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Staff faults govt over refugee registration

By Ronald Mugabe

Added 23rd March 2018 08:52 PM

The European Union had also accused Uganda of inflating refugee numbers to steal aid. Allegations also included the selling of food and other relief items intended for refugees, bribery and the trafficking of refugee girls.

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Congolese refugees at Nyakabande transit camp in Kisoro in 2012. Following reports of inflated refugee numbers, the Government has suspended staff and launched investigations into the queries

The European Union had also accused Uganda of inflating refugee numbers to steal aid. Allegations also included the selling of food and other relief items intended for refugees, bribery and the trafficking of refugee girls.

Staff from the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) are blaming the Government for handing over the refugee verification exercise to the United Nations

Refugee Agency, UNHCR, costing Uganda jobs and a home grown registration system. And the Government claims those could be the people who were benefitting from the faulty system that is almost costing Uganda its image and aid for refugee operations. Saturday Vision analyses who is fooling who?

Reports of inflated refugee figures in Uganda made headlines and caused UNHCR donors to withhold funding, until the numbers were verified. The European Union had also accused Uganda of inflating refugee numbers to steal aid. Allegations also included the selling of food and other relief items intended for refugees, bribery and the trafficking of refugee girls.

The allegations prompted the Government to suspend some of the staff and launched multiple investigations into the allegations.

A verification exercise was also launched to ascertain the right figure of refugees. An estimated 1.4 million refugees are said to be in Uganda, including more than a million from South Sudan and others from Burundi and the DR Congo.

On March 1, the Government launched a countrywide biometric data verification to ascertain the proper refugee data. The exercise is scheduled to be completed by September this year.

The history

However, a conflict has arisen from the biometric registration software being used after the Prime Minister, Ruhakana Rugunda, preferred the return of the UNHCR’s registration system. The registration of refugees and asylum seekers in Uganda used to be done by the UNHCR until 2013, when Hilary Onek, the Minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and

Refugees then, directed that UNHCR hands over the rights of registration to the Government.

In a letter dated December 20, 2013, Onek argued that registration of persons in a territory worldwide was an activity conducted by the Government, especially in the days of terrorism threats. He gave the deadline of January 2014 by which UNHCR was to hand over all the attendant logistical, human and financial support to Uganda.

However, it was not until May, 28, 2014, after the commissioner for refugees, David Kazungu, wrote again directing that only staff from the department of refugees shall be involved in the registration of refugees. All refugee desk officers and settlement commandants at Nakivale, Oruchinga, Rwamwanja, Kyangwali, Kyaka II, Kiryandongo and settlement clusters in Arua and Adjumani were directed to enforce the new directive.

In the process, Uganda abandoned the UNHCR registration system called Progres, which Kazungu noted had limitations in terms of ownership and independence, and innovated a new registration system, referred to as the Refugee Information Management System (RIMS).

According to a source among staff in OPM, the Government employed over 600 Ugandans in refugee registration.

This, it is said, did not go down well with some officials at the UN refugee agency.

“Some UNHCR officials became hostile and started undermining the government’s registration efforts,” the source revealed.

“Though UNHCR bosses begrudgingly accepted to hand over the registration role, they have since 2014 been relentlessly working towards getting something scandalous on which to pin the OPM. That is why they raised the red flag without even verifying the numbers first,” the source added.

System changes

However, in a recent meeting with the UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi, Rugunda surprised his OPM staff when he gave a green light for the UNHCR biometric system to be used in capturing refugee details.

The State Minister for Relief and Disaster Preparedness, Musa Ecweru, explained that the Prime Minister’s decision was because the UNHCR system is globally tested and has worked in very many refugee situations in countries such as Syria and Iraq.

“It is not true that we have abandoned RIMS nor are we surrendering the role of registration to UNHCR. The Government will continue playing a leading role and the two systems will work side by side. The UNHCR’s system will serve the role of verification and reconciliation of the refugee figures from our staff,” the minister said.

