Uganda, UNHCR struggle with refugee predicament
The Ugandan government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are struggling to cope with the increasing number of refugees in the east African country.
UNHCR officials told journalists at their office in Kampala last Friday that the UN agency is facing some difficulties in handling the refugee situation in Uganda.
Uganda is host to about 230,000 registered refugees from neighboring countries. Of them 188,000 are from Sudan, 20,000 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), 18,000 from Rwanda and 4,000 from other countries. There are also some 40,000 refugees who are not registered within the UNHCR.
There are 68 refugee settlement camps in the country.
It is this vast population of refugees that is making it hard for the Ugandan government as well as the UNHCR to operate.
Uganda's Minister of Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, Moses Ali, recently said that his ministry continues to face the problem of the ever-dwindling resources for the implementation of refugee programs.
The UNHCR has also started facing funding problems. According to Snezana Sazdic, a UNHCR official in Kampala, the agency's overall budget has been cut to about 92.5 percent.
Currently in Uganda, the UNHCR has suspended funding income- generating units of refugees. The funding of environmental management programs in the refugee settlement areas have also been halted due to lack of resources.
It should be noted that over 90 percent of the refugees in Uganda make their living by farming. Therefore these refugees will have to depend on food handouts from humanitarian agencies after their land being degraded since they have no alternative.
INFLUX OF REFUGEES
More conflicts in the region have led to the continuous influx of refugees into Uganda.
Many Congolese continue to flee eastern DRC because of the conflicts between militia groups. Recently, hundreds crossed the border to Uganda after the Mai Mai militia dislodged the DRC-Goma rebels from their bases.
In recent months, hundreds of refugees have fled Rwanda claiming that they are persecuted.
According to UNHCR, all the Rwandese refugees were supposed to be repatriated by mid last June but the whole process was stalled with only 1,500 having been voluntarily repatriated.
Also in recent months, thousands of Sudanese crossed from southern Sudan to northern Uganda, claiming that the security situation there was not safe for them. Some said that the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels fighting the Uganda government attacked their communities.
The LRA have their bases in southern Sudan from where they launch attacks against the Ugandan government.
According to UNHCR, about 6,000 Sudanese are expected to be repatriated by the end of 2005. UNHCR officials say that many Sudanese in Uganda are willing to go back home provided certain infrastructure is in place.
CHALLENGES FROM INSIDE
In hosting refugees, the Ugandan government continues to face some challenges from inside.
Recently there were conflicts between the locals and the refugees. The local community complained of government giving the land to refugees and yet some Ugandans do not have land.
Last year, there were also reports of local politicians encroaching and grabbing land allocated to the refugees.
Minister Moses Ali warned that the government is going to crack down on these politicians.
The government and the UNHCR also face a problem of the unfavorable security situation in northern Uganda. The region has for the last 19 years faced a rebellion by LRA rebels. There have been some targeted attacks by the LRA on refugee settlements in which a number of refugees died.
In 2002, the LRA attacked one of the refugee settlements in northern Uganda, killing many Sudanese refugees, which forced the government to resettle the refugees to another part of the country.
Though Uganda may be facing some hard time in addressing the refugee situation, there are some indicators showing that at least some work has been done.
The Ugandan government has now finalized with the refugee bill, which has been submitted to parliament for approval. It is expected that the bill will strengthen the mechanisms to protect refugees and bring Uganda's refugee policy in conformity with international law.
The Ugandan government with assistance from donors has integrated refugee issues on the development agenda by adopting a framework of Development Assistance for Refugees (DAR).
DAR is a development program that is intended to help refugee- hosting districts cope with the impact of refugees by being dedicated to the improvement of social conditions in the hosting communities.
In 1999, the Uganda government and the UNHCR initiated the Self Reliance Strategy, under which residential and agricultural land has been allocated to the refugees.
Service delivery systems such as education and health have been integrated. For instance, the UNHCR sponsors the university education of some Sudanese refugees. The refugees are also given agricultural implements and seeds so that they can ensure self reliance on the food they grew by themselves.