Shaping the future: Our strategy for research and innovation in humanitarian response.

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The problem we begin our project with is a UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) identified gap in the ‘traditional’ approach to refugee protection.  Through external evaluation and performance against internal indicators, UNHCR identified that children’s specific protection concerns are not being sufficiently ‘mainstreamed’ into its core protection work.

Nearly 50% of UNHCR’s global population of concern are children under the age of 18. As it stands, the refugee protection process does not as yet reflect these demographics.  Whilst organisations like Save the Children have established Child Friendly Spaces (CFS) in some refugee camps and contexts, elements of the refugee protection process (reception, registration, refugee status determination) remain generic rather than child-focused. There is room for innovation which recognises in practice that these individuals are ‘children first’, then refugees.

In terms of our innovation, we are at the stage of ‘invention’: the creation of the innovation to meet the identified problem.  We are looking for a ‘process innovation’ – a more child friendly refugee protection process which is more effective, better quality for or delivers better outcomes for children.  As mentioned elsewhere in our online profile (see document on ‘Refugee Children as Innovators’), child participation is our main route to innovation and refugee children are well placed to contribute as innovators in their own protection.  We will also work in partnership with humanitarian practitioners and draw information and ideas from other interventions in the field.

The context for the development of the innovation is Kyaka II, a protracted refugee settlement in SW Uganda.  Kyaka II was established in 1983 as Rwandan Tutsi refugees who had settled across Uganda amidst Ugandan nationals were moved by the Ugandan Government into settlements.  Kyaka II went later went on to receive Rwandan Hutu refugees. These were refugees due to conflict in Burundi and the DRC and a small number from the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia and Somalia).  In 2005/6 there was a major influx of refugees from the DRC which more than trebled the population of Kyaka II from 5,000 to over 17,000 inhabitants.  There are currently 1,600 asylum seekers, mainly from the DRC, awaiting refugee status determination.

As a ‘settlement’ rather than a ‘camp’, Kyaka II reflects the Ugandan Government’s policy on self-reliance and freedom of movement of refugees, which contrasts to that of nearby Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania. Refugees in settlements in Uganda are given land to build homes and cultivate and food rations are decreased over time (except for those who are considered most vulnerable and in need of sustained support).  Refugees are encouraged to income generate from other activities and are free to engage in employment both within and outside the settlement.

In terms of administration of Kyaka II, OPM (Office of the Prime Minister, Ugandan Government) and UNHCR take a joint lead on refugee protection, working with other humanitarian partners, such as GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit), and the refugee community.  OPM is responsible for refugee settlement and the physical protection and security of all refugees.  OPM is also the custodian of the land on which refugees are settled.  UNHCR, as elsewhere, takes a rights-based approach and has the mandate for the international protection of all refugees.  There is a UNHCR Field Unit in Kyaka II dealing with refugee protection including registration, resettlement and other interventions and processes.

GIZ has been the main implementing partner in Kyaka II since its inception, managing sectors including livelihoods, WASH and protection.  Until very recently, GIZ were also delivering programmes in education and health.  Other implementing organisations include the Norwegian Refugee Council, Finnish Refugee Council, Right to Play and the Ugandan Red Cross.  Refugee Welfare Councils as well as a range of refugee committees and bodies exist at different levels within all 9 zones and 26 villages in Kyaka II and at an overall co-ordinating role to ensure refugee participation in settlement management and affairs and to contribute to refugee protection.

So, then, what about refugee children? Almost half of the population of Kyaka II are children under the age of 18.  Protection concerns include finding foster families for these young people as well as SGBV (Sexual and Gender Based Violence), child labour, trafficking of children to work as maids or house guards elsewhere in Uganda, and lack of awareness of children’s rights in the community including access to education.  Refugee children also, of course, bring a range of protection issues with them from their country of origin.

In terms of the international refugee protection process, children may be received in Kyaka II in one of two ways – either as ‘prima facie’ refugees, as part of a major refugee influx relocated from the border to the settlement or as individuals or small groups of asylum seekers making their own way directly to Kyaka II.  Children may arrive with their families or as ‘separated’ (separated from both parents or from their previous legal or customary primary care giver but not necessarily from other relatives) or ‘unaccompanied’ children (not accompanied by parents or any other relatives or cared for by any other adult responsible by law or custom for doing so).  There are currently 28 registered unaccompanied minors (UAMs) in Kyaka II.

If ‘prima facie’ refugees, children and their families already have refugee status and, once arriving at Kyaka II, go to the Reception Centre and are provided with basic assistance (food, water, medical treatment if needed, shelter).  They are then registered by OPM and UNHCR. They are finger printed and photographed for identity documents and provided with ration cards.  After registration, refugee families are provided with food and NFIs (non-food items) and then allocated land by OPM on which they can settle and cultivate.  BIA (Best Interests Assessment) and BID (Best Interests Determination) protection tools are available to be used to identify and address protection concerns for children deemed at risk, for example unaccompanied minors in need of foster care arrangements.

As individual or group asylum seekers, however, refugee children and their families must go through the refugee status determination (RSD) process. This is administered by the Refugee Eligibility Council/Committee (REC) which is OPM staff and UNHCR observer/presence.  Asylum seekers are to remain in the Reception Centre in Kyaka II and be provided with basic assistance until their status is confirmed or refused. Asylum seekers have the right of appeal against the decision of the REC and can be supported to appeal two or three times.  They have 90 days to appeal. Many need additional support to understand and submit the appeal due to lack of basic literacy skills.

The ‘durable solutions’ open to refugees in Kyaka II are either repatriation or resettlement, although few are resettled. Integration is not an option open to refugees in Uganda. Resettlement and repatriation interviews are conducted accordingly and the Best Interests Determination tool is used as a guide for decision-making, for example where unaccompanied or separated children are concerned.

The focus of our project is on innovation in this refugee protection process as it operates in relation to children, using Kyaka II as a case study.  From the middle of April to the middle of June 2012, the Researcher will run participatory workshops with groups of refugee children, interviews with humanitarian practitioners and conduct observation of the protection process in operation (reception centre, RSD interviews, BID interviews, registration etc).   More intensive workshops will then be run with groups of refugee children with most experience of key elements in the protection process to build on and develop their ideas for innovation.

Prior to this, in March 2012, a UNHCR Small Grant provided funding for research into a broader child participation in protection mapping exercise in Kyaka II.  This initial fieldwork and its relevance to the HIF Small Grant funded project will be reported on in the next blog.

Anna Skeels, PhD Student, CMPR – Swansea University

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