“Every day for nearly a year, an average of about 2,000 refugees have entered Uganda from South Sudan… Luckily, their new home may be the best place on the planet to be a refugee.”
Impossible. How can reputable news outlets like the Washington post, the Guardian and the BBC make such ridiculous statements? There is no universe where Uganda is the “best place on the planet to be a refugee”.
In New Zealand, I spent some time with an awesome refugee family. They were given a house with electricity and running water. Free education. Top quality healthcare. Mentors to guide them into the country. Money every week to buy food, clothes and other necessities. Life wasn’t easy, but it was possible for them to become well educated, get good jobs and they now live fully fledged ‘first world’ lives.
That dream is impossible as a refugee in Uganda. You live on a tiny plot of land. You have no money. Your kids go to a low quality primary school, and there is usually no chance of secondary school. Would you really rather be a refugee in Uganda than New Zealand? Uganda is not one of the best countries to be a refugee. It’s not even a good place. The claim is ridiculous. So why do reputable newspapers spout this rubbish?
Because they have bought into the misleading narrative created by the UN and Uganda. We have been fooled by this unholy alliance. The UN lauds Uganda a model refugee country and a world leader. They paint Uganda as sacrificial angels because Uganda is apparently so ‘generous’ and ‘welcoming’ to these refugees.
Except it is a lie. Uganda has sacrificed exactly nothing while taking in 1.5 million refugees. They have only gained a huge amount of money, jobs and political leverage. Uganda only benefits from refugees. It is inaccurateto label both the Ugandan Government and the Ugandan people ‘generous’ and ‘welcoming’, when they are reaping massive benefits. Uganda and the UN however have managed to sell the ‘generous poor country’ fairy tale to naïve onlookers, including international media. There is no significant downside for Uganda, and the benefits are enormous.
No down side
Uganda pays for none of the services provided for refugees. Food, education and healthcare is 100% paid for by foreign aid. Developed countries are Paying the Ugandan government and NGOs to house refugees, and provide essential services. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, I think it is a reasonable solution. But we should see the reality. Uganda is being contracted by the UN as a service provider for refugees, and they are being paid very, very handsomely.
But what about all of the land Ugandan people have ‘given’ refugees? Isn’t that a sacrifice? In Northern Uganda well over 50% of the land remains completely unused. It might surprise many readers that nearly all of the land ‘given’ to refugees had no-one living on it, and with few exceptions was not being farmed by local people. It was dead, unused land of little to no value. Also the land is not being given, but temporarily loaned. Refugees or the UN don’t own it. In the West Nile region, where most refugees are housed, most land loaned to refugees was owned by the government, but lay useless and idle. Here is Pagirinya refugee camp, where you can see on google maps that no-one has ever occupied or farmed the land where the refugee camp is now located. See especially the top section, where the photo was taken after roads were made, but before refugees settled. Loaning useless land is not a sacrifice, but a win-win business decision.
Benefits to Uganda
Money, Money, Money
Western aid money floods into the country, not only for refugees, but also into the pockets of the government and corrupt officials. There is a strange Ugandan government body called the ‘Office of the prime minister’ (OPM), which helps ‘administer’ hundreds of millions of aid money. Much of this is swindled away to line the pockets of the mega rich Ugandan elite. This was highlighted by one obvious heist, but this uncovered scandal will just be the tip of the corruption iceberg.
Local refugee ‘hosts’ also reap enormous benefits. A staggering 30% of all money given to refugees must be spent not on refugees, but on the surrounding ‘host’ community. New boreholes are drilled, schools are built. “Youth groups” are given cash, goats and cows. The idea that the local community generously welcomes and accepts refugees is a bit rich, when they are benefiting enormously from refugees housed on unused land. This is illustrated well by a comment made by a settlement commander in BidiBidi camp, one of the biggest in the world
“They (local people) contribute land for free, but of course they expect something in return”
Tens of Thousands of Jobs
Uganda has an unemployment crisis. Up to 8 in 10 university graduates are unemployed . Looking after 1.5 million refugees is a lot of paid work. Ugandans don’t volunteer to look after refugees. They need teachers, doctors and food distributors. NGO managers, nurses and borehole drillers. Refugee camps add tens of thousands of much needed jobs for Ugandans, 100% funded by foreign aid money. I have two friends who couldn’t get jobs in Gulu town, but got lucrative NGO jobs in refugee camps. This helps alleviate the unemployment situation and subdue the disenfranchised educated population.
As long as Ugandan maintains their important role as a refugee host, the world turns a blind eye to atrocities perpetrated by Uganda’s authoritarian regime. In November 2016, Ugandan Police and army ruthlessly massacred 100 people in a Western Ugandan Palace. The government then arrested 200 people who have not yet had the dignity of a trial. Beside some weak ‘condemnation’, the world turned a blind eye.
This year Ugandan Government agencies burned more than 800 huts in Apaa, Northern Uganda. Some of these huts are less than 30km from refugee camps. There is a sick Irony that Uganda is creating their own refugees in the shadow of refugee camps. These local people who’s huts are being burnt by their own government, have stormed the UN human rights office in Gulu, desperate for some kind of change. The response of the UN is pathetic, even weakly supporting the government, partly because they want to keep the ‘refugee host’ happy, otherwise perhaps rich countries will have to take in more refugees.
When a country institutes a policy that brings them massive benefits, with almost no downside, they should be considered astute, but they shouldn’t get lauded as good and benevolent. The narrative should be accurate. Rich countries pay for refugees to stay in Uganda, while Uganda’s corrupt government milks the situation all the money and political favour they can. The rich countries then don’t have to take refugees themselves. Win for rich western countries. Win for Uganda. At best, Ugandas refugee policy is a smart, mutually beneficial arrangement between the UN and Uganda. At worst it’s an unholy alliance between the UN and Uganda. It’s time the mainstream media ditch the false narrative of a sacrificial and noble poor country opening their arms to their poor brothers and sisters.
Ugandas refugee policy might be a reasonable option for all involved. Bt it doesn’t come from the ‘good hearts’ of the Ugandan government or people. If international money dries up, the refugees will be thrown out of Uganda just as quickly as they were let in. Uganda’s ‘open and generous’ refugee policy doesn’t come from the heart, but from the brain and perhaps more importantly, the stomach.