At the Edge of the World: Uganda as an Unexpected Sanctuary for Refugees

Child Friendly Spaces For South Sudanese Refugees in Uganda

Uganda, a tiny, landlocked country of 38 million people, offers some of the most comprehensive and well-balanced initiatives for confronting an influx of refugees from neighboring nations. Granted glowing approval from organizations like the World Bank and the UN Refugee Commission, the Ugandan government is unmatched in the myriad of ways it offers refugees to integrate into the country, a feat more relevant than ever in an era in which the number of refugees is the largest in history.

The question of how to solve the dilemma of finding homes for the tens of millions of people displaced by catastrophic violence, civil war, unbearable economic conditions, or minority persecution is one that spans dozens of countries on every continent, from Latin Americans seeking refuge in the United States to Syrians fleeing to Europe to Rohingya Muslims migrating from Myanmar. The swelling number of refugees—currently standing at 65.3 million—raises several questions as to what should be done to ensure that they can either be a) temporarily accommodated safely until it is possible to return to their home country or b) resettled permanently in an adopted country.

The country of Uganda—bordered by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Kenya, and Lake Victoria—is currently home to approximately half a million refugees primarily fleeing from political unrest and violence in the DRC, South Sudan, and Burundi. It is hardly unique in this respect—Kenya and Ethiopia also face the difficulty of finding homes for thousands of displaced persons from Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea, but the East African nation’s generosity towards refugees provides a stark contrast to that of its neighbors. While the laws of Kenya and Ethiopia limit movement and sequester migrants to specific areas (and in the case of Kenya, require refugees to pay for incredibly expensive short-term work permits), the Ugandan government’s 2006 Refugee Act has granted them freedom of movement, the right to vote, and clearance to run for local office as well as the ability to own businesses,  cars, and machines. Refugees are also given a plot of land to farm and have the capacity to lease land in addition to the plots.

This system—which encourages independence and facilitates self-sufficiency—has proven to be mutually beneficial for the host country and for the refugees. According to The Economist, less than 1% of refugees in Uganda are completely reliant on governmental aid. In addition, granting migrants the capacity to not only provide for themselves but also contribute to their adopted community has helped to maintain peaceful relations between the refugees and the native Ugandans.

That being said, Uganda’s Refugee Act, although a vast improvement over the policies of neighboring countries, is not quite a perfect solution. Full citizenship is still out of reach for both refugees and their children—even for those who have lived most of their lives in Uganda. In response to the increasing demand and an enormous influx of refugees from South Sudan in July 2016—more than the first six months combined—the Ugandan government halved the size of the plots allocated to refugees. While this is not problematic per se, it could signify that simply due to the laws of supply and demand, Uganda’s generosity regarding resources allocated to refugees is finite. However, there is no indication that the open-door policy will be ending anytime in the near future, and as of August 2016 a new settlement area with the capacity to house 100,000 people had begun to accept refugees.

Uganda’s potential to serve as a role model to neighbouring African nations is more vital than ever in the midst of the ongoing Burundian refugee crisis—a direct consequence of the Burundian Civil War, which resulted from explosive tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups and caused 300,000 deaths between 1993 and 2006.  Following a brief period of relative calm, violent protests erupted once more in 2015 after President Nkurunziza, the first leader to be democratically elected since the beginning of the war, successfully ran for an unconstitutional third term. Faced with the prospect of political instability, resurgent ethnic tensions, mass arrests, and catastrophic violence, an estimated 230,000 Burundians have attempted to flee the country since the beginning of the protests—meaning that refugee camps in the bordering nations of Tanzania, Kenya, and Rwanda are rapidly becoming overcrowded and their respective governments are struggling to cope with such a staggering migration.  Nyarugusu, located in Tanzania and currently standing as the third largest refugee camp in the world with 140,000 inhabitants, single-handedly houses 25% of the refugees fleeing Burundi despite being designed to host only approximately 50,000 people. Rwanda’s Mahama camp has seen an influx of 30,000 refugees, (thousands of which are unaccompanied children), while the Democratic Republic of the Congo is currently facing the challenge to find a second site to house the 21,000 Burundians who have fled to the already deteriorating Luenda settlement. A significant number of Burundian refugees also face revenge attacks from militants who infiltrate said refugee camps—whose crowded conditions both mask the attackers and make it impossible for the refugees to flee to a safer area—with the intent of murdering survivors whom they fear will spread word of their crimes.

It is becoming rapidly apparent that attempting to settle such massive amounts of people in settlements which are both severely overcrowded and plagued by militant attacks is a merely a temporary amelioration of the problems posed by the greater migration crisis—meaning that long-term plans for permanent resettlement are more crucial than ever before, especially considering the unlikelihood that Burundian refugees will wish to return to the political instability of their home country. Uganda’s approach to fielding refugees—which grants them a greater degree of freedom of movement and economic autonomy than the nations mentioned above—has undoubtedly played a major role in enabling asylum seekers, especially those in the midst of the Burundian refugee crisis, to merge more easily with their adopted country and therefore avoid the horrific conditions and further violence taking place within these camps. And although questions have been raised as to if this approach can be continued indefinitely, at this moment—in which the numbers of refugees continues to swell—Uganda’s approach seems to be the most advantageous to both the refugees themselves and their adopted home country.