Most of the world’s refugees flee to neighbouring low- and middle-income countries where, in many cases, urban governments are already struggling to meet residents’ needs for safe and secure housing, adequate infrastructure such as drainage and sanitation, and basic services including health care and education. Ultimately, urban refugees end up living in slums, putting additional strain on local governments. The majority of refugees in Africa are in the Horn of Africa and the East region. Uganda has the largest number of refugees, nearly 1.4 million as of 2020. Sudan and Ethiopia are the second and third countries in Africa with more displaced people.
The presence of refugees in Uganda dates back to the early 1940’s with the hosting of Polish refugees at Nyabyeya in Masindi district and Koja in Mukono district. These refugees were later resettled in Britain, Australia and Canada. However, Uganda’s rigorous involvement with refugees and the refugee problem started in 1955 when Uganda hosted approximately 78,000 Southern Sudanese refugees. In 1959/1960 influxes of Congolese and Rwandese refugees entered the western part of Uganda. Since then, Uganda has played host to thousands of refugees from the following countries: Burundi, Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, Sierra-Leone, Senegal, Mozambique, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
The Government of Uganda allows freedom of movement and provides land to refugees settling in designated areas, the right to work and access to national services. It empowers refugees to become economically self-reliant, while granting them the same rights that citizens enjoy. Uganda remained the largest refugee operation in Africa, hosting some 1.4 million refugees, mostly from South Sudan (861,600) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (397,600). While other countries are Somalia, Rwanda, Eritrea and Burundi. The vast majority of refugees lived in settlements located across 11 districts and in Kampala.
During 2019, some 94,725 asylum-seekers arrived in Uganda from the DRC (57,242), South Sudan (31,663) and Burundi (5,820). Women and children constituted 82%; in 2019, there were nearly 41,200 registered births in refugee communities. About 94% of refugees lived in settlements and 6% in urban areas. Close to 3,300 refugees resettled in third countries. Because of Uganda’s liberal refugee policies, the migrants are not clamped down in barbed wire fences and abused, instead the country has reserved a warm welcome, a place to live, to cultivate and to work. At the time when many nations are banging the doors on refugees, Uganda was open to accepting more refugees.
Refugees in Uganda are either self-settled or live in organized settlements that cover approximately 350 square miles of land set aside by the government of Uganda. Many refugees, especially in the northern districts, are in protracted displacement, and the Ugandan constitution prohibits the naturalization of an offspring of a refugee, even if he or she is born in Uganda and even if one parent is Ugandan. Some refugees have the option of returning to their country of origin, and some can resettle in a third country, often in the West, but doing so is expensive and not viable at a large scale.
In 2016, Uganda was the third country with the highest number of refugees in relation to its national economy during the year, hosting 36 refugees per 1 million USD dollars GDP. The country continued to receive new arrivals in 2019. The protective environment in Uganda remained favourable in 2019, with Uganda’s progressive refugee policy enabling refugees to enjoy freedom of movement, the right to work and establish businesses and access to services such as health care and education.
Uganda’s refugee hosting model is one of the most progressive in the world
The Refugee Act of 2006 and the Refugee Policy of 2010 are largely considered pro refugees. The country has also gone a step further to include refugees in the National Development Plan II. This has translated into the settlement Transformative Agenda (STA) and the subsequence Refugee and host Population Empowerment Strategy (ReHoPe).
Uganda remains steadfast on refugees despite COVID-19. Uganda has lived up to its reputation as Africa’s most hospitable nation by opening its border to 1,500 people fleeing militias. Last year, over 3,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) arrived in Uganda between Wednesday and Friday (1 – 3 July, 2020) during a temporary opening of two border crossing points at Golajo and Mount Zeu, north-western Uganda. Recently, President Yoweri Museveni agreed to take in 2,000 Afghan refugees fleeing the crisis in their country at the request of the Americans after the Taliban takeover Afghanistan.
The influx of refugees has not only strained assistance-delivery capacities, strained host community relations, and has had a deleterious effect on NAP commitments but also energy and funding needed for emergency response programming. Unfortunately, Uganda’s generous policy towards refugees is under threat, as thousands of new refugees arrive each day while its refugee appeal is chronically underfunding, including severe food ration cuts. It will be necessary to deepen assistance to refugees and equally vulnerable members of the Ugandan host communities so that both communities are able to access economic opportunities as the country recovers from the crisis.