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OPM officials up in arms as UN starts own refugee verification exercise

The UN is carrying out biometric verification of refugees in Uganda in a bid to ensure the right person gets the right assistance: NET PHOTO

After unearthing inflated figures of refugees hosted in Uganda, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has announced plans to conduct its verification, starting today, Thursday, March 1.

To conduct the verification process, UNHCR is using the biometric system, which will involve taking refugees’ finger prints and eye vein verification.

“The intent is to clarify that the numbers [in the government] data base are accurate. The donors need assurance that these matters have been dealt with, and if they don’t receive those assurances, they may withhold funding,” said Ms Teresa Ongaro, the UNHCR senior regional spokesperson.

The UN body is conducting its own verification because it doubts the 1.6 million number which government says is being hosted.

Last month, UNHCR and the European Union (EU) called for an investigation into alleged falsification of refugee numbers, misuse of funds meant for the refugees by officials at OPM and suspected trafficking of female refugees.

Sharply divided

The verification process, however, has sharply divided UN officials and those of Office of the Prime Minister, with each group wanting to man it.

Two sources at OPM revealed that the verification mechanism used by government was approved by the World Bank and wondered why UNHCR has rejected it.

“We also got our modern biometric verification machines but UN officials rejected them.  And I don’t why they rejected it,” the official revealed.

Uganda has an open-door policy towards the refugees. The country hosts refugees from 12 countries, with majority coming from Somalia, South Sudan and DR Congo. However, the recent events have tarnished the reputation of the country, adding to the already image over rampant corruption in many government departments.

But reports indicate that for the last five years, the UN has been doubting that the number of refugees being hosted in the country.

Mr Hillary Onek, the minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, had, in a December 20, 2013 letter, demanded that the refugee agency hand over the rights to register refugees to Government of Uganda.

“Registration of persons in a territory worldwide is an activity of government. In some countries, this function is under the ministry of Internal Affairs and Security,” he stated.

Mr Onek also explained that since the world is facing terrorism and Uganda is targeted, the government should exclusively handle the exercise.

He also directed UNHCR to also hand over all the attendant logistical, human and financial support to Uganda.

But the UN refugee agency has never handed over the logistics but has instead kicked off its own fresh registration process on Thursday.

Ongaro, however, said the donors were concerned about the swindling of funds, demanding that the figures should be verified, lest they withhold funding.

Another senior official at OPM, who preferred not to be mentioned, said their mandate is to register refugees not handle money issues.

“We don’t buy food and clothes for refugees. That’s the mandate of UN, so how do we swindle funds?” the official asked.

Government pledges to clean up

Meanwhile on Wednesday, Gerald Menya replaced Apollo Kazungu as the commissioner of the Department of Refugees in OPM.

Government pledged to clean up the whole department following a scandal where millions of shillings meant for refugees was allegedly swindled.

At the handover ceremony held in the Office of the Prime Minister, which Kuzungu did not attend, Onek urged Menya to oversee a massive shakeup of staff in the department to allay fears of the donors who have threatened to withdraw more funding to the country over the scandal.

“I am saying that as the new commissioner enters office, let the whole system be changed and fill up the gaps that are vacant. There are senior officials here and yet there are those people who joined with attachment to an individual holding wrong offices. Let this be settled as fast as possible,” Mr Onek said.

The minister also moved to allay fears that the money pledged at the Solidarity Summit has been misused.

“All the money that was collected during the solidarity conference has not been withdrawn. Not even a single coin and the nation should know that what is in n trouble here are the food staffs and other items meant for the refugees,” Mr Onek said.

He also emphasized that government has stepped up biometric verification of new refugee entrants as an accountability measure as well as identifying criminal elements.

The new commissioner,  Menya, pledged to front integrity, accountability and value for money as key principles in his work and urged staff in the department to help him fulfill the values.

Mr Onek also insisted that Kazungu is still a government official until the completion of investigations into his conduct.

 

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