Uganda + 7 more

East Africa host countries at a crossroads: Are refugees welcome or not?

In Summary

  • Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya are home to more than two million refugees from Somalia, South Sudan, DR Congo, Ethiopia, Burundi and Eritrea.
  • The bulk of this population — about 1.47 million people — is in Uganda, despite its economy and land size being smaller than those of Kenya and Tanzania.
  • The refugees are fleeing civil war and famine, only to find themselves unsettled, plagued by funding shortfalls from international donors, xenophobia and corrupt officials

By Pauline Kairu

In February, Uganda found itself in an awkward position with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees threatening to withhold funding after allegations of inflated refugee figures in one of the camps.

This resulted in multiple investigations by the government, the UN and the European Union into accusations that aid funds had been stolen.

According to media reports, the investigators were looking into whether “food and other relief items intended for refugees were sold off, bribes paid and refugee girls trafficked.”

The government announced it was widening its probe to include staff from the UNHCR and the World Food Programme.

At the same time, the Ugandan government, working with both the UNHCR and the World Food Programme, launched a large-scale biometric data system to verify the identities of refugees in the country. The system will collect fingerprints and eye scans of more than one million refugees.

However, this unfortunate incident did not take away Uganda's position in the eyes of the international community: A country known for its warmth towards refugees.

Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya are home to more than two million refugees from Somalia, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Burundi and Eritrea.

The bulk of this population — about 1.47 million people — is in Uganda, despite its economy and land size being smaller than those of Kenya and Tanzania.

According to a report released in October titled, Free and Safe Migration in East Africa, Congolese and South Sudanese nationals running away from instability in their countries are housed in settlements and urban areas in the country, alongside local communities.

“Of the four countries examined in this study, Uganda is perceived as having the most tolerant migration regime and in practice is often faithful to its pledges,” said Nassim Majidi one of the researchers involved in the study.

This is one of the fruits of the Refugees Act of 2006, which promotes free movement and right-to-work arrangements for refugees.

The Act is nearing the end of a years-long process of becoming a policy, which will give it more teeth, ensuring that refugees are better able to contribute to the social incorporation and development of local economies.

Refugee documentation

Still, among all the East African countries, Uganda was found to be the most advanced in terms of systematic provision of documentation to refugees and migrants.

While the report recognises Rwanda’s determination to follow in Uganda’s footsteps, it is not so complimentary about Kenya and Uganda, accusing them of creating an atmosphere of hostility in migration management. Indeed, the two countries are portrayed as pursuing, albeit implicitly, xenophobic policies.

In August, Rwanda issued more than 2,500 identity cards to refugees in the country to enable them to move freely and to improve refugee access to public services and labour market opportunities.

National documentation — registration certificates, identity cards and permits — serve as the bedrock for accessing rights and entitlements within states, whether at arrival, departure or junctures in-between.

The study, conducted by the African Regional Office of the Open Society Foundations and the African Centre for Migration and Society of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, also found that migrants seeking work experience the most obstacles with regard to obtaining work permits in Tanzania and Kenya.

Uganda is also the least punitive when it comes to requiring that mobile migrants carry their documentation with them while in public.

Comparatively, Kenyan authorities are said to be hyper-vigilant about stopping individuals in public who they perceive to be foreigners to check their legal status.

A refugee in Uganda said such an encounter only occurred three or four times in the 10 years that he lived in Kampala, whereas a foreign staffer of an international NGO in Kenya said she could not count the number of times she was stopped in Nairobi in the course of one year.

Uganda: Role model?

One of Uganda’s hallmarks acts is its longstanding, free-of-charge distribution of viable agricultural land to refugees.

This is probably the reason Uganda was enlisted as the pilot country for the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF), as well being a participant in the World Bank’s IDA18 support scheme. The framework is lauded internationally.

The IDA18 regional sub-window for refugees and host communities provides $2 billion (between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2020) of funding to help low-income countries hosting large numbers of refugees.

But, as the report observes, Uganda’s increasing refugee caseload is decreasing the size of the plots of land given to refugees.

“This has become a common talking point among informants, who express concern over the sustainability of such a refugee regime,” adds the report.

“Nevertheless, there is an air of optimism that Uganda’s tradition of hospitality will continue, as stipulated in the government’s participation in the CRRF,” continues the report.

Additionally, among steps that Uganda has put in place for the enjoyment of migrants rights is the 2040 National Development Plan, which integrates refugees with the framework, delineating access to the same services in education and health.

Compared with other countries in the study, there was limited concern about non-refugee migrants among ordinary populations in Uganda.

Beyond Uganda — whether in Kenya, Tanzania or Rwanda — movement is restricted, with official encampment policies in place in the former two countries.

“Generally, by comparison, Tanzania and Kenya are relatively restrictive, with strict limitations on movement of refugees and with largely protectionist migration regimes that make it difficult for refugees and non-nationals — particularly low-skilled migrants — to migrate for work,” notes the 121-page report.


For refugees, only Rwanda and Uganda provide for the right to work. In Kenya and Tanzania, encampment policies go hand in hand with the expectation that refugees rely on humanitarian aid handouts.

Rwanda is the only country that has generated occupational demand lists to reflect sectors that have skills gaps, and has accordingly been providing permit extensions for eligible candidates.

However, even in contexts where there are technical provisions for migrants and refugees to work legally, there are a number of barriers. National or local policies and norms may privilege citizens over non-citizens.

The study, dominated by refugee-centred concerns, accuses Kenya and Tanzania of harassment, detention or deportation back to their countries of origin, any migrants transiting through their countries.

