Refugees: The Ugandan example

In June 2017, Kampala, the capital of Uganda, hosted a United Nations summit on solidarity with refugees. This was an opportunity for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to study this often praised model for refugee management. There are 22.5 million refugees in the world, of which 5.6 million are in Africa, including 1.3 million in Uganda. In a rather explosive regional context of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan and Somalia, in addition to socio-political conflicts in various other countries of the great lakes and East Africa, Uganda has had no choice but to open its doors to thousands of people fleeing to save their lives. The tension created by the reception of refugees in Europe and the obvious will of the European governments to set up sorting centers for asylum seekers in the Sahel made it necessary to carry out a monitoring mission in Uganda to understand the mechanisms of its model for refugees.

Young people at risk of their lives

Women, children, girls and boys. This is the vision that marks any visitor to the Bidi bidi camp in northwestern Uganda near the southern Sudanese border. Meetings with these people on their journey reveals how difficult it is for young people to live in Africa. Young people who had to flee their homeland for daring to demand work, good governance, transparency, and a better distribution of wealth, or had no choice but to flee from wars created by transnational corporations looking to exploit the natural and mineral resources on their land. Here we recount the story of these Sudanese, Congolese, Ethiopian, Somali, Rwandan and Burundian refugees encountered in Kampala and throughout our visits to hospitable Uganda. Of all these stories, which recount the misfortune of being a young person committed to social justice in Africa, that of Fiona from Burundi deserves a little attention.

Of Tutsi origin, and at the height of her 28 years, this young and svelte woman confided to me the impression of thinking like a person of 50 years as the many tests experienced in her life have led her to a certain maturity. Her life changed suddenly from one day to the next because of her husband’s commitment. She told me that she loved this man for his commitment. At the age of 21 and studying for a psychology degree, she married a young politician who held an important administrative post in his native region of Burundi. The misfortune caused this young person to also be a leader of the opposition party in power, which led him to flee after controversial elections a year after their marriage. In search of her husband, the security services of the President of the Republic attacked the young woman carrying an early pregnancy. Asked in vain about her husband’s location, Fiona was beaten and left dying in a forest. She was rescued by a villager who was passing by looking for firewood, who took her in, allowing her to regain strength and gave her some means of illegally leaving Burundi for Uganda.

To my question of why Uganda and not the neighboring Rwanda, which offered more linguistic possibilites, Fiona told me about the kidnapping of opponents orchestrated from Rwanda by the Burundian regime via its spies on the spot. Tanzania may also have been considered, but the government of Tanzania had a tendency to resort to practices of “voluntary return” of Burundian refugees, where the situation in Burundi appears to be far from being the most stable. Uganda has opened its doors to her to start a new life.


Uprooted from her native land and having to start a new life without money or family, this reflects the harsh ordeal of many asylum-seekers on the land that offers her hospitality. Some never recover from the shock of forced separation from their native land, others begin with a fresh start. For Fiona, after being able to find her husband and following her childbirth, her survival provides the motivation that pushes her to resume her fight to exist. For eighteen months, she attended English classes organized for refugees three times a week whilst doing housework to feed her family. She was going to fetch water from her Ugandan neighbors, and also visited houses around the residential neighborhoods to offer her services for laundry and other household tasks to meet the needs of her family and treat them in case of illness. Officially she received free care and food support as a refugee, but the reality was somewhat different.

The refugees from the Bidi bidi camp also confided to us the same difficulties. While they welcome the language training that ensures their integration into social life, they complain about access to food, water and health. The corruption of officials tasked with delivering these services, and administrative procedures, make the situation of refugees even more precarious. Odd jobs are often the way out for all. Fiona decided, after the English classes, to start a vocational training to learn art, weaving, batik and the manufacturing of pearls to sell in the market. After three months traveling 8km on foot, four times a day to learn these trades, she decided along with other refugee women to create their business to live off the fruit of their work. Their refugee status made them vulnerable to people who took their products and refused to pay for them. So many prejudices and disappointing experiences push many refugee women into prostitution. As for Fiona, her salvation came from her sense of commitment. By dint of living the suffering of her family and her entourage, she devoted herself more and more to helping her refugee sisters in trouble with administrative procedures and access to care. Her commitment and the remarkable work she carried out around her helped her to receive support from some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working for refugees.

