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Analysis Uganda Refugees

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Uganda holds first Refugee Solidarity Summit

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South Sudanese refugees gather with their belongings after crossing into Uganda at the Ngomoromo border post in Lamwo district, northern Uganda, April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer/File photo

Uganda is hosting the first UN-backed Refugee Solidarity Summit to find support for the over 1.3 million refugees in the country over the next four years.


Opening Thursday in Kampala, the two-day summit aims to raise two billion dollars a year for the second largest refugee-hosting country globally after Turkey and to showcase Uganda’s celebrated refugee model.

Uganda now has a refugee population of 1.3 million and, with more new arrivals each day than any other country, it has earned a reputation as a haven for people fleeing violence.

The Ugandan government has not only opened its borders to refugees but also gives them land, education and a chance to work so as to integrate them into Ugandan society and empower the newcomers to be economically self-reliant.

But the policy has a cost.

"The toll for Uganda is very much on the enviromnental side," Gabriella Waaijman, the regional director of the Norwegian Refugee Council for East Africa told RFI. "You can imagine that areas that didn't used to host a lot of people now all of a sudden have a lot of people living there. They are cutting off trees, you have more people acquiring water, so water distribution is being affected, that's really the biggest impact for this country."

Waaijman said the host community have been incredibly welcoming to refugees.

"We Ugandans ourselves at one point had trouble in our country and required protection and they've given us protection. Now it's our turn to provide. What is important to mention is that very often refugees are seen as a burden, but we shouldn't forget that they also are able to contribute to our society, including economic contribution."

More generous than Europe

Waaijman said Uganda took in more refugees each day in 2016 than many wealthy European countries received the entire year.

That is why this summit aiming to raise two billion dollars a year to help Uganda was organised.

Both the Ugandan government and the United Nations spent 150 million dollars each to help with the refugees in 2016 but, considering the figures of arrivals and the little means left, this amount was deemed inadequate.

"What the summit is trying to do is to mobilise people to provide assistance and protection for the refugees, particularly the 700,000 or so arriving from South Sudan," says Teresa Ongaro, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson for the region.

"The summit is also looking at refugees who remained in Uganda for 10 years, 20 years, sometimes even 30, and looking for routes of development activities, so that the districts that are hosting can provide education, health services, economic opportunities, so the two billion dollars per year is a quantification of what it would cost to bring all of this in."

Ongaro added that the summit was not necessarily looking for cash, it was also looking for support in terms of building schools, upgrading hospitals, fixing roads, and she said humanitarian assistance is usually given in the form of funds to provide to the poor.

Most refugees from South Sudan

Three-quarters of refugees come from South Sudan, with a daily average of 2,000  crossing the border.

The South Sudan conflict has been escalating since 2013 and, unless a peace deal is reached, there is little hope of the flow of refugees stopping.

"When you have people, refugees, going into places like north-eastern DRC, which is an unstable place in its own right, it speaks volumes of the perception of the threat at home versus the risk people are willing to take," Ewan Lawson, of the Royal United Services Institute in London, told RFI.

"Of course, numbers of refugees crossing over could increase, particularly if the government insist on what seems to be its policy, which is to try and achieve a military defeat against all rebel groups, or against the various outbreaks of violence rather than perhaps get involved in an inclusive political process which might actually bring some of those to the table."

Lawson said the problem was that both the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the African Union (AU) have been involved in this process for some time and neither has massive resources.

The UN Security Council, and in particular P5 (Permanent members), could be playing a much more constructive role, he said.

"It's incredibly disappointing that the efforts to institute a ban on arms trade into South Sudan was defeated fundamentally because of disagreements between the P5. The P5 need to be playing a much more active role in this."

Some 80 per cent of the world’s refugees are currently hosted by developing countries, which has a dramatic impact on their economy, society and security.

With Uganda providing such a model, aid agencies are stressing that other countries should follow its lead.