Inhospitable discourses around refugees and other migrants was said to escalate during elections, suggesting the politicised underpinnings of the phenomenon.

In the two countries, remarks like “migrants are stealing our jobs,” or that they consume more resources than they contribute, and depictions of migrants as thieves and criminals, were found to be commonplace.

“While xenophobia and discriminatory beliefs about migrants often map onto myth rather than reality, negative conceptions can have real-world consequences for migrants,” said Mburu Gitu, executive director of the Open Society Initiative for East Africa (Osiea) at the launch of the report.

The case for Kenya

With a current refugee population of about 415,000, mainly from Somalia and South Sudan, Kenya has for many years been home to hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes, but it has now been moving to cap the number of refugees arriving at its borders.

Kenya is characterised by the report as having a strict encampment policy stipulating that all refugees must reside in designated camp areas.

In December 2012, the government issued a directive for urban refugees to be relocated to camps.

The renewed focus on encampment since 2012 has been reinforced by the Security Laws (Amendment) Act of December 2014, which amends the Refugees Act of 2006 and the Kenya Citizenship and Immigration Act.

Contrary to the 1951 UN Convention and the Constitution of Kenya (2010), the encampment policy does not allow refugees to freely move out of gazetted areas without a movement pass, currently issued by the government’s Refugee Affairs Secretariat.

This practice has generated irregular movement of refugees and asylum-seekers continue to travel out Dadaab and Kakuma camps into urban areas, most notably to Nairobi, risking detention in Garissa and Mwingi while in transit.

Somali refugees in Nairobi are routinely targeted by police, often at the behest of Kenya politicians who accuse them of being a threat to national security.

Although periodic attempts to restrict the number of refugees seeking asylum have been successfully challenged in the courts, Kenya’s refugee policy has become increasingly restrictive.

Its stance towards Somali refugees first took a noticeably restrictive turn in January 2007, when Kenya temporarily closed its border with Somalia.

While the closure had only a limited impact, it was closely followed by another restrictive move: The forcible deportation of 420 refugees, mostly women and children, to Somalia.

This was to be followed by government’s explicit declarations that it would repatriate Somali refugees in their masses from camps. The Kenyan government accused some Somali refugees of links to al Shabaab, which has staged several attacks in Kenya.

The threatened mass deportations from the refugee camps only managed to round up and send about 400 people to Mogadishu from the Nairobi district of Eastleigh, but later rolled back under intense pressure.

An agreement between the governments of Kenya and Somalia and UNHCR signed in 2013 to pave way for the voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees, failed to deliver the expected results, in part because of a lack of international financial support and continued conflict and instability in Somalia.

During a pilot phase in the first half of 2015, UNHCR reported that just 2,589 refugees had returned to Somalia, well short of the target of 10,000.

Furthermore, says the report, “Law enforcement officers have reportedly arrested and refouled asylum-seekers in transit through Kenya and Tanzania, trying to reach protection elsewhere.

“The practice is more prevalent in Kenya’s northern migration corridor bordering the Somalia and Ethiopian border in comparison to the western migration corridor (Uganda, Tanzania), highlighting the ethnic profiling of certain migrant groups.”

In 2016, the NGO Co-ordination Board restricted work permit issuance, alongside directives to close the Dadaab camps. In 2017, the president of Kenya declined to sign the Refugees Bill, sending it back to parliament.

Tensions and obstacles to legal migrant protection persist in Kenya, particularly following drastic cuts to aid funding by international donors.

While in 2017, Kenya made promising steps forward by hosting the Igad Nairobi Declaration on Somali Refugees, and the president further declared that visas would be offered to Africans on arrival and work permits issued to EAC migrants at no cost, these positive developments have yet to translate into improved migrant protection.

Instead, the government’s de facto encampment policy, buttressed by the Security Laws Amendment Act (2014) 36 and the review of labour policies in 2016 to give Kenyans labour market priority over foreigners, are pushing migrants towards irregular migration practices.

Asylum-seekers interviewed in Nairobi for this study said they have had to wait for more than a year for their status to be determined. Meanwhile, they cannot obtain access to health, education and labour in Kenya without a refugee alien ID card.

Tanzania: A case study

According to an ongoing study by Samuel Hall, within the EAC, Tanzania has the highest proportion of migrants without legal documentation.

Most of the intra-EAC movement to Tanzania comes from Kenya, constituting a large population of irregular migrants.

Uganda is a transit country for labour migration — most, according to the report want to go to Kenya or Tanzania.

Tanzania hosts 340,000 refugees, with most being from Burundi and Congo.

Oddly, in January 2018, Tanzania in last minute move withdrew from a process in which it had committed to extend more than 200,000 Burundian refugees the opportunity to receive Tanzanian citizenship back in 2007.

A political stalemate between humanitarian organisations and the government, left the “refugees-turned-citizens” stuck in the middle.

Tanzania has since pulled out of the UN’s CRRF, citing lack of international funding. The refugees remain in camps in western Tanzania where they have lived for the past four decades.

Tanzania has recently adopted harsh stances where foreign migrants from the Community seeking to do business with Tanzania have been penalised.

But even though most legal frameworks towards a continental agenda on the free and safe movement of migrants are in force, in practice members fail or refuse to implement regional charters that they have committed to.

“Policies are not adequately implemented in member states whose leaders make decisions that are in total contradiction to the treaty commitments,” says the report.

“The consequence of these political failures is the growth, particularly in Kenya and Tanzania, of anti-migrant sentiment, portraying migrants as the source of all the wrongs in the community, particularly insecurity and job vulnerability,” points out the report.