Published May 20th, 2020 - written by: Simone Schlindwein

From the Once Model Country to a Transit Hub

For a long time, Uganda was regarded as a model of liberal refugee policy – not only in Africa, but worldwide. Filippo Grandi, the High Commissioner of the United Nations Refugee Agency, emphasised this at a press conference in 2018 in Uganda’s capital Kampala. But shortly afterwards, a scandal ensued as the first accusations were made that the government was involved in corruption and had stolen/ embezzled  international aid funds meant for refugees.

Destination Uganda – Migratory Movements

The small country with just 42 million inhabitants is considered a stable country in the crisis-ridden heart of the African continent: The neighbouring country DR Congo has been at war for more than 20 years, while in the north, violent conflict broke out again in South Sudan at the end of 2013 and in July 2016, after a failed peace treaty. In nearby Burundi, one of the poorest countries in the world, the ongoing political conflict is exacerbating the situation. Even from more remote countries such as Eritrea, Ethiopia or Somalia, people are fleeing to Uganda because they know that they can settle down long term there. 

Those who flee from the immediate neighbouring countries are given a form of direct refugee status without an individual case examination by the Ugandan government, which normally includes lengthy applications and conditions. In addition, refugees receive a piece of land where they can build a house and plant a field, plus a work permit to open a shop or a restaurant. Those who flee from more remote regions such as Eritrea have to apply for asylum, which in most cases is granted. More than a million refugees have recently been hosted in the country. It is home to the largest refugee settlements on the continent. 

In 2006, Uganda’s Parliament passed a refugee law in line with international standards. It came into force in 2008 and was revised in 2012. Institutionally, the progressive policy is implemented by the Prime Minister’s Office, where there is a separate State Ministry for Refugee Affairs. Its commission works closely with United Nations (UN) aid agencies and international non-governmental organisations as Uganda’s budget is not sufficient to take care of the number of refugees it is hosting. 

Liberal refugee policy – a pragmatic approach

Uganda’s liberal refugee policy has a history: During the 1970s and 1980s, when the dictators Idi Amin and Milton Obote governed with terror, many Ugandans were themselves refugees in neighbouring countries. Uganda’s current president, Yoweri Museveni, founded his guerrilla movement in refugee camps during exile in Tanzania. National Resistance Movement took over the country in 1986 and still represents the government today. 

The state’s culture of welcoming refugees is also an essential part of Museveni’s regional great-power politics: Uganda is currently hosting opposition from Burundi, the DRC, South Sudan, Rwanda and even Somalia and Ethiopia. Among them are once armed rebels who have lost wars in their homeland and are in exile in Uganda: e.g. the Congolese Tutsi rebels of the M23 (March 23rd Movement), who in November 2013 were defeated by Congo’s army and UN blue helmets, withdrew across the border with all their weapons. To date, Museveni tolerated the warriors, keeping them as a bargaining chip. They are a good trump card in the regional power poker. 

Uganda’s economy also benefits: The first to escape from conflict are mostly the rich, who bring their belongings to safety, followed by entrepreneurs, i.e. the middle class, and small business owners. Some bring their grain mills, jigsaws or sewing machines. Refugees are allowed to generate income in Uganda: They open shops or restaurants and trade with their relatives back home – they pay taxes and also hire Ugandans. 

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) buys the food supplies used for the first aid for refugees locally from Ugandan farmers at a fair price. The refugees are given food rations until their allocated fields grow a little and they themselves become efficient. A WFP study published in October 2016 states: Each piece of arable land made available to a refugee family generates the equivalent of around 200 euros in sales annually and thus contributes to the gross national product of Uganda. 

The aim of the Ugandan approach is to enable refugees to provide for themselves with their own fields after five years. The initial supply of building materials, cooking utensils, clothing and food supplies as well as the maintenance of the camps are financed by international donors such as the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) or the WFP. But due to other global crises, these organisations currently face difficult financial situations – and this can have far-reaching consequences. 

This was also the conclusion reached by Geneva-based High Commissioner of the UNHCR Grandi when he visited the reception refugees camps on the border with South Sudan in 2018: Many of them do not receive any cookware or clothing. The food rations per person were cut in half. According to Grandi, not even a quarter of the money needed had been provided by the donors. The reason: the humanitarian disaster in Syria dominates the headlines while refugees staying in Uganda rarely set out to Europe. But “if the attention worldwide is focused on refugee crises, then this one should receive just as much support,” says Grandi. 

