By Kim Baronet
Before I came to Uganda, I knew it was a country that was hosting a lot of refugees in part because of its geographic location. Uganda shares a border with countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, where most of the refugees come from, and is very close to other countries where there have been long-term ongoing conflicts such as Eritrea, Burundi, and Somalia. But the high numbers of refugees in Uganda are also attributed to its laws, which facilitate the process for asylum seekers to come, receive refugee status, and begin a new life. However, I must admit that being here in person, in the country that is hosting the third largest refugee population in the world, I realize how high a number 1.5 million refugees actually is. It is a lot for any country to accommodate and I know most host countries would struggle, even those with the best infrastructure. Nevertheless, Ugandan people are resilient and out of this positive mindset, the School of Law of Makerere University, Uganda’s largest and oldest university, created Refugee Law Project (RLP) as a community outreach project. RLP has been operating for over two decades now and is making a difference in the lives of asylum seekers, refugees, deportees, internally displaced people, and for Uganda’s host community itself, to ensure that all can enjoy their human rights and lead dignified lives.
My experience at RLP this summer has really driven home how much knowledge can constitute power. I remember how helpless I felt in my 1L year of law school when I was learning about court procedures and reading cases. I was expected to understand it all and it seemed I was the only one out of all my classmates who had not the slightest clue about what was going on even though I had years of high-level education to my name and I considered myself somewhat smart. I felt like knowledge was escaping me. This is the reminder I give myself every day when I walk into the office and I receive clients. These clients are refugees who have come from hundreds of miles away looking to improve their lives and seeking help from RLP. They sometimes come in for assistance in legal processes that others might consider to be basic or easily navigable, such as marriage documents or business registration. However, these clients are swimming in a sea of unknown, they don’t know this new country’s procedures, they sometimes don’t even speak the language or have a very low level of education, and the legal jargon feels like another unknown language in itself. But RLP’s work empowers these migrants by rendering knowledge accessible and I can see how much impact something as simple as an explanation can have on someone’s life. My colleagues and I explain the procedures, help draft documents, and then tell the clients what to expect next. Oftentimes, they leave our offices with the biggest smiles and thank yous I’ve seen, and although not all cases turn out with a positive outcome, our work feels good. I really admire the work that the RLP team does year-long for refugees and their families; they teach English to adults, organize community workshops, offer court representation services, conduct follow-ups at police stations or with other relevant authorities like UNHCR and Interpol, and dispense knowledge so that as many refugees as possible are aware of their rights. This way, they can feel empowered and can strive for the better life they came to look for in Uganda.
RLP has an office in Kampala, where I worked during my entire internship, but also has field offices across Uganda in the refugee settlements. I was lucky to be taken to one of those settlements with the office’s two other interns where we could see how life is different for the refugees living in the rural settlements compared to the urban refugees living in Kampala and, as such, how their problems also differed. I was surprised to learn from one of my colleagues who works full-time in the settlement that the most common issue RLP helps people deal with is domestic violence. Our visit only lasted two days but we had the chance to see and do many things: prison visit, court representation, attend an English class for adults, visit the settlement’s police station, visit the UNHCR office, teach a class on women leadership and empowerment, and visit the youth center and attend one of their dance performances. A lot of refugee groups use dance as a means to express their experience and illustrate the issues that they fled from in their home country. Their routines are very powerful. The dance performances I attended in the settlement and during the refugee-led celebrations for World Refugee Day all contained some reenactment of war and its aftermath of injury, poverty, and suffering among the survivors. Above all, our visit to the settlement allowed us to be with the community and hear directly from the people about how their life in the settlement is and what their experience coming to Uganda was like. These people face extreme hardships and are so resilient and although they are grateful to organizations such as RLP who work hard to ensure their rights and human dignity are upheld, there is so much still that can be done.