Aliens in the Pearl: being a refugee in Uganda

Joel Tomusange is a lawyer and an activist (PHOTO/Courtesy)

In 2009, 21-year-old Warsan Shire, a British poet, born to Somali parents in Kenya visited an abandoned Somali embassy in Rome which young refugees had turned into their home. She learnt that on the day prior to her visit, a young Somali boy had jumped to his death off the rooftop of that building due to depression. This tragic incident opened her eyes to realities of living as an immigrant.  Inspired by the events, she wrote a heart-warming poem titled; “Conversations about home (at the deportation centre)” capturing grief and trauma experienced by refugees.

Below are some few extracts from the poem;


no one leaves home unless

home is the mouth of a shark

you only run for the border

when you see the whole city running as well….


I hear them say, go home,

I hear them say, f****g immigrants,

fucking refugees. Are they really this ignorant?


All I can say is, I was once like you,

the apathy, the pity, the ungrateful placement

and now my home is the mouth of a shack,

now my home is a barrel of a gun. I’ll see you on the

Other side.”

Shire’s poem is a far cry about the daily realities of being a refugee world over. Refugees in the pearl of Africa are no exception. Uganda generally has pursued an “open door policy” to many refugees fleeing their countries of origin. From the late 1950s to early 1980s and 1990s to today, Uganda’s policy can be characterized as open and welcoming to a bulk of refugees. According to UNHCR, “Uganda is over all welcoming of refugees. The admission rate is one of the highest in the world, and Uganda is unique in the region for hosting refugees.”

This article will explore the refugee context in Uganda, the national legal framework, the challenges and way forward regarding the emigrant population within Uganda.

Refugee context in Uganda

Home to about 1.5 million refugees, Uganda is the largest refugee-hosting country in Africa and comes second in the world after Turkey. Wars, violence and persecution in the Horn of Africa and Great Lakes Region are the main drivers of forced displacement into Uganda, led by South Sudan’s conflict, insecurity and ethnic violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as well as political instability and human rights violations in Burundi.

Currently, South Sudanese make up the largest refugee population in Uganda (924,835) followed by refugees from the DRC (433,062), Burundi (51,039), Somalia (47,581), Rwanda (17,770), Eritrea (17,626), Ethiopia (3,469), Sudan (3,463) and others (717). Refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, Somalia, Burundi and Sudan have lived in protracted exile in Uganda for the past three decades.

12 of Uganda’s 135 districts host an overwhelming majority of refugees. About 92% live in settlements alongside the local communities, mainly in northern Uganda or West Nile (Adjumani, Arua, Koboko, Moyo, Lamwo and Yumbe) with smaller numbers in central Uganda, Western Uganda (Kiryandongo and Hoima) and southern Uganda (Kyegegwa, Kamwenge and Isingiro). Urban centers in Kampala are home to 8% of Uganda’s refugee population.

Over 100 national, international organisations and UN agencies are partnering with the office of the Prime Minister (OPM) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the current Refugee Response Plan (RRP). The Plan includes interventions to ensure the provision of water and sanitation, health and nutrition, food, shelter, education, environmental protection, livelihood support, and protection services. The 2019-2020 financial requirements to meet the above-mentioned humanitarian interventions stood at a whooping USD 1,863,750,203 making refugee crisis management quite a costly undertaking for the country.

National legal framework on refugees in Uganda

The Refugees Act, 2006

The statute encapsulates Uganda’s domestic refugee policy and essentially codifies the International refugee law instruments ratified or acceded by the Uganda government.

Qualifications for refugee status

Section 3 of the Act provides that a person qualifies to be granted refugee status if;

that person is outside the country of his or her nationality and is unable, or is unwilling to return to or avail himself or herself of the protection of that country owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, sex, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

that person is compelled to leave his or her place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in another place outside his or her country of origin or nationality owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either a part or the whole of his or her country of origin or nationality.

that person is compelled to leave his or her place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in another place outside the country of origin or nationality owing to a well-founded fear of persecution for failing to conform to gender discriminating practices.

that person is unwilling or unable to return to the country of his or her former habitual residence owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, sex, religion, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

that person is considered a refugee under any treaty obligation to which Uganda is a party, or any law in force at the commencement of this Act.

Disqualification for refugee status

Section 4 further enunciates factors which may disqualify one from becoming a refugee in Uganda to include;

that person has committed a crime against peace, a war crime or a crime against humanity as defined in any international instrument to which Uganda is a party,

that person has committed a serious non-political crime outside Uganda prior to his or her admission to Uganda as a refugee,

that person has been guilty of acts contrary to the purpose or principles of the United Nations Organisation or the OAU and having more than one nationality,

that person has not availed himself or herself of the protection of the second country of which he or she is a national and has no valid reason.

