Uganda is experiencing the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world; hosting over 1.2 million refugees, and confronting immense pressures as a result. The unprecedented surge in refugee numbers over the past year combined with the protracted stay of refugees spanning decades is straining an already overstretched state and host community resources. Examples include health facilities, schools and security services as well as environmental degradation of refugee-affected areas. Humanitarian appeals are chronically and severely underfunded further compounding vulnerabilities of refugees. Refugees and host communities are susceptible to underlying poverty and vulnerabilities exacerbated by limited basic social services, inadequate infrastructure, and limited market opportunities.
Since March 2017, 2,800 refugees have been arriving daily from South Sudan’s conflict and famine. The country now hosts the single largest refugee settlement in the world – at Bidi Bidi, in the north of the country. It is home to 270,000 refugees, and the UN Refugee Agency has described it as being at “breaking point”.
The influx of people from South Sudan is a humanitarian crisis. But it also matters because Uganda has some of the most progressive refugee policies in the world. Through its so-called Self-Reliance Strategy, it is one of very few major refugee-hosting countries to allow refugees to work and move relatively freely. These policies not only enable Uganda to absorb refugees, they serve as an exemplar of good practice for the rest of the world.
Uganda’s strategy gives refugees almost unparalleled opportunity to engage with markets. It enables refugees in rural settlements to get access to plots of land, and those in urban areas to start businesses. On an informal level, the approach even predates Uganda’s independence from British colonial rule in 1962, with the Nakivale settlement in the south-west of the country providing opportunities for crop cultivation after opening in 1958. But it began to crystallise as policy from the late 1990s before being enshrined in law in the 2006 Refugee Act.
For a long time, the international community has assumed that Uganda will always be there to play this role, and that its President Yoweri Museveni’s commitment to self-reliance for refugees would remain unwavering. Even as refugee budgets left the African continent in support of the more visible Syrian crisis, so Uganda has persevered with the model, quietly accepting significant Congolese and South Sudanese influxes in 2015 and 2016.
But in 2017, with such large numbers, the country’s commitment needs to be urgently bolstered by the international community. To the government’s credit, it insists it will retain its approach. But this absolutely cannot be taken for granted. Although there is no open agitation to end the right to work, there is growing popular unrest in Uganda linked to chronic unemployment and the arrests of Museveni’s main opponent, Kizza Besigye. In this climate, refugees could become part of the political agenda.
At the meeting convened by UNHCR on 13th June, 2017 to discuss a comprehensive refugee response framework at the Imperial Royale Hotel, Kampala ahead of the Solidarity Summit for Refugees to be held on 22nd-23rd June, 2017, the Prime Minister, Rugunda stated that with over 1.2 million refugees, this is putting strain on host communities and the responsibility of meeting their long tem needs should not be left to one country.
However, the UNHCR’s Representative in Uganda assured the Government of the international community’s commitment to assist refugees and the communities that host them, and to support the country to pursue its refugee protection, management and social integration policies.
For Uganda to continue to absorb such large numbers requires a sustainable response that goes beyond humanitarianism. Small and medium-sized enterprises in Uganda need access to capital for refugee entrepreneurship. Larger-scale work is also needed by international investors to identify opportunities for sector-specific economic growth within northern Uganda, where the South Sudanese refugees are, not only for corporate social responsibility reasons but to generate viable agricultural markets.
This blog post is published as part of the Ambassador Series, which presents insights into social protection around the world from the viewpoint of our Ambassadors, a group of international online United Nations Volunteers who support the online knowledge exchange activities, networking and promotion of socialprotection.org.
- Kwesiga, P (2017). Refugees Straining Uganda, New Vision
- UNHCR. (2013). UNHCR’s Dialogues with Refugee Women.
- Betts, Alexander (2017). Can Uganda’s progressive refugee policies survive the influx of people fleeing South Sudan? http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/can-uganda-s-progressive-refugee-policies-survive-the-influx-of-people-fleeing-south-sudan-a7681856.html accessed on 14th June, 2017