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Setting an Example

by Asha Jyothi, Conor P. McGuire, Clarissa Rossetti and Jacqueline Zhen-Li Woo
June 26, 2019

This article has been distilled from a research paper authored by Asha Jyothi, Conor P. McGuire, Clarissa Rossetti and Jacqueline Zhen-Li Woo, at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Human mobility occupies center stage in the political and socio-economic discourse of our time. While much commentary and scholarship has focused on the dire conditions of refugees and other migrants in the US and Europe, media coverage of responses to migration in the global South has been less prominent. This is unfortunate given the critical mass of human migration that the global South witnesses. Uganda’s refugee policies and implementation are especially worthy of attention in this context since they are an example that the rest of the international community can follow.

Taken together, the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its corollary 1967 Protocol are the key international treaties that regulate and afford special rights to refugees. 148 states are parties to one or both of these instruments. While some countries have independent policies of settling refugee claims, these international treaties provide critical comparative and normative bases for respecting human rights and dignity, which are the core of sound refugee policy. In this respect, Uganda is a notch above the rest, hailed by the United Nations (UN) as a model nation under principles set out in its Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF). Uganda’s integration of refugee issues into its national development plans, provision of property, employment, and equal access to services, as well as its work to ensure that host communities benefit from refugees, establish it as a model for other countries.

Past and Present

Since its independence in 1962, Uganda has hosted an average of 161,000 refugees per year, primarily from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Somalia, and Rwanda. Apart from being the only country in the Horn of Africa to respect all the provisions of the 1951 Convention, Uganda also has two pertinent domestic laws, the 2006 Refugees Act and the 2010 Refugees Regulations, which further enshrine property rights, employment rights, and equal access to services for refugees. The country has worked with multilateral bodies like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Bank to successively institute national policies like the Self-Reliance Strategy in 1999, the Development Assistance for Refugee-Hosting Areas in 2003, and the Settlement Transformative Agenda in 2015, which demonstrate Uganda’s approach to refugees is one of integrated socio-economic development, as opposed to short-term emergency response. These laws and policies, including various bilateral agreements signed with country donors ranging from Japan to Sweden, have enabled refugees to be productive members of Uganda’s economy. Since the government allocates arable land of 2500 square meters to refugees in Uganda, it enables them to grow crops and trade them with host communities, a phenomenon observed and confirmed by researchers in Nakivale and Kyangwali settlements.

Such increased productivity and improved livelihoods would be impossible in the camp-style corralling that refugees face in many other countries.

Aligning Policy with Practice

Uganda is not a strong economy by any measure. The average Ugandan earned the equivalent of $1,820 in 2017. 

Only 22% of Ugandans have access to electricity at the national level, and this figure drops to 10% in rural areas, which is one of the lowest rates in Africa. Uganda faces several macroeconomic constraints in terms of investment in agriculture, technology, and infrastructure. It also largely depends on international aid to support both its economy and its refugee programs. This pool of international funding is fast depleting as many countries in the global North undertake austerity measures owing to populist pressures and economic challenges of their own. Uganda therefore needs to refocus its efforts on sustainable economic development by undertaking strategic investments in roads, water, and energy, and in key sectors, such as agriculture, trade, and manufacturing. While refugees have specific humanitarian needs, there is consensus on the need to develop the economy as a whole in order to sustain Uganda’s progressive approach to refugee management.

Uganda’s refugee management system is helmed by its Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) along with UNHCR. According to some officials of international or national non-profits with whom we spoke, local governments are often out of step with many centralized plans and can benefit from capacity building initiatives.Key informant interviews A recent report by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (UNOIOS) also confirmed negligence and wastefulness on the part of the OPM and UNHCR in awarding service delivery contracts for provisioning of water and other services in Uganda. Such highly-publicized instances of mismanagement could significantly impact future funding and sustainability for refugee programs both in Uganda and around the world if donors are not assured of rigorous accountability and transparency protocols in the management of their funds.

Potential for conflict between host communities and refugees is another critical issue in Uganda. While most Ugandans live peaceably with refugees and view them as an intrinsic part of the country’s extensive history of cross-border migratory flows, increased resource competition has resulted in sporadic violence between refugees and permanent residents, despite the fact that the government earmarks 30% of all humanitarian aid for service delivery to host communities. Conflict management between warring refugee factions is also a challenge, as witnessed between the Dinka and Nuer tribes from South Sudan who reside in close proximity in Uganda without undergoing reconciliation or counselling. Key informant interviews

A Way Forward

As Uganda grapples with some of these challenges in implementation, its refugee laws and policies offer a concrete and realistic model for many refugee-hosting countries that struggle to balance humanitarian responsibility with their own development needs. In addition, Uganda’s status as a model country under the UN’s Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework and the accompanying global attention that this has attracted, could motivate its government to address some of the gaps and challenges noted above. As the policy continues to be implemented and evaluated, other countries should look to Uganda to identify best practices that can be adapted to their own unique contexts while upholding fundamental human rights.