Uganda is widely recognised as having one of the most progressive refugee policies in the world. In addition to hosting more refugees than any other country in Africa,
While Uganda is often praised as "the most refugee-friendly country" by the international community, the sustainability of its approach requires careful scrutiny. Recent studies highlight that Uganda’s refugee-accommodating capacity has been over-stretched due to continuous influxes of refugees to the country.
Uganda's approach to refugee protection
Since the early 1960s, the government of Uganda has maintained a welcoming policy environment for the refugees it hosts. As refugees fled conflict during independence wars, Cold War proxy conflicts, and ethnic violence throughout the Great Lakes and the Horn of Africa, Uganda encouraged spontaneous self-settlement in underpopulated areas of the country. The relatively low number of inflows meant that there was sufficient arable land to accommodate refugees and to create sustainable opportunities.
Uganda is signatory to the main international legal instruments for refugee protection, including the 1951 Refugee Convention, the 1967 Protocol, and the 1969 Organization of African Unity (OAU) Refugee Convention. Uganda has also adopted two pieces of legislation, the 2006 Refugees Act and the 2010 Refugee Regulations, which reflect the government’s commitment to current international standards of refugee protection.
Ugandan policies enacted through the Refugee Department of the Office of the Prime Minister have made the goal of self-reliance central to the country’s refugee regime. This idea is clearly embodied in Uganda’s famous "Self-Reliance Strategy" (SRS). As part of this strategy, refugees in Uganda enjoy the right to work, freedom of movement within the country, access to basic services, and the right to live in local communities as well as in defined settlements. Within the country’s refugee settlements, small plots of land are also allocated to each refugee household to facilitate a development-based approach to refugees’ self-reliance.
Although policy labels have changed over time, Uganda has maintained a practice of promoting refugees’ self-reliance. More recently, the 2016 Refugee and Host Population Empowerment (ReHoPE) strategic framework updated the SRS, outlining a model to support resilience and self-reliance for both refugees and host communities by integrating refugees in national development plans.
Figures at a glance
According to the latest version of the UN Refugee Agency's (UNHCR) Global Trends report – published in 2019 –, Uganda is ranked as the third largest refugee-hosting state in the world (after Turkey and Pakistan), and the first in Africa, with 1,190,922 refugees and asylum seekers at the end of 2018. These nearly 1.2 million displacees have been accommodated across 14 major settlements, including the capital city, Kampala.
In addition to the large number of displaced people currently hosted, it is also relevant to note the rapid pace of increment in this figure over recent years which presents an additional challenge. As shown in the Figure below, the total number of refugees and asylum seekers hosted in Uganda is currently approximately five times larger than it was in 2013 when the country hosted 244,876 refugees.
This steep increase is largely due to displacement caused by internal conflicts in neighbouring South Sudan. Currently, South Sudan is the third largest refugee-producing country in the world, after Syria and Afghanistan. The total number of South Sudanese refugees globally had passed two million by the end of 2018. According to the UN refugee agency, the majority are women and children; 63 percent of South Sudanese refugees are under the age of 18, many of whom have travelled alone. As a bordering country to South Sudan, Uganda has been a primary refuge for those fleeing conflicts, sexual and gender based violence (SGBV), and other consequences of civil war. Tha Table is based on UNHCR’s data and illustrates that nearly 70 percent of Uganda’s refugee population is comprised of those who have fled South Sudan.
Number and origin of refugees and asylum seekers in Uganda in September 2019
Source: Uganda: UNHCR Operational Update, September 2019.
The Ugandan model under pressure?
The international community praises Uganda as the "most generous country" toward refugees, and the Ugandan government has generally welcomed such positive representation, characterized with hospitality and generosity. Nevertheless, the viability of its self-reliance policy requires scrutiny. Currently, Uganda is hosting the highest number of refugees in the country’s history, which appears to be straining on the country’s limited resources.
As noted above, one of the distinguishing features of Uganda’s refugee protection model is its allocation of plots of land for cultivation to refugees living in settlements. In theory, this enables them to grow crops for subsistence and for sale, supplementing food rations and other sources of income. However, with the inflated number of refugees, Uganda’s current land allocation model seems to be facing challenges.
A recent study by University of Oxford in Uganda highlights this point.
In Nakivale, previously, the size of cultivation plots was intended to be 50 metres by 50 metres but today the average size for newly arrived refugees has decreased to 20 metres by 30 metres or smaller. With limited size of the agricultural plot, the key underpinning of the Ugandan Self-Reliance Strategy – promoting refugees’ livelihoods and subsequent self-reliance through farming – has become compromised in the Nakivale context.
Alarmingly, the increased number of refugees in Nakivale is affecting relationships with host populations. Due to land scarcity, a significant number of newly arrived refugees are assigned to stay in surrounding areas of the settlement. The expansion of the settlement has led to land disputes with local Ugandan villagers living in surrounding areas. In 2017, for example, there was a two week demonstration led by Ugandan villagers related to land disputes with refugees in Nakivale.
The tension between refugees and local communities over land is not limited to Nakivale. Following the recent influxes of refugees from South Sudan, there have been reports of grievances in other parts of Uganda.
As recent empirical studies above indicate, the country’s refugee-accommodating capacity has been under stress due to continuous influxes of refugees from neighbouring countries. According to the latest statistics of UNHCR, the number of refugees in Uganda continues to climb, reaching 1,347,360 as of September 2019. While the inflow of South Sudanese refugees has declined in recent months, ongoing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have contributed to this rise in the overall figure.
International policymakers frequently search for and highlight good practices in refugee protection. The Ugandan refugee policies have historically been promoted as an exemplary case that demonstrates generosity, solidarity, and hospitality, advancing a development-based approach to refugee assistance within and beyond Africa. However, it is important to understand the limitations of such a model of "success". The unexamined idealisation of Uganda’s refugee policy can obscure the challenges the country faces, in particular at the community level host and refugee populations.