Refugee Welfare Councils (RWCs) as Spaces for Political Participation of refugees in Uganda - Foundation Office Uganda and South Sudan
Uganda’s ‘open-doors’ refugee management policy is often celebrated as a model global practice, both for its progressive policy and the nation’s self-reliance scheme for refugees. Currently, Uganda hosts the most number of refugees in the African continent. Once in Uganda, refugees can, for instance, freely move from one part of the country to another. They can also farm and produce their own food, in addition to starting up businesses, accessing a loan, or getting a formal job, they can also access national health care and other public services. More so, despite Uganda’s prohibition of the participation of refugees in local activism, the OPM still recognizes the need for refugees to participate in critical decision-making and shape their own lives and for this purpose, refugee welfare councils were created.
“Refugee Welfare Councils (RWCs) are local governance institutions created by the Ugandan government and UNHCR in refugee settlements” legally derived from the Refugee Act 2006. The councils are born of the sentiments shared in the Refugee and Host Population Empowerment Strategy (ReHoPE) that in an effort towards refugee self-reliance argues for community-based political participation of refugees, a small negotiation with the stringent laws that forbid the political involvement of refugees within Uganda. A Refugee Welfare Council (RWC) is composed of elected refugee leaders in the settlements who primarily report to the OPM and UNCHR, but also other actors providing humanitarian services. Therefore the structure of RWCs is a non-political mirror of the local council government. Similar to the lower local council system of Uganda, the RWC operates on three tiers. RWCI, RWCII and RWCIII. The lowest level is for the RWCI, heading what is usually referred to as a cluster in a settlement. The second level is the RWCII heading which is usually a zone/village/ranch. The RWCIII presides over the entire settlement. Each RWC runs a committee with various secretaries for sectors such as finance, health, youth, etc. The RWCs are elected through democratic elections that are frequently organized by the OPM after every two years. RCI and RCII are voted by secret ballot, and the general population, while the RCIII is elected by an Electoral College comprising of RCIs and RCIIs. RWCs constitute the formal refugee representative body inside the settlement sites. The RWC leaders play a key role in implementing physical protection and access to justice for refugees in their communities. They are the first to be reported to by refugees when an issue occurs, and it is through them that the communication chain is sparked during such an instance. Refugees' interactions among themselves and with other actors — be it local authorities, aid agencies, or host communities.
But, “RWCs cannot actively participate in political activities”, says a resettlement officer-in-charge of one of the sites. This is in line with the Refugee Act which prohibits refugees from directly participating in national political processes, such as, supporting political candidates or participating in national elections. Refugees are equally not allowed to expressly support or subscribe to political activities of their home countries once in Uganda. Beyond this narrow conception of what political participation by refugees mean, it must be noted that RWCs are often deeply political and aim to navigate the hardships of residing in a foreign country, the disruption of social orders, and the need to access services and assets in contexts of resource scarcity. Unlike in Uganda’s local government councils, RWCs are not paid, and their work is accepted as voluntary/altruistic. “The LCII and LCI receive an official annual salary of 120,000 shillings. That is 10,000 shillings per month. They also receive a toolbox which has an official stamp…” Ojok Okello, a local governance researcher explained to a group of 150 refugees who are part of the RWC at Kiryandongo Refugee Settlement, one of the oldest residents for refugees in Uganda. The RWCs had asked why refugees were not facilitated during one of the KAS ongoing training of RWCs in refugee settlements across Uganda. Emmanuel Datiro, the RWC III Chairperson of Kiryandongo Settlement does not spend too much on the matter assuring the crowd that “we are practicing for when we return back home”. For RWCs like Datiro, volunteering is a chance to build political momentum for when they return home to South Sudan.
It is important to note that whilst the operations of RWCs were formalized in 2014, many committees had been in existence and operation in refugee resettlements since the 2000s. While the official intention had been to bring together refugees and nationals to foster refugee and host community relations, RWCs have now emerged as important instruments for improving service delivery, facilitating community organizing, strengthening identity, and driving political participation among refugees in Uganda.
