Refugee Rights News





What About Us? The Situation of Displaced Persons in the Great Lakes Region – NY event

Refugee Rights News
February 2009

On 13 January, the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) hosted a film screening and panel discussion addressing challenges faced by displaced communities in the Great Lakes region. Close to 80 human rights activists, refugee advocates and lawyers joined us at the Church Center in New York for an evening of discussing the numerous ways in which organizations focusing on refugees tackle the issues at hand.

The Great Lakes region of Africa has been the site of violent conflict and massive violations of human rights for more than a decade, from the genocide in Rwanda to the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which since 1998 has claimed more than three million lives and left more than a million displaced. Approximately 30,000 people fled DRC the final months of 2008 following renewed hostilities. Violence perpetrated by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army and government policy in northern Uganda has forced nearly two million from their homes and has torn apart the lives of thousands of children who were forcibly recruited by rebels.

Removed from their homes, their communities and, in some cases, the only livelihoods that they have ever known, the displaced often struggle to survive. In camps, they face inadequate assistance, while in urban areas they often receive no assistance at all.

The evening was co-presented by The Refugee Law Project at Makerere University in Uganda and Asylum Access, a non-profit organization dedicated to making refugee rights an on-the-ground reality in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Asylum Access first showed the audience a 15-minute film entitled “A Refugee’s Testimony.” The film, produced by Asylum Access, illustrates, through the words of one refugee, the importance of legal aid. Although refugees are, on paper, accorded a wide variety of rights from protection against forcible return to freedom from discrimination, the right to work, and freedom of movement in practice these rights are often not reality in the Great Lakes region and elsewhere in the Global South. Often the rights of refugees are not
recognized unless refugees have assistance to assert them. Refugee families often need legal assistance to help them move beyond dependence on humanitarian aid to actively build new lives in a safe home.

Subsequently, the Refugee Law Project (RLP) presented an advocacy-oriented documentary film entitled “What About Us?” The film, produced by the RLP’s Beyond Juba Project, is about members of the Acholi ethnic group who fled northern Uganda and found themselves struggling to survive in the slums of Kampala and other major Ugandan cities. These displaced Acholi share their stories, their feelings on being treated as foreigners in their own country and their hopes of returning home now that a semblance of peace has
returned to northern Uganda. The video further addresses the inability of government and humanitarian agencies to design interventions for those displaced to urban areas.

On behalf of The International Refugee Rights Initiative Olivia Bueno launched its latest report “The Great Lakes Pact and the Rights of Displaced Persons: A Guide for Civil Society.” The Guide discusses how new international mechanisms recognize new rights for the displaced and how these can be leveraged by advocates working on the ground with the displaced. The Great Lakes Pact is the first legally binding instrument to deal particularly with the rights of internally displaced persons. It also provides new guidance on the rights of the displaced to recover property left behind, an emerging issue in northern

The two films and Guide launch was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Marina Sharpe, Legal Officer at IRRI. The panel featured Emily Arnold-Fernandez, Executive Director at Asylum Access, Daniel Neumann, Media Officer with the Refugee Law Project and Olivia Bueno, IRRI’s Associate Director. Each panelist spoke briefly about their organisations’ work relating to the displaced communities of their focus, and questions from the audience were addressed.

At the end of the evening, a raffle to benefit the Refugee Law Project took place. Several lucky winners went home with African arts & crafts pieces, DVDs generously donated by NY-based filmmakers and tickets to the NY African Film Festival.