RPN 18 published January 1995

10. Ugandan refugees in the United Arab Emirates

In June 1973, under an agreement concluded between the respective rulers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi (prior to federation) and the High Commissioner for Refugees, two parties of Ugandan refugees arrived in the Emirates.

They came direct from the Red Cross camps set up in Belgium, Spain and Italy after Idi Amin's expulsion order of 1972 which affected mainly Asians and persons of undetermined nationality. There were originally eight families in Abu Dhabi and eleven in Dubai, totalling 96 persons. At least three families (22 persons) moved to Australia and the UK for resettlement after about four years. The remaining families have expanded to a total of about 100 people.

These refugees are stated to be of Iran, Pakistan, Oman and Yemen descent with African inter-mix, whose Asian forefathers had emigrated to E Africa at the end of the last century when the construction of the railway system by the British offered job opportunities.

Having been accommodated in temporary reception centres, the Central Accounts Section in Dubai supervised the construction of an apartment building for those in Dubai. In Abu Dhabi the Ministry of Foreign Affairs provided rented accommodation.

Both parties integrated fully into the new society and maintained their own livelihood. Identification papers were provided by each Emirate. These IDs have now become less widely recognised, particularly for new job seekers. Policies concerning immigration, passports and nationality had been federalised. Federal governments departments only recognise national passports and therefore the issue of national status has become a federal matter on which to date no decision has been taken. Refugees who have long been in government employment or have been running their own business may face serious problems if a solution to their national status is not found.

During 1978-79, after UNHCR pursued the subject of travel documents with the Federal Ministry of the Interior, the majority of refugees were issued with UAE temporary passports which enabled them to travel abroad for family visits, medical treatment, Haj, etc. The temporary passport during its six month validity also served as a viable ID. Since 1979, the Ministry of the Interior has refused to renew or issue more temporary passports, claiming that the Council of Ministers or the Supreme Council of Rulers should decide on their national status.

The Zanzibaris, totalling an estimated 2,500 persons, are another minority group in the UAE. They came to the UAE before the Ugandans and without any formal or prior agreement but they do not suffer documentation problems. The Zanzibaris operate through their own government-recognised association and due to its active representation they are able to obtain national UAE passports on an individual basis for travelling abroad for education, hospital treatment and other special considerations. Several have in fact obtained full UAE nationality thanks to their special relationship with the ruling members if they can prove to be of Oman or Yemen descent.

Ugandan refugees have had to rely on UNHCR, the sympathetic Central Accounts Section and Ministry of Foreign Affairs to intervene on their behalf for a solution which does not yet seem to be forthcoming.

For more information, contact: Ugandan Refugees Welfare Committee, c/o Ugandan Refugees Liaison Office, P O Box 516, Dubai, UAE.

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July 1997