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Skilled Refugees Encounter Employment Challenges in Uganda

skilled refugees encounter employment challenges in uganda
skilled refugees encounter employment challenges in uganda
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KAMPALA, UGANDA — Sangara Bahizire occasionally works as an interpreter for the Ugandan Judiciary, specializing in French, Lingala, and Swahili languages.

Before his arrival in Uganda in 2013, Sangara had spent three years working as an attorney in Bukavu and Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He fled to Uganda due to threats on his life, stemming from his involvement in defending a group accused of supporting rebels.

Sangara recalls the life-altering incident in August of that year when government soldiers came to his house, subjected him to torture in front of his family, and subsequently transported him to an unknown location where he endured further abuse. His memory fades after that point, but he awoke three months later in a hospital in North Kivu province, gravely ill.

After stabilizing, Sangara’s doctor facilitated his journey to Uganda, where he is now one of the approximately 1.6 million refugees residing in the country. Despite their skills and qualifications, refugees like Sangara often find it challenging to secure gainful employment. The lack of harmony between laws governing refugees’ right to work exacerbates this issue.

For example, while the Refugees Act of 2006 encourages refugees’ inclusion in Uganda’s economy through self-reliance, the Employment Act, which regulates employment, does not classify refugees as workers. This disparity denies them equal opportunities to compete with locals in the job market. Proposed legislation, such as the Employment Amendment Bill 2022, further compounds this problem by not recognizing refugees as workers.

In an effort to improve his chances of finding employment in Uganda, Sangara undertook a three-month English course. However, when he attempted to obtain recognition of his legal qualifications from the Uganda Law Council, he learned that Congolese documents were not acknowledged.

Sangara, who spent 17 years in education, laments, “I wish people can understand that refugees come with their level of education.”

While a colleague’s recommendation secured Sangara a position as an interpreter at the judiciary, the infrequent nature of the work leaves him without a stable income. He has requested an employment contract without success, citing a lack of cases requiring translation as the reason for the denial.

Despite the Refugees Act of 2006 stipulating that refugees have the right to access employment opportunities and practice in their qualified professions with the same treatment as Ugandans, David Waiswa, director of the Center for Community Development and Peaceful Coexistence, a non-governmental organization supporting refugees, asserts that refugees remain marginalized. Proposed laws, such as the Employment Amendment Bill 2022, must explicitly mention refugees to avoid complications and misclassification as migrant workers.

A 2021 study by the International Labor Organization reveals that refugee unemployment in Uganda is estimated at 72%, with refugees participating in the labor force at lower rates than the general population. Those who find employment often end up in the informal sector, working longer hours and earning wages 35% to 45% lower than Ugandans.

Scoline Bushiri Mangaza, a qualified Congolese teacher, faced difficulties securing a teaching job, leading her to work as a waitress for extended hours with lower wages than her Ugandan counterparts.

Renine Mufalume Matiso, who worked as a shop attendant and hairstylist, faced prejudice and sudden dismissals, prompting her to start a salon with other Congolese refugees.

Advocates like Joyeux Mugisho, executive director of People for Peace and Defense of Rights, emphasize the importance of changing attitudes among local governments and employers regarding refugees’ right to decent employment.

While Uganda hosts the largest refugee population in Africa, its progressive refugee legislation has not been effectively implemented. Ensuring refugees are given opportunities to showcase their skills and knowledge is crucial, and organizations are working with the government to create employment opportunities, such as apprenticeships in various sectors.

For refugees like Sangara, the path to fulfilling their dreams often involves taking advantage of government services to have their academic qualifications recognized, opening doors to better employment prospects.