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Interactive Dialogue between Protection Stakeholders and HRDs in Exile in Uganda


1. On 12 September 2019, DefendDefenders (the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project), in collaboration with AfricanDefenders (the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network), convened the second interactive dialogue between protection service providers (PSPs) and human rights defenders (HRDs) in exile in Uganda. Following the first interactive dialogue held in December 2016, the meeting aimed to re-assess the state of protection services for HRDs in exile in Uganda, and their resilience strategies.

2. The dialogue brought together HRDs in exile in Uganda, mainly coming from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Eritrea, Rwanda, Somalia (and Somaliland), South Sudan, Sudan, and Tanzania, and protection stakeholders, including  the Office of the Prime Minister – Department of Refugees (OPM-DOR), the refugee desk at the Ugandan police, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working on refugees and HRDs. Exiled HRDs were represented through the HRDs in Exile Working Group (HRD-EWG), which was formed as a result of the first interactive dialogue. 

3. After the Ugandan and East African Community anthems, Reverend Charles Bagnbe and Faiza Mohammed, HRDs in exile from South Sudan and Somalia respectively, shared their experience of being an HRD in exile, recounting the challenges encountered, as well as the crucial support provided by DefendDefenders.

4. Mariam Nakibuka, Protection Associate at DefendDefenders, introduced the new committee of the HRD-EWG, followed by a performance by Moses Kabaseke, artist and HRD in exile from DRC.

5. Officially opening the meeting, Hassan Shire, Executive Director of DefendDefenders and Chairperson of AfricanDefenders, recalled his own personal experience as an HRD in exile, and stressed the topicality of this meeting in the year declared by the African Union (AU) as “the year of Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons”. He reiterated DefendDefenders’ and AfricanDefenders’ mission to ensure that HRDs in exile are safe but not silent, including through the Ubuntu Hub Cities initiative. He thanked the Ugandan Government for its progessive refugee policy, which made Kampala one of the six hub cities to host HRDs at risk in need for relocation. On a hopeful note, Shire pointed at HRDs who have recently been able to return to their country, such as Ethiopians, Sudanese, and a few from DRC, to reassure that the work of HRDs will bear fruit.

6. H.E. Henk Jan Bakker, Ambassador of the Royal Kingdom of the Netherlands in Uganda, echoed Shire in appreciating  Uganda’s hospitality towards refugees. He stressed that human rights are a pillar of Dutch foreign policy, including the  protection of HRDs in exile. Amb. Bakker underlined that it is necessary to design tailored, durable solutions for HRDs in exile because of their double vulnerability, as refugees and as HRDs. He also acknowledged the crucial work of DefendDefenders in protecting HRDs, as well as AfricanDefenders’ Ubuntu Hub Cities initiative, as a counterpart of the Shelter Cities network in the Netherlands. 

7. In the following panel discussion, moderated by Janvier Hakizimana, Protection Associate at DefendDefenders, Innocent Ndahiriwe, responsible for refugee integration and legal matters at OPM-DOR, provided an overview of Uganda’s open door refugee policy, stressing the right of refugees to work and move freely across the country. He explained that Uganda allows refugees to live in refugee settlements or urban areas, and facilitate the issuance of Convention Travel Documents (CTD) for them to travel outside the country. He stressed the government’s commitment to ensure the security of all refugees, with particular attention to vulnerable HRDs. He evoked limited resources as the main cause of existing gaps in the provision of support to HRDs in exile, including limited services for urban refugees and delays in the issuance of CTDs.  

8. Naomi Kabarungi Wabyona, Programmes and Communications Officer at the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI), stressed that human rights are universal, regardless of whether one is at home or away from home. When asked to identify the loopholes related to the protection of HRDs in exile in Uganda, Kabarungi pointed at the challenges faced by HRDs living as refugees in urban centres, as they often lack access to the services provided in refugee settlements. She stressed the tension between being a refugee, and, at the same time, an HRD committed to defending human rights – a tension which risks to force people to leave their human rights work aside. She also encouraged stakeholders to understand voluntary repatriation as a process that requires holistic support to ensure that HRDs are supported upon arrival at home after years of exile.

9. Gabriel Robert Ochieng, Legal Assistant at the Refugee Law Project (RLP), presented the different programmes and services provided by RLP, including legal support, psychosocial, and medical support, and capacity building  on income generating activities. On the basis of an analysis conducted by RLP on the Ugandan Refugee Act (2006), Ochieng highlighted the problems faced by refugees and their children in obtaining citizenship in Uganda, pointing at the specific challenges faced by refugee women as a result of the manner in which the law is applied in practice. 

10. Joseph Bikanda, AfricanDefenders’ Coordinator, presented the Ubuntu Hub Cities initiative, AfricanDefenders’ mechanism for the relocation of African HRDs within the continent. As he explained, the Ubuntu Hub Cities initiative was established to ensure  that African HRDs do not need to leave the continent to find safe havens, but continue their work as close to home as possible. Bikanda further pointed out the many benefits to relocation within Africa, including cost-effectiveness, cultural and language similarities, and a more flexible immigration framework.

