Refugee rights activists have asked Parliament to come up with a law on free legal aid services for refugees and financially constrained Ugandans who cannot afford to hire legal representation in the courts of law.
According to War Child Canada, an international non-profit organization, many refugees have lost cases of rape, sexual assault, domestic violence among other criminal cases, due to lack of legal representation in court.
“The lack of legal protection services has placed the lives of women and children who are the majority of refugees, at the risk of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV). Access to justice should be availed in acute emergencies,” Samuel Baker Odong, the Programs manager War Child Canada said.
Odong who made the remarks at Speke Resort Munyonyo, during the launch of the Guide to Sexual and Gender Based Violence Legal Protection in Acute Emergencies, on Tuesday, noted that legal protection is essential to conflict prevention, mitigation and recovery.
International laws recognize SGBV, as a gross violation of fundamental rights as legislated in the UN Security Council resolutions 1820 and 1325, the convention on the elimination of discrimination against women, and UN refugee conventions.
In her presentation at the meeting the vice president Uganda Law Society Alice Namuli said to ensure legal aid for the rural and urban poor Ugandans, the law society was engaging Parliament for a law on legal aid.
“Uganda Law Society has been running a program for free legal aid for the rural and urban poor who cannot afford hiring lawyers to help them argue their cases in courts of law, but unfortunately, the program will be ending in three years’ time, that is why we need Parliament to pass a law on legal aid” Namuli said.
She noted that with the lack of political will to enact laws such as the Sexual Offences Bill, there is limited access to justice by vulnerable groups such as the women and children.
Namuli added that the government needs to extend free legal services to Ugandans who are victims of criminal offences such as defilement.
Representing the commissioner for refugees, John Arinaitwe, a senior refugee’s officer in the Office of the Prime Minister backed the rights activists, for a need of a law on legal aid, saying people like refugees don’t have the capacity to afford legal representation.
He also attributed the increase in the cases of SGBV in refugee settlement areas in the districts of Adjumani, Kiryandongo, Yumbe, and Arua refugee settlement areas, to the ignorance of the law.
“Most of the refugees come from rural areas and they don’t know about our laws, what we have done is to train these people but still this is inadequate,” Arinaitwe said.
However Michael Nabugere, the commandant Kiryandongo Settlement, attributed the increase in the SGBV cases to lack of economic empowerment of the woman and the youth refugees.
While other organizations provide legal services in northern Uganda which plays host of many refugees only War Child Canada takes clients through the official court system.
Meanwhile Wubeshet Woldemariam the country director War Child Canada has commended government for its approach on refugees seeking settlement in Uganda.
“I visited one of the settlement sites in northern Uganda, and I was struck by the condition of refugees there and the generosity of the Ugandan government on how refugees have been received. The Ugandan government should be commended and other governments should borrow a leaf,” Woldemariam said.
There are over 640,000 South Sudanese refugees in Uganda according to UNHCR.
Over 80% of the newly arrived refugees are women and children, with children constituting over 64%.