Why Uganda is a darling of refugees

Uganda doesn’t often appear as ‘best of’ anymore. Donors and other development people fell out of love with President Museveni many years ago. But recently, I stumbled over something that was, for lack of a better word, really nice. It turns out that Uganda is one of the best places in the world to be a refugee! Why? Because, according to UNHCR, Uganda doesn’t lock them up in camps but ‘Uganda allows them to set up businesses, work for others, and move freely around the country.

The majority of refugees live in Uganda’s rural settlements, where they are allocated plots of land and given materials to build a basic home, as well as food aid and access to basic health and education services. But they are also free to build a life in Kampala – where 74,896 refugees and asylum seekers were registered as of May 2016 (from the UK Guardian).

Uganda isn’t a rich country, and this comes with its own challenges. Uganda had such an inflow of refugees from the protracted crisis in South Sudan again that it put pressure on their resources. Yes, Uganda receives aid money for sectors such as education and health care, so it’s not all their own money. And many of the refugees still have a vulnerable position in society and, additionally, face the same obstacles as many Ugandans: they often end up doing subsistence work, and struggle to make ends meet. Still, it’s an approach that is well worth acknowledging.

This week, Kenya announced that it would postpone the closure of Dadaab by six months. Kenya wants the camp closed because it costs money (although donors pay for a large chunk of it), and because it reportedly contributes to insecurity.

I have long argued that Dadaab should be closed – but not by sending people back into a protracted civil war situation. A refugee camp really should only be an interim solution. It was clear many years ago that Somalia would not become peaceful anytime soon, and yet the camp has existed for more than two decades.

There are young people who were born there and have known no other life – imagine that! People in camps try to run small businesses, restricted by the environment they operate in, and there are a lot of NGOs with various programmes to support education and ‘income-generating activities’.

Now imagine if these people were all over Kenya, integrated, educated and, importantly, economically active citizens who can make a contribution rather than be a cost factor. Dadaab – which was already de facto one of the largest cities in Kenya – could even become a proper city and contribute to northern Kenya’s development.

The writer is an independent country risk analyst