Roles and Responsibilities of Refugee Welfare Councils (RWCs)
Refugee Welfare Councilors play different roles and responsibilities depending on their level, focus and position. But generally, OPM and UNHCR expect the refugee welfare councils in the refugee settlements to fulfill the following roles and responsibilities;
To initiate, encourage, support, and participate in self-help projects and mobilize the refugees, materials, and technical assistance in relation thereto.
To assist in the maintenance of law, order, and security in the settlement.
To serve as the communication channel between the refugees and all the staff delivering services to refugees.
To receive and solve problems or disputes of civil nature under the guidance of settlement commandants and forward those of criminal nature to Police, OPM, UNHCR, and IPs.
To generally monitor the administration in the settlement and report to OPM settlement commandants.
To generally monitor projects and other activities undertaken by government and other partners in the settlement.
To ensure that refugees and the host community live in harmony.
To register and report all new arrivals, newborns, deaths, and visits to OPM settlement commandants.
To ensure that all government assets and properties in the settlements are not tampered with.
To jealously protect the environment against degradation.
To carry out general community meetings to discuss problems affecting them, address those within their reach, and forward to relevant authorities those that they are unable to address.
The Refugee Welfare Council (RWC) is represented by a 14-people committee comprising of;
Secretary for Finance
Secretary for Security
Secretary for Women Affairs
Secretary for Youth and Sports
Secretary for Environment and Production
Secretary for Education
Secretary for Health
Secretary for Disability and Persons with Specific Needs
Two Opinion Leaders ( Advisors)
Their specific roles and responsibilities are presented below;
To preside at all meetings at the council. You are the one to guide the meeting. For you to be a good leader, you are supposed to have regular meetings to address problems.
Be the main controller of the meetings. You are like the speaker in your meeting.
Monitor the general administration of the settlement and the zone.
We should be the guide to our communities.
Monitor the implementation projects by UNHCR, WFP, and other partners. Assess the activities and handouts from these partners depending on your community’s needs.
To implement the decisions and policies of the government.
Act in absence of the chairperson. You should also be an example ray.
He/she is the focal person for the disciplinary department in the village, zone, and department.
He/she is in charge of children’s affairs, e.g should ensure that children go to school since the children are meant for the community and the country at large.
Prepare a duty roster together with the general secretary for issues that may arise.
To ensure that discipline is observed by all members, for example, people who drink, smoke, eat opium, etc.
To take minutes for the meeting taking place
Keep records and files of correspondence
Record statements during court sessions for relevant community people.
In charge of income and outgoing correspondence e.g keeping copies of outgoing letters and properly filing incoming letters.
Practical organization of the RWC.
Keep records of the council, assets, finance, etc.
Informs members of occurrences in the settlement.
Secretaries for Finance
Receive and record council funds.
To keep books of accounts for the council
Pay out money approved by council members.
To oversee bank transactions in case the council opens bank accounts
Inform council members on financial position
Accounts for council funds
Keeps records of all achievements of the council
Secretaries for Security
To report security-related matters to the relevant offices e.g settlement commander, chairman, security personnel or police, etc.
To monitor visitors/strangers who come to the settlement.
Give the right security information
Guard the council when there is a court proceeding.
Assist chairpersons, settlement commanders, and police in arresting suspects. This is through giving rightful information. These should only guide.
Maintaining law and order in the settlement.
Inform members about the occurrences in the settlement.
Secretaries for Women’s Affairs
To oversee programs that are related to women in the settlement.
To represent women in meetings, workshops, and occasions.
Monitor the implementation of women's programs in the settlement e.g monitors the distribution of sanitary pads in the settlement.
Monitor and follow up on issues of SGBV.
Advocate and seek support for women from NGOs.
Advocate for women’s participation in leadership on other platforms.
Secretaries for Youth and Sports
Oversee programs related to youths e.g. sports.
Form youth groups to make the youths active and busy
Monitor the implementation of youth programs.
