Behind the warm embrace for refugees in Uganda, lurks an organized cartel, which preys on their misery.
Among the hundreds trying to make it to Europe from here, many have become easy pickings for local conmen and corrupt government officials. Some refugees, according to personal testimony, have paid thousands of dollars to conmen and officials from the prime minister’s office (OPM) to have their applications for resettlement in Europe fast-tracked.
Interviewed for this report, a handful of refugees in Ruchinga sub-branch camp bared their sad souls. Located in the southwestern Isingiro district, Ruchinga was established as a transit centre in 1959 to receive Rwandan asylum seekers of Tutsi origin fleeing Rwanda.
The camp hosts about 131,070 refugees; 128,923 from DR Congo, 3,511 from South Sudan, 713 from Rwanda, 119 from Burundi, 11 from Kenya, seven from So- malia, and three from Sudan.
According to our source and victim of the conmen, who joined the camp in 2012 from DR Congo (DRC), he was registered and given a refugee identification card. The source later applied to be resettled in France.
He said he applied through the OPM and his file was later referred to the Protection office. The source said one OPM officer asked for $10,000 to quickly process his file.
“Initially, I was told that I will be resettled in the next six months. After six months, I went back to follow up on the matter and I was told to wait for another six months,” he said.
“After one year, that very officer told me that there is a senior officer who didn’t get a share of that money and, therefore, I had to bring another US$ 10,000 and the file would be processed so that I sit for interviews and be cleared to go to my desired destination, France,” he said.
After a long time, he said, he went back to OPM to follow up on his file but to his dismay, he was told never to return to the office.
“I persisted and the women promised to delete my personal information in the system, cancel my refugee status, and order my arrest. Since I am a refugee, I gave up on that matter of resettlement,” he said.
Another source who applied for resettlement in a European country (country name withheld for fear of being traced) has a brother who resettled in the UK. The source whose file stalled said he applied for resettlement in 2017 and has spent over US$ 10,000 to fast-track his file in vain.
“My brother was resettled a long time ago but he went through a similar situation. He was resettled after officials knew he had no single coin left on him. He wanted to commit suicide. He could not return to Congo because he had sold all his properties including the house,” he said.
He pointed a finger of blame at middlemen mostly interpreters, who help refugees during interviews. They urge refugees to pay some money to get their files processed quickly. The middlemen/ brokers claim UN officials soften when they are given some money and process the files pretty fast.
“I lost everything and my hope was in resettlement but I was conned. The process remains slow and I can’t return to my motherland,” he said
SALE OF REFUGEE FILES
According to the source, resettlement files are sold at about US$ 5,000 and above to non-refugees (Ugandans). The business is done with the help of middlemen and interpreters at the camp. There are known middlemen and one of them identified only as Rasta was arrested and detained.
The source, a Congolese national nicknamed ‘Mukongo,’ who applied for resettlement in Europe, said during the verification exercise in 2021, OPM officials told him his family doesn’t exist in Uganda because it was resettled in Canada in 2017.
“I broke down in tears, I yelled but no one could help, I approached the officials but security guards blocked me. I was later introduced to the fact that refugee resettlement files are sold by officials to willing buyers,” he said.
“Instabilities and corruption have done us badly in life. I have lost 10 productive years and I have no hope of being resettled,” he said.
“This process of selling refugee files is linked to the provision of the thumbprint verification procedure, which was phased out at Entebbe International Airport. Recently refugees heading out for resettlement were verified using their thumbprints before boarding the plane. So, today when you have the air ticket and refugee card or any other authorized documents you can travel on someone’s file because there is no verification at the airport,” Mukongo said.
“The day I walked into the camp, one of the women who welcomed us [she is still working at the camp] asked me why I chose Ruchinga. I told her that some of my relatives are here. She warned me that I would cry. I didn’t know what she was talking about till people were resettled in Canada under my file and names,” he said
Mukongo said there are a lot of refugees who have been conned out of their money under the guise of being processed for resettlement.
