African Press International (API)

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When refugees lie for aid

Posted by African Press International on September 11, 2007

Posted by Ham Galabuzi.K-Mukasa, Consultant

+47 481 48 231 Norway, +256 782 121 757 Uganda – ham@hgmconsult.com, post@hgmconsult.com, www.hgmconsult.com,www.hammukasafoundation.com

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It is common for NGOs and government agencies who work with refugees to use a translator as an intermediary.
Translators themselves don’t necessarily pose a problem, but it’s just another step of removal between the refugee’s story and the person listening – another chance for miscommunication and misinterpretation.

But Leon Musafiri can speak English, French, Kiswahili, Kinyarwanda, Luganda, Kinabushia, Lingala, Kirundi, Kilandi, and more. He can tell if someone is Rwandan, Congolese, Ugandan or Burundian, and even which region that person is from. He gauges accents, verifies stories, and knows his geography and history.

As the Chairman of French Speaking Refugees in Uganda, and an intern at the Refugee Law Project, he knows most of the East African refugees in the Kampala area.
He also knows which ones are legitimately refugees as defined by international law and which ones are fabricating stories in order to gain the benefits offered to refugees by NGOs, government agencies and the United Nations. Not all people coming from other countries, even ones where there may be conflicts, are refugees, he says.

“Maybe 60 per cent of the Congolese are telling the truth because so many people are affected by the conflict,” says Mr Musafari, a Congolese refugee himself. “Rwandans 50 per cent and Burundians about 40 per cent.”

According to the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees, a refugee is legally defined as a person who “owing to well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

According to Douglas Asiimwe, the Senior Protections Officer at the Office of the Prime Minister, “Not everyone who is suffering is a refugee.” While he was unable to specify any specific statistics, he said there is some fraud among people claiming to be refugees.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC) says about 220,000 refugees call Uganda home – among them, some 170,000 Sudanese, 30,000 Congolese, 20,000 Rwandans, 4,000 Somalis, and 2,000 Burundians.
However, UNHRC spokesperson Roberta Russo says that even more “self settled” migrants from these regions are living in Uganda without declaring themselves to officials.

Behind the offices of RLP, an NGO dedicated to pursing the human rights of refugees and displaced people, there’s a small settlement of multinational squatters that have called home an empty plot. They have erecting temporary structures from cardboard, tin sheets, mobile phone sales signs, and whatever other materials they can find. Mr Musafiri stands just at the edge of the settlement, which has burgeoned from about 50 people to 350 people catalysed by the rumour of a generous Japanese businessman spreading a helping hand.

According to the director of RLP, Dr Chris Dolan, the growing settlement has caused the shoestring NGO to spend hundreds of dollars a month on water for the refugees, which it must provide them as a human right. Mr Musafiri, who has been in Uganda since 2002, pauses and considers the settlement and the numbers.

“The rest [of the people] are fabricating stories,” he says. “They have relatives who have successfully come to Uganda as refugees, maybe even gone to Canada or somewhere lese. So when one has been resettled another comes fabricating stories to get help.”

But Joli Mozi didn’t seem to have anyone in Kampala when she came, aside from the two orphans she adopted along the way. A thin 35-year old Congolese woman in a scarlet gomesi accompanied by a Somali boy and a Congolese girl, Ms Mozi does not know where to go. It’s clear that she’s in need, but being in need doesn’t necessarily make her a refugee according to international law.

She tells a story of people who attacked her family in December 2004. “It was dark, so I couldn’t see who was who,” she says, adding that her husband ran one way, she took another, while the children also run to another direction.

She crossed the border in south-western Uganda and eventually made it to Masaka. Ms Mozi says she ended up in Mbarara where she worked for Medicins Sans Frontiers in an official capacity. However, Ms Mozi said she had no education and both she and her parents were poultry farmers.

A phone call to MSF proved that Ms Mozi was in fact employed threre as a housekeeper and nanny. “She’s very nice,” said Patrice Piola, the country director the MSF branch Epicentre, “but be cautious about what she’s saying because sometimes she can be very imaginative.”

“You have to ensure that what they say is true to maintain credibility and continue settling other refugees,” says Mostafa Khezry, the Senior Protection Officer at UNHRC.
Mr Musafiri doubts her story. But when pressed, he says, “Who are we to judge?” He’s not allowed to name names to anyone, though he does confront the refugees. “I say to them, ‘It’s better to declare yourself and open your heart,’ and usually they do.”

It’s easy for people to open up to Mr Musafiri because he is also a refugee. As a student leader at the university in Congo, in June 2001 Mr Musafiri refused to join a rebel group – Congolese Rally for Democracy (RDC). The group operated primarily in Eastern Congo with external support from Rwanda. It was at the time headed by Adolph Onosumba.

The RDC thought he should be recruiting many students. But as the son of a pastor and a pacifist himself, Mr Musafiri held to his principles. He soon found himself in a prison container somewhere near Goma in February of 2002. But a commander who was tasked with executing Musafiri knew and respected his father’s religious works and chose to release him.

His legal status changed from “Congolese” to “Refugee” the minute he reported to the Ugandan police when he crossed the border at Bunagana in the west.

Many Congolese like Mr Musafiri are granted refugee status immediately because the conflict in Congo has been so severe for so many years that it has create an influx of refugees so large the government of Uganda couldn’t possibly handle their cases one by one. Therefore, Uganda has granted them prima facie status, or status right away. Mr Musafiri got his refugee card within the month.

Other people like Ms Mozi aren’t as lucky. At press time, she was still waiting, and chances are, she’ll be waiting a long time.

Published by Korir, African Press International(API)/ African Press in Norway(APN) africanpress@chello.no tel +47 932 99 739 or +47 6300 2525

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