If Fiona did as well as she did, her husband did not. The latter, who had also moved to Uganda with his wife, did not succeed in asserting his skills. After following the process for an equivalence in Uganda of his Doctorate degree obtained in France, he was confronted with severe discrimination in the hiring process encountered by refugees. All the available jobs will be given priority to Ugandan nationals to cope with youth unemployment in the country and to avoid recriminations against refugees who are considered to be working thieves. The complication of having completed higher education and the cultural vision of domestic tasks distributed by gender further prevent these graduates from moving into rudimentary jobs for them. Many refugees transform from a professional level to become mules for all types of trafficking, engage in theft or end up becoming alcoholics.

Luc, from the DRC, converted himself into a seller of gold earrings and chains. It was difficult to survive with the meagre benefits of this activity but he is happy to have been able to leave the east of the DR Congo and its associated conflicts. His law degree is of no use to him at the moment but he still hopes one day to return to occupy high political office in his native country after change arrives. Gebre, an Ethiopian political refugee, trained in Uganda as a video reporter, linking him with his passion for journalistic writing, after which he was told to flee from Ethiopia because his articles disturbed the government. Nor does he lose hope of marrying the love of his life, Salima, a Somali woman in Uganda who has benefited from a UNHCR relocation operation and is currently studying in Sweden. How did it turn out? Gebre is part of the long waiting list of refugees hoping for Western countries’ promises to ease the burden on Uganda by accepting the relocation of some of its million refugees to their country.

Clear crying, restore hope

Musa Ecweru is the minister for Refugees and IDPs in the Ugandan government. A handsome man with a dark complexion and a shaved head, the minister who sits in the Ugandan parliament astonishes you with his joviality and easy approach. Without any difficulty, he welcomes us to the attention of the management of the ministerial department. Very sympathetic, and far from the protocols, he assures us that he takes to heart his heavy responsibility towards refugees: “Refugees are not criminals but victims of the dysfunction of the world system”. However, it is also necessary to face up to public opinion and the debate within the country, which tends to suggest that the government is doing more for the refugees, fuels a feeling of xenophobia.

“When I visit the refugee camps, I exchange with these unaccompanied children who find themselves without news of their relatives, completely miserable and in a situation of distress. I wonder what would it be if my children found themselves carrying plastic bottles in their shoes instead…If my child is as smart and brilliant as this South Sudanese child why not give him the chance to go to school.” Then he told us of his recent joy in the Bidi bidi camp to see a teenager, who arrived a few months ago on Ugandan soil, now speak English while in the failed state of South Sudan she had not had this opportunity. The minister said he was aware of the refugees’ complaints about the bureaucratic harassment and the corruption they suffered from corrupt officials. He tries to fight against this with the limited means at his disposal and the difficult task he has to meet the needs of more than one million refugees on a daily basis.

Beyond the refugees, the minister spoke of the thorny problem of IDPs, more numerous in Uganda and throughout Africa, following natural disasters, climate change and ethnic conflicts. Estimated at 12.4 million on the African continent and more than 40 million in the world, the situation of the internally displaced was the subject of a specific convention of the African Union adopted in Kampala on 23 October 2009. However, internally displaced persons benefit less from international protection and their fate is left to the good governance of their states and to religious charity. For the minister, the dysfunctions of the global system demand a global solution, if not “we all go to the wall“. According to the minister, saving the dignity of the refugees and preventing them from falling into the trap of the traffickers demand that the international community reflect on all the scenarios before starting wars, even in the name of democracy such as in Libya or Syria. Finally, it seems essential to the minister that the rich countries honor their duty of solidarity towards poor countries like Uganda, who bear the consequences of the wars by hosting the world’s refugees, and are obliged to contractual debts to International Financial Institutions (World Bank, IMF, etc.) to deal with their management.

