Growing refugee problem burdens debt-hit Uganda

Some of the refugees at the camp. Photo | Joseph Omollo

What you need to know:

  • Mr Onek said whereas the government has registered 245 refugee partners, only under 30 percent of their funds fetched from their countries is spent directly on refugees in Uganda.

The Minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees has asked the international community to step in with more help to deal with rising numbers of refugees in Uganda.

In two separate addresses, one made at Parliament on Thursday, and another during a press briefing in Kololo on Friday, Mr Hilary Onek decried the reduction in financial support Uganda receives from international organisations for running refugee affairs.

“We have challenges in managing refugees because the refugees don’t get enough food from the World Food Programme. Some of them go on to break the laws to survive like stealing and such things,” Mr Onek told Parliament’s Presidential Affairs Committee.

 “They are malnourished and there are a lot of other difficulties that they are facing that make governance of refugees difficult,” he added.

Mr Onek said whereas the government has registered 245 refugee partners, only under 30 percent of their funds fetched from their countries is spent directly on refugees in Uganda.

“Where need be, we shall confront their governments and tell them that this is not the manner in which we want them to help these people [that] we are looking after because they create us problems,” he said.

On Friday while in the presence of the European Union Ambassador to Uganda, Mr Jan Sadek, at the UNHCR offices in Kololo, Mr Onek said: “Now that we are overloaded with refugees, who also need services and our economy as a developing country is a bit tight, our budgets are difficult to meet, we hardly balance our budgets, maybe those countries; the EU and European countries and Americans, if they could excuse us from some debts.”

He added: “Your Excellency, if your government and your people can consider that let us forgive Uganda for these debts so that they look after refugees better, it would be helpful because we are sharing services with refugees. We are sharing health centres, schools and all these are a cost on us yet we are servicing huge debts.”

To counter the refugee burden, the government is seeking Shs1 trillion to plug the shortfall.

“We are now negotiating with the World Bank for more money, $280 million (Shs1 trillion) to go again to those districts this time around. We shall expand to cover transit districts for refugees like Bundibugyo, Amuru, Kisoro, Kitgum. To ensure that the services there can meet the demand of the kind of population that is coming,” Mr Onek said.

In documents submitted to the Presidential Affairs Committee, Mr Onek’s office revealed that Uganda contributes and invests an estimated $1.3b per year into the refugee response.

The expenses are in “form of existing infrastructure such as health, education facilities and services like security, staffing and resources like environmental degradation that are accessed by refugees and host nationals within the refugee areas.” It is shown in the documents that Shs4 trillion of Uganda’s total contribution is “cost of wood fuel exploitation.”

The others are Shs392 billion on “land value to settle refugees,” Shs53b on road maintenance while Shs15 billion on security costs and Shs15 billion on education.

Health costs account for Shs14 billion while estimated tax exemption on “imports related to refugee interventions by UN agencies and development partners is Shs320 billion”.


The minister proposed that local content be emphasised in whatever refugee interventions considered.

“For the support, which comes from UNHCR, they normally hire NGOs. They have been hiring both local and foreign NGOs, but foreign NGOs are more expensive. So we are trying to make them hire more of the local NGOs,” Mr Onek said.

“They are trying to restructure UNHCR under our influence, their staffing in Uganda to reduce the international workers and replace them with Ugandans so that more Ugandans are employed in the UNHCR,” he added.

Mr Peter Okot, the Democratic Party whip at Parliament, expressed concerns about refugees crossing several countries to come to Uganda.

“We should ordinarily be hosting refugees from South Sudan, Congo and surrounding areas, but you find that we have refugees who passed several countries from their immediate borders coming all the way to Uganda,” Mr Okot said, adding; “I think we should be firm and tell the international community that we are taking the biggest burden and therefore the response in terms of financing the refugees should also increase.”

Refugee numbers

•1.568 million refugees in Uganda now. Of these, 52 percent are female and 48 percent are male.

•92 percent live in settlements while 8 percent live in urban centres.

•57 per cent are South Sudanese.

•32 per cent are Congolese.

•11 per cent are others.