Uganda: The invisible refugee host

Daryl Crowden

What you need to know:

  • Uganda has a generous ‘open door’ policy on the welcome and integration of refugees, as a result it hosts the largest number of displaced people on the African continent.

Recently I told a media representative that between January and May about 60,000 people have crossed the border from Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), and that by the end of the year as many as further 100,000 people could be added to the 1.6 million displaced people already hosted by Uganda.

Uganda has a generous ‘open door’ policy on the welcome and integration of refugees, as a result it hosts the largest number of displaced people on the African continent. The global agreement that “every person has the right to seek safety – whoever they are, wherever they come from, and whenever they are forced to flee” is not just a slogan for World Refugee Day 2022 here in Uganda.

The journalist laughed at me. ‘60,000 people in five months’ she said, ‘that is less than a days’ worth of displacement in Ukraine – that’s not news, and it certainly isn’t front page news or even a compelling story’.

She’s right of course. If we go by the numbers, there is no comparison. The needs of the millions of displaced Ukrainians are huge, and they deserve attention.

Uganda’s reputation and the success of the government’s integration policy means that, in a comparison of need, decision makers will fall to the default position that Uganda is doing okay. And even now, with a continued influx of refugees because of some of the worst conditions in recent history back at home, the global capitals are forced to measure immediacy and numbers and ignore Uganda.

We are forced to make tough decisions when there are limited resources. But, in this case the comparison has resulted in a pendulum swing of attention and support that has rendered the refugees from DR Congo and South Sudan and Uganda’s needs to support them invisible.

Despite the best efforts of the government and humanitarian agencies, thousands of children are missing out on education and many vulnerable young children and women are acutely malnourished. Countries like Uganda that receive and host large numbers of refugees, relative to their national populations and economies, need steadfast support and solidarity from the international community.

I am not suggesting that the attention on Ukraine is not right or proper. I am suggesting that ignoring the needs of Uganda and using numerical comparison to deprioritise the urgent needs in Uganda is not only simplistic, but unhelpful at best and destructive at worst. Ignoring Uganda now puts at risk the very good and real advances made over the last years.

The 1.6 million refugees in Uganda, the causes of their displacement in DR Congo and South Sudan, must not be forgotten. One of the risks of ignoring this ongoing crisis is that the Ugandan government’s commitment to, and achievements within the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) – the model for the world – will be lost. Uganda has made firm commitments to refugees and has maintained its open-door policy for years. But, while in the past the international community lauded this commitment and its implementation, today, it is not matching this praise with resourcing (funding) commitments.

Today is World Refugee Day and we are reminded that protecting people forced to flee is a collective global responsibility. Let’s compare! But let’s use the comparisons to drive us to be better, to do better and to do more. Let’s not allow the numbers to limit our initiative but rather let us strive to break the barriers of our imagination and in so doing restore wholeness in a hurting world.

Daryl Crowden is the country director

of Medical Teams International

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