Although the movement of asylum seekers and refugees to the industrialized world captures much attention, the reality is that 85 percent are hosted in developing countries—which are taking on a growing share of the world’s humanitarian burden.
Uganda, with an annual per capita income of U.S. $666, is home to more refugees than any other country in Africa and has the third-largest refugee population of any nation, after Turkey and Pakistan. More than 1 million of its estimated 1.5 million refugees have arrived within the past two years, with hundreds more arriving daily. With few resources to offer to so many displaced people, Uganda represents a case study for generous refugee-hosting policies in otherwise challenging conditions.
The refugee population in Uganda is a product of its tumultuous neighborhood—with civil war in South Sudan and ethnic conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) forcing the flight of hundreds of thousands in recent years. But it is also the result of policies that are often touted as some of the most generous in the world. Praised by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, the “Uganda model” permits refugees to work, cultivate land, and move around freely—rights rarely granted to that extent in other countries of first asylum, where the arrivals are typically viewed as competition for jobs and scarce resources. Refugees also have access to government-provided health care and primary education.
Still, Uganda’s refugee response is far from perfect, and many pressure points on the system risk giving way to deep fractures, as this article explores. Though the policy landscape itself is uncommonly generous, conditions for many refugees remain grim, marked by inadequate resources, poor water and sanitation conditions, and a shortage of food amid cuts to humanitarian nutrition programs and shortfalls in international donor support. The international community and other refugee-hosting countries are watching closely to see if Uganda’s unparalleled refugee-hosting model can hold itself together.
Pressures on the Uganda Model
Uganda requires more than moral support to sustain its refugee response. Despite GDP growth rates hovering around 6 percent annually in recent years, Uganda remains a strikingly poor nation, ranking 163rd out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index. The 2016 National Household Survey found that 60 percent of Uganda’s labor force is active in the informal sector and reported only a 40.7 percent labor force participation rate for youth. With birth rates around six births per woman, according to the World Bank, Uganda’s economy is struggling to grow and formalize fast enough to accommodate these demographic changes.
Much of Uganda’s chronic poverty is concentrated in its refugee-hosting districts in the north, where substandard infrastructure and low investment isolates these populations from industrial and economic growth elsewhere in the country (see Figure 2). In the north, where subsistence farming is widespread, unpredictable patterns of flooding and drought continuously challenge livelihoods dependent on a successful harvest.
To make matters more difficult, in places where resources are already stretched thin, friction between refugees and host-community nationals has emerged over land usage, access to employment and government services, and environmental degradation. For the time being, conflict levels have remained quite low considering the breadth of possible trigger points. A 2017 study conducted when daily refugee arrivals were at their peak found that 65 percent of host-community members and 64 percent of refugees perceived the host community as having a “generally positive” attitude toward the newcomers. Yet in districts where South Sudanese arrivals more than doubled the population in just two years, the refugees’ long-term presence risks wearing down host communities’ resources and initial support.
The sheer volume of new arrivals also strains government service delivery. In 2016, Uganda total expenditures on the refugee response amounted to the equivalent of 46 percent of the national education budget or 62 percent of government health expenditures. Desperate to accommodate nearly 1 million new refugees in 2016 and 2017, the Ugandan government began diluting its generous land allocation policy. Thanks to permanent government ownership over refugee plots, officials began reclaiming land allocated to long-established refugees. Accustomed to utilizing the land for subsistence farming and limited agricultural sales, these refugees were stripped of their means of securing food sources and generating income, without the reallocation process providing any alternatives.
The refugee situation in Uganda remains precarious. Meanwhile, a panicked response to the most recent Ebola outbreak amongst displaced populations in eastern DRC could justify the closure of borders currently crossed by an estimated 5,000 individuals per day, including fishermen, traders, and refugees. Citing limited resources, parliamentarians in June pushed for legislation to restrict the number of refugees accepted into Uganda.
Can Uganda’s progressive refugee-hosting model withstand these pressures? The answer will hinge on a number of factors: the availability of robust livelihoods assistance for refugees and host communities, incentives for private-sector investment, long-term donor commitments to close fundraising gaps, and the enduring support of the Ugandan public, who continue to see refugees as an opportunity for growth. The $869 million requested for the 2018 Refugee Response Plan is more than a contribution to refugees; it is an investment in the overall development of Uganda.