Seek support equipment for the youths, especially from NGOs. Keep on engaging the community service.
Secretaries for People with Disability (PWDs) and Persons with Special Needs (PSNs)
Oversee programs related to disabled and PSNs.
Monitor the implementation of programs for PSNs/disabled persons.
Ensures or lobbies for the disabled and persons with specific needs.
Forward to the NGOs problems concerning disabled persons.
Put in place a committee for persons with disability/persons with specific needs that responds in times to the situations.
Secretaries for Environment and Production
To preserve and protect the environment from degradation, abuse, and pollution through reporting to relevant authorities.
Report natural disasters to relevant NGOs or governments.
Assess the food production or the harvest of the year.
Advocates for integration of environmental issues in refugee program planning right from the beginning.
Secretaries for Education.
To monitor community-based activities for primary, post-primary, and secondary. Monitor what is taking place in school, and monitor the developments taking place in school.
Ensure that all school-going children are attending school.
Advocate for girl child education.
Ensures that the rights of the children are not violated.
Necessary by-laws should be put in place and effectively implemented with certain penalties against those refusing to educate their children.
Ensure that the parents are teaching children good habits.
Secretaries for Health.
To collaborate with health personnel to attain better medical care.
Work hand in hand with VHTs.
Ensure that the community members are well vaccinated against all immunizable diseases.
These are usually national/host community area local council chairperson
Maintain close contact with the electoral area and consult the people on issues to be discussed in the council where necessary.
Present views, opinions, and proposals to the council.
Attend sessions of the RWC and meetings of the committee or sub-committee of which he or she is a member
Appoint at least a day in a given period or meet the people in his/her electoral area.
Report to the electorate the general decision of the council and the action it has taken to solve problems raised by the residents in the electoral area.
Take part in community development activities in his/her electoral area and the development as a whole.
Two opinion leaders also form part of the RWC. They;
Advise and guide the council members on court proceedings and other civil cases.
Advise the council on traditional and cultural norms from the country of origin.
RWCs as Spaces for Local Citizenship Production
From April-June 2018, Sara de Simone, a researcher University of Trento’s School of International Studies conducted field research in Adjumani, Moyo and Yumbe, three districts in West Nile sub-region hosting refugees and looked at what she appreciated to be a reinvention of the spaces that refugees are invited to for political participation. A refugee welfare council is a place that refugees are invited to, and what actually happens in that space thereafter the invite is the reinvention. She speaks of the radical potential of that invention to produce something akin to citizen participation in the platform of refugee welfare councils. De Simone argues that through this reinvention refugees have managed to “become political subjects claiming rights from the authorities governing the settlements (also including international aid agencies and crafting spaces of local practical citizenship) as well as putting forward ideas for the reorganization of the settlement. This is done through advocacy and lobbying for change. She also explores how the RWCs are a “unifying platform” that facilitates new identity production that transcends the previous identity in cases like for the new “South Sudanese” in Ugandan refugee settlements where prior in their home country, ethnic tensions existed and at times were the very cause of their fleeing. For instance, David Deng, an RWC Chairperson in Kiryandongo observes that one of the hallmarks of his achievements is uniting the various South Sudanese ethnic communities in his cluster zone and enabling to rise above petty rivalries and conflicts borne out of tribal differences.
RWCs as givers of informal justice
In 2016, The Refugee Law Project of Makerere University mapped out the informal justice systems existing in Uganda’s refugee settlements. In addition to the RWCs, they also mapped out community elders, family heads, and Nyumba Kumi committees. They explored 6 districts in South Western and Western parts of Uganda Nakivale and Uchinga, Kyaka II, Kyangwali, and Ramwangi with a concentration of the following refugees: Rwandese, Somalians, Burundians, Congolese, Ethiopians, Kenyans, and Sudanese. The RLP mapping found out that RWCs were the most organized of all the informal justice systems and when disputes could not be resolved in the other informal systems, they turned to RWCs. However, they found that RWCs face significant challenges because of the lack of facilitation for leaders which often resulted in the RWCs being corrupt and partial. Moreover, there was also a challenge of language barrier when interpreting the Ugandan laws, the lack of physical space and offices, ignorance of the law, an undermining of the RWCs by the police offices, NGO offices, and the OPM.
