The recent influx of South Sudanese refugees into Uganda has reignited debate about the country’s refugee policy and, with it, discussions on the extent to which the “Ugandan model” can be implemented in other countries in Africa and around the world. Given the growing numbers of refugees globally, and the momentum surrounding the global compact on refugees and the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF), these are vital discussions.
Relative to many other countries across the globe, not least economically richer parts of the world, Uganda’s willingness to host hundreds of thousands of refugees stands out as a positive example. While Europe and the US try ever more creative ways to create barriers to refugees reaching their territories, Uganda’s open borders approach puts many other states to shame.
Furthermore, the government has taken significant steps to allow for greater freedom of movement and access to work for refugees, again going against the global grain. The positive aspects of Uganda’s approach, therefore, should unequivocally be applauded.
However, there is another side to this story. With so few success stories in the context of global displacement there has been a tendency to idealise Uganda’s refugee response. In particular, debates around the benefits of Uganda’s migration management and asylum policies have tended to remain somewhat blind to the multiple complexities associated with their implementation, the political context in which these policies are pursued, and the historical trajectories that fomented their creation. In order for the Ugandan “model” to reach its full potential, this other side needs to be understood. In response, this paper situates Uganda’s current refugee policy in its historical and political context. It does this in order to promote a stronger and more constructive discussion about the qualities and durability of the current trajectory of refugee policy within Uganda.
Solidarity with refugees from neighbouring countries notwithstanding, Uganda’s progressive refugee policies have been shaped and adopted as part of a broader strategy of engagement with the international community that has sought to boost Uganda’s reputation and guarantee that its government has access to much needed external development and humanitarian aid. Moreover, the country’s position as a showcase of progressive refugee policies has also given it considerable leverage in deciding how to implement these policies and what to focus on. The consequence of these dynamics, this paper shows, is that generations of supposedly transformative policies have only entrenched the settlement model and reinforced the idea that repatriation is the only viable durable solution. They have focused on enhancing the integration of refugee services into the national system – or arguably vice versa: enhancing the integration of nationals into the refugee service delivery system – while blocking the integration of the refugees themselves.
The intention of this paper, therefore, is not to belittle the progress made by Uganda but to ensure that there is a robust critique of it that enables it to become much better. It argues for a debate over what is and is not working in the Ugandan context based on a strong evidence-base and for a discussion on durable solutions that is done within the context of genuine responsibility sharing. The paper begins with a brief history of displacement and refugee policy in Uganda, before looking at ways in which this evolving policy environment has interacted with national and international political realities. It then places the roll-out of the CRRF within this broader context and considers some of the implications of the current approach for refugees and host communities. Finally, the paper concludes with some broad recommendations.