By Otwari Dominic Oromo.
Uganda has been hosting refugees for several decades, and it is currently one of the largest refugee-hosting countries in the world. According to the UNHCR 2023 report, Uganda is hosting over 1.4 million refugees including more than 860,000 children, with the majority coming from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burundi.
Uganda adopted a progressive refugee policy that allows refugees to work, access education, and move freely within the country as it’s stipulated in Act 21 Section 29 Subsection (1)(e) of the Refugee Act 2006. This policy, known as the Refugee Act 2006 was enacted by the parliament of Uganda and assent on 24th May, 2006, with a purpose of making new provision for matters relating to refugees, in correlation with the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees and other international obligations of Uganda relating to the status of refugees; to establish an Office of Refugees; to repeal the Control of Alien Refugees Act, Cap. 62; and to provide for other related matters. It has been commended by the international community for its humanitarian and development-oriented approach to refugee protection.
Refugees in Uganda live in concessions (Kiryandongo, Kyangwali, Bidi Bidi, Pagirinya, Rhino etc) that are managed by the government and humanitarian organizations. These settlements provide basic services such as health care, education, and water and sanitation facilities. Many refugees also engage in small-scale farming and other income-generating activities to support themselves and their families.
However, the recent ration cut by World Food Programme (WFP) has left many refugees in hunger crisis as refugee households were already only receiving 40%-70% of standard rations, based on their relative vulnerability levels. The recent cut means all refugees receiving food aid – assistance in the camps is split between cash assistance and direct food aid – are now on less than 40% of what WFP calls basic survival rations, which include maize grain, beans, fortified oil, and salt. (UNHCR, 2023)
Many refugees rely on food aid to meet their daily needs, and the reduction in rations meant that they had to find alternative sources of food as some of them engage in income-generating activities such as small-scale farming and other income-generating activities to supplement their food rations, but the reduction in rations meant that they had less energy and time to dev to these activities which leaves many between the devil and the blue deep sea of considering returning to their home countries despite the ongoing threat of conflict in many parts of South Sudan as a friend of mine from in Bidi Bidi refugee camp stated “Instead of dying of hunger, people have gone ahead to say better to die in the war.” . This underscores the primary objective of the UNHCR to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees and the 2030 agenda of transforming the world through implementation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs).
Despite the progressive policy and the provision of fundamental services, refugees in Uganda face numerous challenges and hardships. These include poverty, food insecurity, limited access to education and healthcare, limited access to employment opportunities, inadequate funding for humanitarian assistance, and the risk of forced returns to their countries of origin is a hot potato for many South Sudanese refugees. There have also been reports of discrimination and harassment of refugees by some members of the host community. Here are some of the most pressing issues facing refugees in Uganda:
Food insecurity: Many refugees in Uganda rely on food aid to meet their daily needs, but funding shortages and the recent food ratio cut by the World Food Programme have led to reduced rations, exacerbating food insecurity and malnutrition because what they receive is just a drop in the bucket.
Limited access to education: Although Uganda has a progressive refugee policy that allows refugees to access education, many still face barriers to enrollment and retention in school. This is particularly true for girls, who are more likely to drop out due to early marriage, teenage pregnancy, and other factors. The ration cut has as well negatively impacted education in the camps because a lack of food makes it harder for children to attend school and to concentrate during class.
Lack of access to healthcare: Refugees in Uganda often have limited access to healthcare and face challenges in accessing essential medicines and treatments. This is particularly true for refugees living in rural areas, where healthcare facilities are limited.
Economic challenges: Many refugees in Uganda struggle to find meaningful employment and rely on informal and low-paying jobs to support themselves and their families. This can perpetuate the cycle of poverty and make it difficult for refugees to achieve self-reliance.
Housing and living conditions: Many refugees in Uganda live in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, which can contribute to the spread of disease and other health problems.
Mental health and psychosocial support: The experience of displacement and trauma can have a significant impact on the mental health and well-being of refugees. However, there are limited resources and services available to provide psychosocial support to refugees in Uganda.
Amidst all challenges, refugees in Uganda have shown remarkable resilience and resourcefulness in finding ways to support themselves and their families. They have also made important contributions to the local economy and society, including through their participation in the agricultural sector and their engagement in social and cultural activities. Therefore, there’s need for coordinated efforts from government through office of the Prime Minister, Ministry in charge of refugee affairs, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), civil society, and international organizations to get a birds-eye view and work together to promote the rights and well-being of refugees in Uganda in the current escalation of prices in the market verses the food or cash ration cut by the World Food Programme (WFP).
By taking a comprehensive approach to address the root cause of poverty and displacement both in the short-run and long-run, it is possible to improve the plight of refugees and support their integration into their host communities. Here are some measures that could be taken:
Emergency food assistance: In the short-term, emergency food assistance should be provided to refugees to mitigate the impact of the food ratio cut. This could include increasing the amount of food provided in the monthly ration or providing cash transfers to enable refugees to purchase food in the local market.
Livelihoods support: Supporting income-generating activities for refugees can help to improve their economic situation and reduce their dependence on food aid. This could include providing training and resources to start small businesses, supporting agriculture and livestock production, and providing access to credit and financial services.
Education and skills training: Providing education and skills training to refugees can help to improve their employability and increase their earning potential. This could include language and vocational training, as well as support for formal education.
Access to healthcare: Providing access to healthcare and nutrition services can improve the health and well-being of refugees, reducing the impact of food insecurity and other stressors.
Community-based interventions: Engaging with refugee communities and supporting community-based interventions can help to build social cohesion, promote gender equality, and address cultural practices that contribute to early marriage and other negative outcomes.
Advocacy and policy change: Advocating for policies and resources that support the needs of refugees, including increased funding for humanitarian assistance, can help to address the root causes of poverty and food insecurity.
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