With funders fixated on Ukraine, Uganda asks its neighbors to pay for refugees

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Tuesday, 3 May 2022 11:15

Congolese families, who fled from Democratic Republic of Congo by boat, sit in a queue at UNHCR's Kyangwali refugee settlement camp
Congolese families, who fled from Democratic Republic of Congo by fleeing on a boat across Lake Albert, sit in a queue at United Nations High Commission for Refugees' (UNHCR) Kyangwali refugee settlement camp, Uganda March 19, 2018. Picture taken March 19, 2018. REUTERS/James Akena

With the international community occupied with the war in Ukraine, Uganda says neighbouring countries whose citizens it hosts as refugees should start paying for their upkeep.

Uganda, a landlocked country of about 46 million people, hosts the second-largest refugee population in the world after Turkey.

As of the end of March, the East African nation was hosting 1.58 million refugees. Almost 90% of them are from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, neither of which is particularly keen — or able — to pay for them. Most recently, more than 30,000 Congolese refugees reportedly crossed into Uganda after resurgent M3 rebels resurfaced in eastern DRC.

Esther Anyakun Davina, Uganda’s state minister for relief, disaster preparedness and refugees, tells The Africa Report that humanitarian organisations based in eastern DRC have warned that they should expect more refugees in the next four to six months.

Despite the current and impending influx, the minister says donors have indicated that they don’t have any more funding for refugees, which means that those already settled in camps are receiving less in terms of monetary support for basic needs.

According to her, the amount of food refugees get has decreased from 90% of the ideal amount to about 40%, which is worth about USh1,900 ($5.35) in monetary value. “It’s very little money,” she says.

With reduced international support, Anyakun insists that countries whose citizens are living in Uganda as refugees should start mobilising financial resources to support them.

“The best solution we should take is to have a regional engagement within East Africa,” she says. “We talk to the leadership of South Sudan and DRC so that if we are doing resource mobilisation in our country, they should also do resource mobilisation in their countries, knowing that they have to support their people who are in Uganda.”

Poor reception

South Sudan is not enthusiastic about the idea. The country’s deputy foreign affairs minister, Deng Dau Deng, tells The Africa Report that Juba has not received official communication from Uganda about the proposal, but according to international law, host governments are “entirely in charge of welfare and protection” of refugees.

If others don’t fulfil their roles, we are going to have people die of hunger…

Pressed on why the country isn’t concerned about the plight of its citizens suffering food shortages in Uganda, Deng says “there is now relative peace in South Sudan” and “refugees can choose to return home so that they can come and build their lives”.

However, the country remains far from stable. Clashes between factions loyal to President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar were reported as recently as April. This even as the two key players in the country’s politics signed a pact last month to unify their rival forces, making progress on a key hurdle in implementing the peace deal they signed in 2018.

Consistently underfunded

The Uganda office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says its 2022 refugee appeal remains vastly underfunded. By the end of March, the UN refugee agency had only received $30m of its $343.4m annual budget.

“The severe underfunding of the refugee response and the increased needs in the country will make responding to this emergency and maintaining existing services for the 1.5 million refugees more challenging,” the agency said.

Underfunding isn’t specific to this year, even as the war in Ukraine and two years of the Covid-19 pandemic has made things worse. Indeed, the agency has not received even half of its projected budget for Uganda for the past five years, according to UNHCR data.

Progressive policy

Uganda has one of the world’s most progressive refugee policies, earning the country global plaudits, including a 2017 visit by the UN secretary-general for a refugees solidarity summit. The refugees are settled in camps across the country and allowed the same access as Ugandan citizens to social services including education and health.

We Ugandans are fulfilling our role…

Its open-door policy in turn creates pressure on donors to keep aid flowing to avoid a regional humanitarian crisis. The government has in the past argued – to little success – that donors should go beyond providing funds to feed the refugees. Uganda has sought support for infrastructure development, which involves setting up more health and education facilities, tarmacking roads and supporting climate resilience programs in communities that host refugees.

“We Ugandans are fulfilling our role,” Anyakun says. “If others don’t fulfil their roles, we are going to have people die of hunger, we are going to have people malnourished, people stunting. It’s very bad.”

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