Does Uganda’s ‘open door’ policy on refugees set an example for the rest of the world?

Does Uganda's ‘open door' policy on refugees set an example for the rest of the world?

The Bichendi family came to Uganda as asylum seekers in 2013 from the Democratic Republic of Congo. These days the family are settled in Uganda and run a successful grocery store.

(Nicholas Bamulanzeki)

Stocked with different types of African textiles and an elegant selection of ready-made outfits, Alice Nyota’s shop in Kampala’s central business district is just like many others in the area. Located in a crowded shopping mall, with small compartments separating the different shops, it is here that the entrepreneurial spirit of those hustling to survive in the city is most visible.

Except in this case, the aforementioned entrepreneur is one of the 98,000 refugees living and working in Uganda’s capital city.

“I left DRC (the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 2006 because of the insecurity during the first multiparty elections in the country. Because of our work, we were constantly under threat. One night, security agents came to arrest my husband and I, but we managed to escape. That was when we fled to Uganda,” says Nyota.

At the time, Nyota worked for an NGO educating indigenous communities on their voting rights in the city of Goma in eastern DRC. “Our job was to offer civic education but officials from the ruling party wanted us to tell people whom to vote for. That was the beginning of our troubles,” recalls Nyota.

Nyota, her (now ex) husband and seven children arrived in Uganda with no belongings. A local church paid for their accommodation for six months. “But life was not easy, and we struggled to find food,” she tells Equal Times.

Like most people struggling to get by in a foreign land, Nyota had to come up with a plan to survive in Uganda.

At church, she met another Congolese refugee who convinced her to sell the one valuable thing in her possession – a pair of gold earrings. “I sold the earrings for 70,000 Ugandan shillings (US$19.50) and this is the money that kick-started my business,” she says.

With this money, Nyota bought several pieces of African fabric, which she started selling in her neighbourhood. As demand grew, she saw another opportunity in designing and sewing the clothes herself. She bought her first sewing machine and later rented out a space to sew the clothes.

Today, Nyota’s business has expanded to include two workshops where the clothes are designed and tailored, and a store at the mall where the finished products are sold. She employs 30 staff, comprising fellow refugees and Ugandans.

Nyota says that despite being a refugee, starting her own business after years of struggle has put her on the path to financial independence. She can now send her children to good schools, rent a decent house and feed her family.

“I do not take this opportunity we have been given by the government of Uganda for granted, that is why I have been giving back by teaching young Ugandans the skills I have acquired over the years,” she says.

Uganda’s ‘remarkable’ refugee policy

Decades of conflicts and insecurity in neighbouring countries such as DRC, Rwanda, Somalia and more recently, South Sudan, has led to a surge of refugees coming into the country.

Officially around 1.35 million people from 13 African countries have sought sanctuary in the east African country, approximately 1.025 million of which are thought to be from South Sudan alone (although the true figures are thought to be higher). Uganda is also home to the world’s largest refugee settlement, Bidi Bidi, which houses more than 270,000 people, mostly from South Sudan.

In a world where more and more doors seem closed to the 65.6 million forcibly displaced people trying to escape war, poverty, repression and the devastating effects of climate change, Uganda’s refugee policy stands out as an example to the rest of the world.

While the United States, Australia and countries across Europe have been building walls, interning people in offshore detention camps and allowing desperate migrants to drown at sea, Uganda is one of the world’s largest refugee host nations in the world.

Through a model dubbed the Self Reliance Strategy, which is enshrined in the 2006 Refugee Act, once registered (which can take months), refugees are allowed to work, move freely within the country and set up businesses. They are also given access to the same public services as their host communities, including education and healthcare.

In addition, those living in one of the 28 designated refugees settlements across the country (the government doesn’t call them ‘camps’ because the inhabitants are allowed to move freely) are given plots of land to farm their own food as well as basic provisions and monthly food rations.

“Our policy emphasises a rights-based approach for managing all asylum seekers and refugees,” says Musa Ecweru, Uganda’s minister for relief, disaster preparedness and refugees.

Ecweru says the refugee solidarity summit that Uganda hosted in June 2017 was one way of showcasing the country’s exemplary attitude towards refugees. “While we aimed to raise more financial support, the summit was also one way of saying: ‘Look here, if a country with small resources like Uganda can host this number of refugees, then more countries should take on the challenge,’” Ecweru tells Equal Times.

“As long as there is peace, I will stay here”

Rose Diko is 43 years old and from South Sudan. She is a second-time refugee in Uganda, having spent several years in the country before a 2005 peace deal that ended one of Africa’s longest running conflicts in what was then a united Sudan.

“When I returned to Uganda in 2013, I knew the challenges of what it meant to be a refugee because I lived in a settlement and life was a daily struggle,” she says.

Since returning to Uganda, Diko has been baking and selling biscuits and bread, earning an average of Shs12,000 (US$3.36) a day. It is not a lot of money, but she says it is better than living in a refugee camp, or going back to South Sudan, where tens of thousands of people have been killed since civil war broke out in 2013. “As long as there is peace in Uganda, I will stay here,” she adds.

Like Diko, Ugen-Chan Bichendi 43, arrived in Uganda in 2013. He had been a successful businessman in Congo, running a hardware store in the north-eastern city of Bunia. But one day, rebels from the militia group M23 looted everything from his shop and threatened to kill him.

He fled to Uganda with his wife and eight children. The early years of his arrival in Uganda were tough. “I started off working at a hotel where I earned Shs150,000 (US$42) per month. The money was barely enough to feed the family,” he says.

Together with his wife who sold soft drinks on the streets, they continued to work hard until one and a half years ago, they saved enough money to open a grocery shop.

“I am happy here. Life was difficult when we came but now it is getting better. My children have even learnt the local language. We have no plans of going back to Congo,” he says.

But despite the success of some refugees, the challenges they face are numerous. As well as financial difficulties, refugees also struggle with language barriers and cultural differences, as well as negative attitudes from some locals who feel that refugees are a drain on Uganda’s resources.

In addition, despite the fact that refugees are entitled to work in Uganda, in practice, there are few jobs in the settlements and few opportunities in Uganda’s towns and cities. Even highly skilled refugees find it difficult to get formal jobs. As a result, most refugees are forced into entrepreneurship and the informal economy, not by choice but by necessity.

It is because of such challenges that some advocates are calling on the Ugandan government to do more than just open its doors to refugees. Emmanuel Weldeslassie, an Eritrean refugee who runs a local organisation, Voice of Refugees, says newcomers need more financial and social support to fully integrate in Uganda.

“Often times, refugees come into the country with nothing. Even if they have the skills, they cannot start a business when they don’t have the capital,” says Weldeslassie.

He says the policy needs a more holistic approach to helping refugees, particularly those in urban settings. While the government and international aid agencies do not offer humanitarian assistance to refugees living outside of the settlements, local organisations such as InterAid Uganda do work with the government to provide assistance to the most vulnerable in the form of cash transfers, training, business advice and help with job searches.

While Nyota, Diko and Bichendi all agree that these are challenges that need to be confronted by all stakeholders, they remain optimistic about their future in Uganda. “As refugees, we know the challenges, but we don’t want it to be focused on challenges all the time. We have been given the opportunity here, so we have to take advantage of it,” Bichendi says.

Nicholas Bamulanzeki’s accompanying photo essay ’Starting over in the “most refugee-friendly country in the world”’ can be read here.