Safe Country of Origin – Cooperation with the European Union (EU) and Partners

In June 2017, Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni first invited world leaders to the completely overcrowded refugee camps on the northern border with South Sudan and then to the luxury resorts on the shores of Lake Victoria for a global solidarity summit. Two billion dollars per year for the next four years would be needed to provide for the refugees – that was the sum declared by Uganda’s refugee minister in the run-up to the summit. In order to raise the money, Uganda’s government had scheduled a global refugee solidarity summit in Kampala, in time for World Refugee Day in June 2017. 

“Only as long as the international community helps us to deal with the challenges, can we get the situation under control, as we have done in the past”, Museveni pleaded in his opening speech. 

Italy granted five million dollars, China pledged 500,000 dollars, Ireland promised another 2.3 million, the United Arab Emirates five million, Great Britain 50 million, Norway five million, Sweden 5.7 million, even Kenya gave 200,000 dollars and  Somalia, in the midst of a civil war, also gave  100,000 dollars. Companies like the African telecommunications giant MTN also showed their generosity: 250,000 dollars. The EU offered 85 million euros and the EU member states added another 125 million. In total, 352.6 million dollars were raised.

Uganda is not really an “important” partner country for the EU in terms of migration. The reason is that Uganda is simply too far away to reach the Mediterranean on foot. Although Uganda has signed the EU agreement on the Khartoum process, it plays only a minor role. The measures considered and discussed for Uganda were: better methods to identify people in need and better methods to monitor Uganda’s borders. None of this is being implemented. The reason is probably that Uganda has not been a country of origin or transit for migrants reaching Europe so far. Of the 850 Ugandans who applied for asylum in EU member states in 2015, 350 were granted refugee status. Most of them were homosexuals who were persecuted in Uganda. For the EU, however, Uganda is generally considered a safe country of origin. 

Under the Valletta Agreement of November 2015, Uganda benefits from the EU Trust Fund. The aim of all these projects is to improve the living conditions of refugees and their host communities. The EU invested around five million euros in projects in Kampala’s slums in partnership with a grant from the IOM (International Organisation for Migration). In the slums, refugees who do not want to live in the settlements, but also who have no assets of their own to support themselves in the cities, find shelter. Poverty and petty crime lead to conflicts both amongst other refugees and also with the Ugandans. 

The Kisenyi quarter in Kampala’s colonial old town below the gigantic Gaddafi mosque is known as the urban trouble spot. 90% of the inhabitants are of Somali origin. Here, Somali is spoken, prayers directed to Mecca, spaghetti is eaten and a lot of Khad is bought, the traditional Somali drug. The Somali Islamists, who blew themselves up in Kampala during the broadcast of the 2010 World Cup final, had prepared the attacks in these slums. “Civilian peace-building, conflict prevention and resolution” is the name of the measure with which the EU Trust Fund supports health centres, schools and training measures in these slums. 

The EU invested another ten million euros in the administrative districts along the border with South Sudan. There, the majority of South Sudanese who have fled since 2013 live in reception camps for refugees, around 300,000 of them in the largest refugee settlement Bidi-Bidi alone. At the beginning of the crisis, Uganda’s government tried to resettle the refugees in the large settlements in the centre of the country, because in Adjumani and Kiryandongo districts the government does not own any land to redistribute. There the land belongs to the local communities. Most South Sudanese refused to move away from the border as they have not given up hope of being able to return to their country soon. But the high number of refugees in the border districts is a source of conflict, because the local population feels excluded. The two districts have a local population of around 200,000 but hardly any schools, health centres, electricity or water supply. Since 2016, the EU has been investing 20 million euros through a regional development programme (SPRS-NU) in the local economy, health and education and in general infrastructure such as roads and bridges. 

Uganda – an important stability factor?

Uganda was previously considered a guarantor of stability in the region: President Museveni, now 74 years old, has been in power since 1986 and the country has largely been peaceful since then. For a long time, he was considered the darling of African heads of state in the West. The reason: Uganda’s soldiers make up the main share of the African Union’s military mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which is financed by the EU, with over 6,000 troops. Since the beginning of 2007, the EU has spent more than one billion euros on the pay of AU AMISOM soldiers and police officers, equipment and food. But in the course of setting up EU military missions in Mali, Nigeria or the Central African Republic, the EU reduced its share by 20% at the beginning of 2016. 

