After years of a globally enviable status of the country with the most progressive refugee policy in the world, Uganda has reached a grim milestone as the country hosting the highest number of refugees in Africa, amid indications it is reaching breaking point.
The irony is that while the East African country boasts arguably the most liberal refugee policies in the world, it is also one of the world’s poorest nations.
For several decades, Uganda has been generously hosting refugees and asylum seekers fleeing famine, drought and war, mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Somalia, South Sudan, Rwanda, Eritrea and Burundi.
Among the factors making Uganda the destination of choice is its hospitality to refugees, who are entitled to work, have freedom of movement and can access Ugandan social services such as health and education.
Thanks to the open-door policy promulgated in the 2006 Refugee Act, Uganda, a typical home away from home, gives refugees a chance to start life afresh, in dignity.
Refugees are given fertile land to farm for the entire duration of their stay to help them become self-sufficient and less dependent on handouts. The privileges only exclude the right to vote.
However, unprecedented conflict in neighbouring South Sudan has escalated the refugee population to over 1.3million and the pace of the influx leaves the country of 42million people unable to keep up.
This is more than Greece, Turkey or any other country in the world at the height of last year’s crisis in Europe.
Some 1800 South Sudanese per day have crossed the border south into Uganda over the past 12 months since fighting re-erupted in the capital Juba.
The number of internally displaced people included 4million South Sudanese who had left their homes, and this makes it one of the largest refugee crises globally.
Only Syria and Afghanistan are “producing” more refugees.
“Uganda is at a breaking point,” said a spokesperson of the Finn Aid Church, one of the humanitarian groups that have lately responded to the influx into Uganda.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees requires around $671million to ensure minimum humanitarian standards are met. Unfortunately, the agency has received only 17percent of the amount.
Ahead of a summit where the international community pledged the funds, the United States Agency for International Development warned the influx of refugees was leading to a risk of tension and violence and there is a rumbling of discontent.
“The fact that refugees can access food but not the host communities is not going down well with some community members. Rising social tension between refugees and host communities has the potential to degenerate into secondary conflict in host countries.”
This is linked to the drought that has eroded the country’s capacity to provide food and like resources.
In addition, the funding gap delays projects like providing permanent shelters by months and people are vulnerable to changing weather conditions.
The international Office of Migration (IOM) noted the influx had put a strain on services such as water, healthcare and education in Uganda, threatening its status as the most progressive refugee receiver.
“The situation in the refugee settlements remains dire, not least because the flow of refugees into Uganda continues,” lamented Ali Abdi, of IOM Uganda Chief Mission.
The official pointed out provision of sustainable safe water was arduous.
“And with the coverage of minimum acceptable sanitation and hygiene standards lower than 10percent in sites such as Palorinya, services for the South Sudanese refugees couldn’t be more urgent.”
Björn Gillsäter, special representative of the World Bank Group to the UN, said the pressure on public services and local resources was immense and the authorities and locals were visibly struggling to keep up.
“To sustain this level of solidarity from the host community, it is important that the local people feel that they are also benefiting from their own generosity,” he pointed out.
Gillsäter said there was a strong argument for promoting longer-term development efforts to ensure that these districts benefit as a whole, which can also ease the acceptance of new comers.
“As it turns out, at least in Uganda, the same areas where the refugees are settled are also the most disadvantaged parts of the country with extreme rates of poverty.”
Another emerging crisis is the substance abuse and gender violence at refugee settlements, as Delphine Pinault, director at Care Uganda, disclosed.
“Oftentimes, men experience bouts of hopelessness and low self-esteem after losing everything in South Sudan and engage in negative coping mechanisms like excessive alcohol consumption. This often leads to violent behaviour against women and girls, especially in the home, but also in the settlement.”
Though primarily exercised by men against women and girls, there are also incidences of women experiencing fits of rage and acting out violently, often fuelled by alcohol.
Meanwhile, despite not directly bordering Burundi, Uganda continues receiving an influx of Burundi refugees.
It is expected that Uganda will continue to receive a steady trickle of Burundi refugee arrivals of up to 20000 new refugees this year.
Already, there are two main challenges. First, the new settlement areas in Nakivale settlement allocated to new arrivals from Burundi are very remote and under-developed. This is mainly due to the fact that Nakivale settlement, hosting some 124842 refugees from multiple countries, is slowly reaching its maximum capacity.
Unless dramatic events occur in eastern DRC, it is anticipated that some 60000 new DRC refugees will flee to Uganda this year. Uganda hosts 227413 DRC refugees. The influx from the DRC to Uganda has been continuous since 2014.
Meanwhile, Uganda and the UN have pledged to continue supporting the refugee community despite mounting challenges. - CAJ News