By Georgia Cole
For a country with such a welcoming and progressive history of responding to refugees, Uganda appears unfortunately to be falling short at the final hurdle.
As it stands currently, a number of long-staying refugees within Uganda have approached the Department for Immigration to apply for naturalisation (note not registration) and have been denied. On the August 30, 2010 a Petition was thus filed to the Constitutional Court to request the interpretation of the Constitution vis-à-vis the opportunities for refugees to naturalise within the country.
This was in response to the concern of numerous actors that the supposed impediments to refugees’ naturalising within the country are a case of discriminatory practice, rather than any legislatively justifiable prohibition.
Unfortunately, this Petition, like many others awaiting interpretation by the Constitutional Court, appears to have gone no further than the archives. On numerous occasions the petition has been scheduled for a hearing, but on no date has the court achieved the quorum required to address the applicants’ questions. Notwithstanding the constraints that any court has within an already overstretched judicial system, the failure to address this case seems unacceptable considering its legal simplicity and yet hugely positive repercussions for many de facto naturalised long-staying refugees. Having sat there for three years, it was nonetheless suggested to me that it was unlikely that the case would go any further without either being re-submitted, or without significant public debate being aroused.
And thus it is to the latter which I turn. Despite the concerns that any population, including my own within the United Kingdom, has about allowing refugees and other populations to naturalise, the conditions attached to this process within Uganda would appear to minimise the implications that such a move would have for the ordinary citizen.
The conditions that refugees must fulfil in order to be granted Ugandan citizenship by naturalisation suggest that such individuals would be for all intents and purposes Ugandan before such a declaration was made. They must, for example, have resided within the country for a period exceeding 20 years and have an ‘adequate knowledge of a prescribed vernacular language or of the English language’. With the country’s prohibition on dual citizenship, they must also give up any previous nationality and request naturalisation based on intent to live permanently within the country.
Providing those individuals who fulfil the above characteristics with a regularised status would thus appear to change very little. Firstly, the numbers whom could satisfy the above requirements would be comparatively small. Whilst this is not positive for many refugees whom would be desirous of Ugandan citizenship but be excluded on the above terms, for the local population this should alleviate concerns about the power of new voting blocs, land distribution and overcrowding. Secondly, once an individual has resided within the country for two decades and speaks the local language, they are most likely already integrated within local neighbourhoods and living economically self-sufficient lifestyles. Their children may well have never known any other place than Uganda, and thus the idea that they should be sent ‘home’ with their parents to a country they have never known would be disruptive and alienating.
Thirdly, the rigour of the conditions attached to naturalisation would unlikely act as an incentive to draw people to enter Uganda in a search for citizenship. Two decades is a long time for any individual to tolerate an uncertain immigration status in the hope of this changing in the future. Furthermore refugees, unlike other forms of migrant, obviously did not choose to enter Uganda in the first place but rather crossed the border in response to conditions in their country of origin. They were thus pushed by persecution, rather than pulled by the allure of naturalisation.
To deny these people the opportunity to naturalise within Uganda thus makes little sense, both within and beyond the law. Whilst the law makes clear that ‘the board may grant to any alien citizenship by naturalisation’ subject to conditions, with refugees included within the former category of ‘alien’, the economic and political implications of allowing this would be marginal to the local population. In contrast, the psycho-social reassurance that such a move would provide to refugees and their families within Uganda would be transformative. Considering the Ugandan population, in their usual opening and welcoming spirit, has treated many of these individuals as brothers and neighbours, It is time that the Constitutional Court moved to respond to this petition and issue a clear ruling on the possibilities for this group to become Ugandan in both nature and name.
The writer is currently studying for a Doctorate at the University of Oxford.