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Refugees fleeing more and more to Uganda

09.07.2019
Article from AFRIC Editorial
Uganda has been globally acclaimed for its open and friendly refugee policies that have enabled it host over one million displaced people mainly from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. While the East African country gives refugees rights to work, education, own property and access to basic services with a hope of integrating them making them self-reliant, the strain on limited land, job opportunities and resources like wood fuel is beginning to cause a strain on local communities. The government is working with international and humanitarian organisations to implement sustainable funding models that are transparent, accountable and mutually beneficial to refugees and the host communities. In this article, we explore the reasons behind Uganda's welcoming refugee policy, the challenges it faces and how the different stakeholders are approaching an increasingly worrying bulge in refugee numbers.

Here’s why and how Uganda’s acclaimed refugee model can be sustained

Uganda has been globally acclaimed for hosting at least one million refugees by the end of the year 2018, making it the third largest refugee host country in the world after Turkey and Pakistan. While the East African nation’s hospitality is commendable and has played a critical buffer role in the conflict-laden Great Lakes region, some observers worry that the influx in refugee numbers might strain the local communities to a point where the refugees are no longer welcome.

In this article, we assess the sustainability of Uganda’s refugee policy, exploring the roots, challenges and possible solutions to displacement in the region.

What’s driving the influx of refugees to Uganda?

Uganda is a landlocked nation, sharing borders with South Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Decades-old conflicts in South Sudan and DRC have displaced millions of people, most of whom have moved to the relatively peaceful Uganda to find refuge from violence and worsening economic conditions.

Inter-ethnic conflicts in the 1950s and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda also saw many Rwandans flee to Uganda where they were embraced and integrated into the local communities. Uganda’s constitution lists Banyarwanda as one of Uganda’s ethnic communities. Uganda also hosts refugees from Burundi, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia.

Why do refugees thrive in Uganda?

Uganda itself has in the past been rocked by several armed conflicts that have displaced its citizens to its neighbours and laid the foundation for a robust diaspora that contributed up to $1.4 billion to the country’s economy in 2017, through remittances.

”Three-quarters of the members of our current government have experienced exile themselves. This has developed the feeling that we want to treat people who are currently fleeing, well,” Musa Ecweru, the state minister for disaster preparedness told Berlin-based daily Tageszeitung.

The shared culture between communities in Uganda and its neighbours also facilitates the acceptance and settlement of refugees fleeing conflict and crisis in their own countries.

The Kakwa and other ethnic groups live on both sides of the Uganda, South-Sudan border, while the Bakonzo and Bayiira are the same ethnic group living in Uganda and DRC respectively. At the Rwanda-Uganda border, the Bafumbira and Banyarwanda are listed as one and the same in Uganda’s constitution, while Kenya and Uganda share so many ethnic groups including the Luos, Kalenjin, Samia and Itesots.

The Awori brothers famously became members of parliament in Kenya and Uganda, with Aggrey Awori running for president in Uganda in 2001, while his brother Moody Awori served as Kenya’s vice-president from 2003 to 2007. Angelo Izama, a writer and journalist with intricate knowledge of affairs in the region, describes refugees as ‘mobile nations’ or communities that move across geographical borders, depending on circumstances and needs.

”Regardless of what the government does, these communities will always find means of settlement and accommodating each other because of shared connections,” Izama tells Afric.

Inside Uganda’s model refugee policy

The country’s past is seen as one of the critical factors that informs its open and friendly refugee policy.

The country’s Refugees Act, passed in 2006, is informed and inspired by the experiences of exile during Idi Amin’s era and internal displacement caused by subsequent wars in the Western and Northern parts of the country.

”Today, it is them, tomorrow, it could be any one of us,” is how Uganda’s prime minister, Ruhakana Rugunda summarised it on World Refugee Day in 2018. Uganda boasts of having refugee settlements rather camps, where families are facilitated to work, own land and integrate into the local community. They enjoy rights to education, work, private property, healthcare and other basic social services, with a view of weaning them from humanitarian aid in the long term.

