World / December 12, 2023

The Progressive Refugee Policy That Puts the West to Shame

Uganda’s role as a co-convenor of the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva this week should raise urgent questions about the interests behind its much-lauded open-door refugee policy.

Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Two children walk along a dirt road in front of a field of huts.
Children walk along a road in the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement in northwestern Uganda.(Gioia Forster / Picture Alliance via Getty)

Kampala—“I’m barely surviving in Uganda, but I am still alive,” says a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo whom I’ll call Joseph, as goats and chickens scuttle through Kampala’s informal settlements. Over several weeks, refugees from the DRC, Somalia, South Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, Eritrea, and Afghanistan, among other countries, each told The Nation their stories of displacement to Uganda, a co-convenor of the United Nations’ upcoming 2023 Global Refugee Forum. Most ended on a similar note: We are struggling, even starving, but we are safe.

At the Geneva forum beginning December 15, this East African country and temporary home to 2.4 million refugees will be showcasing what is known as the “Uganda Model” for refugee-hosting based on its 2006 Refugee Act—hailed time and again by the United Nations and Western media as the most progressive in the world. And yet, while humanitarian and refugees groups recognize that Uganda’s approach is indeed progressive, the refugees’ increasingly dire circumstances amid aid cuts and failed strategies should be raising urgent questions about why the West is so invested in holding up Uganda as a model to the rest of the world. So, too, should President Yoweri Museveni’s growing authoritarianism. Could it be, as some critics have suggested, that the West is willing to overlook both poor conditions in settlements and Museveni’s dangerous power grabs in order to prevent refugees from reaching our own shores?

Based on the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol, Uganda’s refugee approach does stand out internationally for its “open-door” approach and the codification of refugees’ right to work, freedom of movement, and free access to public services. Its Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF), established in 2018 based on the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, is also held up as an example thanks to its coordinating committee, which includes both refugees and local representatives.

Uganda’s refugee status adjudication process is also far more straightforward than most—and has been expedited for those fleeing neighboring South Sudan or Democratic Republic of Congo thanks to prima facie designation that recognizes the ongoing conflicts in both countries as the source of displacement. As for its “open door” approach, Ugandans say this is grounded in a Pan-Africanism that even their president for the past 37 years espouses. Like many of his fellow Ugandans, Museveni himself was displaced during Idi Amin’s rule, an experience that, to many in East Africa, drove home the fact that anyone can become a refugee.

“Sometimes the West lacks a humane approach,” says Refugee Commissioner Douglas Asiimwe, using the ancient African term ubuntu, meaning “humane.” “These are our neighbors; they are running away. What do you do? Close the door? No.”

Unlike most refugee-hosting countries, Uganda practices a settlement approach rather than a camp or detention model. As such, refugees can move freely around settlements as well as in and out of neighboring towns and cities.

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In Bidi Bidi—the largest refugee settlement in Africa and second-biggest in the world—it’s difficult to tell where the town of Yumbe ends and the refugee settlement begins. Teetering on the border with South Sudan and just a few miles from DRC, Bidi Bidi has practically become a city in its own right, hosting markets brimming with stalls run by Ugandans and refugees selling street food like rolexes (the street food, not the watch), cleaning products, and other essentials. It is also peppered with dozens of schools and health centers—many of which are being turned into permanent structures—all of which serve the hundreds of thousands of residents living in clusters of round mud houses with grass-thatched roofs built by refugees themselves on the 30m by 30m (98ft by 98ft) plots they were allocated for housing and subsistence farming.

In 2016, turmoil in South Sudan put Uganda’s refugee policies to a test no one in the country had foreseen. The East African nation of under 39 million went from hosting half a million refugees in 2016 to 1.3 million in a matter of months. South Sudanese radio journalist Christine Onzia Wani, who’s lived in Bidi Bidi for the better part of a decade, says that as civil war broke out again in South Sudan that year, she and her husband refused to believe their eyes.

