Uganda Refugee Law Project strives for humane treatment and justice

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Mugero in his office at the Refugee Law Project (UgandaPartners photo)

By Brendah Ndagire

As of November 2018, precisely 1,181,322 refugees are within the borders of Uganda. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, most of these are from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but also come from Burundi, Somalia, Rwanda, Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia and other countries. Uganda Christian University Law alumnus, Jesse Mugero, works as a legal officer with the Refugee Law Project (RLP), located in the Old Kampala area. He provides legal aid to refugees, asylum seekers and deportees and field training with the State Government’s Office of the Prime Minister. He also engages with non-governmental affiliates such as those associated with international criminal law who fight against sexual violence. Uganda Christian University Partners recently caught up with Mugero to learn more about his work with RLP. This interview follows a series of blogs on UCU graduates who are accompanying refugees in Uganda. The interview is edited for clarity.

Briefly, describe what you do

I work as legal officer with the Refugee Law Project, a Makerere University project started in the 1999 as an outreach project of the School of Law, to examine issues related to justice, conflict, migration and human rights. The Refugee Law Project is not a non-government organization nor a purely a government agency. Even though are we are part of the university, we do most of our work independently. In my role, I provide legal assistance to refugees, asylum seekers from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and few coming from Pakistan and Syria. I also work with people facing deportation and conduct capacity building. I mainly train state employees, such as the Uganda Police Force and the Military, basically sharing with them about international criminal law, because our (armed) forces are the people who for the most part have the first interaction with the refugees in places where they are assigned to keep peace, or at the border. It helps to train and support them to understand who a refugee, or an asylum seeker is, such that they know what to do, and how to protect them once they encounter them.

Explain more what capacity building looks like with RLP.

Depending on the training, it is meant to improve the knowledge of participants in a certain area. For example, we can have a conversation on sexual violence. The common understanding is that sexual violence only affects women, but from our Uganda experience especially in Northern Uganda, which suffered a two-decade war led by the Lord’s Resistance Army, we learned that sexual violence also affects men. Capacity building is then geared towards helping participants to understand the different ways in which this crime (sexual violence) occurs. This would then help them in documentation and collection of sufficient evidence of what has happened for possibly future trials. Capacity building broadens the knowledge base, and improves the ability to counter certain aspects of crimes committed against vulnerable groups. For example, this year, we have trained over 500 soldiers of the UGABAG (Uganda Battle group who go to Somalia), and over 300 members of the police force in the districts of Kitgum, Adjumani, Gulu, Arua, Kiryandongo, Hoima, and Mbarara. We train them about refugee rights, including their freedom from torture, freedom of movement, and right to life as well as how they own property, obtain legal representation, and apply for employment. We also help them understand sexual violence in international law, and torture, and abuse of human rights, which unfortunately is on the rise but people need to understand that it is wrong to commit torture. When people (policemen and army personnel) understand that, hopefully they will be part of the solution.

Article about Jesses’ father who inspired him to work with refugees

Apart from the Office of the Prime Minister, and its refugee department, who else do you partner with?

We partner with other refugee agencies such as the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and other partners in Adjumani District. We basically compliment each other. For example, DRC may refer clients to us for legal assistance, and we do the same in situations where they have more experience supporting refugees. We also partner with Inter-Aid in Kampala, which works with urban refugees, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for protection and resettlement in other countries especially for refugees from Rwanda and Congo who are usually hunted for political reasons here.

How does the legal process of representation look like in your experience?

There are two kinds of legal representation. One of them is helping an asylum seeker, someone who has just come into the country, and wants assistance in obtaining asylum. In Kampala, we help them to go to the Old Kampala Police Station to apply for asylum after which their application will be taken to the refugee eligibility committee which would grant or not grant refugee status. If not granted, they can appeal to the decision to the Refugee Appeals Board.