Rights of refugees while in Uganda

section 29 of the Refugees Act prescribes a number of rights to which refugees are entitled upon grant of refugee status. These include the following;

a)Right to movable and immovable property, b) right to transfer assets, c) right to education, d) the right to engage in agriculture, industry, handicrafts and commerce, e) right of association as regards non-political and non-profit making associations, f) right to access courts of law including legal assistance under the applicable laws of Uganda, g) entitled to fair and just treatment without discrimination on grounds of race, religion, sex, nationality, ethnic identity, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, h) receive at least the same treatment as is generally accorded to aliens under the Constitution and any other law in force in Uganda, i) the right to practice the profession of the refugee who holds qualifications recognised by the competent authorities in Uganda, j) the right to have access to employment opportunities and engage in gainful employment, k) have the same rights as the nationals of Uganda with respect to practicing their religion and the religious education of their children… among other rights.

Duties and Obligations of Refugees under the Act

The Refugees Act in Section 35(a-f) imposes obligations on refugees if they are to continue enjoying refugee status in Uganda. Failure to observe these obligations puts the security of a refugee in jeopardy. These include: A recognized refugee shall: a) Be bound by and conform to all laws and regulations currently in force in Uganda; b) Conform to measures taken for the maintenance of public order; c) Not engage in activities which may endanger state security, harm d) Not engage in any political activities within Uganda, whether at local or national level; e) Not engage in any activity contrary to the principles of the charter of the united nations and the statute of the African union and in particular, shall not undertake any political activities within Uganda against any country, including his/her country of origin; f) If engaged in gainful employment or fully integrated and has a source of income, pay taxes in accordance with the applicable taxes of Uganda.

The Refugees Regulations, 2010

These Regulations were issued on 29th day of May, 2009 by the HON. (PROF.) TARSIS KABWEGYERE (MP), Minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees to provide a framework as to the procedure and guidelines in enforcement of the provisions under the 2006 Refugee Act.

Challenges faced by refugees in Uganda

Overall, education remains one of the refugees’ biggest need across Uganda. Findings show that secondary school-aged refugees are least likely to be enrolled in school, as refugee families cannot afford the high tuition costs due to their limited livelihoods opportunities. Young girls in particular drop out of school, with commonly reported early marriage and pregnancy.

Refugees in Uganda also consistently report water and sanitation issues as a primary concern, as well as problems in accessing food and health services. In most settlements, the average amount of water is less than the recognized UNHCR standard of 20 liters per person/day, while reductions in food assistance have been in place since August 2016 for refugees who arrived prior to July 2015.

Households in refugee settlements complain of limited plot sizes and environmental challenges as barriers to cultivate enough crops to supplement their small food rations.

Additionally, most settlements lack sufficient Health Centers to meet the needs of the population, with some nutrition programmes failing to meet UNHCR/World Food Programme acceptable standards for defaulter and recovery rates.

While many refugees across Uganda face similar challenges, refugees from DRC, Burundi, and Rwanda living in southwestern Uganda stress protection concerns as a major issue. Women and girls, frequently mentioned experiencing assault, sexual violence, and intimidation, often while collecting firewood in host communities. On the other hand, South Sudanese refugees living in northern Uganda report the need for prioritizing emergency assistance such as basic services.

Way forward/recommendations

Despite ongoing challenges, the potential in Uganda to remain an example of refugee hosting is still prominent. Sustaining Uganda’s open-door asylum policy and progressive development-oriented model presents a challenge, requiring additional international support. The unprecedented surge in refugee numbers and the protracted stay of refugees in Uganda is imposing excessive pressure on overstretched state and host community resources.

Deeper engagement with the Private Sector. Private companies and businesses should continue to be engaged in the process. Key private actors from the sectors of banking, agriculture, communication and oil & gas need to be selected to engage in management of the refugee crisis.

Humanitarian appeals are chronically and severely underfunded, further compounding risks and vulnerabilities of refugees. The magnitude and challenges of the refugee situation call for a multifaceted comprehensive refugee response using a whole of society approach to strengthen prevention, address root causes, provide protection and pursue lasting solutions.

The government of Uganda ought to have a clear prioritization and to engage Ministry of Finance further to facilitate the resource allocation, so that the development actors and donors know where to channel the resources. The sector development plans will be a great tool to advocate for additional funding and align all the actors for the necessary interventions.

Modalities to provide more funding to the Government of Uganda need to be identified. There is need for continued advocacy for global support to the government and for effective responsibility sharing to be conducted for the successful implementation of the comprehensive response.

A comprehensive Settlement Master Approach, as outlined in the Uganda roadmap, will improve emergency preparedness in existing and potential refugee hosting districts, clarify and harmonise standard procedures, role and responsibilities.

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