How to protect refugees in a pandemic: Lessons from Uganda

Uganda has taken in 1.36 million refugees, making it the world’s third-largest host country

Congolese refugees queuing up for aid in Bundibugyo district, Uganda
Congolese refugees queuing up for aid in Bundibugyo district, Uganda, in 2013. Credit: UNHCR

Perhaps the most effective health interventions in the battle against Covid-19 so far have been behavioural: social distancing and improved hygiene, especially hand-washing. For the world’s 70 million displaced people – especially the millions living in cramped camps and informal settlements – such habits can be virtually impossible. Add to that limited access to health-care services, a lack of reliable information about the virus, and governments’ focus on protecting their own citizens, and the risks of devastating Covid-19 outbreaks among displaced populations are rising fast.

Refugees International recently sounded the alarm about these risks, and offered sensible recommendations to help mitigate them, such as reducing overcrowding and improving hygiene in refugee camps, halting the deportation of asylum-seekers, and improving communication. To achieve these objectives, governments would do well to draw lessons from Uganda, a global leader in refugee protection.

Uganda, a landlocked country of 43 million people, has taken in 1.36 million refugees, making it the world’s third-largest host country. Most fled from conflicts in neighboring countries, especially in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Asylum-seekers from both countries – totaling 985,512 from the former, and 271,967 from the latter so far – are granted refugee status in Uganda on a prima facie basis.

Asylum-seekers from other countries, including Burundi (36,677 refugees), undergo status-determination interviews. Nearly 71,000 refugees – from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, Somalia, and Sudan – have lived in exile in Uganda for three decades.

Despite its large refugee population, none of Uganda’s 139 confirmed cases of Covid-19 (as of May 14, 2020) occurred within refugee settlements. This is a testament to the country’s humane, sustainable, and forward-looking refugee policy, which gives displaced people the resources and support they need to make a home and a living.

Uganda’s success begins with favourable legal and policy frameworks. Its 2006 Refugee Act and the 2010 Refugees Regulations guarantee essential rights to refugees, including the rights to move freely, work and start a business, own property, and access public services like education and health care.

The Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, launched in 2017, provides a blueprint for upholding those rights globally. From emergency response to ongoing needs and self-reliance, the CRRF covers every step of a refugee’s experience from the time of displacement until a durable solution (local integration, resettlement, or voluntary repatriation) is found. It thus aligns its approach with the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2016.

A key component in implementing the CRRF is the Refugee and Host Population Empowerment (ReHoPE) Strategic Framework, which focuses on promoting resilience and self-reliance among refugees and host communities through livelihood initiatives, durable institutions, and investment in skills development. To avoid redundancy and ensure adequate funding, ReHoPE emphasizes coordination among strategic actors, including the UN, the World Bank, and several cross-sectoral partners.

In Uganda, refugees have been integrated into the country’s development agenda at all levels. Uganda’s National Development Plan II, launched in 2015, includes the Settlement Transformation Agenda, which promotes socio-economic development in areas hosting refugees and provides the basis of a non-encampment policy for refugees. Whereas refugees in Bangladesh, Greece, and Syria typically live in overcrowded camps, which rank among the world’s most densely populated areas, refugees in Uganda receive a plot of land for housing and cultivation near local communities. About 92% of Uganda’s refugees live in settlements alongside native Ugandans, while the remaining 8% live in urban centres.

At the 2016 Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, Uganda committed to upholding its settlement approach, and expanding refugees’ access to education, employment, and social services. It has since made significant progress toward fulfilling its promises.

Because most refugees are concentrated in 12 of Uganda’s 121 districts, total service capacity has been increased in some areas. In 2018, the Ministry of Education launched an Education Response Plan – a three-year initiative to ensure sufficient school capacity. Integrated response plans for health, water, and the environment soon followed.

Thanks to this long-term planning, refugees and local communities alike already had access to health facilities and clean water when the Covid-19 pandemic began. As a result, even those who live in more densely populated – and thus higher-risk – settings had the tools they needed to follow hygiene recommendations from the start.

Border controls during the pandemic mean that Uganda’s open-door policy for asylum-seekers has been suspended. Having spent over a decade as a border guard – including on the Kenyan frontier when violence erupted over that country’s 2007 election – I know how difficult it can be to ensure safety at the border. The government’s decision to close Uganda’s frontiers reflects its commitment to protecting the entire population, including refugees.

To be sure, Uganda’s refugee management is not free of controversy, including allegations of corruption and fraud. But the authorities are cooperating with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Programme to investigate concerns about the accuracy and reliability of data used for refugee programming, fundraising, and assistance. In 2018, Uganda’s government began to verify refugees using UNHCR’s biometric systems.

Displaced populations are often thought to represent a dilemma, with governments forced to choose between protecting their own populations and protecting refugees and asylum-seekers. Uganda has shown that this is a false choice. With long-term planning and a multi-sectoral approach, governments can ensure that refugees and their host communities coexist peacefully, prosperously, and in good health.

Agnes Igoye, a senior Aspen New Voices Fellow, is Uganda’s Deputy National Coordinator for the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons and Head of the Ugandan Immigration Training Academy.

 Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.
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