The other part of legal representation is the traditional one where a refugee can come for support in courts of law in case one of their relatives is legally in trouble. It is important to highlight that our services are free of charge, so we work with refugees because in most cases these are people of a lower economic status, and we help them to, for instance, secure police bond and bail. Sometimes language barrier is a big issue, and sometimes it is understanding what is considered a crime in Uganda and what is not. There may be a conflict of laws. For example, in South Sudan girls are married off when they are 16 years old, and in Uganda that is considered defilement. In this case, it is important to explain to a South Sudanese man that it is both illegal to marry and have sex with a 16-year-old in Uganda.

Why work with RLP?

I have always been inspired by the example of my father. He was a student in China in 1978. A Chinese journalist wrote an article at that time about a black medical student working with Vietnamese refugees in China. That black student was my father. My mother kept the article somewhere in our home, and when I found it, I was particularly inspired by him. I have wanted to be part of and living for a cause that is bigger than myself. And creating an impact that will last for generations to come.

What do you think was the most positive aspect of getting an education at UCU?

The education at UCU helped me to understand that life is one indivisible whole. I learned to integrate my faith into my career interests. When I joined the Honors College , I was exposed to brilliant students who challenged me to grow in different ways. I was challenged to strive for excellence. I also grew in my leadership and found many opportunities to serve within the Honors College and UCU community generally.

What classes stood out for you that currently have a huge impact on your career with RLP?

My best class was the Christian Legal Political Thought. It was very interesting because it helped me to appreciate the wide perspectives of law and justice within a Christian lens. To recognize that as a Christian, we live in a pluralist society/world, that there will always be different opinions on particular policy issues outside of the Christian perspectives and how to respectively engage with them is important.

Where do you see God’s work in the lives of the refugees you are accompanying?

I see God in His being sovereign. When I think about the challenging experiences of refugees, very few (1% of refugees world wide) get an opportunity to be resettled in (economically) rich nations, and it can be a daunting thought for many of them. I see God working in the refugees who are happily living here in Uganda with little/limited economic resources, and becoming very creative with the little they have. For example, many refugees from the Congo have succeeded in the clothing industry. They make their own fabrics, sell them and are able to pay for school fees for their children.

Jesse conducting legal training in Moyo District

What are your most proud moments working with refugees?

On a teenager who allegedly stole a phone: One of the most profound experience working with the refugees has been working with refugee mothers. One time there was a woman whose son had been arrested for allegedly stealing a phone. When the woman came to me, she was both very disappointed and sad for her son. I spoke with her, and gave her some advice such as securing a police bond, and how to cooperate with the police. And I will never forget the smile she had when she came back to me the following week. She was so happy and grateful for her freed son. And she makes these really beautiful African and Congolese fabrics, and she offered that if I ever need any fabric, she would make it for me at a discount.

On a single mother who faced eviction: Another time I felt proud was when I helped to accompany a refugee woman whose husband was killed on the way from DRC. She has six children to raise on her own. She was getting evicted by her landlord who had given her only two days to leave his premises. I intervened and spoke with the landlord and she was later given a one-month grace period to look for a new apartment. Knowing that she had another month with a roof over her family, it gave me satisfaction in ways financial achievements cannot.

On training armed officers: Sometimes when we are training military or police officers on the need to respect human rights and stop the habit of torture, one of the officers said to me, “I am going to implement what you have taught me today because torture is not something I personally want to commit, but I do it because I want to follow directions from our leaders.” It is promising and transformative to hear someone committing to engaging more humanly with the perceived other/enemy.

One of the key messages we put forward is that refugees are human beings just as any other human beings. That forced migrants also have rights, and have entitlements under Uganda’s laws. We also need to emphasize that Uganda has been hosting forced migrants since world II and that this is not something new to our society.

This story is just one of many examples of how Uganda Christian University graduates are making a difference in their country. If you would like to assist a current student or otherwise support the university, contact Mark Bartels, executive director, UCU Partners, at or go to

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