Refugees are defined in the basic term as people who have been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. Under such circumstances, refugees will most likely flee to the nearest place that is safe, with hope of returning to their country when the situation normalize.
Uganda has the highest population of refugees in Africa, with an estimated total of 1.5 million refugees, according to statistics by the office of the prime minister as by July 2018. Majority (1,073,125) of these are refugees from South Sudan while the other refugees are from democratic republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, Somalia, Eritrea, Rwanda and Ethiopia.
These refugees are scattered in different parts of the country like Kampala, Ajumani, Moyo, Isingiro, Hoima, Kamwenje ,Kyegegwa, Kiryandongo, Lamwo and Koboko although Yumbe hosts the highest numbers (286,859) followed by Arua with 270,390 refugees.
Many of the refugees hosted by Uganda left their countries mainly due to wars particularly the South Sudanese, Somalis, Congolese, Burundians and some from Rwanda. The others are economic refugees who came to Uganda to seek economic opportunities.
As a result of the continued instability and violence in both South Sudan and DRC there has been an influx of refugees in Uganda from the two countries since the beginning of 2018. A total of 92,996 refugees from DRC have crossed into Uganda in addition to 33,623 from South Sudan.
It is this influx that has made media attention reporting on the impact, largely negative that this swelling refuge population is likely to have on Uganda. In its reporting, the media often dwells on the economic aspect to explain why it is not healthy for a country to have so many refugees. On other factors reported as being negative outcome of big refugee numbers are insecurity, conflict with host communities, scarcity of resources and social amenities, among others.
However, there are gains that a country like Uganda is likely to achieve for hosting refugees, which often don’t make headlines in newspapers and other news media platforms.
Refugees have the potential of contributing to a country’s economy if they are engaged in economic activities such as agriculture, farming, artisan work, and vocational activities. Such activities are especially favorable in Uganda’s context where refugees are given free land to cultivate and earn income.
In refugee settlements like Kyangwali and Nakivale which are located in districts with rich soil and grasslands, there is booming agriculture and animal husbandry. Crops grown consist primarily of maize, beans, sorghum, cassava and potatoes while others rear goats, cattle, pigs and poultry.
While this economic activities support the refugee households and sustains trade within the settlement, it also feeds onto the large economic ecosystem in the area, district, region and country.
Surplus of agricultural crops attract Ugandan traders looking to resell in Mbarara, Hoima and Kampala, as well as small district towns surrounding both settlements. This supplements the much needed supply chain especially for urban areas.
Ugandan traders also bring goods to sell in small retail shops throughout the settlements. Some of the stock sold within shops located in the settlement is imported, which in the end adds to the market for both local and foreign producers.
The same market is what the private sector including multinationals have rode on to grow their profits. In settlements with large numbers of refugees for example, Ugandan telecom companies have launched several initiatives aimed at targeting refugee users of SMS banking and transfer services.
In Kyangali, a company named Kyangali Progressive Farmers (KPF) was established to supply sorghum for a major beverage company. KPF was subcontracted with Uganda farmers to grow sorghum in order to produce beer.
Secondly, refugees, in as much as they exert pressure on the resource and services within the host communities, they also open up new opportunities for the same resource to be expanded. When development partners and other donor agencies are funding refugee related projects, a portion of these funds goes to the locals that live near these refugee settlements.
According to the government, aid agencies catering to refugees must extend their services to the host community in a 70:30 ratio. This means that every borehole or clinic serving 700 refugees also needs to serve at least 300 locals. This serves to minimize conflict.
NGOs have established schools, health facilities, water sources, community halls and access roads which do not only serve the refugees but even Ugandans, thus improving services.
The other opportunity presented by refugees is employment, particularly in the aspect of social work. There are hundreds of organizations operating in Uganda which deal with refugee related work. Several UN agencies like UNHCR, world food program, UNICEF, UNDP are also implementing numerous projects in Uganda to benefit refugees.
All these organizations and agencies employ hundreds of Ugandans who otherwise would have been unemployed or underemployed. This is a significant window especially in a country like Uganda where about 80% of the youth, according to World Bank, are estimated to be unemployed.
In addition, refugees play a key role in the social and cultural evolution of any society. Uganda, unlike other countries, refugees are not restricted from moving out of camps to integrate with wider population. Kampala, the capital, has 103,694 refugees some of whom have since intermarries with Ugandans which fosters coexistence and a sense of pan Africanism.
A good example of cultural blend is that between Rwandans who fled to Uganda following the 1994 genocide. Over the last 20 years, many of them have married Ugandans, settle and found permanent residence in Uganda and some are influential businessmen, leaders and government officials.
Furthermore, a country like Uganda which has established a progressive policy on refugees is bound to earn a good reputation on the global stage. Uganda has been praised widely by humanitarian agencies and world leaders, including UN secretary General, Antonio Guterees for its good policy on refugees and being hospitable to those that seek refuge.
Such a track record is good for international relations since it positions Uganda as being complaint with international law, for example the 1951 refugee convention which recognizes the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries. But it also places Uganda in a better place where other actors within the international system are willing to reciprocate the generosity where there is need including financial support.
Another benefit presented by the presence of refugees in a particular country, is that they act like a conduit for foreign exchange. Some of the refugees in Uganda, most especially Eritreans and Somalis have been known to rely on remittances from their relatives who live abroad for a live hood. The money sent to them in Uganda is in foreign currencies, such as dollars which outweigh the Ugandan shilling in value.
When such capital inflows are drawn into Uganda, they narrow the gap of economic standing and disparities between Uganda’s economy and that of other countries and act as a buffer from economic shocks.
Uganda received US$1.2 billion (about Shs. 4.5 million) in 2017, in remittances, accounting for 5% of the country’s Gross domestic product (GDP) which significantly impacts on the economy.
Refugees also provide a host country with cheap labor especially in Uganda where these refugees have greater freedoms to move around and work. Based on the variances in economic status between the nationals and the refugees, it is always likely that the refugees will be willing to offer services for example as casual workers in nearby townships at a cheaper cost than the Ugandans. Whereas Ugandans might despise some jobs as being underpaying, in the case of a refugee whose options of making ends meet are minimal, and their labor is their greatest resource, despising work is not an option.
Township and urban areas like Arua, Isingiro, Hoima, and Yumbe that are refugee settlements are also beneficiaries of the presence of aid organizations and other agencies which are stationed in these towns. In Arua for example you will find a significant footprint of NGOs which have established offices there and their staff reside in hostels or rental houses. This high spending class impacts greatly on urbanization including introducing amenities and services to meet there class demand.
Therefore, while the media continues to portray Uganda’s refugee population as a potential economic strain on the other hand, there are immense benefits that lie in the over one million refugees, ranging from economic, diplomatic, social and humanitarian aspects.
According to the factors listed in the above paragraphs it shows that refugees are not a burden but a benefit to the country Uganda and other refugee hosting communities in Africa.
Story produced During the Inter-university Media Challenge
By; SENABULYA MARTIN
MULTITECH BUSINESS SCHOOL