We Need a More Honest Discussion of Uganda’s ‘Model’ Refugee Policies

The idealization of Uganda’s refugee model is unhelpful for Ugandans and refugees, says Lucy Hovil of the International Refugee Rights Initiative. Ignoring the political context risks undermining the best and obscuring the worst of Ugandan refugee policy.

Written by Lucy Hovil 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

Uganda’s willingness to host hundreds of thousands of refugees stands out as a positive example compared to many other countries across the world. While richer nations in Europe and the U.S. try out ever more creative ways to put up barriers to refugees reaching their territories, Uganda’s open borders put many of these states to shame.

And Uganda has not just opened its borders. It has also taken significant steps to allow for greater freedom of movement and access to work for refugees, once more going against the global grain. Uganda’s approach has rightly been applauded.

But there is another side to this story. With so few success stories among current responses to global displacement, there has been a tendency to idealize Uganda’s model. This is neither helpful to Uganda nor to other countries that might be looking to emulate Uganda’s example.

In particular, debates around Uganda’s refugee policies are often blind to the political context in which these policies are pursued, to the historical trajectories that fomented their creation, and to their complex implementation – or, at times, lack of implementation.

In order for the Ugandan “model” to reach its full potential, this other side of the story needs to be understood. Today, the International Refugees Rights Initiative (IRRI) published a paper that situates Uganda’s current refugee policy in its historical and political context. It does this not to throw unnecessary punches, but to promote a stronger and more constructive discussion about the qualities and durability of the current trajectory of refugee policy within Uganda.

A Real Crisis

The arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees from South Sudan into Uganda since 2013 has taken place in a changing international environment for refugees.

Following the arrival of over 1 million asylum seekers in Europe during 2015, a global refugee crisis that had been incubating for years was suddenly made visible in the global North. This briefly unsettled the notion that emergencies can be largely contained within a region. Europe’s response was to batten down its hatches even tighter.

In this global context, the Ugandan government was willing to grasp an opportunity to further solidify the country’s global leadership in refugee response, for example, by emphasizing freedom of movement and the right to work, as well as its position as a reliable partner of the international community.

There has been a tendency to idealize Uganda’s model. This is neither helpful to Uganda nor to other countries that might be looking to emulate Uganda’s example.

While international political expediency as a driving force for positive change is not necessarily bad, there are also immediate and longer-term risks.

First, there is a danger that the promotion of progressive refugee policies ends up being mainly a rhetorical exercise. This is doubly problematic: Not only does it mean that they fail to deliver, but they create a smoke-screen that squeezes out meaningful discussion of robust alternatives.

Second, there’s a risk that all of the effort goes into procedural labor at high levels of government, with little qualitative change on the ground. In other words, rather than being innovative, they actually reinforce the status quo.

In Uganda, the gap between rhetoric and reality remains considerable. Despite much talk about progressiveness, Uganda has merely rebranded camps as local settlements. Humanitarian aid is still directed to these settlements, making it harder to find genuine alternatives to encampment. Refugees who move to cities in Uganda continue to be largely excluded from support beyond legal status, and sometimes not even that.

Despite much talk about progressiveness, Uganda has merely rebranded camps as local settlements.

Third, local integration and access to citizenship – one of the U.N.’s three “durable solutions” to protracted displacement – has been virtually abandoned as an option. Due to limited opportunities for third-country resettlement, it has become increasingly common for voluntary repatriation to be the only solution on the table. This is worrying considering the protracted conflicts in Uganda’s neighbors, Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan.

Finally, there is a risk that host communities and local authorities are going unheard amid international and local pressure to guarantee that the “Ugandan model” survives. Policy conversations largely take place in the capital, Kampala, and in Geneva. When local authorities are consulted, it is not always clear whether they genuinely represent their communities in any meaningful way. Many Ugandans and refugees have neither the economic resources nor sufficient political leverage to influence the policies that are meant to benefit them.

Thinking Outside the Settlement

To mitigate these risks and help sustain the best aspects of Uganda’s refugee policies, we need to face a few hard realities.

First, the international community needs to deliver on its promises of significant financial support. The Ugandan government has taken the decision to capitalize on progressive refugee policies instead of capitalizing on the scapegoating of refugees. As a result, any failure to deliver the promised political and economic benefits could make the whole system collapse like a house of cards.

Second, South Sudan is likely to remain a protracted refugee crisis. We therefore need braver and more robust discussion around multiple durable solutions – repatriation cannot remain the only serious option on the table.

However, this cannot be done purely at a national level. Global commitments to “responsibility sharing” must become more than words. Alongside a discussion on local integration there must be a dramatic increase in resettlement to wealthier states across the globe.

The Ugandan government has taken the decision to capitalize on progressive refugee policies instead of capitalizing on the scapegoating of refugees. As a result, any failure to deliver the promised political and economic benefits could make the whole system collapse like a house of cards.

Third, local communities must be consulted in a more meaningful and systematic way. This requires a more nuanced understanding of who the “host communities” are and who represents them. Many of these communities are in parts of Uganda that have been historically marginalized and impoverished.

Presuming an innate cultural or social notion of “hospitality” among local communities and local authorities without creating the conditions for genuine buy-in is shortsighted and likely to lead to serious tensions within and between communities. Conversely, the presence of refugees in these regions, along with the international spotlight, presents an opportunity not only to catalyze economic development, but also to draw in marginalized communities and local authorities.

Fourth, while financial aid is important, it cannot replace rigorous policymaking and implementation. In order to genuinely enhance refugee self-reliance, the myth of the “local settlement” needs to be debunked and recognized for what it is: the ongoing isolation of refugees and the utilization of humanitarian assistance to keep them isolated and dependent on aid.

To genuinely move beyond refugee camps, the government needs to support refugees who are finding their own solutions by “self-settling” in other areas and to establish genuine pathways for people to move out of settlements if they want to.

Refugee settlements continue to play a crucial role in the response to situations of mass displacement. But we need to think more seriously about how to move beyond them as well. Ultimately, such an approach would benefit both refugees and the citizens of Uganda.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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