RWCs as constructive political actors
A case study of South Sudanese and Congolese refugees, across seven refugee settlements in Uganda conducted by International IDEA in 2018, explores the opportunities for political and civic participation in Uganda and the challenges they face. The report argues that while RWCs and the larger ReHoPE strategy that frames them is positive, it “builds on the assumption that the government’s willingness to host refugees is mirrored in local governing structures… but does not address the challenges rooted in the consultation or lack of it”. In summary, the confining of refugee political participation to the OPM and development partners undermines the breadth of the challenges that refugees face and leaves the success of their participation to the willingness and power of the OPM and development partners should they cooperate. Refugees interviewed in this case study “complained of the restrictive nature of the law and the inability to participate as stakeholders in decision-making”. They also argued that, “their participation in decision-making and execution was not autonomous and that they were easily influenced by the settlement authorities given the poverty and internal corruption”. During a training a capacity-building training at Lobule Settlement, RWCs observed several limits to their participation as political leaders. For instance, whilst they are mandated to monitor the implementation of projects and provision of services to the refugees by both government and other humanitarian agencies, they often didn’t have adequate information and facilitation, such as airtime, stationary and transport means to conduct their duties.
Enabling RWCs to become better community leaders: a pioneering effort by Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung
In appreciation of the political vacuum that RWCs were attempting to fill, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung works with OPM and other local community-based refugee-led organizations to assist in the capacity building of RWCs. In 2022, the foundation organized 4 leadership training sessions targeting 550 RWCs at Kiryandongo, Imvepi, Rhino Camp and Lobule Refugee Settlements. The training focused on understanding what RWCs are and their role as community organizers and political actors. Other topics such as conflict resolution, lobbying and advocacy also formed part of the training curriculum. The rest of this essay looks to add to the already ongoing discussion of RWCs, discussing what the refugees themselves think of these spaces in order to inform further strategies aimed at the progression of the lives of refugees within Uganda.
RWCs at Kiryandongo Refugee Settlement
Kiryandongo Refugee Settlement is located in Kiryandongo District approximately 200km from Kampala. The resettlement was first opened as a refugee camp in 1954 to host Southern Sudanese fleeing Anyanya I war, and then later used to host Kenyan refugees fleeing Mau-Mau uprising. In the mid-70s, President Amin turned the camp into government ranches but in 1990, the government of President Museveni turned it into a refugee resettlement site providing refuge to up to 57,202 refugees. While South Sudanese people are the main intention and the largest population in the camp, the camp by 2022 has been additionally home to internally displaced people from within Uganda (owing to the Bududa natural disasters), Congolese, Kenya, Burundian and Rwandese refugees. Kiryandongo Refugee Settlement has 220 Refugee Welfare Councilors (RWCs).
The structure of RWCs in Kiryandongo Refugee Settlement
Kiryandongo settlement is divided into eighteen clusters. The 18 RWCI chairpersons come from each of these 18 clusters. An RWCII chairperson can come from either of the two initial government ranches, Ranch 1 and Ranch 37. This arises from the fact that the entire camp also includes internally displaced Ugandans, to privilege refugees in governance, ranch 1 and ranch 32 where only refugees live are the only places where the RWCII can be selected from. The RWCIII Chairperson can be selected from anywhere in the camp.
How RWCs of Kiryandongo Refugee Settlement view their roles
At the beginning of the training, chairpersons of RWCs present were asked to describe what they understood their roles to be. Below is a summary of some of the leaders’ answers.
