“…this thing is an industry; budgets are exploding…” An international refugee agency worker based in Kampala.
By January 2018, media reports of a deal for Israel to deport rejected African asylum seekers and migrants to Uganda and Rwanda were still being denied. Believed to have started in 2013, deported African migrants gave testimonies to media insisting that they did not accept their removal willingly. Ugandan and Rwandan officials denied claims that they had reached a deal with Israel to accept deportees and grant then refugee status in spite of several investigative reports making such allegations. Furthermore, there were reports claiming that both receiving countries were rewarded with military hardware and agricultural aid, plus $5000 per refugee accepted. Between 500-5000 deportees were believed to be destined for Rwanda and Uganda out of the over 40,000 migrants and asylum seekers in Israel. Those who ‘voluntarily’ accepted to be moved to East Africa were given between $1,500 and $3,500 for their sustenance upon arrival or risked jail in Israel for refusing to be deported to another country. Some reports also indicated that deportees entering Rwanda would be ‘officially-illegally’ [a security official picks them from the airport into the country with neither visa no stamped passports] taken into the country and then moved on to Uganda, which is allegedly “freer” and “more hospitable” than Rwanda (Green, 2017). However, reporting for Foreign Policy, Andrew Green noted that before being “officially smuggled” into Uganda asylum seekers were given individualized Ugandan documents stamped with South Sudan entry visas. The idea was that they would claim having been asylum in South Sudan if they were to continue to another country. Green maintains that many simply escaped into Uganda and started building secret lives – without ever mentioning Israel again.
The Israel-Rwanda-Uganda arrangement in relation to African migrants and asylum seekers turns the refugee discourse upside down. The requirement, motivation and legislation to help refugees across the world follows from a humanitarian discourse. Running from life-threatening circumstances (such as war, famine, harsh economic conditions, repression, fear of persecution, or natural disasters) migrants and asylum seekers may be offered sanctuary as refugees in the first country of entry as reason to save their lives. In the alternative, migrants and asylum seekers may continue to a third country where they can explore possibilities of being granted refugee status and rebuilding their lives. However, reports about the Israel-Uganda-Rwanda arrangement suggests a degree of commodification of people in a “deportation market.” The discourse and arrangement negate migrants, asylum seekers, and potential refugees as “unwanted” people and “aliens” and a threat capable of “corrupting” the cultural fabric of the host-country.
Framed within a larger context, Uganda has become a “refugee paradise” in the last five years, with rather open borders to rejected migrants and asylum seekers from elsewhere, and granting them refugee status. The relevant question being asked is why some African countries are becoming rather complicit in commodifying deported migrants and rejected asylum seekers from Israel. It would also appear that African leaders who are constantly accused of non-democratic tendencies are politicizing the act of receiving deportees or rejected asylum seekers from elsewhere. Some would even argue that this may be a ploy to please certain western powers that would otherwise be critical of their human right and democratic records.
The Refugee Paradise
There are close to 1.5 million refugees in Uganda—and more are coming. A 2017 UNDP report noted that this has made Uganda the country hosting the largest number of refugees in Africa. In most media, conferences and policy debates on refugees, Uganda is held as a refugee paradise. The country “has not only kept its borders open, it has welcomed refugees with open arms and open hearts.” In western, northern, and north-eastern Uganda, particularly in the districts of Hoima, Moyo, Arua, Yumbe, Adjumani, and Lamwo, refugees stream into the country from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan. Others who are scattered in different parts of the country including the capital city, Kampala, come from neighbouring Somalia, Burundi, and Eritrea. A report by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) noted that when refugees arrive, they are “allocated settlements where residential and agricultural land is provided.” The report continues that in Uganda, “refugees access social services like education; they participate in the labour market and enjoy freedom of movement.” To this end, they “are able to pursue their livelihoods just like the Ugandan population.”
