Hundreds line up for start of Ugandan refugee verification
Officials and volunteers race against time to mobilize resources and staff for the launch of the vast nationwide exercise.
More than 1 million refugees who fled war and persecution for the safety of Uganda are being verified in the biggest exercise of its kind in the history of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
At Oruchinga Refugee Settlement, up to 3,000 people a day are already wending their way through a series of tents as part of the pilot.
On launch day, hundreds arrive at dawn as government officials prepare to scan their fingerprints and irises. The goal is to ensure they are properly registered and receive the protection and assistance they need.
Besides staff from UNHCR and the World Food Programme, volunteers from the refugee community are also lending a hand. Jenipher Mutamba, who fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2011, is ready to greet refugees at the entrance.
“Please,” she says, smiling. “Let me show you around.”
The reception tent
Gabrielle Low strides through the white reception tent as UNHCR staff set up their desks around her. “Tape and scissors?” she calls out to her colleagues, urgently. “Does anyone have tape and scissors?” It has been a race against time to mobilize the resources, infrastructure and staff needed to conduct the exercise. Today is launch day and, for 64 UNHCR and government staff, the hard work is just beginning. “To see it go from an empty football field to this has been amazing,” says Gabrielle, one of UNHCR’s associate field officers who is here to make sure everything runs like clockwork.
At midday, refugees begin filtering into the tent, clasping their ration cards and registration forms in plastic wallets. Andrew Hopkins, who runs UNHCR’s identity management and registration section, is among the staff waiting to receive them.
He will scan a barcode on their forms to view case files, identify family members and record any issues that will require a visit to the litigation area for further clarification, for example, if new-born children are not yet listed or family members are now living separately.
“Building a system like this and a process like this isn’t possible without a multi-agency, multi-stakeholder effort,” says the silver-haired American, who has been working with UNHCR for almost 20 years. As always, he is ready for the challenge. “It’s really great to set this stuff up – I love it.”
The litigation area
Collapsing into one of the white plastic chairs in the litigation area, 54-year-old mother-of-three Garasiya Mukamparirwa sighs with relief. She was hit by a motorcycle while walking along the road on Christmas Day and now, using cumbersome wooden crutches, every movement is exhausting.
At one of the desks, government staff are recording Garasiya as an extremely vulnerable individual (EVI). With her family, who fled Rwanda in 1995, she will be fast-tracked through the verification process today. “Every week I must go back to the hospital,” she says. “The doctors told me to buy painkillers for my leg but they cost 20,000 Ugandan shillings (US$5.50) and I can’t afford it.”
The cast on her broken leg is not the only reason Garasiya and her husband Joseph visit the health centre in Oruchinga settlement. Both have lived with HIV for decades since they were diagnosed in 2001. “I was getting sick a lot with fever and shivering, my mouth had sores and I had a lot of headaches,” she says. “So, I had a test and they said I had HIV.”
Her eldest daughter, 23-year-old Angelique, feels responsible for both her parents and her one-year-old son Divini. “I dropped out of school to take care of my mother and father,” she says. “I would have liked to go back but there is no way to pay the school fees.”
Today’s biometric verification exercise will mean refugees receive their rightful food rations. Garasiya knows how important that is.
“We go to the health centre to get tablets every week, but they require good nutritious food and not going into the garden to dig,” she says. “So we went to a meeting and people told us why they are collecting this data. They’ve changed the system and this will help us to get food.”
The verification tent
It has been just seven days since Robert Byaruhanga joined UNHCR. Only yesterday he was still learning the ropes and shadowing a colleague, Winnie Mugisa. Today, beneath the white canvas of the verification tent, he is armed with all the knowledge he needs to go it alone.
“Yesterday, Winnie supported me while I processed 12 individuals and it went well,” he says at his desk where a fingerprint reader, iris scanner, web camera and laptop are ready to record the data. “I’m so excited to work for UNHCR, I like it so much. I am going to do a lot of work today.”
Winnie, a Ugandan national who first joined UNHCR in 2007 and helped to guide Robert through his first week, is also ready to tackle the huge undertaking. Like many of her colleagues, she is regularly dispatched from her local UNHCR office, in the northern region of Arua, to conduct exercises like these. “We’re used to big numbers, but today is going to be busy,” she says. The verification is very important. We need to have a system, a standard.”
Like their colleagues, Robert and Winnie will spend the day ensuring that the government database is up to date, verifying information such as names, ages and arrival dates, and taking photographs and fingerprints. Both are confident. Then two babies burst into tears, and Winnie smiles and shakes her head. “Oh-oh!” she cautions. “Today is crying day!”
The documentation tent
Innocent Kwizera squints in the sunlight as he pulls on a high-visibility vest and prepares to enter the documentation tent. He speaks five languages and has volunteered to translate for the refugees, earning 15,000 shillings (US$4) per day.
“I speak Rwandese, French, Swahili, English and Kirundi,” he says. “In our UNHCR training, they told us to say exactly what the person is saying, to keep confidentiality and to be patient.”
Innocent, 27, helps UNHCR and government staff to communicate with the refugees, switching languages with ease. Inside the documentation tent, in the final step in the process, they are given new ration cards and proof of attestation forms, which ensure they receive the protection and assistance they need.
A refugee himself, Innocent had been studying information technology in Bujumbura, Burundi. In 2012, he was forced to flee after his parents were killed in a car crash. He says they were murdered by the government for being part of the political opposition.
“They wanted to kill me too,” he says. “One day, last year, two people came up to me who said I should go back with them and kill the people who killed my parents. I said no and reported them to UNHCR.” He shakes his head, sadly. “I can never go back.”