RWCs saw themselves as the “eyes of government or a bridge between the community and the government.” An RWCI Chairperson was considered to be a fit chairperson if he/she was capable of not only solving people’s problems but also recognizing them and sending them forward to the RWCII chairperson. RWCIIs saw themselves as responsible for coordinating cases that failed the RWCI as well as a bridge between donors and the people. RWCIIs take on bigger problems than RWCIs such as getting involved in land disputes, but they do not have any authority to give out the land. “We also mobilize and sensitize people… we do not get money… it is voluntary.” The RWCI Chairperson of Kiryandongo saw himself as responsible for the camp, not only solving the larger disputes and passing them on to both development and the government but also mobilizing people within the camp to solve their own challenges. The chairman also made the strongest case for De Simone Sarah’s argument about the role of RWC as an innovative space for political participation. Mr. Datiro expressed that he understood his role in the camp, as the beginning of a political campaign that he would continue should members return to South Sudan eventually. Later, we would learn from Mr. Datiro that he had also managed to build himself a house, possessed two cars, support the vulnerable refugees and build a thriving business in Bweyale, the major town around the settlement. So established is Chairman Datiro in Kiryandongo that he turned down an opportunity to be resettled to Europe by UNHCR. While the training two took days, the enthusiastic Emmanuel was absent on day two as he had been called to attend an important meeting in Kampala organized by the OPM and UNHCR.
But how can the RWCs deliver on their roles and mandates without a budget and remuneration? This was a contentious issue that brought forth a debate with a whiff of the self-reliance strategy. Indeed some RWCs complained, and to the applause of other leaders, that the lack of facilitation made their work significantly more difficult to do. But an RWCII chairperson present reminded participants that, “NGOs shall one day leave even without saying good-bye as is often the practice”. Ojok Okello drove the point home with his own life experience in post-conflict reconstruction: “one day, the humanitarian agencies shall stop funding the health centers and the schools in Kiryandongo to attend to the next humanitarian crises somewhere else”, Ojok said. He used the moment to remind the leaders why it is important that they not only form relations with international organizations but with local refugee-led organizations within the resettlement site. He also emphasized the fact that while there is no official fee afforded to RWCs, there are plenty of ways that RWCs are organizing to access financial and other technical resources to facilitate their work. For instance, RWCs identify problems and lobby the OPM and other donor organizations to address to provide resources to address such challenges.
Are the RWCs in Kiryandongo effectively utilizing the platform for political participation?
The RWCs in Kiryandongo seemed to reinvent the RWC platforms they were afforded. Albeit through their lobbying for funds, their new identity as South Sudanese, voting, peacefully co-existing within the camp, and maintaining this through RWCs supports de Simone’s theory about the radical opportunities for meaningful political participation within these spaces. However, we also cannot ignore IDEA’s arguments about the shortcomings of the structure of RWCs. Indeed we found the same sentiments in this resettlement when leaders shared about their inability to speak freely without consequence about the challenges some of the refugees were facing. Both successes and limitations of the capacity of the RWCs depend on the cooperation or negotiation between OPM and donors, and in this sense, they can be only thought of as mere communication channels. International IDEA's proposal to include the host community's local council in addition to the OPM and donors, structures that RWCs cooperate with, may perhaps generate more political room for the RWCs. The practical redress of the shortcomings of the existing structures to do their job of humanitarian delivery of services as expressed by the refugee law project remains relevant even to Kiryandongo. Problems of the language barrier, comprehension of Ugandan law as well as a lack of knowledge of their duties in their designated roles, lack of money to carry out their activities, and an undermining of their work by NGOs, the government, and the OPM and many more were also shared within Kiryandongo.
