Govt Sets One Month Timeline for Probe into Refugee Scandal


Minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, Hillary Onek addressing a press conference on Thursday
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Police and other investigating organs have been given a period of one month to conclude investigations into the alleged corruption, misuse of funds and rights violations perpetrated by officials in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) in refugee operations.

While speaking to journalists on Thursday, the Minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, Hillary Onek said that government has instructed the police to expedite the ongoing probe within a month and come up with the findings.

“We have given a maximum of one month for the investigation. A week has so far elapsed, we have three weeks remaining. We have already got a preliminary report from the Police which does not point to much,” Onek said.

A few weeks ago, allegations broke out in the media which indicated that the UN Refugee Agency in Uganda had raised concerns on how the OPM was handling resources meant for refugees. UN pointed to the misuse of food and money, trafficking of refugee girls, extortion and bribery by officials/refugees in exchange for refugee status or provisions.

In light of these allegations, government together with UN commissioned a probe that has so far seen some officials suspended pending investigations.

“Allegations of abuse of funds are taken seriously. Such misdeeds spoil all the good work so we must arrest it before it spoils the good work we are doing,” Onek reassured.

He said that in the course of the investigation, “no stone will be left unturned” and that “whoever will be found to have been involved will be firmly dealt with in accordance with our laws for spoiling the name of our country”.

He said that government felt “offended” and “betrayed” by the alleged acts.

The investigation will also focus on other agencies like World Food Program and service providers involved in refugee operations that could have connived with OPM staffers.

Asked about allegations that some refugees have been bribing officials to acquire refugee status, Onek said; “There are allegations that we have people who bribe to be refugees. Do you know that we have refugees from Pakistan and Iraq yet you find them selling cars here. But they are refugees”.

“A refugee is someone who is desperate and the immediate country they get to is where they settle. But these people flew here. How many countries did they cross? We are investigating all this,” he said.

Impunity

However, journalists raised concerns over government’s failure to discipline some of its officials previously implicated in mismanagement of refugee resources.

A case in point is Mr John Baptist Sentamu a former camp commandant in Nakivale refugee settlement who was recently transferred to Hoima despite a directive by Minister Onek to the Permanent Secretary in the OPM, Christine Guwatudde Kintu, to have Sentamu and four other officials interdicted or
suspended.

The Minister had previously termed the transfer of Sentamu (suspect) to Kyangwali refugee settlement in Oima district as an evasion of justice but to date, he (Sentamu) hasn’t been suspended, which could jeopardize the ongoing investigations.

In response to this, Minister Onek on Thursday, said; “Unfortunately, we don’t use jungle law. If it was jungle law, I would have kicked them out already, but you can’t. These people are protected, they have lawyers”.

“There are procedures in the public service whereby an officer has to be given 14 working days for them to be suspended from office,” Onek added.

However, the 14 days have already elapsed ever since he wrote the memo to Guwatudde on January 30.

“That’s the sad thing. Some of these public servants handling this have a way of doing their things. But they will all be investigated,” the Minister regretted.

Onek partly attributed the ineffectiveness in the management of refugees to the swelling influx of refugees which he said overwhelmed government. He noted that in the past two years, the number of refugees has spiked from 400,000 to 1.4 million which stretched government capacity to manage the situation.

Some of the measures government is considering to strengthen its systems include use of biometric identification in giving food provisions, which has not been the case.

Looming crisis

Nevertheless, the Minister appeals to the donor community to stand with Uganda especially now that there’s already a large exodus of refugees from neighbouring DR Congo.

“Currently over 3,000 refugees are crossing from DRC per day through Kisoro, Ntoroko and Hoima districts. This means the task of providing hope remains a huge challenge to the country. There are about 3.7 million others on the other side of the border waiting to come. Without assistance, our policy on refugees might change. It is too much,” said Onek.

The Minister said it is time that United Nations does more to engage the leadership in neighbouring unstable countries like South Sudan and DRC to resolve the conflicts that have resulted into Uganda’s refugee crisis.

“This is a United Nations problem. This issue of sovereignty when you are butchering your citizens is not fair,” Onek said.

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