However, the former stabilizer of the region is now increasingly becoming a troublemaker. Around three-quarters of Ugandans are under 30 years of age and have never experienced another president in their lives. They are tired of this increasingly authoritarian and corrupt regime. Uganda’s youngest Member of Parliament and music star, who is famous in Uganda under his stage name Bobi Wine, called for a “People Power” movement in 2017 with the aim to overthrow Museveni. At the beginning of 2019, Wine announced his intention to run as an independent candidate in the 2021 presidential elections. Since then, Uganda’s police have banned him from any music concerts. In the run-up to the 2021 elections there could be riots nationwide. The question of Museveni’s unresolved succession of power will fuel numerous conflicts in the future. There are repeated rumours that the family is planning to appoint Museveni’s eldest son, former head of his special units and now security advisor, as his successor. 

Museveni was previously regarded as the leading East African leader who not only pushed ahead with the integration of the East African Community (EAC) but also wanted to unite the entire African continent within the framework of the AU. In this role, his foster son, the Rwandan head of state Paul Kagame, competed with him in his position as AU Chairman in 2018. Conflicts between the two brother states have been increasing since 2018. At the beginning of 2019, Rwanda’s immigration authorities closed its border crossing with Uganda on flimsy grounds. Since then, no trucks can pass through there, only passenger vehicles. Rwanda’s government warned its citizens against travelling l to Uganda. Uganda has recently arrested more and more Rwandan refugees and accused them of espionage. The dispute between the two once close friends is increasingly undermining integration into the EAC and thus endangering stability in the entire region. 

Corruption scandal in the refugee sector

In 2018, a scandal was exposed State employees had embezzled a large part of international refugee funds. At the beginning of the year, the German daily newspaper taz had already reported accusations of corruption in Uganda’s refugee ministry. UN Refugee Commissioner Grandi travelled to Uganda and threatened sanctions if the accusations were true. They turned out to be true – corruption is systematic. 

Uganda’s official refugee figures were wrong. In 2017, the country was said to be home to over 1.4 million refugees – more than any other country in Africa. The government peddled this figure, insisted on solidarity and collected aid money worldwide. With partial success: UNHCR spending in Uganda rose to over 200 million dollars in 2017 – the EU, Germany, Great Britain and the USA paid the lion’s share. But it was also the time when the number of refugees in Uganda more than doubled in two years (in 2015 it was 513,000) and the funds were still lacking. Nevertheless, a biometric verification in 2018 showed that over 300,000 refugees were “fakes” in the then database. Either locals were listed as refugees or the numbers were manipulated. It cost $11 million just to figure that out. But it is true that the number of refugees in Uganda continues to rise. By April 2020, the UNHCR states 1.4 million refugees again. 

All relief supplies were therefore estimated on the basis of higher figures. But that is not all: the 41-page report criticises the inadequate monitoring of the use of project funds. In 2017, the UNHCR distributed more than $31 million to partners, i.e. international or local aid agencies and companies that distribute cookware, build toilets or supply drinking water in the camps. But who implements which project was decided by Uganda’s Refugee Ministry, contrary to UNHCR guidelines, thus opening the door to nepotism. Numerous companies or local NGOs hired by the Uganda Refugee Ministry to build camps, roads or infrastructure belong to relatives of decision-makers. 

When the scandal became public, the government suspended numerous officials. The UNHCR ensured, “various corrective measures have been taken”. The mismanagement was mainly explained by the “massive influx” of refugees in remote regions without “sufficient staff” and by “rapidly growing operations with new partners”. Serious consequences, as announced by Grandi, did not occur. 

Latest hub for smuggling networks – Uganda becomes a transit country

There are about 15,000 kilometres of air-line distance between Uganda and the southern border of the USA – and yet it has recently become a popular escape route. Ever since the EU took action against “smugglers and traffickers” on the migration route in North African countries such as Libya and Sudan as part of the Khartoum process, numerous networks of traffickers have moved to Uganda. Here, passports can be obtained through corruption in the immigration authorities. The number of refugees offers these networks a large “customer” base. 

Since the opening of the border in Eritrea in September 2018, an estimated 200,000 Eritreans have fled to Uganda via Ethiopia and Kenya, but the authorities there are overburdened with the task of examining individual asylum cases. The hearings are booked up over two years in advance – but many do not want to wait that long. Smuggling networks, including many Eritreans, now offer services. From Uganda they have opened new routes: by plane to South America. From there they continue on to the USA. Thousands of Africans can afford this route, which can cost between 30,000 and 70,000 dollars. Uganda’s immigration officer for human trafficking, Moses Binoga, admits that Uganda has probably become a new transit hub. 