RWCs at Lobule Refugee Resettlement
Lobule Refugee Settlement is the smallest of Uganda’s thirteen refugee settlements. Unique for the fact that all 5,954 of the refugees in the settlement are from the Kakwa tribe of the Ituri Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Today, Lobule is closed to new arrivals save for newborn babies. David Abili, the commandment who opened the site in 2013 cited the M23 rebellion as the displacement force. “There was nothing here when this settlement was opened up… only forest”, Mr. Abili said. The settlement is not on government land, it is owned by the people. In order to acquire the land to be used as a settlement, the Government of Uganda and UNHCR lobbied with its tenants, the local community members of Lobule. “They were happy to give us the land for free, given that they are also Kakwa so they are brothers and sisters”. In return, the host community asked for roads, schools, and hospitals.” “The host community is often rewarded with livestock and money as a token of appreciation by the UNHCR and OPM. DRDIP (Development Response to Displacement Impact Project) has put up roads, power, and the grinding mill over there comes from a World Bank Project. “The people now have bridges. I remember when I first arrived, people, were taking off their clothes to cross that river”, Abili said pointing at the river just 10 meters from the base camp. The health projects that come in to target the refugees also benefit the community such as the ongoing program for lactating mothers. There are 150 Refugee Welfare Councilors (RWCs) in Lobule.
RWCs at Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement
Rhino camp Refugee settlement is one of the biggest sites with 150,000 refugees and still continues to welcome new arrivals. The resettlement has seven zones which include, Ofua Zone, Omugo Zone, Ocea Zone, Odobu Zone, Siripi Zone, Tika Zone, and Eden Zone. It was opened in 1980 but it kept on being expanded to accommodate the increasing numbers of refugees from South Sudan. There are 450 RWCs in Rhino Refugee Settlement.
Ahumuza, C & Ntegyerize A. (2016). “Courts Can Never Solve Problems in the Community” A Study of Informal Justice Structures in Refugee Settlements in Uganda. DFG.
Government of Uganda (2006). The Refugees Act. https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/4b7baba52.pdf
Kaiser, T. (2002). UNHCR’s withdrawal from Kiryadongo: Anatomy of a Handover. Refugee Survey Quarterly.Vol. 21. No. 1/2 Displacement in Africa: Refugee Relief and Return (2002) pp. 201-221. Oxford University Press. https://www.jstor.org/stable/45053468. Accessed: 21-11-2011 12:36 UTC
OPM, et al. (2020). Development Pathways: Analysis of Refugee Vulnerability in Uganda. OPM, WFP and UNHCR. https://www.developmentpathways.co.uk/publications/analysis-of-refugee-vulnerability-in-uganda/
Simone, S. (2022). “Refugee Welfare Councils as Spaces of Local Citizenship Production: The Case of Adjumani District Uganda. Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies. Vol 22. (1)
Uganda Refugee Response Monitoring Settlement Fact Sheet. Kiryandongo - January 2018
Zakaryan, T. (2018) “Political Participation of Refugees: The Case of South-Sudanese and Congolese Refugees in Uganda.” IDEA
 Since 1958, Uganda has hosted refugees in settlements where they are allocated a plot of land to cultivate towards self-reliance. For the most part, the policy has not been successful with many of the refugees not gaining more resilience over time. ( Callaghan, 2019 pp.13)
The policy framework that defines Uganda’s refugee policy. (Uganda Constitution 1995, Refugees Act 2006) and the (Refugees Regulation 2010).
 The OPM i.e. the Office of the Prime Minister is the government body with the legal mandate to spearhead all activities governing refugees. They work closely and are supported by UNHCR. https://opm.go.ug/refugees/
 De Simone, Sarah 2022. “Refugee Welfare Councils as Spaces of Local Citizenship Production: The Case of Adjumani District Uganda. Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies. Vol 22. (1)
 See more on the Refugee Office: https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/4b7baba52.pdf
 Zakaryan, T. 2018.
 (DeSimone, 2022).
 Field interview conducted on 27th Nov 2022 at Lobule Refugee Settlement, Koboko District, West Nile
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73nObhGzED8&ab_channel=SignatureTvFilmz ( An ariel view of Kiryandongo)
 Note that in Uganda, we say settlements and not camps because refugees are not legally restricted in movement, and are given arable land for agriculture. Still a subject for debate. ( Zakaryan, 2018)
 See more on the refugee self-reliance strategy here: https://www.unhcr.org/41c6a4fc4.pdf
 See more about the conflict here: https://www.refworld.org/docid/5b7400ffa.html
This article was written by Ojok Okello and Hadijja Natasha Sebunya