The Ugandan government says it is in discussions to legalize and grant naturalization to thousands of refugees who fled into the country in the 1960s and 1990s, mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.
At an event in the capital, Kampala, to commemorate World Refugee Day on 20 June, Stephen Mallinga, Uganda's Minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, said the government had set up a committee that included refugees and humanitarian agencies to discuss the mechanisms for naturalization.
"These are refugees who... have lost touch with their countries of origin. Naturalization of these cases is one possible solution and discussions are underway in this direction," he said. "The naturalization of these refugees will mean their stay in Uganda will not be illegal. They will be Ugandans who are entitled to live and work in Uganda and have a productive life."
He said the refugees eligible for naturalization would be those who have been in the country for lengthy periods and have no interest in returning to their countries of origin. Most of those matching these criteria were originally Congolese and Rwandan.
Uganda would become the second East African nation to naturalize refugees - in 2010 Tanzania naturalized more than 162,000 Burundians who fled their homeland in 1972.
Mary Cifende Anganze, a Congolese refugee representative, welcomed the minister's announcement. "It will be a big milestone in the lives of those who qualify for the citizenship. They will have new opportunities in life," she said.
"This is a very good gesture by the government. It's really a humanitarian act by Uganda. These people who will naturalized will be integrated with the local community and live together as one," said Mohammed Abdri Ada, a representative of the UN Refugee Agency (UNCHR) in Uganda. "In Europe, it's basically supposed to take five years. But in Africa, it takes about 30 to 40 years for one to be granted citizenship."
Uganda's Commissioner for Refugees in the Office of the Prime Minister, David Kazungu, told IRIN that at least 5,000 refugees had applied for citizenship. "All of them will be considered, and those who qualify will be granted citizenship," he said.
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The exercise would contribute to solving the challenge of Uganda's heavy caseload of 183,148 refugees and asylum seekers. According UNHCR statistics from 1 June 2012; the country hosts 104,686 Congolese, 22,786 Somalis, 19,406 Sudanese, 16,160 Rwandans, 9,475 Burundians and 6,734 Eritreans. There are also 2,124 Ethiopians, 1,640 Kenyans and 137 others.
A continuous stream of refugees flow into Uganda as people flee violence in the DRC's North Kivu Province and Jonglei State in South Sudan.
Eight major settlements house the refugees, mainly in the southwest and north. The overall coordination and management of the settlements is handled by the Office of the Prime Minister - under which the Ministry for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees falls - in partnership with UNHCR and a number of NGOs.
Naturalizing long-term refugees will come as a relief to many Rwandans. A UNHCR decision to invoke a cessation clause - through which states and the UNHCR recognize changed circumstances in refugees' countries of origin and allow for repatriation - were at risk of having to return home against their will. The cessation clause becomes effective in June 2013.
He pointed out that the country faced large gaps in funding, while the number of refugees continued to rise, saying, "I appeal to the international community to mobilize the requisite resources in order for Uganda to meet the protection needs of these refugees."