Uganda’s long history of hosting refugees

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The country has a reputation for being progressive on refugee issues, but its efforts are underfunded.


Uganda has accepted a request the United States to temporarily house 2,000 refugees from Afghanistan while Washington processes their applications for residence in the United States. This decision underscores Uganda’s reputation for being progressive on refugee issues. Refugee expert Dr Evan Easton-Calabria explains why.

When did Uganda start welcoming refugees?

Uganda has a long history of hosting refugees. This started in the early 1940s with Polish refugees who fled Nazi-occupied Europe. Nakivale refugee camp — formed in 1959 — in southwestern Uganda is the the oldest refugee camp in Africa.

Uganda also hosts a large number of refugees. In the mid-1950s, nearly 80,000 Sudanese refugees fleeing the first civil war, sought refuge in the countryside. They were just the first of many waves of refugees from neighboring countries to arrive. Uganda has since taken in a significant number of refugees.

Today, almost 1.5 million refugees live in Uganda, making it the top refugee host country in Africa and one of the top five host countries in the world.

Its long-standing “open door” policy has benefited it both politically and financially, with hundreds of millions of donor funds provided each year for humanitarian and development projects. These target both refugees and residents. While Kenya, for example, has received € 200 million in humanitarian aid from the European Union since 2012, Uganda received as much from the EU in a little over four years.

Is the country more progressive towards refugees than its neighbors?

Uganda’s refugee policies have been hailed as progressive. He was even called “The best place in the world for refugees”.

Refugees have the right to work and to move freely, thanks to Uganda’s Refugee Law 2006 and Refugee Regulations 2010, which provide a strong legal and regulatory framework for refugee rights.

Refugees are entitled to the same social services as Ugandans, including health care and free primary education. They are not confined to camps but can also live in urban areas. The country has therefore received a lot of positive attention to “promote” the self-reliance of refugees.

However, despite the rights on paper in Uganda, the refugees are still struggling.

They are not legally recognized as refugees if they live in cities other than the capital, Kampala. As “self-settled” urban refugees, they risk being wrongly classified as economic migrants. Without official refugee status (unless they have been registered in a camp), urban refugees also often have lack of help.

Although refugees in Uganda are economically diverse, one study even identified over 70 types of livelihood activities by refugees in Uganda– for many in the settlements, subsistence agriculture is their main means of subsistence. But, despite the plots of land provided in the settlements, many do not have enough land to cultivate and the soil quality is often poor. This means that, for many, agriculture is no longer a viable livelihood. This shows that liberal refugee policies, such as those promoting self-reliance in Uganda, must be supported with adequate resources if they are to be more than just words on paper.

In comparison, Uganda’s neighbors, such as Kenya and Ethiopia, have traditionally been more restrictive. Kenya relies on an encampment system, where most refugees live in camps, and Ethiopia only has recently extended its out-of-camp policy to all refugees and asylum seekers, although regulatory gaps remain. Nonetheless, it is important to note that both are large receiving countries for refugees. They host many more refugees than many Western (and richer) countries. Kenya hosts on half a million refugees, mainly from Somalia and South Sudan. Ethiopia hosts on 788,000 and is the third largest refugee host country in Africa.

How effectively is Uganda managing its refugee community?

“Efficiency” is an interesting word in this context. On the one hand, Uganda provides an important base in terms of providing legal infrastructure for many refugees to lead independent lives. But the refugees are also entering a difficult context: Uganda struggles to provide adequate services to its own citizens and unemployment is high. It has one of the lowest rankings in the world in the Human capital index.

In addition, the 2021 presidential election saw escalating political and social unrest, leading to the violation of rights. such as freedom of assembly and expression of citizens and other residents, including refugees. While many Ugandans have taken in refugees, there are growing accounts of overcrowded cities and resource pressures, like firewood, in parts of the country.

Corruption in humanitarian aid is also a problem, with UNHCR in Uganda accused of mismanage tens of millions of dollars in 2016-2017. This illustrates the clear need for effective financial management so that refugees can actually be helped.

There is also another important question of accountability. Despite the positive attention the international community has given to the country, donor funds have often not lived up to praise. If schools and health facilities are overcrowded, in part because of refugees, the responsibility for providing more support should not lie solely with a refugee-hosting country like Uganda. Limited resources mean limited management. In June, the Ugandan Refugee Response Plan 2020-2021 was only 22% funded, leaving a deficit of $ 596 million to cover all sectors from protection to food security to sanitation.

Is it likely that Uganda will continue to play its role as a major destination for refugees?

Uganda has been firmly committed to hosting refugees for over 70 years, roughly the same length of time as the 1951 Refugee Convention existed. A spirit of pan-Africanism and direct understanding of displacement by many Ugandans all contributed to his willingness to welcome refugees. His recent temporary accommodation for Afghan refugees indicates that he is interested in continuing this role.

That said, no country should welcome refugees without significant international support. Many refugee response plans, like Uganda’s, remain significantly underfunded even as displacement increases and challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, remain. Even though Uganda receives a significant amount of money, it is not enough to support the number of people arriving as evidenced by funding appeal of the actors of the response to refugees in June of this year.

Mechanisms such as Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework provide a means of channeling resources and increasing collaboration on the reception of refugees. But it’s important to consider what the displacement would look like in the center, east and horn of Africa if Uganda closed its borders. Uganda is making an effort in a neighborhood where few other countries have the same enthusiasm.

This article was originally published by The conversation. It has been reposted here with permission.

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Evan Easton-Calabria

is Senior Research Officer at the Center for Refugee Studies focusing on Refugee Livelihoods, Self-Reliance and Local Governance, and Junior Social Science Fellow at Wadham College, Oxford.


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