Q&A: Uganda's refugee minister seeks solidarity in first-of-its-kind summit

A small child carries a jerrycan of water through Bidi Bidi refugee camp in northern Uganda. Photo by: Trocaire / CC BY

As a former refugee in Kenya, Musa Francis Ecweru often reflects on the generosity of his once-host nation. Today, as Uganda’s state minister for relief, disaster preparedness and refugees, he sits on the other side of the table, managing his country’s reception in the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis. The east African country is now home to over 1.2 million people who have fled 13 countries, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency and the World Bank.

Uganda has “one of the most forward-looking refugee policies in the world,” says Ecweru. Under law, refugees in Uganda are allowed to own property and start businesses, granted the same social services as Ugandans, given documentation and can move freely.
But the country’s policy, widely praised for its generosity, is stretching Uganda’s resources. This week, Uganda and the U.N. will host a “Solidarity Summit” on refugees, in a bid to raise $2 billion a year for the next four years for service delivery, investment in refugee-hosting districts, and to guarantee that new arrivals receive the required emergency assistance.

Uganda’s refugee crisis is “a major test” of the so-called New York Declaration, through which countries promised last year to better share the burden for sheltering and protecting refugees, according to the meeting’s call to action. Other refugee-hosting nations will be watching closely, some hoping to host similar events that can draw donor support.
Ahead of the summit, co-chaired by Ugandan President Yoweri K. Museveni and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, Devex spoke to Ecweru about his goals and expectations. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Why is this summit being held?

Uganda has one of the most forward-looking refugee policies in the world, which recognizes refugees as human beings [who] deserve support and protection by members of the international community. Now, the reality is that while we continue to keep our door open, there is a negative side. These millions here put a lot of pressure on the resources available.
What are some of the particular challenges that Uganda now faces in hosting so many refugees?
One of the challenges is the depletion of the environment. Refugees must compete with Ugandans to cut trees for energy. They cut trees to build shelters. All that has a big impact on the environment. It is something we must really look at.
Another challenge is health. Medicine meant for citizens is now being spread thin, as it’s also used to take care of refugees.
The third challenge is infrastructure. There are almost not enough schools to accommodate these communities.

Another challenge is that most of the refugees are youth, women and children. There is a need to develop vocational schools that will benefit both youth who are refugees and also the host communities, who are some of the poorest in Uganda, and have accepted the burden of hosting these people.
 
The media has tended to focus on South Sudanese refugees, as they now make up three-quarters of all refugees in Uganda. Is the plight of refugees from other countries being ignored?

Yes, nobody’s focusing on Burundi. Nobody’s focusing on the Democratic Republic of Congo, and I must tell you that the situation in DRC can explode. Women who are crossing from DRC into Uganda are telling me they don’t know who is in charge of their villages. They don’t know whether the government, militia or U.N. is in control. It looks like everybody is there just to loot some minerals and not protect the people of DRC, which is unfortunate and sad.
What about urban refugees in Uganda?
Urban refugees need to be really highlighted, and that’s why, during the summit, we will have visits to them. We recognize that they exist, we recognize their challenges. Those who can be encouraged to go to the settlements so that they can till the land to recoup their dignity by being able to feed themselves should be encouraged to. But those who may want to stay in urban centers for reasons that are unique, for example for health reasons, must also be supported. Urban refugees must be handled on a case-by-case basis.
It has been suggested that Uganda may run out of space for refugees soon and become like Kenya, where refugees live in camps and their movements are restricted. Is this true?
 
Not at all. We still have some of our settlements which are open. We don’t talk about it so much because it can sound like we are inviting more people. But we are not going to go the Kenya way. Many people are asking us “why don’t you close your gates like some parts of Europe have done?” We are saying “no, closing our gates is like leaving people to go back to their country and die.”

These people are not coming here for a picnic, they’re not coming for vacation. They’re coming here because they’re being persecuted in their countries. By looking after this many refugees, we are sheltering some parts of Europe from the burden of people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.

“The reality is that while we continue to keep our door open, there is a negative side. These millions here put a lot of pressure on the resources available.

The reality is that you can’t say “we’re planning for you to go home next year.” We can only say we are taking care of you jointly with the international community until conditions at home get better, and then we’ll facilitate your return. This can take days, weeks, months, even years. We have some refugees who have been here for decades. A refugee must never be forced back to his country. He can only be persuaded to go back when conditions are normal. Refugees are a factor that we cannot wish away.
But we’re also going to discuss the source of the problem at the summit. There must be an attempt by the international community to address the root causes of the conflicts in South Sudan, DRC, Burundi and those countries that are now generating refugees.
Are you pleased to have the support of António Guterres in his new role as secretary-general?
Yes. António Guterres is a friend of Africa. He has been a UNHCR high commissioner, and visited Uganda and fraternised with us very well at the time of the Kampala Convention, when we were discussing how to manage internally displaced people in Africa.
Are there any countries in particular who have expressed their support?
Japan is sending a minister of state on behalf of the government, and separately the Japan International Cooperation Agency is sending a high-profile figure. JICA has been very supportive of some of our technical training. I think their intention is to see how they can work with the government of Uganda to help the districts that are hosting refugees to develop capacity to survive and live slightly above begging level. It’s encouraging.
Uganda is hoping that the summit may result in pledges of $2 billion towards the refugee crisis, and that other countries may adopt its model. How confident are you of its success?
Given the excitement from different friends who have been approached, we think we will get that money.
Right now, Europe is in panic over refugees. Uganda, being a model in refugee management, this is an opportunity for Uganda to tell the world that even Africa can have something to teach the rest of the world.
Throughout the refugee crisis, have you been reflecting upon your own experience as a refugee in Kenya?
Many of us now in government were refugees. It is something that one can always reflect upon. Kenya keeps refugees in a kind of prison, Uganda keeps refugees in a settlement. But we are still grateful to countries that accepted us and looked after all of us in different capacities.

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About the author

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    Amy Fallon

    Amy Fallon is an Australian freelance journalist currently based in Uganda. She has also reported from Australia, the U.K. and Asia, writing for a wide range of outlets on a variety of issues including breaking news, and international development, and human rights topics. Amy has also worked for News Deeply, NPR, The Guardian, AFP news agency, IPS, Citiscope, and others.