Uganda’s Open-Door Refugee Policy Causes Security and Economic Risks

Uganda has withdrawn its blanket refugee policy for asylum seekers in the country. Fears that improper vetting of refugees’ identities generated easy access for rebels and criminals to enter the country has led Uganda to revise its open-door refugee policy.

The Minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, Hillary Onek said on Tuesday: “We have withdrawn the blanket refugee status to people who are coming to our country because of infiltration of wrong elements through [the open-door policy]”

“We realised that a number of criminals found their ways in. Open-door policy doesn’t mean that you open the door for anything, it is only for refugees. If you are not a genuine refugee and you are a criminal, our doors are not open,” Mr Onek explained.

Mr Onek has formerly alleged that neighbouring countries have sent trained security personnel into Uganda, through the open-door refugee policy, to murder or abduct high-profile refugees.

Unlike many African nations, which act as extractive institutions – stealing from its people with minimal investment back into the state – Uganda has chosen a humanitarian approach to the use of its public services. Refugees in Uganda have, in the past, been given land for farming and building homes. This also included free healthcare and education. This is in stark contrast to refugee policies in Kenya and other East African countries where refugees are confined in camps.

Uganda hosts the most refugees in Africa with a population of 1.3 million refugees, citing Pan Africanist sensibilities as its ethos. However, to succeed as an inclusive institution (one that enables large hordes of the population to participate in political and economic systems for the long-term growth of the country) Uganda’s government must also regulate resource-allocation.

The civil war in South Sudan forced 700,000 South Sudanese refugees to seek shelter in Uganda. Violence in other neighbouring countries, such as Burundi, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, has increased the influx of refugees arriving in Uganda.

“We don’t have enough food to feed all the refugees, and some are getting half rations of cornmeal and beans,” Apollo Kazungu, a Ugandan commissioner in charge of refugees, voiced in 2017.

“We are very hospitable as a country, and our people are friendly to refugees. But allocating them plots (of land) may not be possible if they continue to arrive daily due to violence. We are now building dormitories for them,” he said.

In present-day Uganda, the situation has deteriorated. A new report published last month by the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) said that: “While there are overall good relations, tensions between South Sudanese refugees and Ugandan communities around natural resources, livelihoods and land should not be ignored.

“Refugees especially highlighted competition over natural resources,” the report continued, “in particular firewood for cooking and grass for thatching roofs, claiming that the host community restricted their access and at times attacked them.

“Host communities, in turn, complain that refugees did not seek their consent and that environmental degradation is spiralling out of control. While most refugee communities live peacefully together, a cocktail of frustration, unemployment, post-traumatic stress and alcohol abuse have the potential to degenerate, fuelled by ethnic stereotyping and ongoing conflict in South Sudan.”

Speaking at a press conference in July, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Jacob Oulanyah, criticised Uganda’s open-door refugee policy.

“The Uganda open-door refugee policy is very ineffective and it has left many of our Ugandans very poor. People are not living their lives like they used to because of the issue of refugees,” he said.

“Since 1967, there has not been any modified law created to deal with refugees and that is a big challenge. Policies have to be revised and better legal frameworks set up.

“These refugees should be settled in camps not settlements with the locals, because they are not citizens of the country, and the camps can be permanent not the occupants.”

While other Ugandan MPs have disagreed with Oulanyah about the open-door refugee policy, there is a consensus that the security and management styles of this policy are ineffective.

The ban on Uganda’s blanket refugee policy is also, according to Mr. Onek, a deterrent to economic migrants from Pakistan who pose as refugees to gain access to the country’s resources.

The MP has been widely criticised for his comments on Pakistani immigrants. He has also been questioned on whether his new anti-blanket policy will contradict Uganda’s open-policy for refugees.

Uganda’s Anti-Humanitarian Politics

Despite its humanitarian stance on refugees, Uganda’s president, former rebel leader, Yoweri Museveni, has been accused of torturing those who democratically oppose his 33-year government.

Ugandan music artist turned MP, Robert Kyagulanyi, claimed he was unlawfully detained and tortured by Ugandan police under the command of President Museveni.

The pop star was also charged with treason after Museveni accused him and other opposition leaders of stoning the president’s convoy during a campaign rally.