Uganda’s reputation of being a safe Heaven for refugees goes as far back as the 1940s. This was when the Polish refugees fleeing from Nazi-occupied Europe turned to Uganda for safety. After that, Uganda continued to receive refugees mostly from neighboring African countries. The first waves of refugees in Africa were from Sudan.
It was in the mid-1950s during the first Sudanese civil war when about 80,000 refugees from Sudan settled in southwestern Uganda. This prompted the government to set up the Nakivale refugee camp in 1959, making it one of the oldest camps for refugees in Africa.
Today, Uganda hosts more than 1.4 million refugees. This is much more than any other African nation. While Uganda has received praises for being progressive towards refugees, some have taken a critical stance. To understand how Uganda got to this point, let’s take a look at its policy as it relates to refugees.
Uganda’s Refugee Policy
Uganda’s open-door policy makes it easy for refugees to settle into society with little or no difficulty. Its legal framework gives refugees the same rights as the citizens. This includes the right to work and access to free social services. It’s no wonder Uganda is a preferable destination for refugees in Africa and “one of the best places to be a refugee“.
To enjoy this freedom, the refugees have to identify with a refugee camp within the country. Otherwise, they are not legally recognized as refugees and if so, they will not be offered any assistance. This rule is not unique to refugees in Uganda alone but applies to all other refugees in Africa. The reason is that humanitarian aids are available to refugees in the camps only. Unregistered refugees and those living outside the camps are not accounted for.
Although refugees in Uganda are free to live and work outside the camps, those who do so are classified as Urban refugees and deemed to be self-reliant. In essence, they are not eligible for both government and humanitarian aids.
The Downside of Uganda’s Open-Door Policy
Uganda may be the only country in the world that offers this level of freedom to refugees. This explains why it has the highest number of refugees in Africa and the third-highest worldwide. But this freedom comes at a price. The exponential growth in the number of refugees living in the country creates a huge demand for available resources. For instance, the government initially offered a piece of land to the refugee for farming.
The idea behind this was to promote self-reliance among the refugees through agriculture. Since most of the refugee camps are located in the municipal regions of the country, providing the land was no problem at first. However, as the number of refugees increases, the government reclaimed some of the lands in order to make more room for the refugees.
Basic resources like firewood used for cooking and clean water are also becoming a scarce commodity. Smaller food rations and an overburdened health care system are all a result of the growing refugee population. In many of the settlements, the struggle for these resources puts the refugees at odds with the locals.
Apart from resource scarcity, the overcrowded settlements also present the risk of disease outbreaks. The high population and the already overburdened health care system make the camps a disease hotspot. This means that officials would have their plates full should there be an outbreak like the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, the government and humanitarian agencies were quick to intervene.
Why is Uganda still Accepting Refugees?
Looking at the challenges facing the refugees, one would believe that the government would be less likely to take in more refugees. It turns out that this is not the case. The recent agreement to host 2,000 Afghan refugees clearly shows that the Uganda government is still very accommodating. Although this bravado looks great on the outside, the growing unemployment rates in Uganda tell a different tale.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, only about 29% of refugees in Uganda are actively employed. This number is low compared to other refugee-hosting countries like Kenya. Left with little to no means of earning a living, refugees in Uganda face the risk of poverty. They also become permanently dependent on humanitarian aids.
Benefits of accepting refugees
Nevertheless, there are benefits to accepting refugees in the form of humanitarian funds. Two hundred million euros is the amount Kenya has received from the EU in humanitarian funds in the past nine years. On the other hand, Uganda received the same amount in just four years. In 2021 alone, the EU plans to spend 33.8 million euros for humanitarian activities in Uganda.
It’s worth noting that sometimes the funding falls short of expectations. This leaves the host countries with no choice but to make do with what they have. At least this was the case in the first quarter of June this year. Out of the 767 million dollars needed for humanitarian activities in Uganda between June 2020 – 2021, only 171.4 million dollars was available.
Notwithstanding, there’s an explanation for this. The outbreak of the COVID-19 virus in the first quarter of 2020 clearly took precedence. Donors had a new goal in sight and one that posed a higher threat not just to Uganda but to the world at large. It is safe to assume that funds were diverted towards combating the COVID-19 virus.
After carefully analyzing the state of refugees in Uganda, one question remains, “is Uganda truly a paradise or is the government using the refugee situation to get funds that end up being diverted from the intended use?” On one hand, Uganda’s willingness to accept and integrate refugees is praiseworthy. On the other hand, the country doesn’t have enough resources to meet the growing population of refugees.
Also, the government of Uganda has been accused of funds mismanagement to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. This is why some believe the government is simply cashing in on the refugee crisis. Consequently, this is leading to an increasing agitation for a change in government.
President Museveni has also been accused of clamping down on oppositions. So, do you think the Ugandan government is taking advantage of the refugee crisis or they are genuinely concerned about taking care of refugees? Let us know your thoughts in the comment box below.