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Austin Bodetti

What Arab countries can learn from Uganda's humane approach to neighbouring refugees

South Sudanese refugees line up to collect their monthly food allowance from WFP [Getty]

Date of publication: 12 February, 2019

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Analysis: Uganda embraced its role as home away from home for over a million African refugees, who have access to healthcare, their own land, and freedom to travel through country.
Uganda rarely features in discussions of geopolitics, yet the East African country often finds itself dealing with the fallout from some of the most brutal conflicts in recent memory.

Thousands of refugees from the Somali Civil War and hundreds of thousands from the South Sudanese Civil War have flooded the Ugandan countryside. Whereas similar influxes have tended to overwhelm developed countries from Europe to the Middle East, Uganda has embraced its role as a home away from home for more than a million African refugees. In fact, this status has allowed Uganda to grow its clout and sphere of influence.

Refugees in Uganda receive their own land, enjoying the freedom to travel through and work in the Ugandan countryside as they please. In essence, the East African country maintains open borders.

Unlike similar immigration policies in a handful of Western countries, this approach has seemed to spark little backlash among Ugandans. In a landmark survey conducted by the International Rescue Committee, most Ugandans believed their government was handling the refugees "well" or "very well".

Estimates suggest the East African country hosts 1.5 million refugees, behind only Pakistan and Turkey. Uganda, whose population hit 42 million in 2017, has earned many Western plaudits for opening its doors to Somalis, South Sudanese, and other Africans fleeing conflict. The East African country has proven an example of stability in a region often otherwise devoid of it.
Uganda has embraced its role as a home away from home for more than a million African refugees. In fact, this status has allowed Uganda to grow its clout and sphere of influence

"Uganda has a humane policy for welcoming refugees from neighbouring countries," said Dr Helen Liebling, an associate at the Center for Trust, Peace, and Social Relations who is conducting fieldwork on the living conditions of South Sudanese refugees in Uganda's north.

The aid agency CARE praised the Ugandan approach to refugees as "the best in the world", noting the extent of "Uganda's compassion and empathy towards the South Sudanese refugees" in particular. Action against Hunger, another aid agency, took to Twitter to express support for a Ugandan programme to offer refugees healthcare: the Health Sector Refugee Integrated Response Plan.

"Uganda gives South Sudanese people who are fleeing human-rights abuses refuge in settlements," noted Liebling. "They are given a small plot of land and they do not have to apply for asylum as their situation is recognised as a prima facie case for protection."

The kitchen of the Kyangwali refugee camp which provides hot meals for 2,500 Congolese refugees daily [Getty]

Ugandan activists and officials have further impressed foreigners by finding novel methods of mitigating concerns that supplying refugees with their own land could harm the natural environment.

Uganda partnered with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to encourage refugees to plant trees near their homes. A Ugandan church is even teaching refugees how to engage in sustainable agriculture, counteracting deforestation and poverty at the same time.

While part of this forward-leaning immigration policy may stem from altruism, Uganda's open borders have also brought the East African country economic benefits.

The flow of refugees is expanding the workforce in Uganda with hundreds of thousands of labourers and skilled workers, many of whom have established markets and small businesses in once-impoverished Ugandan regions. The refugees also come with the guarantee of humanitarian aid from the international community. In 2018, the United States Agency for International Development alone contributed 83 million dollars to Uganda.

The flow of refugees is expanding the workforce in Uganda with hundreds of thousands of labourers and skilled workers, many of whom have established markets and small businesses in once-impoverished Ugandan regions

In addition to the financial incentives, Uganda's immigration policy has long continued to yield political dividends. Uganda's willingness to shelter refugees from the Somali and South Sudanese Civil Wars has endeared the East African country to the international community as well as the news media, obscuring the Ugandan role in both conflicts.

Twin car bombs killed dozens of Ugandan soldiers in Somalia last April, and Uganda sent several soldiers into South Sudan just last month.

In the past, Uganda has deployed refugees as even more direct tools of foreign policy. During the War in Darfur, the East African country permitted factions of the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army to build offices in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, antagonising Uganda's rivals in Sudan. Uganda has also tried to leverage this relationship to act as a mediator in the Third Sudanese Civil War.

While Pakistan, Turkey, and many other countries have politicised refugees to advance their own foreign policies, Uganda seems unique in that it has more or less avoided scrutiny from the international community and the news media for engaging in this practice.

In part, Uganda's success may stem from its relative benevolence toward refugees. Human rights activists have criticised not only Pakistan and Turkey but also Kenya and Tanzania - Uganda's neighbours - for how they treat refugees. Uganda looks good in comparison even if it does have ulterior motives for welcoming Somalis and South Sudanese.

Middle Eastern regional powers may even look to copy Uganda's success with refugees, offering Yemenis and others asylum in exchange for the international community's largesse

Though the reasons behind Uganda's exemplary immigration policy may prove less than selfless, refugees there are still reaping the rewards.

As long as those refugees continue to serve Uganda's national interests, Somalis and South Sudanese will likely still have a second home in the East African country for years to come.

Middle Eastern regional powers may even look to copy Uganda's success with refugees, offering Yemenis and others asylum in exchange for the international community's largesse.

The Kuluba refugee reception centre is one of many in northern Uganda specially built to handle the hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese refugees [Getty]

Until open borders become the norm for refugees, Uganda's immigration policy will remain an outlier in the Global South and the rest of the world. In the meantime, Somalis and South Sudanese have the chance to rebuild their lives in a country that seems more than eager to host them.

"Though there is a need for improved screening, treatment, and support, Ugandans are doing their best to welcome refugees into their country despite having very limited resources themselves," observed Liebling, author of A Gendered Analysis of the Experiences of Ugandan Women War Survivors.

"Their policy is very humane compared to many others that now exist worldwide."


Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. 

He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda. His research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.

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