COVID-19 Intensifies Risks for Forced Migrants

From 9 - 11 November 2020, the Refugee Law Project (RLP) held the 4th regional conference on forced migration in Kampala under the theme “The Future of Refugee Management in the Great Lakes Region”.

The various speakers who graced the conference underscored the impact of COVID-19 on forced migrants. H.E Joris van Bommel, Deputy Head of Mission at the Netherlands Embassy in Uganda, said that Uganda’s open door policy is a good solidarity example to the world nevertheless, COVID-19 and the resulting border closures have impacted gravely on chances of forced migrants to seek asylum, while many have had their vulnerability aggravated for they do not access basic services such as health care.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation of refugees. The Netherlands is happy to partner with RLP in addressing the COVID-19 challenges faced by refugees and their host communities and we will make efforts towards ‘building back better’,” he said.

Ms. Nicole Bjerler, the Head of the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF), noted that the global COVID-19 pandemic has affected various sections of society in different ways; and pointed out the need to reflect on the specific effects of the pandemic on each category of vulnerable and marginalised persons, including with regard to the situation of urban refugees.

 “Within Uganda, refugee settlements are geographically located close to the nation’s borders, some of them are porous and posed challenges for the country’s COVID-19 response. Pre-existing challenges are exacerbated by the pandemic, as people in refugee settlements tend to live very close to each other and social distancing is almost impossible,” Ms Bjerler said.

Ms Joycelynn Karungi, the Focal Person on Counter-Trafficking at the International Organisation for Migration Uganda (IOM) re-echoed that COVID-19 caused a disruption of regular and irregular patterns of migration resulting in heightened irregular methods of movements on more dangerous routes which heightened trafficking.

Mr Godfrey Byaruhanga, the Emergency Field Coordinator in the Office of the Prime Minister, called for a more coordinated response mechanism informed by local country experiences. He cautioned that the covid-19 situation has affected the country’s capacity to undertake regular updates of the refugee population given the lockdown and restrictions. In the event of more births, and deaths occurring during this period, it is relatively impossible for OPM to take stock of such developments in light of the overall planning required for refugee intervention.

He confirmed that government, through the OPM, has taken serious measures to ensure that the plight of the refugees in the country is protected during this difficult covid-19 times. He promised to follow up on the emerging issues that refugees are facing during these unprecedented times – one which is obviously challenging for government to fully articulate in light of the lockdown and restrictions regarding SOPs.

The conference also deliberated on issues of access to justice by refugees and trafficked persons. It was pointed out that refugees who had gone in search for food were arrested for violating curfew regulations, limited operations of the court system, and classification of lawyers as “non-essential” undermined chances of refugees from accessing legal assistance, in particular if they could not express themselves in English.

Refugee representatives present at the conference shared their experiences during COVID-19, by noting some of the challenges they faced in the immediate aftermath of the government lockdown: they for instance informed participants of the lack of essential supplies like masks, water and sanitizers necessary for refugee safety during covid-19. Importantly, the cut off of food distribution by World Food Programme (WFP) during the interim period of the lockdown compounded the situation of hunger resulting into suffering among the vulnerable refugees such as pregnant women, and children. They also mentioned the difficulty in access to justice during the lockdown as they could hardly reach out to judicial officers for help.

In light of these challenges, the representatives however noted that refugees had demonstrated resilience in the face of the pandemic by coming together to pool resources within their means to help each other respond to covid-19.

In response to the above observations, His Worship Moses Angualia from the Judicial Training Institute said that the Judiciary is working with partners such as RLP to build capacity of judicial officers on refugee issues and to carryout mobile courts for refugees to access justice.

The DGF supports RLP to implement a project entitled: “Supporting Justice through Formal, Informal and Transitional Mechanisms”.