With approximately 510 000 refugees, Uganda is the country hosting the third-highest number of refugees in Africa, after Ethiopia and Kenya. Worldwide, this sub-Saharan country is ranked ninth. Uganda has attracted refugees mostly from neighboring countries, including Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as from the world’s youngest country, South Sudan.

Recently, Titus Jogo, the Refugee Desk Officer in the Office of the Prime Minister in the Adjumani district, told This Is Africa that an estimated 250 South Sudanese refugees enter Uganda daily. However, irrespective of the number – which is not about to drop – the country has the will to accommodate the asylum seekers.

Unlike other countries, where refugees are confined to expensive camps, Uganda provides a piece of land to every registered refugee family to settle on in the settlement camps. For example, in Adjumani district, where 134 896 refugees are hosted, each registered family is given a 30m2 piece of land on which they construct a temporary house and can plant small gardens of vegetables and sweet potatoes.

“Refugees are people like you and me, who, through no fault of their own, have had their lives destroyed by violence.”

Refugees line up for porridge at Nyumanzi reception.Photo by Arthur Matsikojpg
Refugees line up for porridge at Nyumanzi reception.Photo by Arthur Matsikojpg

In contrast with Kenya

Uganda’s approach to refugees is in contrast with that of her neighbour, Kenya, which recently announced the closure of the Dadaab refugee complex and the repatriation of its 330 000 refugees by November. Speaking at the United Nations humanitarian summit in Istanbul on 23 May 2016, Kenya’s vice president, William Ruto, expressed the need to close the world’s largest refugee camp, which is occupied mostly by refugees from neighbouring Somalia. “The refugee camp poses an existential security threat to Kenya,” he said, arguing that attacks, including the Westgate mall attack in 2013 and the Garissa University massacre in 2015, which claimed hundreds of lives, were planned at Dadaab.“There is radicalization by extremist elements in the camp, especially of young people,” he told Reuters. “Their recruitment into terror networks, including al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda, is a threat to the world…”

 

Managing the refugees

Although Uganda continues to welcome asylum seekers, the Minister of State for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, Musa Ecweru, admits that this humanitarian crisis is a “very big burden” to the country. He recently told journalists in Adjumani district that “Uganda will continue to look after people who are running here in distress, even if they reach 40 million. That doesn’t suggest [that] we have enough resources, but we have the will.” With support from various humanitarian organizations, the refugees feel at home straight from the entry point at Elegu, Uganda’s border with South Sudan. At that point, they are registered, immunised and later transported to Nyumanzi reception centre, where they are given temporary accommodation before they are allocated pieces of land in the respective settlements within Adjumani district.

While visiting refugee camps for South Sudanese in Adjumani, Ecweru told This Is Africa that the many organizations partnering with the government are the reason that Uganda is excelling in managing refugees. “Many countries have a problem managing refugees at the entry point but we have been able to establish a robust system right from entry,” he said. He also hinted at the security challenge, which requires tight management because most refugees flee with weapons. “We are able to screen our asylum seekers and separate them from all weapons and equipment that could possibly disrupt the order here,” he said, adding that immunizing children at the entry point helps avoid the spread of disease to the children of the host communities.

 

The importance of education

 

Through the settlement policy, where refugees live in villages side by side with Ugandans, refugees are given the opportunity to make the most of their talent and make positive economic contributions to their communities.

 

Among the humanitarian organizations responding to the refugee crisis is the child-centered Plan International Uganda, which has established 15 early childhood care and development (ECCD) centres in 16 settlements. At these ECCDs, children aged between three and six are given the equivalent of a nursery school education. They are taught numeracy, English language skills and oral literature. The children are also provided with kits and play materials to help them recover from trauma stemming from the civil war, which started in December 2013, amid a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his deputy, Riek Machar.

 

In spite of the fact that the duo signed a peace agreement in August 2015, citizens, who are continuously fleeing the vengeful conflict pitting the ethnic Dinka against the Nuer, have limited hope of returning home soon. So, to comfortably accommodate them in Uganda and to make them productive, Minister Ecweru believes that equipping them with technical skills would help them rebuild their nation upon their return. In an interview with This Is Africa, Ecweru said that the majority of refugees are young people who should be in school. “If we don’t give them education in terms of skilling them, we will only be preparing another burden for their country when they return,” he said, urging humanitarian organizations to lend a hand in implementing this idea.

 

Earning applause from the international community

Uganda’s liberal approach to refugee management has attracted applause from the international community. For example, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to Uganda, Neimah Warsame, describes it as “an inspirational model, and an example to other countries, not only in the region but across the world”. In her communique on World Refugee Day on 20 June, she wrote: “But we also understand that refugees are not beggars, competitors for jobs or terrorists. Refugees are people like you and me, who, through no fault of their own, have had their lives turned upside down and destroyed by violence. “Through the settlement policy, where refugees live in villages side by side with Ugandans, refugees are given the opportunity to make the most of their talent and make positive economic contributions to their communities. By integrating refugees in the National Development Plan through the Settlement Transformative Agenda, Uganda is leading the global paradigm shift in integrating development with a humanitarian response.”

 

All said and done, the entire world can learn from Uganda and acknowledge the fact that nobody becomes a refugee by choice. And with the recent resumption of fighting in South Sudan, Uganda and other neighboring countries might well see an increase in the influx of asylum seekers.