Source: International IDEA
Refugees have the potential to make an impact on the political life of both their host countries and their countries of origin, as they often maintain transnational links with their homelands while at the same time becoming part of their host society.
Drawing on individual perspectives of South Sudanese and Congolese refugees in Uganda, this case study explores the formal and non-formal political participation of refugees and asylum seekers in their host country and the ways in which they are able to participate in peacebuilding and democracy-building in their countries of origin.
Among the formal mechanisms for political participation, the case study explores issues of access to citizenship in the host country, electoral rights in both the host country and countries of origin, and membership or other forms of support to political parties. In addition, it examines non-formal mechanisms for political participation, including refugees’ participation in consultative bodies, civil society organizations, protests and grassroots initiatives, and other means of transnational political activism.
This case study is part of the Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Democracy project and has informed the development of a longer report, Political Participation of Refugees: Bridging the Gaps, published by International IDEA in 2018.
Download report from International IDEA: https://www.idea.int/publications/catalogue/political-participation-refugees-case-south-sudanese-and-congolese-refugees?lang=en
The inclusion or exclusion of refugees in or from the political fabric of Uganda is further determined by their ability to access citizenship. Although many refugees have resided in Uganda for over 20 years, which is the residency period required to apply for citizenship through naturalization, they have not been able to acquire Ugandan citizenship. The challenges around citizenship for refugees are rooted in the interpretation and practice of the 1995 Ugandan Constitution, as amended in 2005, and the 1999 Uganda Citizenship and Immigration Control Act (UCICA), as amended in 2009. These legal frameworks, along with the Refugees Act of 2006, define the eligibility for citizenship through registration and naturalization. Article 12(2)(c) of the Constitution and article 14(2)(c) of the UCICA address eligibility for citizenship through registration if someone ‘has lived in Uganda for at least 20 years’. However, they contradict articles 12(a)(2) of the Constitution and article 14(a)(2) of the UCICA by directly excluding refugees, stating that someone born in Uganda is only eligible for citizenship by registration, if ‘neither of his or her parents and none of his or her grandparents was a refugee in Uganda’. Moreover, the process of citizenship through naturalization is presented in article 13 of the Constitution as: ‘Parliament shall by law provide for the acquisition and loss of citizenship by naturalization’. The UCICA further defines this in article 16, stating that the legal requirements for naturalization are to have resided in Uganda for 20 years, adequate knowledge of a prescribed vernacular language or English, being of good character and the intention, if naturalized, of permanently residing in Uganda.
In 2010, these conflicts in the legislation led civil society organizations to seek clarification from the Ugandan Constitutional Court (UCC), in order to understand whether refugees can acquire citizenship by registration and/or naturalization. In October 2015, the UCC announced that although refugees cannot access citizenship through registration, because they have not ‘voluntarily migrated’ to Uganda as stated in article (2)(b) of the Constitution and article 14(2)(b) of the UCICA, they are eligible for naturalization. Since this ruling, however, there have been no successful cases of naturalization. This was confirmed by the Commissioner for Refugees, who took a proactive stance while conveying the barriers to citizenship:
OPM has submitted a list of people [to Ministry of Internal Affairs] we believe to be eligible for naturalization but championing this issue can be misconstrued and we need to be strategic with the timing. . . . Elections and the economic dynamics of society play a role but we need to be active or we will end up with stateless populations.
—Commissioner for Refugees, Kampala, 2017
This demonstrates that beyond its welcoming asylum policy, the inability of the government to offer a positive legal path to citizenship exacerbates the isolation long-term refugees feel in their host country (Hovil 2016). Thus, refugees are largely deprived of voting rights and the ability to obtain a degree of political representation in Uganda.