What the Refugee Influx means for Uganda, and what we must do to avoid the Looming Catastrophe

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Holot detention facility in the Negev Desert, in Israel housing some 2,500 asylum seekers mainly from Eritrea and Sudan [Jim Hollander/EPA]
  • While oil exploration in western Uganda continues and gold in in the north east, no revenues from such resources have been openly reported to the public
  • We must recall that the country has been praised by the international community as having “the world’s most compassionate refugee policies, which grants migrants land to build a home and enjoy rights to travel and work that are practically unheard of elsewhere.”
  • The current higher taxation of small businesses is one of the biggest ways government has suffocated development and precipitated the current high price crises in a country whose minimum wage is 140,000/= (equivalent to less than $45 a month).

Opinion: While Uganda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Hon. Sam Kuteesa prepares his statement on the recent media reports about a deal between Uganda and the nation of Israel which saw over 1,400 brought into the country without anyone’s knowledge, not even the country’s legislative body, it would be important for Ugandans to hear from the State why there was no need for bringing the matter to the attention of the public.

It has been reported that the Ugandan Government secretly signed a pact that relieved Israel of over 1,400 of her unwanted refugees into Uganda. The reports that were first made public by the government owned newspaper, the New Vision, stated that as a reward, Uganda would benefit through accessing agricultural extension trainings, and ‘new’ weaponry systems which would include; surveillance systems, self-propelled cannons, advanced drones, upgrades for the air force’s MIG 21s as well as offering training to Ugandan pilots.

Although I presume the aspect of national security and the fight against terrorism will be highlighted as part of the reasons for the arsenal of weaponry involved, it is intriguing to hear more about the relevance of the self-propelled cannons in a country that is not involved in, and neither is in anticipation of war.

That said, I would call upon all Ugandans and legislative body to reflect on the recent influx of refugees into the country that seems to have no plan of averting any likely conflicts that may arise from resettlement in a country where majority of the youth are languishing in poverty, with a complex stagnation of the highest level of unemployment among both the literates as well as the illiterates like never before.

While oil exploration in western Uganda continues and gold in in the north east, no revenues from such resources have been openly reported to the public and yet the recent discovery of gold deposits in Mubende led to an abrupt displacement of thousands of its inhabitants, a manifestation that secret dealings have become a common occurrence in the day-to-day affairs government.

The news making rounds that government is set to distribute rewards of 800,000,000/- (approximately $300,000) to legislators willing to second the constitutional amendment that would have otherwise made it impossible for President Yoweri Museveni who has been president for 31 years from running again, is sad development.

With the many challenges faced by the nation, such resources would be pivotal in designing the country’s economic wheel that would make Uganda’s resettlement policy sustainable since the economic redress would create opportunities for both the citizens as well as those being resettled.

To this note, the resettlements of refugees without a clear plan of action between the central and local governments is mind boggling and worrisome of what is yet to happen when conflicts arise between those being resettled and the community members who seem to be affected by the hike in prices of basic commodities that have become close to impossible to afford. In some communities, food crop farms are bought off before harvest seasons by the refugees who seem financially fairer than the local population.

In some cases, house rent is paid more than a year in advance leaving the local population competing for the substandard housing that remains and whose fees are automatically hiked from the high demand created. With the current political fragility, strategies must be devised to avert the possible catastrophes that are looming in the event that nothing is done to address the already fragile economic situation of the country.

This is of utmost urgency since the recent increase in the local population due to the admission of a million Sudanese refugees has meant a commitment by the Ugandan Government to become responsible for those admitted, while it continues with its mandated obligation of addressing the needs of the already increasing population.

We must recall that the country has been praised by the international community as having “the world’s most compassionate refugee policies, which grants migrants land to build a home and enjoy rights to travel and work that are practically unheard of elsewhere.” This approach although noble, it should not be mistaken as a sustainable one especially when no steps are being utilized to address the already growing national challenges among the youth.

Worse still, it is self-defeating in nature when such a commitment is designed to succeed solely through the financial commitment through funding from the International donors and donor agencies. It is important to note that while other refugee hosting nations have doubled their effort in creating avenues for economic opportunities for both the local population and those being resettled, through designing programs that address the existing challenges as well as the preventative measure that address problems foreseen in the future, no such approach has been, at least, seen to be in discussion by the Ugandan parliament and, or, government.

When the country’s challenges range from illiteracy, unemployment, underemployment, poverty, lawlessness, political mistrust, ineffective government organs; including the country’s police force to mention but a few, designing measures that address these challenges for the constantly increasing population should be expected for the least.

Agriculture which has been the backbone of the country’s economy in the past is currently under threat from the global environmental effects whose negative outcomes according to scientists, are expected to increase. This leads me to asking; what alternatives have been drawn to address these foreseen challenges to help the country’s predominantly illiterate (and majority) rural population who have survived on subsistence farming for generations?

It is common knowledge that the reliance on foreign help is a recipe for disaster, and a non-sustainable approach to a long-term issue. As the youngest population in the world, with over 75% below 30 years, policy makers should rethink strategies aimed at addressing the already impending challenges to avoid the overwhelming problems coming our way.

Instead of continuing to resettle displaced people from conflict regions without devising a plan that addresses the existing challenges and those yet to come, why not design programs that will create capacities and improve the abilities for survival within the local population like; trainings that address the problem of illiteracy, engagements that support local business growth and eventually boost infrastructural, economic, and other related developments within communities.

Today, Uganda seems to struggle with the job creation aspect with no opportunities for progression for the already existing job seekers. With this dynamic, the resettlements of refugees which would ideally come with a possibility for job growth and initiatives for development opportunities, has not been designed to warrant that.

When refugees come into the country, they are placed in camps where they have the opportunity to build houses, work, and live like any other Ugandan. This approach maintains the status quo while the increase in the population size remains a concern.

It is time that both the central and local governments figured out how they could utilize this receptive attitude to refugees and create opportunities for those being resettled and the Ugandan citizens and by so doing, will be able to create opportunities for economic growth and avert the possible conflicts that are looming.

I know that devising such approaches is the best alternative, and sincerely one that has been utilized by the west to foster economic development through encouraging immigration and refugee resettlements on a small scale.

For the current Ugandan approach however, challenges such as housing costs, job markets, cultural differences, competition between local business owners and those resettled that are already existent, are yet to increase if nothing is done through enacting policies that address these issues and pave way for the creation of opportunities for the country’s young population.

Resettlement of refugees and encouragement of immigration is not a problem in itself, but such an approach without a plan to integrate them with an economically viable strategy is unwarranted. It is time for policy makers to capitalize on the generosity of the nation to start a nation building strategy that fosters development through infrastructural development, workforce development initiatives that will increase the ability among Ugandans to compete for skilled employment opportunities within and outside the country, educations and trainings that will cultivate innovativeness that should be supported by government programs and others.

The current higher taxation of small businesses is one of the biggest ways government has suffocated development and precipitated the current high price crises in a country whose minimum wage is 140,000/= (equivalent to less than $45 a month).

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Rogers Muyanja is a Ugandan living in the United States of America. He works as the Employers Relations Developer for Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, an organization that assists low-income adults in realizing their full potential through literacy, employment, advocacy and community involvement.