By Natasha Mariam
Lately, the media has been awash with the stories about the corruption scandal in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) where some officials have already been suspended to ensure clean investigations into the matter. For several decades, Uganda has been generously hosting refugees and asylum seekers from a number of countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, Rwanda, Eritrea and Burundi.
It is unfortunate for Uganda since its global reputation as a refugee friendly and welcoming country has been soiled by this scandal. Some of the allegations that have been made range from alleged mismanagement of food assistance, inflation of refugee numbers, refugees being required to pay bribe in order to get registered and allegations that scholarships meant for refugees are instead going to Ugandans. Investigations into the matter are ongoing and as part of the investigations, OPM and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have already started the biometric re-enrollment system to certify the actual number of refugees and all those found guilty of the crimes will be apprehended and brought to justice. Therefore, Ugandans, the international community and refugees should be positive that the system will be cleaned.
According to the OPM records, by February 28, 2015, Uganda had 433,595 refugees, on 5th January 2016 (end of 2015) the number increased to 512,691, by 30th December 2016 the number was 982,716 and by 2nd January 2018 (end of 2017) total number is 1,395,146 and currently as by 8th February 2018, the total number is 1,411,794. The numbers might even be higher given the fact that Uganda is receiving approximately 3450 refugees from DR Congo fleeing the ethnic clashes. As per these records we see that Uganda has always been willing to welcome and accommodate refugees only that the sudden rise of the numbers of the refugees overwhelmed the country and therefore made it easy for hitches to be created in the system and it is for this reason that the OPM is re-registering the refugees to clarify on the actual number of refugees in the country.
The Uganda Refugee Policy, embodied in the 2006 Refugees Act and 2010 Refugees Regulations, has many impressive aspects which include the open door policy to all asylum seekers irrespective of their nationality or ethnic affiliation, granting refugees relative freedom of movement and the right to seek employment, providing prima facie asylum for refugees of certain nationalities, and giving a piece of land to each refugee family for their own exclusive (agricultural) use.
With the South Sudan conflict in 2017 which doubled the number of refugees from 500, 000 to over 1.2million refugees, overwhelmed Uganda.
Such a large number of refugees in a country like Uganda which is not better economically than the sending country can disrupt the delivery of essential services since we have to share our limited resources with these refugees. In most cases the host country may not have the right plan and resources to deal with such large numbers. It is for this reason that Uganda hosted the Solidarity Summit in order to raise resources that would assist us in the different refugee programs. Different countries pledged money and out of the $523million that was pledged $358.6 million (Ugshs 1.25trillion) has already been realized. The ongoing investigations should look at all those involved in the scandal right from the top to the bottom including the different implementing partners.
Despite the scandal, Uganda is still a peace loving country and it will not close its doors to refugees. Uganda’s history especially in reference to the times of Idd Amin is not one to be proud of as many Ugandans were refugees in different countries around the world. As the Prime Minister always says “Today it is them, tomorrow it could be anyone of us” this is one of the reasons Uganda will not stop receiving refugees. In addition some refugees have been able to contribute to the communities in which they are staying by starting up businesses which have employed both refugees and the members of the host community.
According to officials, Uganda is committed to zero tolerance to corruption, therefore everyone should be assured that the investigations will leave no stone unturned and all those involved will be seriously be dealt with and refugee operations in Uganda will move on well as they have always been doing.
The Writer is an intern at Uganda Media Centre