It may be the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world. Almost every day for the last four months, an average of 2,000 South Sudanese refugees have made their way to neighboring Uganda. They come on buses and on foot, along dirt roads and through the bush. Day after day more arrive, with no end to the exodus in sight.
Uganda already hosts more than 600,000 South Sudanese refugees and more than 400,000 others, making it the top refugee-hosting country in Africa. And in a growing number of Ugandan districts, refugees now make up half of the entire population.
The South Sudanese families I spoke with, during my recent visit to Uganda, came because war had wrecked their home villages and killed their relatives. They came because of the scourge of sexual violence, and because of the looming threat of genocide – which the United Nations warns could kick off any moment. They also came because, after years of constant suffering, they just could not bear to stay any longer.
In Palorinya, one of Uganda’s newest refugee settlements, I met George*, a young father from South Sudan’s Equatoria region. “The country is going down,” George told me, as he waited in line for supplies. “There is no safety, no jobs, and no law. People get killed and there is nothing anyone can do about it.”
In a site not far away, where new arrivals were being registered, I came upon Mary, a 98-year-old refugee with a shock of white curls. She immediately jumped up from her little plastic chair and practically forced me to take her seat, as befits a guest. (I politely declined.) When I asked why she had come, she replied, “I’m old. I don’t have any power, so I had to come here for help.” She added, “I’m tired of this war. I need a place of peace to go home to, to be buried in. That’s what I want.”
The failure of South Sudan’s leaders to end their vicious, selfish conflict – and the international community’s failure to secure a peace – means that more refugees like Mary are bound to arrive in Uganda. This will have a profound impact: the country already hosts more than 600,000 South Sudanese refugees and more than 400,000 others, making it the top refugee-hosting country in Africa. And in a growing number of Ugandan districts, refugees now make up half of the entire population.
In many African countries – to say nothing of North America or Europe – a displacement crisis of this magnitude might lead to panic: the closing of borders, the expulsion of asylum-seekers, and the restricting of humanitarian access. But that has not been the case in Uganda. Instead, the Ugandan government has kept its borders open to South Sudanese refugees and has extended its longstanding, generous refugee policy to new arrivals.
What this means is that refugees in Uganda are able to live something approaching a normal life. Families can choose to live in a settlement or in a city. Those who want to farm can access land; those who want a job can get a work permit. South Sudanese refugees enjoy the same rights to education and healthcare as their Ugandan neighbors. These opportunities, and more, make Uganda the region’s most welcoming destination for refugees.
Refugees in Uganda are able to live something approaching a normal life. The Ugandan government deserves credit for this warm welcome; so, too, do communities across the country who are sharing their lands and resources with refugees.
The Ugandan government deserves credit for this warm welcome; so, too, do communities across the country who are sharing their lands and resources with refugees. Their empathy and generosity has been exemplary – but there’s a catch: many Ugandans believe that the challenges of hosting refugees are outweighed by the opportunities they will bring. They expect that the refugees (and the international aid they attract) will lead to positive changes in their daily lives: good jobs with aid agencies, improved roads, expanded schools and hospitals, and booming local markets.
Humanitarian agencies understand this and are willing to help. But dwindling resources have put their strategy in jeopardy. “Once one district got an economic boost from the refugees, there started up some competition between the districts over who could receive more refugees,” one humanitarian explained to me. “But the money for aid now is not what it was, and district governments are noticing this. Expectations are very high and may not be met. That could turn the tide.”
As of November 29, the UN Refugee Agency had received just 35 percent of the funds needed for Uganda in 2016. If donor governments do not step up to the plate, that gap could widen in 2017. Ugandans may then start to believe their generosity has been abused. That outcome has to be avoided; otherwise, South Sudanese could be denied one of the only safe havens they have left.
*Names have been changed.