“The war started like a joke,” the 34-year-old tells The Nation as her son feeds their goat nearby. “By the time we decided to leave, we almost [had to make] the journey on foot, but we took a very difficult decision to sell one of our most valuable possessions just to get a barely functioning car to take us to Uganda.”

Most South Sudanese refugees fled to the underserved West Nile sub-region, where many still remembered their own displacement to modern-day South Sudan and elsewhere due to Uganda’s own decades-long civil war. The United Nations Refugee Agency scrambled to provide refugees with white tarpaulins, solar panels, and other basic equipment and urgently set up infrastructure with partner agencies and Uganda’s Office of the Prime Minister. But more often than not, locals became the first responders, opening their homes and lending out the land Bidi Bidi is built on—owned by local Aringa tribes—to house their neighbors in their time of need.

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Eight of Uganda’s 13 refugee settlements are concentrated in the largely underdeveloped West Nile and Acholi sub-regions. Despite locals’ generous initial response, the United Nations and World Bank helped Uganda draft the “30-70 Principle”—another critical part of the “Uganda Model”—to relieve tensions in refugee-hosting communities. The rule, which requires all NGOs to allocate 30 percent of their refugee response budgets to benefiting locals, encouraged humanitarian agencies to build permanent infrastructure and services that many locals already use on a regular basis. Yumbe District Chairperson Abdulmutalib Asikuhas called the refugees’ arrival a “blessing.”

Over 400 miles south of Bidi Bidi lies Nakivale, the oldest refugee settlement in Africa, which serves as a testament of sorts to the “30-70 principle” and other successful parts of the “Uganda Model”—as well as some of its most protracted struggles. Near the border with Tanzania and Rwanda, Nakivale hosted Polish refugees during World War II and became a settlement after 1958 when it welcomed Rwandan Tutsi refugees. Now, Nakivale—another city born from a settlement—hosts refugees from a number of countries, including a majority from DRC, amid well-established infrastructure including permanent schools and healthcare centers.

Agriculture—including commercial crop growing—played an important role in the survival of refugees on Nakivale’s fertile soil, where “self-reliance” policies encouraging refugees to grow food staples and work rather than depend on aid were also put to the test. William Bakunzi, a 52-year-old Congolese refugee who has lived in Nakivale for 17 years, says at first he was allocated two acres of land.

“Back then they were giving much bigger plots,” William reflects quietly. As more refugees arrived over the years, he adds, “the land got reduced, and climate change has not been favorable to farming, so we were making big losses and have now been discouraged from farming.”

A math, physics, and geography teacher in his home country, William would love to teach again, but his teaching certificates are not valid in Uganda. His is not an uncommon story among refugees in the country. While the 2006 act enshrined refugees’ right to work, newcomers often run into bureaucratic obstacles, including having to acquire expensive work permits. Coupled with somewhat outdated “livelihood training,” increased climate difficulties, and an economy plagued by extremely high unemployment, Uganda’s refugee “self-reliance” strategies have actually left the majority of refugees “in extreme poverty and food insecurity,” according to a 2020 UN Habitat and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report. Meanwhile, there remains no path to citizenship for refugees or their children—even those born in Uganda—and there seems little to no desire to provide one.

These are just some of the ways that Uganda’s putatively progressive refugee policy fails to live up to its stated mission. And while these were broad concerns before the Covid-19 pandemic, the global catastrophe and its economic aftermath have exacerbated poverty in the world’s 90th-largest economy, while a combination of inflation and devastating aid cuts has brought Ugandan refugees to their knees. Recent World Food Program cuts have even left many refugees in settlements with nothing to eat, leading some, like Christine’s neighbor in BidiBidi, to commit suicide while others have risked their lives by returning to South Sudan to farm on more cultivable land.

Protracted conflicts in the region, as well as more recent turmoil in Sudan, Niger, Gaza, and elsewhere, have put a strain on international aid agencies’ already underfinanced budgets. Even so, CRRF Director Helen Bugarari tells The Nation that the Ugandan government is hoping to use the December forum in Switzerland to raise awareness about the international community’s “burden-sharing” responsibilities to global refugees in her country and elsewhere. This support can mean increased funding to Uganda, or, according to Uganda’s UNHCR Deputy High Commissioner Jason Hepps, it can also come in the form of expanded resettlement options to third countries, such as the United States—his own home country.

