Whose Interests Does Uganda's Refugee Policy Serve?


Whose Interests Does Uganda's Refugee Policy Serve?

According to the UNHCR refugees are people who leave their country of origin because of war, violence, or persecution to find safety in another country. Worldwide 26.6 million people are categorised as refugees. Turkey hosts most refugees in the world, Uganda fulfils that role on the African continent. The latter counted in 2021 approximately 1,524,352 refugees mainly fleeing from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Somalia. Uganda has an interesting policy to deal with refugees.

“In a world where so many people are selfishly closing their doors, closing their borders, not allowing refugees to come, this example deserves praise [and] admiration from the whole international community”. In 2017, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres made this statement about Uganda’s refugee policy.

Uganda’s refugee policy is unique. Refugees in Uganda are assigned a plot of land in rural areas which they can use for cultivation. The approach, which is already active since the opening of Uganda’s first refugee settlement in 1958, was formalised by the Self-Reliance Strategy (SRS) in 1999. Besides access to land, refugees, like the host communities, also receive access to health services, education and so forth to become self-reliant. The provision of services to both groups intends to improve the relations hosts have with refugees. The SRS furthermore sought to change the discourse of refugees from a ‘burden to society’ to ‘agents of development’. In 2016, the Refugee and Host Population Empowerment (ReHoPe) framework updated the SRS and integrated refugees in Uganda’s national development plans. Besides this, the 2006 Refugee Act gave refugees in Uganda the rights and freedoms to choose where to work and live, i.e., either in open settlements or not.

Uganda is widely praised for its progressive open-door policy. However, whose interests does this policy serve and who benefits most? Uganda’s decision to adopt this type of refugee policy is supported by the interests of, on the one hand, Uganda’s government, and on the other hand, the interests of the international community among which largely those of the European Union (EU). According to observers, the government of Uganda uses the presence of refugees to attract international money and to gain political legitimacy.

That is to say, by turning refugees into ‘agents of development’, Uganda’s government has been able to attract development money. Besides being driven by an aspiration to receive development money, the government of Uganda also uses the policy to gain wide political legitimacy and, by partnering with Europe on refugee resettlement, as is described below, to keep the EU quiet on domestic (democratic) dysfunctions. Indeed, Europe makes trade-offs on whether to act or not on irregular phenomena in Uganda based on the interests it has in the country (IRRI, 2018; Titeca, 2021). The following quote shows the strategy used by Uganda’s government: “The Ugandan SRS policy tapped into international momentum surrounding these initiatives, thereby improving Uganda’s reputation internationally as the champion of refugee rights, while also strengthening its government by guaranteeing that high-level political actors had access to external funds”.

Besides serving the interests of Uganda’s government, Europe’s interests also become visible in its support for Uganda’s open-door policy. To illustrate this, the peace agreement of the Sudanese war, which started in 2013, broke down in 2016, consequently, the number of refugees seeking refuge in Uganda skyrocketed to 1,350,495 by 2017. This refugee growth triggered fear in Europe which had just faced the so-called Migration Crisis of 2015. Indeed, during this crisis Europe opted for a closed-border approach. This means that the EU favours settlement of refugees in, or repatriation of refugees to, areas surrounding country of origin to keep migrants outside of its borders. Hence, Uganda’s open-door policy is highly interesting to support Europe’s agenda.

Notwithstanding the fact that refugees are provided with a secure place to stay within Uganda and improvements made in terms of refugees’ livelihoods through more educational attainment, the provision of healthcare and food assistance, there are noteworthy dysfunctions in the implementation and effectiveness of the policy framework to the detriment of those who are mainly impacted by it, namely refugees and host communities. Although already slightly outdated, the Uganda Refugee and Host Community 2018 Household Survey outlines some severe dysfunctions in Uganda’s government and European driven refugee policy. The information is complemented by data from the IRRI 2018 report. First, although there is improvement in the provision of services such as education, health care and food security, the quality often remains low or there are insufficient services provided. For example, although there has been a rise in children who attend primary education, they tend to drop out after. Additionally, there is a shortage of available and sizable land for refugees. More so, in many cases land assigned to refugees is not given by host communities out of solidarity but through a forced process which can easily generate conflict between both groups.

Second, the political agendas of the government of Uganda and Europe negatively impact the sustainability and effectiveness of the self-reliance approach. Refugees rely much on aid, although it is not a sustainable solution. The report of 2018 states that 54 percent of refugees’ main source of income was aid. This relates closely to the high unemployment rates of refugees. That is to say, 3 out of 4 refugees were unemployed at the time the report was released. Less than 5 percent of the refugees have received training for any occupation. This negatively affects the potential for self-reliance of refugees and the sustainability of the programmes. On the other hand, although aid is not a sustainable solution, an additional issue is that it does not even reach all refugees. Neither the 2006 Refugee Act nor the CRRF has effectively allowed refugees the freedom of movement because aid in most cases only reaches those refugees residing within settlements. Third, although refugees and host communities overall have equal access to services, in some cases refugees enjoy more favourable conditions to access the services, compared to hosts. This is likely to threaten peaceful co-existence. Last, due to ineffective management of repatriation processes, refugees who are repatriated end up in situations that are not properly adapted to their arrival, hence negatively affect refugees’ livelihoods.

These dysfunctions can be partly ascribed to the enforcement of Uganda’s government and Europe’s agenda without extensively taking refugees and host communities on board. Indeed, refugees, local authorities and host communities are often forgotten in policy processes and even if they are included their bargaining power remains low due to limited political power and economic capital compared to the government and international donors. This has unfortunate consequences and leads to dysfunctions, as shown before. That is to say, there is a risk that policies driven by political incentives become mere window dressing rather than effective policies helping vulnerable people. That is not only unlucky for Uganda’s refugees and the host communities, but it also wastes a chance to develop and improve a policy that could be effective and could potentially be adopted elsewhere in the region or the world.

The main step to take is the inclusion of refugees’ and host communities’ voices in the establishment and implementation of the refugee policy for it to effectively serve the interests of these groups. Guided by their preferences, a few other steps could be taken. There should be more attention given to the quality and provision of services under the surveillance of those whom they target. There also ought to be more emphasis on increasing employment opportunities for refugees and hosts by, for example, more, and most of all, sufficient training and skills development activities. Uganda’s economy should also diversify to make sure that the labour market can be shared by both host and refugee communities. This could be done through the stimulation of both agricultural and non-agricultural sectors. Refugees all have the right to aid and freedom of movement, therefore restrictions on aid that are related to refugees’ place of residence should be abandoned. In addition, the government of Uganda must assure that development aid does not favour refugees over the communities hosting them as they might feel marginalised, which can incite conflict. This again can be achieved by including both refugees as hosts in the implementation process of the policy.

Last, it is necessary to open the discussion with Europe on alternative, durable solutions for refugees besides repatriation or to improve the situations in which refugees arrive when repatriated. It is also the responsibility of Europe to provide access and safe livelihoods for those fleeing from conflict or any other reason and to offer sustainable solutions in discussion with refugees on the ground. Indeed, there should be more agencies given to those affected most by the policy to avoid the policy being a mere window dressing that uniquely serves the interests and agendas of other stakeholders. To conclude, whereas Uganda’s refugee policy is rightfully praised for its openness and progressiveness, it has its limitations. These are, among other things, the result of the political dynamic that underlies the policy. Consequently, this political game results in ineffective policies on the ground. To tackle the dysfunctions, Uganda’s government and Europe should, on the one hand take up their responsibilities, and on the other hand, include refugees and host communities in the process of policymaking and implementation.