KAMPALA, Uganda — Every day for nearly a year, an average of about 2,000 refugees have entered Uganda from South Sudan. Most of them are women and children who have spent several days traveling by foot, fleeing a civil war and famine that has devastated the world’s youngest country. Some saw their families killed and their homes burned to the ground.
Luckily, their new home may be the best place on the planet to be a refugee.
Instead of being locked in crowded camps surrounded by barbed wire, the 1.2 million refugees in Uganda are given large plots of land in sprawling settlements to build homes or, if they like, small farms. If agrarian life isn't for them, they can move freely around the country, traveling to towns or to the bustling capital of Kampala, which 95,000 refugees call their home.
Unlike many in Western countries, where distrust of migrants and refugees is a major political problem, Ugandans have hardly batted an eye at the influx. “We work together well,” said Gala Noah Abibu, 32, a native Ugandan whose small village in the country's northwest lies adjacent to the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement. “It is a coexistence.”
Bidi Bidi hosts more than 270,000 refugees, all of whom have arrived in the past year. Uganda is the largest refugee-hosting nation in Africa, and Bidi Bidi is the largest settlement on the globe.
But Uganda is also one of the poorest countries in the world, and the pressure from South Sudan is gradually pushing the country's refugee-friendly policy to its limits. UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, has said it needs $569 million to support refugees in Uganda. It has received less than one-quarter of that so far.
The $445 million funding gap means it is taking months to finish major infrastructure projects, including permanent shelters. At Bidi Bidi, children go to schools in large tents that have been shredded by high winds and leak when it rains. There's no electricity, even at health clinics that treat dozens of patients per day.
Last month the World Food Program had to cut monthly food rations in half, forcing adults to eat the amount of grains usually prescribed for active children. “There’s no anything,” said John Alakyi, 29, a refugee from South Sudan who lives in Bidi Bidi. “Even something when you need to eat, this is not there.”
Ugandans chalk up their unusual open-doors policy to shared languages and tribal affiliations that stretch across the border. Thousands of Ugandans also sought refuge in neighboring countries during violence under Idi Amin, the dictator who ruled Uganda during the 1970s, and more recently as Joseph Kony’s Lord's Resistance Army fought inside the country. That, Ugandans say, makes them understand the plight of those in need. (Opposition leaders note that Uganda’s government has a history of interfering in the affairs of its neighbors, making it partially responsible for refugees' conditions.)
Perhaps most critically, Ugandan natives receive direct benefits from aid groups helping refugees, who are required to target a portion of their work to the local host communities. Aid groups also frequently give jobs to locals and spend money at shops and restaurants in their poor, rural towns. When money from the U.N. dries up, the pain trickles down to Ugandan communities; local officials are starting to complain that the U.N.'s promises aren’t being met.
The U.N. is trying to focus on the situation with a publicity push on Tuesday, which is World Refugee Day. Later this week, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres will travel to Uganda to tour a refugee camp and lead a donor summit aimed at raising $8 billion in aid over the next four years.
If more developed nations don’t want to deal with refugees on their shores, organizers say, they should pay to ensure their safekeeping in Uganda. “Meeting the immediate humanitarian and long-term sustainable needs of these refugees and the host communities is not a responsibility Uganda should carry alone,” Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda said last week.