not have access to education. Primary education is said to be free for all, but there are additional costs that refugees cannot afford. The UNHCR supports some schools with furniture and books claiming that they are supporting schools that refugee kids attend. They forget that refugees failed to attend the school because of the additional cost required.

The 2009 policy would be more effective if it partnered with local grassroots organizations to implement the lofty goals. Local organizations, refugee network grassroots play a big role in serving urban refugees. These types of organizations have in depth knowledge of the community and are often community-driven. For example, YARID (a non profit refugee led organization in Kampala) addresses the issues urban refugees face and offers solutions to what the UNHCR policy mandates. YARID provides education by offering English classes and computer literacy. It promotes women’s empowerment through vocational skills trainings so women can start small business and have a livelihood. They also use sport to have positive activities and provide trainings on conflict resolution.

The efforts of local organizations, like YARID and others, can demonstrate the 2009 policy in full if the UNHCR would provide more resources to these small organizations, yet most are ignored. Local refugee grassroots organization play a big role into helping refugees in city like Kampala and their effort should be recognized and be part of decision making and collaborate into planning process.

#Urbanrefugees #refugeesinKampala #2009urbanrefugeepolicy

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