Uganda: MEPs visit country which opens its doors to refugees fleeing conflict

Uganda: MEPs visit country which opens its doors to refugees fleeing conflict

22 May 2018

The people here are poor, but we share what we have with those who have nothing, I was told time and time again on a recent visit of the EP Committee on Development to Northern Uganda. Uganda ranks as one of the poorest countries in the world, but faced with conflict in neighbouring countries, it has kept its borders open, granting asylum to over 1.4m refugees - the third highest number in the world. And rather than build refugee camp and leave the rest to the UN, the Ugandan government has tried to integrate refugees with host communities, giving them land to build homes and grow crops as well as access to schools and basic services.     

The majority of refugees we met in Northern Uganda were women and children fleeing the brutal civil war in South Sudan. Over 1m Sudanese have already come since 2016 and more are arriving each day. Further south, refugees are pouring in from DR Congo and Burundi. That is why the EU is investing millions through the UN and other aid agencies to support the Ugandan government. We saw projects in animal husbandry, where families are given pigs, chickens and goats and training to rear them plus projects to train young people to be plumbers, car mechanics and metal workers. We saw low tech innovations - like the clay oven in the photo which uses less wood and allows you to cook two meals at a time. Reducing wood consumption is vital because the sheer volume of refugees arriving in Northern Uganda is putting pressure on the local eco system, as people use wood and grass for housing and heating. And it also brings additional benefits for women and girls: wood collection is not only a time consuming but sometimes dangerous activity for lone women and girls in areas where there are many roaming armed gangs. We met a group of young women who were receiving psychological support to help them deal with the atrocities they had witnessed and been subjected to.

Uganda’s policy of opening its doors to its neighbours is not without its problems. There are tensions between local communities and the refugees. Schools are overflowing, medical facilities are under strain and water resources are stretched. That is why the EU is working with the UN and the Ugandan government to implement a policy which makes sure that aid targets not just the refugees, but host communities as well, so that investment in new clinics and school buildings benefit all.   

Our visit prompted comparisons with how the EU has dealt with its own migration crisis. The numbers seeking refuge in the EU is small by comparison with Uganda, a country of 44m. If we look at how we responded to the war in Syria, in the U.K. the government agreed a scheme to take 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. So far we have taken in around 11,000 and the EU combined (population 450m) has accepted just over 1m Syrians - mainly in Germany. The situation is not directly comparable, of course. But perhaps there are some lessons from Uganda on how the EU deals with its own refugee influx. One could be to provide communities which agree to accept a higher numbers of refugees with additional resources for public services and public investment targeting all, not just refugees. Such an approach could be particularly valuable in Italy, Spain and Greece where poorer areas, with high unemployment, are facing higher levels of migrant arrivals.  

Uganda has often been singled out as the Africa country with the most progressive policies on refugees. Perhaps this is because, as we discovered, many of those in power in this often turbulent country have themselves been refugees in neighbouring countries at different times. But there are tensions, public services are under strain and life is difficult for local people and refugees alike. All this underlines the importance of continued support from the EU and the international community for Uganda and other countries on the frontline of the global refugee crisis.

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