Critics worry, however, that rather than ubuntu, there may be more cynical motivations behind the open-door policy. As international funding poured in to sustain Uganda’s refugee response, especially since 2016, corruption also seeped in. One scandal in particular, which involved the inflation of South Sudanese refugee numbers and misallocation of aid, even led to the removal of the former refugee commissioner Apollo Kazungu in 2021—though he reportedly remains in the Ugandan government.

Kristof Titeca, an Antwerp University professor, has censured Western media for promoting simplistic narratives about Uganda’s refugee policies without examining how Museveni’s regime can leverage this image. Titeca tells The Nation that as Uganda “has backslid from a semi-authoritarian to an authoritarian regime, there has been limited to almost no reaction from the international community.”

Cuts have been felt acutely across Uganda’s settlements, especially as NGOs aim to scale back involvement in already underfunded and oversubscribed refugee services. That said, the European Union has sent Uganda more than €278 ($292) million since 2017, and USAID announced in July 2022 that the United States “remains the largest humanitarian donor to the refugee response in Uganda,” providing almost $170 million in 2022—down from $221 million in 2017. This despite the Museveni regime’s jailing and allegedly torturing opposition supporters during the 2021 general elections as well as passing new anti-LGBTQ+ laws—promoted and funded in large part by America’s Christian far right—that now carry a death sentence and have turned settlements into “prisons for LGBTQ+ asylum seekers.”

According to the Belgian professor, Uganda’s role in the War on Terror and its reputation as a refugee-hosting country have played an outsize role in how the West responds to the Museveni regime’s crimes. Alexander Betts, a professor at the Oxford University Refugee Studies Centre, also highlights the fact that Museveni actively aids and abets the very conflicts in South Sudan and DRC that are causing displacement.

One thing that even Uganda’s staunchest critics continue to commend, however, despite these troubling developments is that, as displacement hits record numbers around the world, government officials confirm that there’s no talk of setting caps for refugees or closing Uganda’s borders.

“When [Ugandan officials] say open door, they mean open door,” says Andie Lambe, creator of the Uganda Refugee News.

To Uganda’s UNHCR deputy high commissioner, the country’s “generosity,” as Hepp calls it, stands in stark contrast to Europe and North America. Each day, it seems, wealthy nations find new ways to shut out refugees fleeing violence and climate conditions that the West caused or profited from. In Europe, right-wing parties have stoked xenophobia to rise to power with platforms and policies promising to “stop the boats” arriving with African refugees. Under recent Republican and Democratic administrations, US immigration policies have systematically lowered the number of refugee admissions—currently capped at 125,000. Only 25,465 refugees were actually resettled in the United States in 2022. American laws, unlike Uganda’s 2006 Refugee Act, also make it practically impossible to claim refugee status, putting refugees through grueling interview processes that place the onus on them to prove that they have already or could suffer persecution in their home country.

Perhaps most egregiously, Washington routinely mislabels refugees fleeing generalized violence—for example from Central America—as economic migrants. It also enforces eligibility restrictions for asylum seekers—including a recently blocked Biden administration proposal—that flagrantly contradict the 1951 United Nations Convention on refugees and its 1967 protocol. Dr. Evan Easton Calabria, a Tufts University researcher who has studied Uganda’s refugee communities, points out that, put simply, the East African country’s refugee policy is as progressive as the UN convention it is based on.

“Really, we just need the 1951 Convention to actually be applied,” says Easton Calabria ahead of the latest UN refugee forum, exasperation audible in her voice. “That would make a huge difference in the lives of most of the refugees in the world.”

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Natasha Hakimi Zapata

Natasha Hakimi Zapata is an award-winning journalist and university lecturer based in Europe. Her work has been published in The Nation, In These Times, ScheerPost, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.

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