Kampala. Photo: authorTwice a week, the flight tasked with carrying bodies back to Eritrea departs from Uganda’s Entebbe airport. With tens of thousands of Eritreans in the country’s capital, many in relatively precarious positions, this service is in demand. Six weeks ago, it took a young man, most likely killed in a motorbike accident in the city’s busy streets. The following Thursday, it carried the body of another young Eritrean: Kifilit Yemane*.
Nobody knows exactly why Kifilit, a healthy 34 year old, died; there was no money available for a post-mortem. He’d complained of feeling ill early in the day and went to rest. Somebody brought him some hot milk which he vomited up, and then he lay down and died.
A week before this, I had entered a small sandal shop in Kampala to interview him. His story of why he found his way to Kampala was in no way exceptional. After defying an order from his manager at the construction firm he had worked at in Eritrea, life had become increasingly hard for him. Recast as a political dissident, he spoke of the security forces slowly honing in. Fearing indefinite imprisonment at best, Kifilit had fled the country.
Leaving Eritrea, however, had never been his wish. He had fought in the 1998-2000 border conflict against Ethiopia, and served in national service with no thoughts of exiting the country for over a decade. His decision to flee arose from what he considered a direct threat to his life, he stressed, not the understandable yearnings for a life beyond the shackles of indefinite national service.
Afraid of what lay in Libya and the Mediterranean, he had travelled to Uganda. This was a land that welcomed refugees, he had been told, allowing them to live, work and move freely. The country’s openness towards refugees, particularly relative to its regional neighbours, has been widely noted. The latest statistics from the Ugandan Government suggest the country may host 865,000 refugees. With a total population of around 40 million, that constitutes over 13 times more refugees per capita than the UK.
What has been less widely noted, however, is that the government’s much lauded openness appears to come with a price tag for some, leaving the protection of these refugees largely a community affair.
It was only after three homeless months that Kifilit was informed about where and how he could apply for refugee status in Uganda. He had secured lodgings in exchange for helping at a local bar, and the neighbour there took the time to explain to him how the system worked.
Several months later, his application was rejected. Unable to source the documents from Eritrea that evidenced crucial parts of his claim, the Ugandan authorities deemed his case ‘not acceptable’. As one staff member at the Ugandan government’s refugee directorate flatly told me, ‘they don’t have reasons for leaving their country’, so how can they expect refugee status? This was used to explain the low recognition rates for Eritreans in Uganda, which the same individual mused could not exceed 10%. Kifilit had appealed against this decision, but was not optimistic.
The only other route to refugee status, acknowledged by multiple staff working at the refugee directorate, is a well-timed payment to the right members of staff. $700 – the cheapest going rate for a registered acceptance letter and refugee I.D. card – was, however, well beyond his means.
While many of those working with refugees had treated him with respect, he made clear to stress, the business minds of a few have turned the acquisition of a refugee ID card in to a racket for Eritreans. From registering for asylum, through securing an appointment to discuss their claims, to acquiring the status itself, all the Eritreans I spoke to in Uganda had been asked to part with cash. This is in offices peppered with signs reading ‘refugees and asylum seekers are NOT supposed to pay for any service.’ When I called the ‘corruption hotline’ they recommend affected refugees to ring, the phone repeatedly went unanswered.
Without family members outside of Eritrea to send him remittances, refugee status – and a secure, legal route to employment – were largely foreclosed to Kifilit. It was nonetheless better to ‘live with hope’, he suggested, than to get another inevitable rejection letter too soon.
Communities as ‘the first and last providers of protection’
With Uganda’s formal systems failing him, Kifilit had spent his first three years in Kampala surviving off donations from fellow asylum seekers and Ugandans. The first few months had been particularly hard. With no friends or relatives already in the city, and having exhausted his funds moving to Uganda overland from Asmara, he found himself sleeping rough. After three days without food, a Ugandan woman had knowingly placed a bag next to him containing a fresh chapatti.
Later on, after some brief periods of casual labour, he had found a job at the shoe shop where we met. His salary there was modest: his employees did not need additional labour, but had seen him struggle to find an income. They had also given him free lodgings in the workshop behind the shop.
Kifilit stressed his relief at having finally found some reliable work. Though he had been desperate to begin ‘a real life’, complete with education, a family and a home that was more than a friend’s couch, he was aware that having found any employment without the legal right to work was a blessing.
This is especially so in a city like Kampala, where formal unemployment rates – especially of the youth – are high. In 2016, the Ugandan Government estimated that 1 in 6 under 30s were unemployed. Of the working age population with a job, 85% are in informal employment. When a distraught Ugandan man with an amputation above the right elbow interrupted our interview to recount his struggle to pay his daughter’s hospital fees, Kifilit and my Eritrean translator quickly dug around for some shillings. I commented that I was not confident that people would have responded that way at home in Britain. Everybody should be helped to survive today, they said, as then tomorrow, together, you can start the struggle again.
When he suddenly died the next day, a few hours after leaving the government’s refugee directorate where he had been helping another Eritrean to process their claim, he left behind no family, no money and no way of confirming his Eritrean citizenship. The assurances of those he had befriended in Kampala, or knew from back in Asmara, were not the documents needed to ensure his legal repatriation to Eritrea. For that, other friends – those with no pressing protection needs of their own – approached the Embassy of his government: a government seen by him as a one-man-show towards which he could only express immense disappointment and anger.
Beyond this, $5000 had to be found to cover the costs of his return to Eritrea for burial. While his friends called contacts off his retrieved mobile phone to ask if anyone could donate, his local Church held a collection and wealthy Eritreans anonymously came forward with more sizeable contributions. Even with Christmas approaching, and Eritreans regularly called upon by family members and friends to send through money, it took under a week for this sum to be found.
With formal systems of protection increasingly unaffordable and inaccessible, every part of Kifilit’s experience in Uganda was shaped by friends, strangers and local communities who went out of their way to assist and care for him. Whenever he could, he too had tried to reciprocate. While this is clearly not an experience shared by all, with anti-immigration rhetoric periodically surfacing in Ugandan politics, Kifilit’s message had much wider applicability. As responses to refugees and asylum-seekers often become multi-million dollar endeavours, everyday acts of kindness keep thousands alive and guard their dignity, even in the face of death.
Towards the end of our interview, I asked Kifilit what would be the best solution to his situation. While many answered that resettlement would be only feasible option for them right now, he instantly replied that if the situation changed, he would return to Eritrea tomorrow. One week later, on a plane from Entebbe and in circumstances not of his choosing, he did. This was due to the unrequited acts of a diverse community in Uganda who clearly believed that charity must start wherever people are forced to make home. In death just as in life, they kept his dreams alive.
* Kifilit’s name has not been changed. He specified that he did not wish for anonymity and hoped that he might, one day, find his story being useful on the internet.