ARE REFUGEES NOT ENTITLED TO A PASSPORT OR TO HOLD A PASSPORT? THE CASE OF SOUTH SUDANESE REFUGEES IN UGANDA
By Daniel Juol Nhomngek, Kampala, Uganda,
June 14, 2017(Nyamilepedia) —–I have had a good fight not physically but verbally with a major in the Ugandan police who was at the gate of the office of Prime Minister of Uganda. That particular police officer was putting on black uniform. The quarrel between him and me occurred this morning (on 14/06/2017) when I accompanied the wife of my brother to the Office of the Prime Minister of Uganda after receiving the call to come to that office to check on her process concerning her application under the refugee resettlement programme.
When I came in morning at about eight with that wife of my brother and we were about to enter to the company, that police officer who was sitting at the gate asked for identification document from that my brother’s wife that I was accompanying. She gave him South Sudanese passport. Surprisingly, giving that passport was the starting of our trouble. The trouble was of giving him a passport not a refugee identity card.
Instead of checking the passport whether it is still valid or she is the true owner, he started asking her some ambiguous questions such as: “you are a refugee and you have a passport?” “Where is the refugee card if you are a refugee?” I was really shocked and surprised by such irrelevant questions coming out of the months of a law keeping officer of his rank (major).
In fact, instead of being scared such questions raised my curiosity as I discovered immediately that the trouble had now begun not because of passport but because the big man was looking for a way to make us wrong or to intimidate us in order to give him some money in form of bribe.
I think that might have been the way he had been dealing with some of the refugees that entered in that office of which he was in charge of keeping gate. He might have been trying by all means to find out their mistake to make them pay or make mistake for them to charge them with some money.
In fact as I was watching at him at close range a thought came to my mind to observe him closely “he was fat, which means that he has a lot of money of which, whose sources may be from dubious means obtained in the way he was treating us”. This was one of the thoughts and observation that was racing in my mind as I patiently tried to understand he motive of asking such questions. At the same time, he started putting the passport in his pocket of the State Black Uniform he was putting on.
After analyzing such questions I replied and said, “She has the passport and the documents from the UNHCR so it is not necessary that he should have refugee identity card if there are documents to identify her that she is a refugee.” I further told him (that police officer), “her programme is being coordinated by one of the embassies and that is why she only has a passport without the refugee ID.
Upon hearing this Statement, the big man became visibly not happy and he then told me that he was not working for that government which has that embassy from which she came from. I then told him that he was aware of the implication of international law. In telling him this, I was trying to explain to him that under the international law countries respect each other as a matter of” comity”.
In law “comity”, is defined as “neither a matter of absolute obligation, on the one hand, nor of mere courtesy and good will, upon the other. But it is the recognition which one nation allows within its territory to the legislative, executive or judicial acts of another nation, having due regard both to international duty and convenience, and to the rights of its own citizens or of other persons who are under the protection of its laws”.
I was therefore about to tell him that because of comity, if the document she was carrying was said to be from that particular embassy then he as a police officer working for the government of Uganda, should show respect for the citizen or the hold of the document of that particular country in order to preserve and protect the good relationship between Uganda and that country as required under diplomacy and diplomatic relation.
In other words, he should have accorded her all necessary assistance that can be accorded to the country that sends her to ensure that the reason for her coming to the Office of Prime Minister was listened to and responded to accordingly by the office.
Instead of analyzing my argument, the police officer became wild to the extent of abusing me and also kept on asking me “who are you to order me, who are you to teach me the international law?”I ignored his questions and simply told him that I was not ordering him but I was only reminding him of his duty as a police officer.
This is because as a matter of law all police officers have an absolute duty to protect citizens against all types of crime and not to use guns to intimate them in order to pay for them a bribe. This was what I was about to tell that police officer but he already made up his mind not to listen to me as he had gone wild and kept on barking at me like a mad dog.
Our exchange of hot words became louder and louder, which raised the attention of many people around us but I ignored them as I was concentrating on what he would say next. I was in fact not intimidated but rather I was angered by his uncouth conduct. This is because he was treating us like criminals though we had valid documents which he did not have intention to check as his concern was why a refugee should carry a passport. It was a wrong concern anyway.
When he saw me that I was not moved by his threats and questions but just standing there consistently arguing with him, he ordered me to leave immediately but I refused to leave. Upon seeing that I was not leaving, he came forward to push me with his own hands. Besides, he started threatening me that he would slap me, or call for me police officers to come and arrest me unless I leave.
Knowing that I have not committed any crime, my in response to all nuisances as I just looked at him visibly angry was that he was free to do whatever he wanted while reminding him that he is not above the law. I then further told him that after finishing doing what he was doing to me, there is a higher authority in Uganda that would question him why he did disobey the law which he serves.
After he discovered that I was standing behind the law, he did nothing but to keep on abusing me that I am ill-mannered to talk to the officer in the way I was talking to him. In addition, he told me “this is not your country; even Sudanese can talk like this in Uganda”. I told him that “my friend I am not here illegally and even if I am here without document I must be respected and the police have a duty to respect me by virtue that I am human being like him.”
At that point his body guard who was standing there watching at the unfolding episode came forward and told me to leave and leave him alone. So at that point I left them with the wife of my brother to follow up the issue she came to the office and sat somewhere waiting for her patiently. After checking her document, the same police officer was quarrelling with me told her that she was supposed to go to the UNHCR office which was also at a close distance from the Officer of Prime Minster.
She came where I was sitting and then we left. As I was leaving, I began to reflect on that incident and one of the questions that keeps on coming to my mind even now while writing this article is: are refugees not human beings? Are they not citizens of a particular country? Are they not entitled to the passport and other any documents that show their identity? Are South Sudanese not entitled to hold passports because they are refugees? Are they not entitled to demand for the respect of their dignity and rights in Uganda against the Ugandan police officers? Is holding a passport while a refugee a crime? These questions and my others are still disturbing me up to now.
In summary, I would like to tell all South Sudanese citizens though they are refugees in Uganda that they should not panic when they are questioned by the police. This is because being a refugee is a not a crime and indeed the government of Uganda has a duty to protect all people in her territory. In addition, in Uganda there is a rule of law and majority of the police officers keep the law.
For the above reasons, I would like to call upon all South Sudanese in Uganda not to look at the police institution as something bad but it is important institution which is there to protect the rights of everybody including South Sudanese rights even if having refugee status. If some police officers mistreat them and demand bribe from them they should refuse and stick to the law.
In addition, as South Sudanese we are entitled to have passports and it is not a crime to carry a South Sudanese passport or any other documents that show our relationship with South Sudan even we are refugees. Being a refugee does not make one lose the right to hold passport of the country of origin.
I would further like to remind my fellow South Sudanese that they should update their documents while in Uganda or in other countries to close those loopholes which give police officers an opportunity to get entry point of demanding the bribe from them.
I would also like to tell my fellow South Sudanese that they have a duty to ensure that police officers do right things and if they have gone outside the law then they should not obey their orders because they are personal orders not lawful orders to be obeyed. This is because at that stage, the police officers have gone above the law and thus have become ordinary individuals who are illegally operating under the colour of the law.
The author is South Sudanese citizen and a human rights lawyer and he can be reached through; firstname.lastname@example.org