How Uganda’s refugee generosity could turn into a disaster

The time bomb is ticking; this is not your usual Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda time bomb style. It is due to poor planning, an increasing population that is growing rapidly at 3.5% annually, coupled with a reducing life span, poor farming decisions and a changing climate that has brought about a change in farming seasons not forgetting the influx of refugees in the country.

The funding for the agricultural sector was among the major highlights of this financial year. Uganda’s agricultural sector was allocated just Ugx. 828.5 billion In the FY2017/18, equivalent to 3.8 per cent of the budget envelope. This highlighted a serious policy irony among government officials that repeatedly emphasize its huge contribution to labour force absorption but are reluctant to increase agricultural budget vote. The agricultural sector generally employs 80 per cent of the population in its value chain, but has consistently received less than Ugx. 1 trillion for several years in contrast to the works and transport and education sectors. The works and transport sector was allocated Ugx. 4.5 trillion In the FY 2017/18, representing 21 per cent of the total resource envelope while the education sector received Ugx. 2.5 trillion, equivalent to 11.4 per cent of the budget envelope, government documents indicated.

A modest funding allocation to the agricultural sector raises huge doubts about government’s commitments to revamp the sector after the long dry spell that destroyed many crops and animals, caused starvation and death in some areas and piled pressure on local food prices. This dry spell started around October 2015 and dragged on up to April 2016 with slight rain downpours in between. After a few months of rain, the farmers who had sown their crops were shocked when the dry spell returned in June 2016 and dragged on up to December.

The intense dry spell also forced wildlife authorities to relocate about 150 kobs from Murchison Falls National Park to Kidepo National Park in 2016 due to substantial depletion of green pasture in the Murchison wildlife corridor, according to rangers at the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). These kobs are a source of meat that offers proteins for the locals in this area whose crops were destroyed in the long drought. The hunters had to resort to smaller game like squirrels and wild rabbits which can cope with the drought as they don’t need a lot of water to survive.

Refugee crisis

On March 13th, 2017, Uganda was ranked amongst the top three refugee hosting nations in the world at the Global Workshop on forced Migration and Refugees management, an event that was held in Copenhagen Denmark. I listened as Hilary Onek the minister for disaster preparedness praised this recognition and stated what the country was planning to do, that is, increasing its refugee base to promote globalization and save livelihoods. Of course globally, this is seen as headway to protecting the lives of immigrants and providing them with shelter. However, in the host country, this strategy has already caused adverse effects and could further damage the livelihoods of the poor, especially those in rural areas.

Over the years, refugee numbers have augmented. At the end of last year, over 1,162,715 immigrants were reportedly registered by United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Uganda. This was a 67.5% increase in numbers of refugees in the country from the 694,158 recorded in 2015. By August this year, more than a million Sudanese refugees had entered the country due to the South Sudanese political mayhem. The numbers continue rising with accruing instability in the neighbouring countries. The explosion of refugees to the country from crisis stricken South Sudan does not help the state of affairs leaving over 11 million natives at risk of experiencing food insecurity.

Tens of thousands of people continue to flee South Sudan to Uganda every day, 64% of whom are children under 18, leaving behind them tales of horrific violence. New arrivals are provided with shelter, food, water and an environment where they can live in safety. However, the humanitarian response to South Sudanese refugees in Uganda continues to face significant challenges due to chronic and severe under funding. Currently, just 36% of the US$251 million needed for 2016 has been received. This is creating significant gaps in the response which threatens to compromise the abilities of humanitarian organizations to provide life-saving assistance and basic services.

In August 2016, a new settlement was opened in Bidi Bidi, Yumbe district to accommodate the thousands of new arrivals. In a space of few months, humanitarian organizations had transformed Bidi Bidi from empty bush land in to the largest refugee camp in the world right now. Uganda has maintained open borders to allow refugees to reach safety and, as part of its settlement approach, provides them with land to build new homes and grow crops. They enjoy a range of rights and freedoms that allow them to gain employment, start businesses and make positive economic contributions to their host communities.

Additionally, with the impending Kenyan re-election scheduled for October 2017, we could see the numbers rising especially from populations that are pessimistic about the outcome after the announcement of results. Many speculators believe the violence that occurred in the 2007 election when former Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki could image itself into this re-election. We have already seen signs from this cancelled election in August when violence had started breeding. The Kenyans in fear could displace themselves seeking asylum in neighbouring countries, Uganda inclusive. Thus bolstering the number of refugees in the country.

Ominously, the rising numbers are greatly affecting the rural population – that depends greatly on land as a resource for their livelihoods. A negligible 12% of these refugees are in urban areas while the rest are in rural areas. When these refugees come to the country, the government takes significant chunks of land from the natives to resettle them. This has already happened in Northern Uganda in districts of Adjumani and Moyo. Our generosity to accommodate refugees has greatly reduced the available arable land for subsistence agriculture for the citizens from which most of the rural population depends.

As I walked through Kyangwali in 2005, a small town that inhabits refugees in Hoima District, I noticed the mushrooming land pressure in the area. There were too many people on small pieces of land. One of the original inhabitants reported that they (refugees) kept increasing by the day. In the present day, the numbers in the Northern part of Uganda have more than doubled courtesy of these immigrant movements.

This comes at a time when Uganda has been tackling the effects of prolonged drought. Soroti, Karamoja, Masindi, and other parts of Western Uganda have been hit by persistent drought which will consequently result into famine. With almost more than 10 million Ugandans facing hunger of which 1.6 million are in serious need for food to survive death, Uganda’s food security situation is worrying.

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