Kenya + 2 more

Kenya-Tanzania-Uganda: Rights groups urge tougher refugee protection laws

NAIROBI, 23 April (IRIN) - Although the East African region has had a decades-long experience of hosting refugees, it remains desperately in need of "positive and progressive" laws to adequately guarantee protection of their rights, according to regional and international refugee rights organisations.
"Obviously, lack of security and a policy framework on which refugee issues can be addressed has compounded refugee problems in East Africa," Abi Gitari, the executive director of the Refugee Consortium of Kenya (RCK), told IRIN on Monday. "There is need to have laws or policies that can harmonise refugee management at the regional level," she said.

The refugee protection policy issue was the theme of a conference held last week in Mombasa, Kenya's port city, which brought together about 70 members of parliament (MPs) from Kenya, Uganda and the recently revived East African Community (EAC) to discuss ways of developing laws and policies for refugee management in the region.

The four-day "Protecting Refugee Rights in East Africa" conference, which opened on 17 April, was told that although the three East African countries, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, were together hosting several hundred thousand refugees from conflict-prone countries in the region, governments had dealt with refugee issues on an "ad hoc" basis.

The lack of comprehensive policies addressing refugee problems have also meant that the protection of refugees largely depends on the goodwill of their host governments, thereby rendering refugees vulnerable to violations, according to Gitari.

The conference, jointly sponsored by RCK, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (LCHR), and the Refugee Law Project of Uganda, with the support from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), hoped to provide the MPs with "a comprehensive understanding of refugee issues in the region". "It was a very successful meeting, because we are getting the attention we needed for refugee issues," Gitari told IRIN.

This was the first workshop bringing together MPs from the East African Legislative Assembly and the Kenyan and Ugandan parliaments to discuss a single legislative issue, and aimed at encouraging them to support the enactment of "positive and progressive" laws for the protection of refugees in their countries, according to LCHR.

A regional approach to the problem was particularly important in the context of the recent revival of the EAC, which brings together Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania to cooperate on issues of regional interest, including conflict, immigration, trade and communications. "We can't talk of conflicts without addressing the issue of refugees, which is a direct result of conflict," Gitari said.

The conference coincided with the murder on 17 April of two Rwandan refugee children at a refugee centre in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

Reacting to the incident, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), urged the Kenyan government to put in place stiffer security measures that would provide refugees with "effective" protection, especially those at risk.

HRW said in a statement released on Tuesday that the two children, aged nine and 10 years, were murdered and their mother seriously injured by an assailant during the night at the centre. "This murder is a tragic reminder of the need to provide life-saving protection to refugees in Nairobi," Rachel Reilly, the HRW refugee policy director, said in the statement.

The residential facility in the Kilimani neighbourhood of Nairobi was set up by the UNHCR to shelter refugees with special needs, especially those in need of protection, according to the Nairobi office of the UNHCR.

"UNHCR has condemned the incident and pledged to assist Kenyan authorities with the investigations. The [Nairobi] branch abhors this dastardly and barbaric act, particularly as innocent children were targeted," UNHCR said in a statement on Friday.

Emmanuel Nyabera, the public information Officer for the branch, told IRIN on Friday that the woman had been accommodated at the centre pending completion of the process to effect her relocation to Australia.

Some 190 refugees are currently living in the centre, run by the Irish aid organisation GOAL, according to Nyabera.

"The grave security problems faced by this Rwandan family are typical for many of the refugees living in Nairobi and Kampala," Reilly said.

The East Africa's refugee experience dates back to the Second World War, during which the three countries hosted about 14,000 Polish refugees, according to LCHR. Refugee flows to the region, however, peaked in 1994 following the genocide in Rwanda, producing refugees in addition to those fleeing conflict in Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi, it said in a statement on 10 April.

"Many refugees are confined within the perimeters of the camps, where they are prevented from holding jobs, leading to recurring cycles of loss, displacement and despair," LCHR said.

[ENDS]

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