Uganda’s long and illustrious hospitality to people in pursuit of [temporary] sanctuary from either war or other forms of persecution goes 77 years back during World War II, when the British colonial administration offered haven to about 4,000 Polish nationals and Jews who had been marked for death by the Nazis in Europe. These, after the war in 1945, were repatriated.
Along came Rwandan asylum seekers fleeing the political heat that culminated in the 1959 blood bath following independence from Belgium and general elections won by Party for the Emancipation of the Hutu, that brought to end the Tutsi minority rule dominion.
However, before this time Rwandans had long established base in Uganda through extended links of intermarriages between Ankole’s Bahima and the Batutsi.
Then came refugees, fleeing deadly conflicts from Burundi, Zaire (DR Congo) and the rest is history. A 2016 study by the World Bank titled ‘An Assessment of Uganda’s Progressive Approach to Refugee Management’ showed that Uganda hosts refugees from 13 countries, from among others Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Chad, Central African Republic and Sudan.
As of June 2017, the UN agency for refugees (UNHCR) put the total population of refugees and asylum seekers in the country at 1.277 million up from 600,000 last year. They are hosted in nine districts across the country.
By the end of the year, the number will have shot to 1.5 million, Charles Bafaki, the senior resettlement officer in Directorate of Refugees in Office of the Prime Minister, warned on Thursday at the World Refugee Day media breakfast panel discussion in Kampala.
The surge in numbers is mainly driven by the fresh political-turned-ethnic crisis in neighbouring South Sudan, with aid agencies currently receiving not less than 1,000 refugees on a daily basis at various points in the border districts of Yumbe, Moyo and Lamwo.
The situation has, however, slightly improved compared to mid-last year when the world’s youngest nation plunged back into anarchy.
Home away from home
President Museveni, the chief proponent of the open door policy for refugees and asylum seekers, often argues that he does not pay attention to the colonial borders “which some actors, oblivious of the higher African interest, fetishize as if they were made by God”.
In his address at the Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis convened by former US president Barack Obama at the sidelines of 71st Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York last September, Mr Museveni said: “It is, therefore, not correct to treat African refugees as if they are flukers seeking to consume the resources of the indigenous people. I tell Ugandans that these are your unfortunate brothers and sisters having the misfortune, for the moment, of being misgoverned or being unprotected against demonic rebels.”
In an unprecedented move, leaders of the 193 UN member states meeting earlier for the 71 Session had adopted the New York Declaration for Migrants and Refugees, a blueprint that details concrete plans and political will of leaders in dealing with the massive wave of migration and refugee crises that have stirred consternation across the world.
The Uganda-UN refugee summit is one of efforts at the highest level to mobilise resources to fund commitments in the New York declaration. The summit, to be attended by a dozen heads of state and delegates from key international organisations, will be co-chaired by President Museveni and UN Secretary General António Guterres.
Keep the borders open
Ms Margaret Kafeero, the head of public diplomacy in the ministry of Foreign Affairs, told this newspaper that Uganda’s treatment of refugees “is a direct reflection of the foreign policy we seek to project”.
“Our foreign policy objectives as outlined in the Constitution espouse good neighbourliness and regional stability,” Ms Kafeero says.
In 2006, Parliament enacted the acclaimed Refugee Act, replacing the Control of Alien Refugees Act of 1960 that erstwhile guided and mainly reinforced government control of refugees and asylum seekers.
The Act, considered the most generous worldwide, illustrates government’s unwavering liberal policy towards refugees who seek sanctuary in Uganda until they can: return in safety and dignity to their countries of origin, resettlement in a third country, or integration in the country of displacement.
In 2010, the statutory instrument expanded the rights of the refugees to receive education, healthcare, traveling freely within the country and access to plots of land for both settlement and cultivation to food self-reliance.
In other words, Mr Bafaiki said on Thursday that refugees enjoy all rights as nationals except voting.
This is in addition to compliance to international statutes such as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Refugee Convention of July 1951 and its protocol of January 1967.
Article 1 of the Convention defines a refugee as someone who has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.
The African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, adopted in June 1981, Article 12(2) and (3), recognises the right of every individual who risks being persecuted to “leave” their country and to “seek and obtain” asylum in another country.
Notwithstanding the ever deteriorating donor funding to refugee activities, exacerbated by US president Donald Trump’s in-ward looking policies, turmoil in the European Union: two critical funders to human rights and refugee operations, and partly the anaemic global economy, the government remains unwavering on the open-door policy.
The funding shortfall has had serious repercussions for the refugees. Since the situation became critical, with refugee numbers swelling, the World Food Programme (WFP) last month was forced to cut food rations from 12kg to 6kg per person.
WFP’s country director El Khidir Daloum told this newspaper that the number of refugees they assist has “more than doubled in the last year, and WFP’s operation is under considerable strain to meet their full food needs each month.” For the next six months, he said, they have a shortfall of Shs226 billion ($64m).
“Despite receiving generous funding for refugees since 2016 – from Canada, Denmark, the European Commission, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Japan, South Korea, the UK, USA and multilateral donors and the UN Central Emergency Response Fund – overall funding has not kept pace with the increasing number of people arriving. The refugee operation currently costs WFP $19m (Shs67b) a month and the amounts keep rising,” Mr Daloum explained.
UNHCR in Kampala reported early this year that last year they received only 40 per cent of the $251m (Shs889b) requested for humanitarian assistance and this year they will need about $558m (Shs2 trillion).
Yet the government itself, diplomatic sources told Sunday Monitor, is of a view that financial and other logistical resources should be marshalled by international aid agencies.
“Our economy is already anaemic and our budget is already fatigued, so we cannot do much about the situation besides offering free space and operation support,” a senior official told this newspaper on condition of anonymity.
Although UNHCR and other aid agencies don’t admit it, according to the Oxford Centre for Refugee Studies, “when displacement has been prolonged, many refugees have become established in their new place of settlement and their desire or willingness to return may diminish”.
In short, refugees who spend a decade or more outside their countries of origin rarely accept to repatriate.
Such is the case for thousands of refugees from among other countries Rwanda and Ethiopia, who settled in Uganda more than a decade ago but even with the relative stability in their homelands they seem to have put down roots, never to return. There burden is continually borne by government and aid agencies.
Ms Esther Kirabo, assistant commissioner at UNHCR, at the Thursday panel discussion reinforced this that “currently only one per cent of the refugees are in favour of voluntary repatriation, which means Uganda [and aid agencies] are going to continue carrying the burden for a foreseeable future.”
In the 1990s and 2000s, there have been two major voluntary repatriation operations, of Rwandan refugees of the 1994 genocide and of South Sudanese refugees following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 that brought to end the nearly three decades war of independence with Sudan.
This somewhat reduced the numbers, mostly resettled in camps in south western Uganda, but the fresh crises in Burundi and South Sudan, are now producing more numbers that ever. The upcoming presidential polls in DR Congo is also on the watch list as a recipe for disaster.
It is the sad reality we have to live with.