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What Uganda’s Struggling Policy Means for Future of Refugee Response

Uganda’s open refugee policies inspired a major U.N. reform initiative, but international funds have not kept pace with its refugee crisis. In this analysis, Melanie Gouby examines what happens when model integration policies are not backed with adequate resources.

Written by Melanie Gouby Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A family of South Sudanese refugees lives under a tree waiting to be allocated a plot to build a permanent shelter in Uganda’s Palorinya refugee settlement in February 2017.Natalia Jidovanu/Le Pictorium/Barcroft Images

BIDI BIDI, Uganda – The largest refugee camp in the world doesn’t look very much like a refugee camp at all.

Small clusters of traditional mud huts spread over a vast area in northern Uganda make up the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement. This refuge for nearly 300,000 South Sudanese sprang up over the past year to shelter the masses fleeing war over the nearby border.

Ugandans and refugees live together in many parts of the settlement. Refugees are free to come and go as they wish and are given a small plot of land to cultivate their own food. Their children go to the local school.

For the U.N., this is a vision of the future of refugee response.

Uganda’s progressive policies were in many ways the inspiration for the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF), a blueprint for a new way of responding to refugee crises that was agreed at last year’s U.N. refugee summit, which resulted in the New York Declaration.

The CRRF will be the basis of a global compact on refugees due to be adopted in 2018. Uganda is one of several countries piloting the CRRF during the two-year consultation process.

One of the ways the CRRF aims to shift the paradigms of refugee response is by moving away from camps and aid distributions to helping refugees become self-reliant.

“We know that the confinement of the refugee camp has a devastating effect on refugee well-being and mental health,” says Isabelle d’Haudt, the European Commission humanitarian adviser for Uganda.

Several studies have also demonstrated important economic benefits for countries that integrate refugees into their labor market. “The economy grows with refugees. We need to stop looking at them as a burden,” says d’Haudt.

Model Policies, Scarce Resources

More than 2 million South Sudanese have been displaced by the war tearing their country apart, and around half fled to neighboring Uganda. Dozens of smaller versions of Bidi Bidi have sprung up across northern Uganda to shelter them.

“After our village was attacked, I walked for days with my family to arrive here. We had left everything behind. We came empty-handed,” said Moses Maliamungu, a 42-year-old man from Yei River State in South Sudan living in Rhino camp.

“But now we can grow our own food again in our homestead, and we go to church with our Ugandan neighbors so I pray things will get better,” he says.

Uganda’s Self-Reliance Strategy predates the New York Declaration by two decades. By building on that strategy, the country could have been a fertile testing ground for new approaches in the CRRF.

Yet for all the praise Uganda receives for its policies, the country is seriously short on funds for refugee support. The U.N. and Ugandan government appealed for $2 billion at a June summit; they received just $352 million in donor pledges.

With budgets stretched so thin, it has been difficult for the government or humanitarian agencies to do anything beyond react to the constant flow of refugees entering the country, rather than proactively plan for sustainable integration in line with the CRRF.

Refugees are still welcomed, and receive a plot of land and starter kit to build a modest home, and theoretically are allowed to move freely and seek employment.

Yet there is vast pressure on resources. In some schools in the refugee settlements, there are more than 200 children in one class. As the number of arrivals outstripped available land, the government has temporarily stopped systematically allocating refugees plots until more space can be found.

Mamadou Dian Balde, deputy director of the CRRF task team led by UNHCR in partnership with the World Bank and others, recognizes that implementation of the CRRF is not going as well as the New York Declaration had envisaged.

“Funding is not coming in as we wished,” Balde said of the CRRF pilots in Uganda and elsewhere. But he pointed to progress in countries like Djibouti, which is rolling out a similar policy for Yemeni refugees.

“I still firmly believe we are going through a transformative time for how refugees’ needs are perceived. Our problem is the slow pace,” he said.

Straining Uganda’s Welcome

Another core principle of CRRF is to also give aid to local populations in areas with high numbers of refugees. Ugandans in the north initially saw benefits from hosting South Sudanese refugees. Yet as their numbers outpaced funds, tensions have grown.

“Before, we used to excavate and get underground water. The boreholes were put in place when the refugees arrived so that was a great improvement for us,” says Clara Feku, a 45 year-old Ugandan woman who lives near Rhino refugee settlement. “But now that there are too many people at the same borehole, some refugees say the water points are there because of them and they are entitled to their access. They argue with us when we come to fetch water,” she says.

After a regional drought led to crop failure, some Ugandans started working for refugees in exchange for food rations.

“There was no other solution. There was no food, even in the market. We were compelled to do small jobs like fetching water, and digging in their vegetable gardens so we could have some of their rations,” says Perpetua Maturu, a 44-year-old Ugandan woman who also lives near Rhino settlement. “We were disappointed that we did not get food rations ourselves.”

In July, Ugandans protested against resources going to refugees and blocked water trucks on the road to one of the settlements.

“These are very poor communities who have themselves experienced displacement, so the Ugandan people here are extremely understanding and welcoming. They contribute land for free. But of course they expect something in return,” says Robert Baryamwesiga, the settlement commandant in Bidi Bidi.

South Sudanese refugees are also feeling the strain. Some have risked going back into their war-torn country in search of food, sometimes with fatal consequences.

Female refugees in Uganda report being intimidated and sometimes sexually harassed when going to look for firewood. “Once I arrived in the woods with my friends, and there were a group a men armed with machetes. They told us to never come here again,” says Jean Asaa, a young woman living in Bidi Bidi.

Vision and Reality

Below the surface of Uganda’s progressive refugee policies lie the major constraints facing everyone in the country. The country’s population is one of the poorest in the world, while its elite is one of the most corrupt. For refugees, the right to move freely and to seek employment means little with so few basic services in the country. The U.N. and international NGOs mostly deliver services to many refugees through a traditional camp-like system.

Refugees who move outside the settlements are on their own, like Conscience Irakoze from Burundi who has a university degree but now sells food products on Kampala’s streets. “I cannot afford healthcare and I know many refugees who have died here because of the poor conditions we live in. We receive no help from the government,” she says.

Uganda’s refugee policy costs the government of President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, very little financially or politically.

“Right now, it’s all talk and no implementation,” says Victor Ochen, the founder of African Youth Initiative and a former refugee, who argues for a greater role for local civil society in implementing CRRF.

Meanwhile Europe remains preoccupied with shutting down irregular migration routes to the continent. As resources follow political priorities, it is no surprise that the refugee crisis in Uganda lacks funding. “South Sudanese refugees are unlikely to migrate to Europe to seek jobs,” says Isabelle d’Haudt.

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