“We have suffered, last year after the verification exercise, an OPM official held onto our forms for more than two weeks because we didn’t give him money. A brave woman walked into his office, grabbed his laptop, and walked out. He yelled and reported the matter to the police. The issue was ironed out but the OPM official compensated the woman on top of handing over her verification form. That is the corruption at the camp. We [refugees] are business for these officials,” he said.
Mukongo said they have written several complaints and dropped them in the suggestion box but nothing has been done.
“There are other avenues of reporting these issues like toll-free numbers but we can’t because we can be traced and have our resettlement applications canceled. We are dealing with ‘gods’ in the camp. They are determinants of our future. We can’t take risks,” he said.
UNHCR SPEAKS OUT
Interviewed for a comment, acting Associate Communication officer Wendy Kasujja said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) doesn’t comment on individual cases.
Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja didn’t pick up nor return our repeated calls. The OPM has grappled with several corruption scandals in the past, including alleged fraud in the management of relief food and other items meant for refugees in 2018.
Musa Ecweru, the then state minister for Relief and Disaster Preparedness, ordered the suspension of five OPM officials. The team was also accused of inflating refugee numbers in the country.
The corrupt nature of the officials led to the launching of a refugee verification exercise in 2018. It was later found that 255,490 refugees were verified as inactive and their whereabouts could not be traced. The swindling of relief items rattled many donors.
MUKONGO SPEAKS ABOUT LIFE IN THE CAMP
On January 15, 2012, ‘Mukongo’ fled the conflict-hit Nasisi Village in North Kivu province. The future looked brighter after crossing the DR Congo border into Uganda.
Mukongo was received at the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) located at Old Kampala police station. He was registered as an asylum seeker and later issued a refugee card. He remained in Kampala till 2014 when he could not afford a meal.
“I came with some money. I was not poor as I am now. It is overstaying here that has made me look this vulnerable,” Mukongo said.
When life in Kampala became unbearable, Mukongo moved to Ruchinga Refugee Sub-branch to start a new life. He arrived at the camp in 2014. He was welcomed by OPM officials and given some relief items to start his new life.
“On reaching the camp, I was told that every person in my family will be given relief food every month to sustain our lives. I, my wife, and the two children were each given 12kg of maize and 3kg of beans. I felt relieved,” he said.
To their dismay, the quantity of food was reduced from 12 kilogrammes of maize to six kilogrammes. Mukongo opted to leave the camp for Kampala to look for casual work to fend for his family. While in Kampala, his wife informed him that the United Nations (UN) had dropped the food rations and opted for cash handouts.
“She told me that each family member will be getting Shs 30,000 per month.
A year later, the OPM said the money would be reduced because the UN had no money. They started with Shs 30,000, then Shs 21,000, and later Shs 9,000 as of 2022,” he said.
“Since we joined the camp, life has been miserable but we have nothing to do since we can’t get back to Congo due to instabilities,” he said.
All refugees in Ruchinga sub-branch are entitled to free medical services at Rulongo health facility. But Mukongo says without money, no refugee can get medical attention.
“You can’t be attended to when you don’t have money. What we get from the health facility is a prescription. It is hard for us because we can’t afford most of the prescribed medicine,” he said.
There are cars provided by the UN to facilitate refugees’ movements in the camp and in case of any referral but they are used by OPM officials.
“Never wish to be a refugee because we have suffered. I wish we could return to our motherland because life is really hard for us. My father and mother declined to seek refuge. They said we should leave because we have much more years to live. As I say this, my father passed on earlier this month and he was buried on March 4, 2022. I didn’t get a chance to bury him. May his soul rest in peace,” he said
“I suffered in the past two lockdowns. I have four children but it was hard to feed them. Every single day I sat in my single room, looked at my family members on hungry stomachs, and regretted why I left my country. I did all sorts of work but still, I could not look after them,” he said.