I have worked at Boston Medical Center’s refugee clinic for almost 2 years now. Working there is a great opportunity to help people newly arrived to the US who frequently have minimal resources and for whom life is incredibly difficult. We see all different kinds of arrivals, the three main categories are Parolee, Asylee and Refugee. Parolees have been granted temporary protected status to come and live in the US, specifically the Haitian population was granted this after the earthquake in 2010 (for a limited period of time). The program in existence now is the Haitian Family Reunification Parole program which allows US citizens or permanent residents in the US who have families in Haiti to apply for parole for their remaining family in Haiti.[i] Asylum seekers come to our clinic through an informal pathway and are generally in the process of applying for asylum, they came to the US first before starting the formal application process. The third category of patients who come through our clinic are refugees, they come through a more formal pathway initiated in their country of origin and are often helped with the move by NGOs.
We tend to see waves of people come from different countries of origin. For a while there were several patients from el Salvador, many from Haiti. What I started noticing in the fall though was an influx of people from Uganda. I confess I was ignorant as to why people were coming over to the US from Uganda and applying for asylum. I hadn’t heard about any large humanitarian crisis, no big natural disaster or war was taking place to my knowledge. The reality was much more insidious. Each patient that I saw told me the same story over and over again. One voice after another joined to form a chorus, weaving a chilling story of torture, oppression, voter suppression and intimidation.
Yoweri Museveni has been in power since the mid 80’s when he assumed the role of president following the Ugandan Bush war. The first democratic elections were held in 1996, which he won and has won every subsequent election since then (with 69% of the vote in 2001, 59% in 2006 and 68% in 2011)[ii] . There are recurrent complaints against his government, the opposition candidate has repeatedly accused Museveni’s party of voter fraud[iii], and while it’s unclear whether or not fraud has occurred, voter suppression almost certainly has.[iv]
Each election cycle the sitting government has inflicted a campaign of terror and oppression on the opposition party[v]. Besigye the opposition candidate has been arrested and assaulted several times, each coinciding with an election year. He was placed under surveillance after he alleged voter fraud in the 2001 elections[vi], was arrested for treason and rape during 2005 elections[vii], terrorism and weapons charges during 2005 elections[viii]. He was arrested during a walk to work protest during the 2011 elections[ix] (pepper sprayed and dragged from his car), this lead to riots throughout Kampala. He was arrested attempting to make a speech in 2012[x] and again arrested after swearing himself in as the true president in 2016 (despite losing the elections).[xi][xii] The stories I hear from my patients in clinic echo the history of Besigye’s torture. Consistently anyone who supported the opposition and participated in protests against Museveni’s oppressive tactics or in any way went against the status quo was arrested, jailed and frequently tortured. My clinic patients are often unclear as to who exactly detained them or who was responsible for the trauma they experienced but the why is the same throughout: go against the sitting government and suffer the consequences.
More suspicious are the steps Museveni has taken to keep himself in power. In 2005 he allegedly used public funds to pay each member of parliament in order to push through a measure that abolished presidential term limits[xiii]. A move he is again (accused of) utilizing this year in order to lift the age limit on the presidency.[xiv]
With each year of his reign he has become more totalitarian and controlling, in 2013 a law went into effect that severely limited the ability to protest: organizers must let the police know about any demonstrations three days ahead of time and the police retain the rights to refuse.[xv] Transparency International (an NGO that evaluates the levels of perceived corruption of countries around the world) ranked Uganda 151st worst out of 180 and Uganda has a score of 26 on a scale from 0 (most corrupt) to 100 (lease corrupt)[xvi]. Furthermore a 2012 US state department report documented that “the African Center for Treatment and Rehabilitation for Torture Victims registered 170 allegations of torture against police, 214 against the UPDF, 1 against military police, 23 against the Special Investigations Unit, 361 against unspecified security personnel, and 24 against prison officials” between January and September 2012[xvii].
The US has a complicated relationship with the Museveni government because for years it has been a strong ally in sub-Saharan Africa. Providing with help against terrorist organizations in the area and with peace-keeping efforts[xviii]. Further, Museveni has brought stability to a region of Africa that spent years being torn by political infighting and military takeovers (see Milton Obote, the Kabaka and Idi Amin). Is that stability work the cost? My patients don’t think so.