Uganda’s progressive refugee policy

Uganda is the world’s third largest and Africa’s leading refuge for hostages. Uganda has nearly 1.5 million refugees currently. The Ugandan Refugee Policy has many historically progressive aspects which make it a role model for refuge policy-making.

Since half a century ago, Uganda has witnessed a steady flow of refugees from Southern Sudan. This was followed by the rise of resistance groups in South Sudan and Uganda which led to migrations to and from the border region with Sudan. The Rwandan genocide in 1994 also sent chilling waves in the region with mass influx of refugees into Uganda. In 2013 when the war broke out in what is now South Sudan, Uganda harboured tens of thousands of refugees.

Uganda has ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Organization of African Unity Convention on Refugees in 1970s. In 1999, the UNHCR and Ugandan government began the implementation of the Self-Reliance Strategy (SRS) which was designed to integrate the migrants into the national system rather than treating them as an outcast part of the population.

SRS wanted to “empower refugees and nationals in the area to the extent that they will be able to support themselves; and to establish mechanisms that will ensure integration of services for the refugees with those of the nationals”. But it also restricted the integration of the refugees into the population to facilitate repatriation as and when possible.

“Inclusion has been and remains the hallmark of Uganda’s progress refugee policy, right from the 1960s when the first refugees came to Uganda. From being allocated land by Government or host communities so that they can grow their own food and start a new life with dignity to participating in governance structures in settlements, Uganda endeavors to treat our brothers and sisters who come to our shores as humanely as possible,” said Hon. Hillary Onek, Minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees on the occasion of World Refugee Day. He also called for international support measures as the pandemic has seriously hampered the national effort for providing resources to refugees.

The long history of refugees in Uganda has taught it a simple lesson that the process of repatriation is the only humane way to solve the crisis. Uganda’s progressive approach to migrants is in contrast with many developed nations which close off their own borders or sponsor the refugee camps in other countries. Refugees were allotted a piece of land; rations were reduced annually to enable self-reliance. The allotment of land is a unique method which helps in sustenance of refugee families.

Uganda is now holding the highest number of refugees in its history and this is straining the resources of the country. Limited land for agriculture is also putting a serious strain on the country. Although Uganda allows some freedom of movement greater than other countries, the restricted movement is observed to be an impediment when it comes to jobs.

The pandemic has seriously affected the economy. Uganda’s real GDP growth rate crashed from over 6.7% to 2.9%. Among those affected were the refugees who are still unable to find adequate jobs. Currently, only 1 out of 3 refugees is able to find a job. The loss of income and livelihood is a serious concern.

Uganda needs active support for skilling of refugees, increasing agricultural productivity, women development, education of children among the refugees, support to business groups and technological empowerment that employ refugees, digital technology access and skilling, mental health support, access to basic services as a universal measure, etc.

Uganda’s humane approach to refugees has no parallels. However, it requires robust economic growth, active international support and quick resolution of conflicts in South Sudan to facilitate repatriation.

Photo Credit : https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Refugees_in_transit_from_the_border_with_DRC_to_Rwamwanja,Uganda(9086821264).jpg