I write with deep concern following the story that has been doing the rounds that Uganda is to take on refugees thrown out of Israel, which was confirmed by state minister for Disaster Preparedness Musa Ecweru on April 13 while being interviewed by BBC on Focus on Africa. The minister stated that Uganda will admit about 500 refugees of Sudanese and Eritrean origin from Israel. He said this is in line with the International Law to admit refugees to a third country. He also said it is in congruence with Uganda’s Refugees Act, 2006.
Much as I agree that Uganda should live to its obligations having ratified the 1951 Convention on Refugees through the good gesture of granting asylum to those seeking refuge in Uganda, my sincere thought on this is different. I urge government to go slow on this critical subject because of the following:
First, Uganda today is host to more than 1.4 million refugees from within the Great Lakes region as well as Somalia. With this big number, government and development partners like the UNHCR are struggling to provide humanitarian assistance to these refugees due to inadequate funding; described by the UNHCR chief as a breaking point for Uganda. This has even been made worse by the recent corruption scandals in the office of the Prime Minister, UNHCR and WFP that saw donors halt funding of a refugee operations in Uganda.
Secondly, has government consulted Parliament and citizens before accepting to take on the refugees? I heard the same minister mentioning on news that Uganda is considering granting refugees who have been in Uganda since the 1960s citizenship through naturalisation.
Thirdly, has there been any extensive and comprehensive expert investigations of the criminal records of the refugees Israel is sending away? I am afraid this move is not good for Uganda, especially in this era of global terrorism.
Fourthly, looking at the high population growth rate of Uganda which is at 3.2 per cent, where will these refugees be taken? To make matters worse, there are many Ugandans who are landless and are in dire need of land. Already there are reported tensions between refugees and host communities in refugee hosting districts over issues of land and the strained social services.
Fifthly, the environment where the refugees are is the source of fuel energy needed for cooking, income from cutting trees burning charcoal and as a source for building poles in addition to what is provided by UNHCR to put up their shelter. These activities no doubt destroy the environment. For example, in Pagirinya refugee settlement in Adjumani District, most refugees trade in charcoal from trees cut just like the local communities do.
The fear is that sooner than later, both the host and refugee communities will become environmental internally displaced persons, who will be forced to relocate to where they can find the environment to survive on. I appeal to government to reconsider the decisions already taken or about to be taken as ‘we leave our doors open to those seeking refuge in Uganda’.