11. Julius Isabirye, Superintendent of police representing the Refugee Desk at the Uganda National Police, clarified the police’s role in receiving asylum requests and monitoring cases with specific security issues, and reiterated the importance of protecting HRDs who work to turn the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) into reality. He also encourage exiled HRDs and refugees to respect the law of the country that hosts them as a starting point for their safety and integration. 

12. To ensure an inclusive dialogue, Hakizimana invited HRDs and participants to share their experiences, concerns, and questions with the panellists. Some HRDs recounted personal everyday challenges, such as registering children at school, building adequate shelter in refugee settlements, and owning property. A woman HRD from DRC stressed the challenging situation for women HRDs and women refugees, some of whom are survivors  of gender-based violence (GBV). Recalling instances of forced deportation of HRDs to their country of origin by, among others, the Kenyan government and the Egyptian government, a South Sudanese HRD encouraged stakeholders to think about how to tackle intergovernmental collaboration in the silencing of HRDs, which threatens the safety of HRDs in exile. 

13. To pave the way for enhanced protection of HRDs in exile, Javier Sanjuan, Human Rights Officer at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Uganda, proposed the creation of a stakeholders working group with a focus on improving  the response to the needs of exiled HRDs. Tabitha Netuwa, Protection and Security Management Manager at DefendDefenders, also encouraged member states of the East Africa Community (EAC) to strengthen mechanisms for dialogue on the acceptability of documents issued by member states, including CTDs. Ndahiriwe also stressed the importance for all stakeholders to continue to work together to ensure that refugees are aware of their rights.

14. Ter Manyang, representing the HRD-EWG, submitted the recommendations elaborated during the latest meeting of the HRD-EWG to relevant stakeholders, mainly OPM and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). On freedom of movement, the HRD-EWG recommended the Ugandan government to ease refugees’ access to CTDs, and promote the recognition of CTDs as official travel documents within the EAC, and beyond. Other recommendations revolved around improving access to education and professional opportunities for better integration, such as through the recognition of school and academic qualifications, the creation of a trust fund to ensure technical trainings to exiled HRDs, and the simplification of the school registration process for refugee children. The HRD-EWG also suggested putting in place information sharing systems on resettlement, integration, and repatriation, and encouraged further collaboration with HRD-led initiatives.  

15. Officially closing the dialogue, Memory Bandera, Director of Programmes and Administration at DefendDefenders, acknowledged the admirable resilience and commitment of the HRDs who are forced into exile due to their human rights activism. She encouraged everyone to remain optimistic and forward-thinking, and to continue to  protect and promote human rights. 

16. The interactive dialogue concluded with an artistic therapy and wellbeing session led by Karis Oteba, Protection Officer at DefendDefenders, who taught useful stress management practices and coping mechanisms as tools to manage and counter the mental strains often experienced by exiled HRDs. 




Background Information

The Human Rights Defenders Working Group in Exile (HRD-EWG) is a  Consortium representing human rights defenders (HRDs) currently in exile in Uganda. Members are mainly from South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, Somalia (together with Somaliland), Eritrea, Sudan, Tanzania, and Rwanda. Our area of focus includes advocacy, human rights awareness raising ,and peace-building in the region. DefendDefenders (the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project) is a key technical partner of the Consortium.  

The members of the working group came up with recommendations to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) as outlined below:

1. On the Conventional Travel Document (CTD)

  •  To ease access to CTDs by reducing its cost, easing the process and requirements to acquire one.
  •   To recognize the Citizenship of CTD holders by replacing the word “ refugee” with the names of their “Country of origin” under the field “ Nationality” on the first page of the CTD
  •   To ease issuance of Visas to CTD holders  by dialoging with Countries that do not issue visa to CTD holders, e.g: Kenya and Tanzania
  •   To reiterate the need for recognition of Uganda-CTDs as official travel documents issued in East Africa, and therefore eligible for visa-free movements within the East African Community.


2. On Education,  Professional growth and Integration

  • To lobby Uganda National Examination Board and the National Council for Higher Education to standardize equivalence of marks for all refugee sending Countries
    To initiate a Trust Fund for technical trainings and professional growth courses for Human Rights Defenders in exile in Uganda
  • To put in place mechanisms to integrate Human Rights Defenders in exile and other refugees with academic qualifications into Uganda work sectors such as teaching and health sectors
  • To ease the registration process of schoolchildren and dependents of HRDs in exile by setting up a one-stop registration point for all children of refugees in Uganda.


3. Protection, Empowerment and Resettlement

  •   To put in place information sharing systems on resettlement, integration and rapatriation
  •   To have timely meetings with HRD-led initiatives to discuss partnerships and resilience mechanisms for refugees in the social-economic sector, refugee rights, gender-based protection, protection of minority groups and other sectors of specialization
  •   To provide funding for innovative projects submitted by HRDs in a means of supporting the achievement of one or several goals of the UN Sustainable Development Goals through empowering HRDs in exile
  •   To discuss with relevant authorities cases of compulsory work permits required from   some refugee HRDs in exile in Uganda who seek employment in private and public organizations.


On behalf of Human Rights Defenders in Exile Working Group,


Ter Manyang

Chairperson of Human Rights Defenders  in Exile Working Group (HRD-EWG)

Mob: 0774755763

Email: [email protected]