Uganda has one of the most progressive regulatory frameworks governing refugee protection in Africa. Unlike many of its neighbours, which encamp refugees, Uganda has a ‘self-reliance’ strategy, incorporated within its national legislation. This means that rather than limiting responses to refugees to humanitarian relief, a space is open for a development-based approach to refugee assistance.

Upon receiving status, refugees are given generous plots of land within designated settlement areas, which at the moment are 100 x 50m for a family 1-6 people. They are given so-called ‘non-food items’, including basic tools with which to cultivate, enabling them to subsist and sell any surplus. There is also some freedom of movement, although it requires permission to be sought from the Settlement Commander, and movement to urban areas is discouraged.

A look at Kyangwali  - the second largest settlement with 25,392 refugees (21,416 Congolese and 3678 Sudanese) -highlights many positives. Compared to most other refugee situations in Africa, the settlement offers a relatively high quality of life. Refugees have good size plots of highly fertile land on which they are able to grow mainly beans, maize, and rice. This means that the World Food Programme is only required to provide food assistance to new arrivals and the most vulnerable. Refugees have access to the same primary education and health facilities as the local population. Across a series of around a dozen villages, small shops run by refugees line the high street, and one can even go and enjoy rice, beans, greens for around 1000 Ugandan shillings in one of the ‘eating houses’.   

However, one is also left with a feeling that there should still be more and that there should be some prospect for people to aspire beyond a homogenized agricultural community. Many of the refugees have been there since the late 1990s and many of the young people were born there. The expectation is that everyone should be content with a simple agricultural life – even though many of the Congolese and Sudanese arrived with a diverse array of skills.

There is practically no post-primary education, with only a few scholarships to enable access to secondary schools, and a large youth population spends its days with little to do other than to hang out and play pool around open-air tables. The Finnish Refugee Council has run a library and a small computer room at its youth centre. Yet, the area is behind barbed wire fencing, uninspiring, and it the process of being phased out due to lack of funding.

In many ways this is as good as refugee protection in Africa gets and the Ugandan government can only be praised for its self-reliance strategy. However, with a few thoughtful interventions things could still be far better. There is no reason why refugees should all be presumed to spend their lives as homogenous subsistence farmers. Instead, aspiration and variety might be promoted through facilitating better activities and training for the youth, distance-learning programs to close the secondary education gap, cooperatives to increase the return on the sale of crops to exploitative market traders who buy-up surplus yields.

All of these things could be done with an innovative set of activities that work with refugees to engage them in sustaining activities within their own community. There is no reason a refugee camp should look like a kolkhoz and insist on equality and homogeneity among the populations. Of course, there are challenges of needing to avoid divisions within the community or with the local population. However, this should not be used as an excuse to limit activities that promote human flourishing, aspiration, and skill acquisition. The Ugandan government’s pioneering approach offers a canvas on which to build.                     

                                       Alexander Betts

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