Uganda: Joint Statement on the Progress of the OPM-UNHCR joint biometric refugee verification exercise
JOINT STATEMENT ON THE PROGRESS OF THE JOINT OPM-UNHCR
BIOMETRIC REFUGEE VERIFICATION EXERCISE
Hon. Eng. Hillary Onek, Minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness
and Refugees in the Republic of Uganda,
Hon. Musa Ecweru, Minister of State, Relief and Disaster Preparedness
in the Republic of Uganda
and Mr. Joel Boutroue, Representative of the United Nations
High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Republic of Uganda
Kampala, Uganda (25 June 2018)
The Government of Uganda and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, wish to inform the public and our partners about the progress we have made in handling issues concerning the status of hosting refugees in the country and, in particular, claims that refugee numbers may not be accurate.
The verification exercise is in its fourth month. We are pleased to report that close cooperation between the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) and UNHCR at all levels has enabled a fairly smooth verification process. With over 450,000 refugees verified to date, we are now in a position to draw very preliminary conclusions and analysis from the results so far in the spirit of transparency and accountability.
First, however, we would like to provide some background by way of clarifying the context that led to the verification exercise. We wish to acknowledge, from the outset, that the issue of refugee figures has been a recurrent concern for the Government of Uganda and the international community, and in particular UNHCR, the World Food Programme and their partners.
Concerns started to arise during the mass influx of refugees from South Sudan. The sheer speed and scale of that influx demanded concerted action by the Government and all of its partners, with the support of the donor community, to scale up emergency response operations in order to prevent loss of life. It was, and still remains, a children’s emergency with most households headed by women. Every day more vulnerable people arrived with very little or nothing, and settled in overcrowded extremely congested makeshift sites. In a short space of time, nine new settlements were established to receive and protect refugees and ensure they had basic shelter and acceptable living conditions. This inevitably stretched the resources and capacities of all actors beyond endurance.
Although actors involved in the refugee response were conscious that figures might be problematic, the priority at the time was to save lives. After noticing a number of weaknesses in the refugee registration system and later receiving reports containing allegations of corruption by officials and aid workers involved in refugee response, the Prime Minister of Uganda, Rt. Hon. Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi ordered a verification of the refugee population registered in the Government Refugee Information Management System (RIMS). They also promptly instituted investigations into the other allegations, which are ongoing.
It is important to underscore that the biometric verification exercise is in line with the zero tolerance policy towards cheating of any sort when it comes to refugee management and related assistance as stressed by Prime Minister Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda and the international community.
The Government decided to use the system developed by UNHCR until the verification exercise is completed by the end of the year, while continuing to first register in RIMS those refugees who continue to enter the country along with new-born babies, as options for a long-term solution are identified. This is because registration of refugees is the inalienable responsibility of the Government of Uganda enshrined in the laws of the country.
The Biometric Information Management System (BIMS) has proved its efficiency in similar refugee contexts of mass displacement in terms of eliminating possible double or triple counting. By using photos, fingerprints and iris scans of all verified refugees, BIMS allows for stricter prevention of potential identity fraud.
It is important to keep in mind that the biometric verification exercise is taking place in a fluid and complex operating context, with new arrivals concurrently crossing into Uganda from South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. A major logistical operation is receiving and transferring refugees through a network of 18 border points, collection points and transit facilities to different settlements on an ongoing basis. All refugees must be registered in order to enable them to enjoy the rights accorded to them by the State including documentation, as well as access to aid in terms of food, core relief items, basic services and different forms of targeted assistance.
We wish to highlight the following issues emerging since the verification exercise was launched on 1 March 2018:
1) Refugees verified in Nakivale Settlement in South West Uganda, one of the most populous in the country, showed a slight decrease compared to figures contained in RIMS. The verified population in that settlement was 94,331 at the end of the exercise against the previous figure of 104,180 representing a 9% drop. This is within what is considered acceptable when verifying refugees, taking into account deaths, spontaneous departures and persons who may simply not show up.
2) In some settlements in West Nile region, where refugees are predominantly from South Sudan, we have noted a marked decrease in numbers of refugees that were verified. Imvepi Settlement is a case in point where 53,856 refugees were verified against a RIMS figure of 127,325 representing a 58% drop. While it is premature to draw well-reasoned conclusions, several factors can at least partially explain such a decrease:
(a) The globally acclaimed policy of the Ugandan Government allowing free movement of refugees in the country makes it difficult to account for people who may be regularly on the move. The verification exercise is currently confined to the refugee settlements and does not cover the entire country.
(b) Given the increasing presence of refugees in urban locations, the Government has decided to undertake a survey of urban refugees in refugee-hosting districts in close cooperation with UNHCR.
(c) Some limited return movement or constant cross-border movements may have impacted the results of the verification although not in a substantial manner. Information we have concerning refugees’ places of origin does not point to the likelihood of major spontaneous return as the situation is still tense and volatile.
(d) Cases of double or triple registration have been identified through BIMS may have contributed substantially to inflating refugee figures. Such a situation would have been facilitated by the continuous arrival of large numbers of South Sudanese refugees over an extended period, as explained earlier, which put the registration system and associated Government personnel under intense pressure.
We are investigating other forms of miscalculation that may have taken place. We wish to reiterate the zero tolerance policies of both Government and the United Nations towards any form of fraud or misconduct. We have strengthened feedback mechanisms to enable refugees to confidentially report real or suspected incidents. All reports are taken seriously and investigated confidentially by competent authorities.
As the verification exercise progresses, we are drawing lessons and considering the implications that an overall increase or decrease in numbers may have in terms of protection of refugees in Uganda. The verification exercise should pave the way for more focused and targeted assistance, based on reliable data. The planned assessment of refugee presence in urban areas will, for example, mitigate risks that people deserving the protection of the State could fall between the cracks.
We wish to underscore that confirming who has been recognized as a refugee by the Government of Uganda and is thus entitled to the protection of the State, and gathering data on their capacities and vulnerabilities, is an important step towards better responding to the needs of hundreds of thousands of refugees who are living in Uganda.
Settlements where verification results in a reduction in the refugee numbers may offer an opportunity to increase the size of land lots allocated to refugees, thereby enhancing their resilience which has been put under stress for lack of sufficient land to cultivate.
As mentioned early, registration data will continue to be updated on an ongoing basis as more refugees arrive. The Government is reviewing available alternatives in close cooperation with the international community and UNHCR in particular. The integrity of the registration systems and those who manage them must never be called into question again.
Other unintended consequences, positive or less positive, will be further analysed, and will be shared in a transparent and timely manner. Indeed, OPM and UNHCR commit to continue to inform all partners and the public in general of the progress made in the verification exercise.
Hon. Eng. Hillary Onek
Minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees
Office of the Prime Minister, Republic of Uganda
Hon. Musa Ecweru
Minister of State, Relief and Disaster Preparedness
Office of the Prime Minister, Republic of Uganda
Representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Uganda
For media enquiries, please contact:
Julius Mucunguzi, Communications Advisor, Office of the Prime Minister
Telephone: +256 776 210 307; Email: [email protected]
Teresa Ongaro, Senior Spokesperson, UNHCR Representation Office in Uganda
Telephone: +256 771 908 404; Email: [email protected] or