Staff reaction

However, staffs at OPM say Ecweru is not telling the truth. A memo, dated January 31, which was circulated through a number of concerned government offices, including the OPM, said the registration exercise had been returned to UNHCR and gave a total of 12 concerns over the decision.

The whistleblower wondered why the Government has opted to use the UNHCR system which cost over sh30b to deploy, instead of the enhanced version of RIMS, which will cost half that amount. He added that the decision would hand over control and management of registration to UNHCR staff, which could result in the loss of over 600 jobs.

The memo defended RIMS as credible and duly audited by NITA (U). It also said RIMS has been benchmarked in various countries such as South Africa, Malawi, Ethiopia and Tanzania, including the UNHCR IT technical team from Copenhagen in Denmark.

“We wonder why such a widely appreciated system would be sidelined by the Government to adopt UNHCR’s. It is annoying to see the same people who were running here and there, writing all sorts of letters telling UNHCR to handover registration responsibilities to Uganda making a U-turn on the matter. It brings about a lot of suspicion,” a source who preferred anonymity said.

The OPM staff argue that changing to UNHCR system — where the Government has no control and management — will kill the Government innovation of RIMS and lead to loss of human capacity that has been built by the Government over time; not to mention security matters.

“It also poses challenges of management and synchronization of the national information security system, considering that data will be controlled from different servers not accessible, controlled and managed by government,” the staff argues.

UNHCR responds

However, UNHCR’s spokesperson, Duniya Aslam, denied any conflict, saying the verification exercise was being done with the Government and WFP.

“There is no conflict at all. If we were conflicting on whose system to use, we would not even be working together. We believe that combining efforts will only support and enhance government’s capacity,” she stated. She explained that the Government was doing the registration and UNHCR only verifying the numbers which it does universally, not only in Uganda.

“We have to do a good job. Every family member among the refugees will have their iris scanned, 10 finger prints registered and a photo taken.  For the international community to continue providing support to the refugees in Uganda, there must be transparency in regard to numbers  of beneficiaries. We are working together with the Government to ensure that this humanitarian aid gets to the refugees in full capacity,” she insisted.

Minister explains

When asked about the staff concerns, Ecweru insinuated that the Government registration and the RIMS system were defective and had brought the country into problems.

“Those complaints are coming from staffs that want to take advantage of a defective system and now feel uncomfortable. When UNHCR visited some of the camps to ascertain those supposed to receive food relief, they found that the number of those who turned up was not corresponding with the numbers in the register. We, therefore, need a robust system that can give us about 99.9% accuracy because refugee registration is not a simple exercise,” Ecweru explained.

He advised the staff to learn to work according to the established code of conduct.

“Nobody will be victimised for their disagreement with us, but they should learn to pay allegiance to the standing orders of the Government,” he said.

 Govt response

In his statement to Parliament on Thursday, Onek said four officers who had been named in various accusations had been ordered to step aside to pave way for Police and IGG investigations. He also told MPs that UNHCR and WFP have also sent in their investigators.

The minister, who said the number of refugees according to the Government figures was 1,411,794 as of February, said refugees keep flowing in through Kisoro, Ntoroko, Hoima and Zombo districts. They are putting pressure on the resources.

“During the Solidarity Summit on Refugees held in June 2017, the Government received pledges worth $523m and so far, about $350m has been received. So far, the OPM account has received $1.5m, which will be used to provide water, health, food, shelter, education and other essential needs to refugees and host communities,” Onek said.

On the ongoing verification, Onek said the Government is using the biometric registration of UNHCR to plug any possible holes in the integrity of the register of the refugees.

“This is meant to restore confidence in the refugee operations,” he said.
 
Office of the Prime Minister Staff speak out

A memo, dated January 31, which was circulated through a number of concerned government offices including the Office of the Prime Minister, said the registration exercise had been returned to UNHCR and gave a total of 12 concerns over the decision.

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