Norway’s first mission to interview Congolese in Uganda's Nakivale settlements

By the Government of Norway.

The Norwegian mission was excited to enter Uganda's Nakivale settlements in March 2013, as the first country to conduct in-camp resettlement interviews of Congolese refugees. As the sun rose quickly over Nakivale, one could easily imagine this vast landscape hosting more than 64,000 refugees, with Congolese being the largest nationality with more than 32,000 individuals. Nakivale is Uganda's oldest and largest refugee settlement, covering over 180 square kilometers. Settlements are scattered throughout the lush landscape and can be easily mistaken for local villages.

The Congolese arrive here in still increasing numbers, after walking for weeks through the unwelcoming forests of DRC. An overwhelming number of women and children hang around the reception centres for new arrivals, waiting for their refugee status and an allocation of land. These persons are extremely vulnerable, not least due to the mere fact that their lack of male support is visible in the way they construct their huts and houses around Nakivale. Entering the reception centres, this is however not your first impression. Children flock around, watching curiously, smiling and playing as they try to catch your attention. When the dust settles, you might nonetheless notice their dirty faces, filthy clothes and the pressing sense of poverty resting over their existence.

The refugee caseload presented by UNHCR fit Norway's profile well, with a particular focus on women and girls at risk. High quality RRFs and a strong focus on family composition during registration allowed for efficient interviews by the mission and targeted use of DNA testing.

Information about the use of DNA testing is included in our plenary briefings for refugees. Interestingly, this resulted in a few persons coming forward with additional or clarified information about their family relations. Such cases were still accepted, as long as the new information was found credible.

Norway's accepted caseload included 13 unaccompanied minors, mainly orphaned siblings. In addition to UNHCR's Best Interest Determination, Norway always makes an individual evaluation of a child’s best interest. All children over the age of seven are thus given the opportunity to speak to the interviewer separately.

Norway accepted a total of 111 persons from Nakivale, with an addition 64 persons selected from Kampala. Although Norway's 2013 quota for Congolese refugees in Uganda was 150 persons, Norway's subquotas have certain flexibility thus enabling acceptance of all 175 persons. Before resettling to Norway, all refugees accepted from Nakivale must attend a four day cultural orientation programme in Mbarara. IOM Oslo reported that the first baby of the group has already been born, with one of the bicultural trainers acting as a midwife. The first families will arrive in Norway mid-June, with municipalities ready to assist. Several Norwegian municipalities have experience working with Congolese refugees, as this is not the first time Norway has set aside a subquota for this group.

While selecting refugees from remote areas such as Nakivale can present logistical challenges, Norway strongly encourages other resettlement countries to conduct similar missions in the future. The location of the settlements does complicate UNHCR's ability to reach out and to welcome foreign missions. The 1.5 hour drive from Mbarara to the settlements on dirt road -- scattered with potholes, herds of cattle and the occasional monkey -- was, however, professionally organised by UNHCR together with an escort from the Ugandan police.

Being in Nakivale settlements provided us with an exclusive and direct insight into the plight and everyday challenges of the refugees, an understand that could not have been matched by conducting interviews outside the settlements. The challenge of interviewing in Nakivale was easily outweighed by this experience and the professional attitude and support from UNHCR staff.