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Groundbreaking refugee rights bill tabled in Uganda

Groundbreaking refugee rights bill tabled in Uganda

Parliamentarians in Uganda plan to take their country ahead of most other African states by proposing a model legislation that, once passed, would give the African continent one of its most advanced refugee protection laws.
25 February 2004
Sudanese refugees making their own homes in Uganda's Kiryondongo camp. Self-reliance is one of the main aims of the proposed Refugee Bill 2000.

KAMPALA, Uganda, Feb 26 (UNHCR) - Legislators in Uganda have tabled a pioneering refugee bill that, if passed by the Parliament and signed into law, could pave the way for the improved protection of refugees and set precedents in refugee law on the African continent.

Refugee Bill 2000 was presented in Uganda's Parliament House by First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, Lt. General Moses Ali, on February 10.

"Uganda's Alien Control Act of 1962 is outdated and does not reflect internationally accepted norms for treatment of refugees, while Refugee Bill 2000 contains many benefits," he said during an informal discussion on the legislation earlier this month with Members of Parliament, officials from the High Court and the Office of the Prime Minister, and UNHCR.

After almost five years on the drawing board, Refugee Bill 2000 is seen as a timely piece of legislation that could set the tone for how refugees are treated across Africa. The bill places special emphasis on making refugees more self-reliant and giving them improved status in the host country.

The proposed legislation is significant as it is among the first of its kind in Africa to explicitly recognise gender persecution as a reason for claiming refugee status.

Dora Byamukama, one of the legislators promoting the bill, is particularly proud of this acknowledgement. She noted that women and girls who fear being subjected to female circumcision could be granted asylum under its statutes, and that the bill could also pave the way for laws that would ban female genital mutilation altogether.

UNHCR's Director of International Protection, Erika Feller, who met with Ugandan legislators earlier this month, praised the draft as one of the most positive pieces of refugee legislation in Africa. She noted that it was particularly noteworthy for its sections on gender specification, land rights, labour rights and provisions for mass influx.

"There are a wide range of articles in this bill that set fine examples to follow in terms of refugee protection," said Feller, adding that UNHCR had made several suggestions on the bill as there was still room for improvement.

If passed, the bill will allow refugees the right to work in Uganda, as well as the right to free movement. On their own, these provisions work hand in hand with Uganda's Self Reliance Strategy, a pioneering programme implemented in 1994 between the Ugandan government and the UN refugee agency to give refugees more right to self-sufficiency.

Lord Justice George Kanyeihamba, one of Uganda's most notable Supreme Court Justices and a former refugee, summed up the need for such a forward-looking refugee bill for Africa. "In the times we live in today, we are all potential refugees. In enacting this legislation, we should take into consideration how we would like to be treated if we ourselves were to become refugees."