The Ugandan Model of Hosting Refugees

According to a recent report by the London-based NGO Amnesty International, just ten countries host more than half the world’s 21 million refugees, nearly all of them poor or developing countries:

  1. Jordan (2.7 million)
  2. Turkey (2.5 million)
  3. Pakistan (1.6 million)
  4. Lebanon (1.5 million)
  5. Iran (979,400)
  6. Ethiopia (736,100)
  7. Kenya (553,900)
  8. Uganda (477,200)
  9. Democratic Republic of Congo (383,100)
  10. Chad (369,500)

These nations disproportionately host refugees due to mere proximity: those escaping persecution, conflict, or socioeconomic instability will immediately flee to the nearest and most accessible safe havens; most cannot afford to simply catch a flight to a far away country (which might in any case turn them away). 

But in many cases, neighboring countries are only slightly better off economically and politically than where refugees are fleeing from, and this leads to hostility towards migrants seen as adding to the burdens these nations already face. Given that even far wealthier and more developed countries are reluctant and/or unable to cope with refugees, it is little surprise that most of the top ten recipients are hardly accommodating — in addition to social marginalization or outright harassment, almost every one of them places some sort of legal restriction on employment, freedom of movement, and access to education and healthcare.

But as The Economist points out, there is one unlikely country that stands out among this grim picture, and their humane and effective approach to refugees offers lessons to even ostensibly better resourced Western nations.

Uganda’s refugee policy has been lauded by the World Bank, Oxford Refugee Studies Centre, the UN’s refugee commission and others as one of the most generous anywhere. It is home to more than half a million refugees from neighbouring countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and South Sudan. Since 2006 they have been granted freedom of movement (subject to limited restrictions), employment rights and equal access to services such as healthcare and education. Refugees can vote and stand for office at the local level. Some property rights are guaranteed: they can own movable property, such as cars and machinery. All refugees are granted a plot of land to cultivate. They are also able to lease other land and start businesses. It is a sharp contrast with neighbouring Kenya, where refugees who have been granted asylum cannot work without paying costly fees for short-term work permits.

Moreover, accommodating its refugee population has been as beneficial to native Ugandans as it has the refugees themselves:

The Ugandan approach has numerous benefits. Farming, running businesses and trading with local residents discourages dependency, reducing the need for handouts. Only 1% of refugees in Uganda are entirely dependent on aid. Freedom of movement means refugees are not warehoused for indefinite periods; refugees have a considerable degree of dignity and independence. And host communities benefit too. Trade between the two groups has flourished. Relations between refugees and local residents are generally peaceful. Intermarriages have been reported.

Granted, Uganda does fall short in one aspect: as in many other countries, first and second generation refugees cannot attain full citizenship. But at least in the meantime they can fare better in the most critical areas of importance. Perhaps it will not be long until the country takes it remarkably progressive attitude towards refugees to its fullest extent.

It is not often that Uganda is held up as a model for the rest of the world to follow. But its approach to refugees and migrants proves that the many poor countries that are often overlooked and underestimated actually offer plenty of innovative solutions to common global challenges; consider Rwanda’s marked success at healing the economic and social wounds of its infamous genocide, or South Africa’s pioneering constitution.

Perhaps this is due in part to the necessity for resourcefulness that poverty and instability bring. Or maybe it is proof that economic and political problems are not a totally accurate metric of a country’s ideas and progress. But I digress.

Thankfully, other nations are looking to applying some of the lessons of Uganda.

Ethiopia promises to grant employment rights soon. In Kalobeyei, in north-west Kenya, the local government is considering granting refugees small plots of land and allowing them to sell their produce. But in many countries politics may scupper progress. Uganda has a relatively low unemployment rate for the region: allowing refugees to enter the labour market may be trickier in other countries, especially in those where youth unemployment is high. Lifting restrictions on freedom of movement is also likely to be met with hostility elsewhere. Policies which appear generous to refugees do not win many votes in the West.

If Uganda can pull this off without any discernible economic, social, or security costs, the well resourced West can certainly do the same.

What are your thoughts?

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