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Taking advantage of the refugee system
by: Glenna Gordon
Somali refugees lead donkeys carrying their belongings to higher ground at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Dadaab, northern Kenya, November 2006. REUTERS/Stephen Morrison/Pool
Nairobi, 6 Sept, 2007 - Leon Musafiri speaks English, French, Swahili and at least six other African languages. He can tell from a person's accent if they're from Rwanda, Congo, Uganda or Burundi, and he'll even often narrow it down to region. He gauges accents, verifies stories, and knows his geography and history.
As a Congolese refugee who works with a lot of refugees in Uganda's capital, Kampala, he says he generally knows who's a legitimate refugee under international law and who's making up a story to get the benefit from aid agencies.
Migrants flee their homes for a plethora of reasons.
Not everyone who's made it to Uganda is a refugee, even the ones from wartorn countries where life is unbearably hard, says Musafiri, who's the chairman of French-Speaking Refugees in Uganda, and an intern at the Refugee Law Project in Kampala.
Wars make life dangerous and hard, and individuals can easily get caught up between forces much bigger than them. Poverty often makes people despair of ever having a better life or giving their children wider horizons. And sometimes migrants are looking for a new home where they've got a better chance of getting an education or earning a living that's more than just scraping by.
A refugee, defined by international law in a U.N. convention, is a person who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of their nationality, and is unable... or... unwilling to avail him/herself of the protection of that country."
That doesn't include people who haven't crossed an international border, and it doesn't automatically include just anyone who comes from a country where a war's going on.
Once someone is legally deemed a refugee, he or she is entitled to benefits from the United Nations and the government of the country where they're resident.
That might mean they're eligible for food rations, and sometimes they'll be allocated a plot of land inside a refugee camp.
Refugees can be eligible for educational scholarships and other perks.
The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, says about 220,000 refugees live in Uganda. About 170,000 are Sudanese, then there are 30,000 from Democratic Republic of Congo, 20,000 Rwandans, and a few thousand each from Somalia and Burundi.
All of these countries either have ongoing conflicts, wars that could flare up again, or still bear the scars of deep divisions that have tipped into bloodshed in the last 15 years.
Many of the people who put in truth-twisting applications for asylum are actually legitimate asylum-seekers, but some are convinced they have a better chance of success if they fabricate a more elaborate story.
Migrants say they if they know their real stories won't get them refugee status, they confer with refugees already settled in the community about the best way to get through the system.
"Maybe 60 percent of the Congolese are telling the truth because so many people are affected by the conflict,"Musafari says. He guesses half of Rwandan cases are legitimate, and maybe 40 percent of Burundians.
But refugees aren't the only ones taking advantage of the system. A lot of refugees say officials take bribes in exchange for papers. They call it "chai"- money for tea.
Douglas Asiimwe, senior protection officer at the Office of the Prime Minister, says, "Not everyone who is suffering is a refugee."
When faced with accusations of bribery, he also insists, laughing: "No, no, no, that's incredible. Do refugees even have the money to bribe?
"Me, I've never, never, never touched refugee money. Asylum is a simple humanitarian process. I don't determine status as an individual person. It's the committee."
Asiimwe describes the labyrinth of paper work that goes into refugee eligibility, but denies any loopholes give space for individual intervention. "Our system is very transparent and open,"he says.
But Amina Deere, a Somali refugee from Mogadishu whose name has been changed for her protection, would disagree. After a year waiting for her papers, she says: "Daylight, you're supposed to bribe, but I refuse.
"I refuse and I can't,"says the 22-year-old single mother. Other refugees, she says, have relatives abroad who can wire them the "chai", but she has no one.
"All the other ladies were cleared because they paid bribe, but I have no money. What am I to do?" says Deere, bold and talkative, and sure to make her voice heard among the group of Somalis gathered round in the alley behind an restaurant in the ethnically segregated part of Kampala's Kisenyi slum area.
Deere, a traditional Somali girl hidden behind a hijab veil, is determined to be seen and heard nonetheless. "Everything here is corrupt,"she says.
Abdis Allah, another man gathered round behind the restaurant in Kisenyi, says it took him eight years to get refugee status. Once he'd saved up enough money for a bribe, he says he got the papers within months.
Joli Mozi, a thin 35-year old Congolese woman in a traditional scarlet "gomesi"dress, didn't know anyone when she arrived in Kampala, aside from the two orphans she adopted during her journey.
Travelling with a Somali boy and an unaccompanied Congolese girl, it's unclear exactly where Mozi is from or where she's going to go.
She's obviously in need, but that doesn't make her a refugee in the eyes of international law.
She tells a story of people who came for her and her family in the night in December 2004. "It was dark, so I couldn't see who was who,"she says. Her husband ran one way, she another, and her children went in a third direction.
She crossed the border in southwestern Uganda and ended up in Mbarara where she says she worked for international relief agency Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in an official capacity.
However, Mozi also says that she had no education and both she and her parents were farmers who raised chickens. A phone call to MSF proves that Mozi was in fact employed at MSF, but as a house keeper and nanny. "She's very nice,"said Patrice Piola, the country director in Uganda of MSF's research centre Epicentre. "But be cautious about what she's saying because sometimes she can be very imaginative."
I ask Musafiri what he thinks of Mozi's story.
It's easy for people to open up to Musafiri because he's a refugee as well.
As a university student leader in Congo, Musafiri refused to join or recruit others to join armed rebels. The son of a pastor and a pacifist himself, Musafiri says he held to his principles.
He was imprisoned, but the commander who supposed to execute Musafiri knew and respected his father's religious works and chose to release him.
Musafiri left running, and he got his refugee card within a month of reporting to the Ugandan police.
He doubts Mozi's story.
But when pressed on it, he says, "Who are we to judge?"
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