In recent years, Uganda itself has taken the initiative to recruit young unemployed Ugandans and send them to the Arabian Peninsula for low-income employment. For this purpose, around 160 recruitment companies in Uganda have been licensed. Whether as a security employee in Iraq or Afghanistan or as a domestic worker in Oman or Saudi Arabia – hundreds of cheap labourers leave the country every day to take a job elsewhere and send the money home. Uganda’s government has signed agreements with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and most recently with the United Arab Emirates to promote the so-called externalisation of the labour market. About 150,000 Ugandans are now working in the Middle East, most of them women. Every year they send around 500 million dollars back to their families, an important sector for Uganda’s economy, whose unemployment rate is extremely high. However, women returning from work abroad describe their employment as slave services and accuse their government of state organised slave trade. 

Free movement in East Africa

In the framework of the EU regional programme for the Horn of Africa, the “Regional Action Plan 2015-2020”, in which the regional organisation IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development), the AU and the EAC are also supported, the focus is on security, migration, the arms trade within the region, climate change as a cause of migration, and prevention of youth radicalisation. Here too, the EU is expanding its financial support. Uganda’s president is considered an ironclad advocate of integration into the East African Community, which guarantees the free movement of people, goods and labour among its member states. 

As a result, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda have already designed joint tourist visas. Citizens within these three countries can migrate back and forth and even work without a passport or work permit. An EAC passport will be printed soon. In order to enable the free movement of persons within the EAC, Uganda has enormously expanded its border infrastructure in recent years. Almost all of the 40 border crossings have now been equipped with fingerprint scanners and readers for biometric passports. In East Africa, a quasi-blueprint of the Schengen area has emerged in recent years – much in the style of the EU. 

For Uganda, borders remain sources of conflict: Most of them are not marked, nor guarded, nor concretely defined – in other words, they are disputed. Enormous oil reserves have been found in the western border region around Lake Edward bordering on the Democratic Republic of Congo and in the north-east along the border with Kenya’s Turkana region. Now the neighbouring countries are fighting over every square metre of land. In the south, along the shores of Lake Victoria, border conflicts with Kenya and Tanzania are smouldering over dwindling fish stocks. 

Development aid for border controls

Uganda’s border authorities lack vehicles to be able to control the remote borders through inhospitable mountain areas and desert-like savannahs. In 2016, Japan donated off-road vehicles and forensic equipment. 

The desire for stricter migration control began in the wake of the 2010 bombings, when Somali immigrants were identified as perpetrators. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) had set 2015 as the deadline for the worldwide introduction of biometric passports. Shortly before the end of this deadline, Uganda’s immigration authorities began issuing biometric passports in 2015. Their chip stores photos, eye scans and fingerprints, and the databases are linked to Interpol. 

Since July 2016, foreign visitors need to apply for a visa electronically. All visitors are subject to an intelligence check. However, the linking of the e-visa with the biometric databases is still pending. The government still lacks the hardware to store all the data. Until a couple of years ago there was not a single computer at the immigration office in Kampala, all applications were stacked up to the ceiling in colourful file folders. Only recently has the necessary equipment been purchased to process the files digitally. 

In the course of this, the immigration authority, located in the Ministry of Internal Security, was repeatedly reshuffled and thus steadily militarized. Former Army Chief General Aronda Nyakairima became Minister of the Interior in 2013, connecting the military intelligence service CMI with the migration authority. After the 2016 elections, former defence minister General Haji Abubaker Jeje Odongo became interior minister. 

Since 2005, the Ugandan government decided to issue national identity cards to make the elections more forgery-proof. There were repeated scandals in the awarding of this extensive contract, which amounts to around 64 million euros. In the end, President Museveni commissioned the German company Mühlbauer Technologies. This deal was arranged by the German ex-ambassador Reinhard Buchholz, a confidant of Museveni, who introduced the company founder Josef Mühlbauer to the president at a midnight meeting in 2010. Shortly thereafter, the president ordered over the heads of all legally stipulated tender procedures that Mühlbauer should print 15,000 ID cards. Two years and numerous scandals later, the Bavarian company had only printed around 400 plastic cards, but had already spent all the money. In 2018, the Munich-based company Veridos GmbH, a subsidiary of Bundesdruckerei, entered into a 15-year partnership with the Ugandan printing company UPPC to print Uganda’s government documents, including banknotes and passports, in the future.

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