United Nations Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) recorded 1,370,922 refugees and asylum-seekers in Uganda by the end of the year 2018. Of these, 180,300 were new arrivals and 19,800 new births during that year.

What could possibly go wrong?

Refugees who usually arrive in their thousands exert immediate pressure on available resources and amenities like water, classrooms and hospital beds. Ecweru says authorities are working to ensure that refugees do not outnumber the host local communities, adding that the strain on energy and social services can be a disadvantage to the hospitable Ugandans. ”The enormous energy demand of the refugee camps has negative consequences. The women cook with charcoal. A single camp can burn a whole forest in a few days,” Ecweru explains. ”For our social services and the Ugandans living there, the pressure is enormous now, the classrooms are overcrowded, and so are the health centers.” Izama says the effects of ‘mobile nations’ could accelerate the degradation of land and consequently reduce its productivity, a scenario that can be negatively politicised. When this happens, tensions and hostility between host communities and the refugees begin to emerge.

The United Nations and World Bank are working towards implementing a program that  dictates that 30 percent of all refugee interventions target host-community needs, with the objective of building resilient and self-reliant communities. Authorities in Uganda are also worried about the spread of diseases like Ebola from refugees fleeing conflict in DRC, and maintaining security by ensuring that refugees from South Sudan do not bring guns and ammunition into the country.

Funding that is often inadequate, and has recently been hit by accusations of corruption and fraud is a major issue that is threatening the sustainability of Uganda’s refugee program. As of October 2018, up to 58% of UNHCR budget remained unfunded.

How can Uganda’s success be secured?

The Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) which brings together countries in the region is urging countries to embrace the concept of ‘soft borders’ that has driven community relations for centuries. Uganda and Kenya’s shared border has several soft and hard border points. At hard border points like Busia and Malaba, crossings are regulated, formal and follow international guidelines.

The pastoral communities on both sides of the border however have no regard for the international boundaries that separate the two nations. The Pokot and Turkana of Kenya and the Karimojong of Uganda often cross at ‘soft borders’ in search of water and pasture for their livestock during dry season or even in worst case scenarios when drought strikes.

Ecweru who says closing borders to refugees is ‘morally wrong’ believes that the international community through multilateral institutions like the United Nations and the African Union should do more to prevent conflict that triggers displacement crises. ”The international community should ensure that such conflicts do not even break out, as in South Sudan, or that such regimes as in Eritrea do not even arise,” Ecweru says adding that refugees are ‘victims of a failed international peacekeeping system’.

While the UN, European Union and other international agencies have been urged to increase funding to Uganda’s refugee program, Izama believes they can do more to deter the conflicts that fuel displacement. ”The UN or the AU should have a sanctions regime based upon displacement whereby if political activity or military actions lead to displacement, then sanctions are imposed are imposed on responsible individuals and governments,” Izama proposes.

Accountability to achieve Sustainability

Izama also argues that decentralising humanitarian aid and response programs to refugees to regional bodies like IGAD could help deal with crippling factors like the lack of transparency and accountability  ”I believe that a greater sense of accountability could be achieved when the resources being used have been raised domestically through member countries in bodies like IGAD,” Izama says. Following last year’s allegations of abuse and fraud in refugee response in Uganda, a countrywide verification exercise conducted jointly by the government and UNHCR between March and October 2018 achieved the registration of the more than three-quarters of the refugee population in Uganda into a bio-metric identity management system. ”Investment should be made to replenish resources used by refugees. Authorities should provide more water sources, alternatives to wood fuel, and increase shared social amenities like schools, hospitals,” Izama says, adding that the social economy is not given sufficient attention when assessing Uganda’s refugee policy.

Ultimately, the question of sustainability of Uganda’s refugee model will be determined by how much Uganda remains stable during and beyond president Yoweri Museveni’s leadership, and how all stakeholders optimally manage refugee-host community relations and fortunes.

Article from AFRIC Editorial

Photo Credit :google image/illustration

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