Good refugees, bad migrants

Bornwell Kantande, the first UNHCR official in Uganda, was equally gracious and gave us time to talk. At first glance, he wished to salute the Ugandan government, which welcomes “without fear” and in spite of “internal debates” a multitude of citizens of the sub-region without making a distinction between the good “refugees” and the bad “migrants”and allowing all to enjoy their right to life. The current events, marked by the proposal by France to set up a sorting center for asylum seekers and migrants in Niger and Chad, has been invited in our discussions. For the civil society actors that we are, the question to the UNHCR representative was what remains of the Geneva Convention on Refugees after the latest European initiatives to reduce the influx of refugee claimants on their soil.

The paradox is that the Geneva Convention was adopted in 1951 at a time when the East-West struggle resulted in refugees predominately arriving from the European continent, as the countries of the South were still under colonization. This convention is now being ruined by the decisions taken at European level through the agreement between the European Union and Turkey to stop the arrival of Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi etc. asylum seekers in Greece. For the UN officials the Global Pact on Refugees being negotiated, and which will be adopted in September 2018 will allow for a permanent redefinition of the global framework for management of refugees in the world, and according to them will be an improvement. Meanwhile, the actions of European countries damage their reputation for protecting those fleeing wars and persecutions.

The announced outsourcing of the sorting center in Niger and Chad and the fact that these countries (Turkey, Niger and Chad) are designated as “safe” leads to a reflection on what remains of human rights in Europe. In countries with authoritarian powers, where the people and the media are muzzled and suppressed in the name of the fight against terrorism, European countries allow themselves to strengthen the regimes by offering them money and logistical support. At the same time, European funds are used to finance human rights NGOs which will certainly be repressed by these authoritarian powers. These human rights activists will then be denied the right to be asylum seekers by European countries.

The consideration of so-called safe countries whose citizens can not enjoy the right to asylum in Europe is at odds with the current situation of refugees in various countries in the world. Taking the example of a small country such as Togo, which has more than 20,000 refugees on its soil, the first nationality of the people enjoying this status is the Ghanaians. This could be surprising given that Ghana is on the list of safe and stable countries in Africa according to European criteria. This country has a democratic regime appreciated by the international community with an economy that is prowess in terms of growth. However, the European classification does not take into account the recurrence of ethnic conflicts in Ghana as in many other African countries which often cause people to have to lose everything in order to find themselves uprooted and suffering far from their homes. The latter deserve international protection as much as Syrians and other Somali asylum-seekers in the name of the preservation of human.

In addition, the contradictions of european policies in relation to the UN refugee management framework reveals the extent to which the international system is neither egalitarian nor fair and totally western-centered. The notion of “refugee crisis” was never mentioned when so many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America had to deal with the floods of refugees from the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Myanmar, Somalia, DRC, Southern Sudan, Colombia, Nicaragua and others. The crisis appears as soon as the refugees touch Europe. High-level international conferences are convened to deal with the European refugee crisis. This is the world where a crisis is not a crisis until it has touched the West. Terrorism is not a global problem as long as it does not affect the West. Ten deaths in Paris, Barcelona or London have more media value for special editions than hundreds of deaths in Kenya or thousands of deaths in Freetown, Sierra Leone or thousands of Rohyngas persecuted for years in Myanmar.

The response to the European refugee crisis remains to risk lives of asylum-seekers by signing agreements with countries at risk, such as Turkey and Libya, where security, humanitarian situation and exercise of freedoms are endangered. The other solution is to reinforce the army and the security forces in African countries on the road of the asylum seekers by transforming places like the Sahara desert into cemetery via the positioning of soldiers on the edge of the oases to deprive migrants of access to water. Faced with these deadly responses proposed as the only alternatives to prevent the rise of the extreme right in Europe and to please the wealthy Western industrialists who are reluctant to pay for the dysfunctions of the world, public opinion, or what is still left by humanity in this world, must unite to defend solidarity. A value flouted by the neoliberal system that governs the planet and comes to forget that economic globalization without social justice and solidarity can only lead to human crises and crimes against humanity.

(Written by Samir ABI, Permanent Secretary of the West African Observatory on Migrations)

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