Stretched to the limit: Uganda a vic­tim of refugee pol­icy

Un­re­lent­ing in­flux of peo­ple has put strain on coun­try’s pub­lic ser­vices and re­sources

African Independent - - NEWS - HAS­SAN ONYANGO

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 1.3 mil­lion and the pace of the in­flux leaves the coun­try of 42 mil­lion 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 1 800 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 4 mil­lion 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 $671 mil­lion to en­sure min­i­mum hu­man­i­tar­ian stan­dards are met. Un­for­tu­nately, the agency has re­ceived only 17 per­cent 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 10 per­cent 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 20 000 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 124 842 refugees from mul­ti­ple coun­tries, is slowly reach­ing its max­i­mum ca­pac­ity.

Un­less dra­matic events oc­cur in eastern DRC, it is an­tic­i­pated that some 60 000 new DRC refugees will flee to Uganda this year. Uganda hosts 227 413 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

VIC­TIMS OF WAR: Refugees from South Su­dan cross a bridge into Uganda over the Kaya river in Ki­jaria, north of Kam­pala.

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