Elsewhere, the practice is that refugees are restricted to camps and other formal enclosed settlements. However, those who have come to Uganda after 2010, have met with a rather different reality. As the 2017 KAS study succinctly put it, refugees are treated like “citizens, giving them farmland, work permits, access to health care and school facilities.” This fulfils the international requirement for the resettlement of refugees (Franken, 2003; UNDP, 2017). For its policies and practices, Uganda is headlining charts, as the country is seen as a model of refugee policies and practices (UNDP, 2017; World Bank, 2016). As is established for the international community through international agencies under the UN to accord assistance to refugees, an increased amount of money was allocated to Uganda for accepting refugees. As one worker, who preferred to be anonymous in describing the refugee/humanitarian aid sector, “this thing is an industry, operational budgets are exploding.” Indeed, during the Refugee Solidarity Summit in Kampala in June 2017, it was claimed that two billion dollars was needed to facilitate refugee management in the country.
Questions are asked about the sustainability and motivations behind a relatively small African country’s decision to take in more refugees than any other country on the continent. Refugees tend to impose security, economic, and environmental challenges to the host-country (Jacobsen, 2002). Indeed, conflicts between refugees and host communities over land and other resources have been reported in Uganda. Several countries where asylum seekers and migrants prefer to go to after fleeing violence continue to devise stricter measures to limit any influx of people deemed to be outsiders or foreigners. Indeed, in early 2016, Kenya threatened to close Dadaab refugee camp in the north of the country (but decided against it later) citing national security interests. Cases of auctioning migrants into slavery have been variously reported in Libya. There is a belief in some circles that deportees or refugees who have managed to move to another country, have discovered that they do not enjoy the same privileges there as in Uganda. Why does Uganda have such a unique policy towards refugees? Considering that the country did not have such an open-door policy until about seven years ago, what factors explain its dramatic change of policy?
My contention is threefold: first, Uganda’s progressive treatment of refugees is not simply a humanitarian undertaking, but rather a process involving both commodification and politicization. After Ghaddafi’s fall in Libya, and the coup that ejected the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Egypt, the Ugandan leadership became more aware of the importance of being on the good side of strong international allies. Secondly, with a struggling economy, increased aid, including those in the form of assistance to refugees has contributed to the inflow of more foreign exchange into the country. Also, the government is able to earn income through taxes imposed on items that are procured in the service of refugees. This trend has coincided with a rising anti-refugee sentiment in Europe and North America, where political elites strongly feel it is better to keep migrants and asylum seekers in Africa than let them cross the Mediterranean (Keller 2016). Thirdly, international donor agencies thrive on allocating resources in pursuit of a mix of humanitarian and vested interests, without necessarily addressing the root causes of the refugee crises (Loescher and Milner, 2003), or seeking durable solutions to the plight of refugees (Kaiser, 2010). Humanitarian intervention in the form of helping migrants and refugees seems a more appealing justification for the global aid industry to legitimize its continued intervention in developing countries—and alliance with political elites.
Jacobsen, Karen. “Can Refugees Benefit the State? Refugee Resources and African State-building.” The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Dec., 2002), pp. 577-596.
Kaiser, Tania. ‘Dispersal, division and diversification: durable solutions and Sudanese refugees in Uganda.’ Journal of Eastern African Studies, 4 (1). (2010), pp. 44-60.
Keller, Carolyn Smith. “‘Elections and Anti-Immigrant Sentiment in the European Union.’” Paper presented at the 3rd International ESS Conference, (July, 2016):13–15. Lausanne, Switzerland.
Loescher, Gil and James Milner. 2003. “The Missing Link: The Need for Comprehensive Engagement in Regions of Refugee Origin.” International Affairs 79(3):595–617.
Schiltz, Julie, and Kristof Titeca. “Is Uganda Really a ‘Refugee Paradise’?” Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera Media Network, 29 July 2017, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/07/uganda-refugee-paradise-170726133024156.html?xif=.