Forced migration continues to be a global challenge with over 70.8 million people forcibly displaced, of which 29.4 million are refugees and asylum seekers. They have fled their homeland seeking asylum due to wars/conflicts, persecution, calamities and other social unrests. This has not spared any continent, and Africa alone is struggling with over 5.6 million. Uganda is quoted by the UNHCR June 2019 Uganda comprehensive refugee response portal to be hosting 1,293,582 refugees and asylum seekers with majority from South Sudan (833,785) Democratic republic of Congo (353,379) and Burundi (41,322) among others. How they are hosted and where depends on the laws, policies and practices of the host
(government) but also other key partners like the UNHCR and civil society organizations including the operating and implementing partners. In this regard, Uganda has been praised for its liberal and progressive policies towards hosting forced migrants.
But where does language come into all of this? Uganda formally uses English as the official language though majority of the hosted refugees can barely communicate or express themselves in English. This brings the question of how refugees and asylum seekers in Uganda are freely mixing with the hosts and also accessing services they are entitled to according to the constitution of the Republic of Uganda? This can only be answered if law, policy and practice favor their existence.
Capitalizing on the principle of “leaving no one behind”, the new global 2030 Agenda emphasizes the need for a holistic approach to achieving sustainable development for all. This implies that inclusion is critical at all levels. Forced migrants, especially refugees and asylum seekers, should not be thought of only in terms of their country of origin; their hosts should enable them to be part of the global movement to sustainable development. To achieve that, one of the approaches that host countries or communities should adopt is bridging the communication gap, for without a common enabling language there will be limited access to services for individuals and whole groups of people will be unable to demand and defend their rights.
For over 10 years, Refugee Law Project (RLP) has been witnessing how empowering refugees and asylum seekers in Uganda with basic English language skills is the most effective shortcut to their attainment of full potential. Under the RLP’s Access to Justice Programme, the English for Adults (EFA) Course, structured through a tailor-made Speak Your Rights curriculum, has benefited and empowered over 20,000 refugees across the country since its inception in 2007. EFA courses are currently running for urban refugees in Kampala district and rural refugees in Kiryandongo, Adjumani, Lamwo, Isingiro, Kikube and Yumbe districts. The main aim of the EFA courses, which as per July 2019 have 3,684 learners enrolled, is to equip learners with basic reading, writing, speaking, numeracy and listening English language skills that can transform their social well-being while also enabling them to demand and defend their rights.
Learners testify to great benefits not limited to: ability to speak and express themselves before duty bearers; further education in the Ugandan formal system; participation in social change activities with the host communities; transacting business, competing for jobs and improving on their economic wellbeing; and improving on their social life. These also enhance opportunities when processing resettlement applications, ease communication for those who are resettled to Europe and north America, and open up greater opportunities for those who return to countries of origin.
In 2018, the theme for the International Literacy Day celebrations was “Literacy and Skills Development”. The celebrations brought together learners, EFA graduates and facilitators among others at Refugee Law Project Kampala to discuss opportunities beyond the English for Adults course. In an open day discussion, all participants agreed that the EFA course is a life-changing opportunity which offers a comprehensive package of English literacy skills to forced migrants and hosts. Over 60 participants engaged in the open roundtable discussion focused on the topic; “After the English for Adults course, what next: a focus on skills development?”.
Below are the major skills development suggestions made;
a) Make learning more practical and engaging. For example, when learning about environmental protection and sustainability, there is need for the learners to reach out to the local communities, identify environmental problems and educate the community on how to overcome them but also to experiment with the community, for example on solid waste management and community hygiene. This will in turn help learners develop skills but also learn in a more realistic way.
b) Train EFA graduates in different practical vocational and technical skills that can help them improve their livelihoods. These may include but not limited to; tailoring, hairdressing, carpentry, mechanics, fashion and design, and metal fabrication.
c) Help EFA graduates to upgrade their education to higher institutions of learning where they can acquire skills that can help them favorably compete in the national and international job market. This can be through connecting and recommending them to scholarship/ sponsorship offering institutions.
d) Help already skilled learners like doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, e.t.c. who have satisfactorily acquired the English language skill from EFA to get employment that can help them improve their wellbeing and support their community, thus contributing to national development.
e) Develop different support groups through which different skills development aspects can be facilitated.
f) Organize skills development trainings and workshops for different categories of people. For example, urban refugees can be trained on how to start and manage small-scale business, while rural refugees in settlements can be trained on modern agricultural methods and strategies of using small pieces of land for higher level production.
Identify leaners with specific skills they can share with others to improve their wellbeing but also organize peer-to-peer learning workshops in which learners can share knowledge, skills and experiences with each other.
g) Create social networks for information sharing like What’s-App, Facebook, Twitter, etc, where information related to jobs opportunities, educational and training opportunities as well as scholarships and sponsorships among others can be shared. And,
h) Create a database of EFA learners - especially graduates with professional or experience-based skills - so that their contacts and area of specialization can easily be accessed and contacted in case of any opportunity.
These proposals have been made to RLP to ensure that management finds different alternatives of making them practical. This may be done through advocacy, fundraising, partnerships with different resourceful institutions and organizations as well as any other alternative. The participants called upon Refugee Law Project to share their proposals with UNHCR as well as its implementing organizations but also operating organizations that can provide them relevant attention.
In conclusion; Literacy and Skills development are seen by learners as inseparable and have a lot to contribute towards the wellbeing of forced migrants. This implies that UNHCR, RLP as well as other implementing and operating partners in the forced migration and refugee service in particular still have a lot to do. However, it should be noted that if all the brilliant proposals that were made by the participants are to be achieved, then policies, laws and practices must be actively coordinated and operationalised.
By Mulondo Apollo, EFA Facilitator, Kampala