How Uganda sees refugees as a benefit, not a burden

 Economic DevelopmentEmergency Response,
 8th Aug 2017

Asina has lived in Bidibidi for the past six years, long before it became the world’s largest refugee settlement. “I’m happy,” she says. Some of her younger children are playing catch on the field around her small hut on which she harvests maize. She uses most of it to feed her six children while she sells some together with the brooms she makes in one of the local markets. “I used to sell my brooms for 500 Shillings ($0.14) only but now I can charge double. Life used to be harder before the refugees came,” she says.

Asina is one of the many people in Uganda, who welcomed people fleeing from the crisis in South Sudan warmly. “I have benefitted from so many new people arriving here. It has led to new roads, closer schools for my children and I earn more than I used to. When my crops died due to the dry weather, it was relatively easy for me to start a new business selling brooms,” Asina says.

Uganda’s refugee policy is exceptionally generous. Every refugee family receives about 30x30 sq. land for living in the settlement and additional 50x50 sq. for small-scale backyard farming. The most astonishing fact is that this land is communally held, which means that it is not owned by the Government but by locals in host communities. While in many cases, negotiations with land lords takes place before a new settlement opens, some offer their land to accommodate refugees. Their only gain is a small incentive in the form of agricultural assets and the prospect for better infrastructure, for example hospitals and schools, built around their lands which in future may benefit them.

Asina is mother of six small children and has been living in Bidi Bidi for the past six years. Photo: CARE/ Anja Engelke

On the flipside, however, not everyone benefits from higher prices. “The crisis has immense influence on local markets. Due to the influx of people, prices of food and goods have risen to the extent that refugees have started selling their food assistance to locals,” says Ritah Manze, Assistant Settlement Commander of Imvepi refugee settlement.

At the height of the crisis in December 2016, more than 7,000 people from South Sudan would arrive every day in the search for refuge. Currently the settlement receives about 2,000 people on average but the numbers can rise anytime again. Although the inflow of people is leading to better infrastructure, it is at the same time stretching available local resources. Imvepi is lacking very basic assets, such as water, food and health facilities. Currently, there are 17 boreholes providing water, nine schools and two health clinics serving more than 110,000 people. This proves of particular challenge for elderly and women with children, as they often cannot walk long distances to the next water point or health facility.

For Asina, however, the positives outweigh the negatives. “Through refugees, we also receive assistance,” she says. Refugee hosting communities profit from the activities of aid organizations. According to the government, aid agencies catering to refugees must extend their services to the host community in a 70:30 ratio. This means that every borehole or clinic serving 700 refugees also needs to serve at least 300 locals.

“We have a long history in hosting refugees and see the influx as an opportunity, in which we gain more capacity and skilled labor,” says Robert Baryamwesiga, Settlement Commandant for Bidibidi. “This in turn creates development for our economy. We don’t look at refugees as terrorists or as people bringing diseases. We look at them as equal human beings and make no separation between locals and refugees. We look at the positives and how they start innovation for our country.”

The Government of Uganda has put in place a comprehensive and exemplary framework for refugees, providing them with freedom of movement, the right to work and establish businesses, the right to documentation (ID), access to social services, and allocation of plots of land for shelter and agricultural production through a generous asylum policy and various strategies.

Although support from aid organizations is of short-term nature, it targets longer-term impact and development in the economic, social, health and housing sector. With the arrival of refugees with special needs, CARE has built over 2,500 temporary shelters in Imvepi. As these emergency shelters only last up to three months, it is important to move towards building semi-permanent structures and eventually permanent buildings, which after repatriation can be used for other purposes and contributes to the overall development of the country.

However, with donor countries only pledging a total of US$432 million out of the $2 billion needed to support refugees in Uganda, current levels of funding barely cover the needs for 2017. “Additional funding for the response in coming years remains unclear but we cannot stop now. Uganda has been managing the refugee situation in an exemplary manner. The international community needs to share the burden with Uganda or conflict could very well spread into the country” says Delphine Pinault, CARE Uganda’s Country Director. 

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