The Ugandan government has suspended the operations of 208 refugee agencies (Non-governmental organizations) for violating rules governing refugee management in the country. Hillary Onek, Ugandan minister for relief, disaster preparedness and refugees, said refugee agencies were operating illegally, without valid Memorandum of Understanding with the office of the Prime Minister and permits to operate in Uganda.
Uganda largely relies on aid agencies to distribute humanitarian aid to refugee settlements in the country. Current figures from the government show that 69 aid agencies have been authorized to implement refugee response activities in the Eastern Africa country.
The large number of aid agencies operating in Uganda is not surprising. Uganda hosts one of the largest refugee camps in the world. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates the refugee population in Uganda to be 1.5 million, mostly coming from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi.
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A World Bank study on Forced Displacement and Mixed Migration in the Horn of Africa also noted that more than 500,000 refugees from 13 countries are settled in refugee camps in Uganda.
The budget allocation to the refugee camps by the Ugandan government is woefully inadequate and therefore it relies heavily on donors to keep the camps running. The NGOs also complement the government by providing humanitarian support to refugees.
The World Bank considers Uganda’s Refugee Act as one of the most progressive and generous in the world. Beyond providing free healthcare and education in refugee settlements, it also allows refugees to move freely in the country. Essentially, it serves as a haven for migrants fleeing conflicts and other drivers of forced migration.
Aside from providing free healthcare and education to refugees, Uganda has also adopted the United Nations Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework. The framework is a multi-stakeholder coordination model on refugee matters focusing on the humanitarian and development needs of both refugees and host communities.
The framework focuses on five key areas: admission and rights, emergency response and ongoing needs, resilience and self-reliance, expanded solution and voluntary Repatriation, and encourages a “whole of society” approach to refugee management.
Uganda’s favorable environment towards refugees is often credited to the country’s Refugee Act and the recent adaptation of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework.
However, the country has a history of tension with NGOs in refugee management. Onek accused NGO leaders of living lavishly at the expense of refugees.
“If you do not want to help the people, leave them alone, other than getting funding to enrich yourselves. If you are working towards the betterment of the people, let your positive impact be felt on the ground,” he said.
In 2018, Onek lashed out at NGOs for hijacking refugee funds raised from hosting the refugee solidarity summit in Kampala in June 2017. Uganda received $1.5 million from only India and China, though the summit had targeted to raise $2 billion. Onek accused the NGOs of lobbying their governments to channel to them the money. In the end, the Ugandan government could not raise the expected money from the summit.
There is a myriad of issues refugees face once they arrive in Uganda, and while government services can offer much, there are significant gaps in the help they can give.
The decision of the Uganda government against aid agencies at the time the country is facing economic challenges due to COVID-19 is quite difficult to accept. The suspicion is that aid agencies have received monies from donors but are not channeling the money into delivering humanitarian aid.
However, it is important to point out that NGOs are equally struggling to raise funds to support refugee operations just like the Uganda government. Save The Children, one of the aid agencies, said it is not only the government that is running out of money but a number of NGOs are struggling to keep some of their programs operating. According to Save The Children, they may shut down some of their programs if they don’t get funding by the close of the year.
NGOs play significant roles in migration management as well as humanitarian aid. They offer health and educational support. They also contribute to peacebuilding and sustainable return and reintegration. Also, they build capacities of local institutions and authorities and improve resilience to disaster.
While it is important to rein in NGOs misappropriating funds from their donors, the government must not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Suspending the operations of NGOs has the potential of affecting aid delivery to hundreds of refugees.