Is Uganda really a ‘refugee paradise’?

The grim reality behind the euphoric coverage of Uganda’s “exemplary” refugee policy.

Uganda South Sudanese refugees Reuters
The north of Uganda, where most settlements for South Sudanese refugees are based, is characterised by structural underdevelopment and poverty, write Schiltz and Titeca [Reuters]

In April the Dutch public broadcasting agency NOS published a story on Uganda “the refugee paradise”. The article was titiled: “Welcome refugee! Uganda welcomes you with open arms!” A South Sudanese colleague frowned after reading the translated article. “How can they see this as paradise?” he asked. “Don’t they know that people who are here are the ones who are not able to go somewhere else? Live in the city, or perhaps another country? There is no such thing as a paradise here.”

Uganda’s refugee policy has received much media coverage in recent months. The country is currently hosting around 1.2 million refugees from neighbouring South Sudan, which is involved in a brutal, and endless, civil war. While a number of critical articles were also published on the difficulties that South Sudanese refugees have been facing, most of the coverage has focused on Uganda’s hospitality. The range of superlatives used to describe the openness of both the government and the population of Uganda was especially eye-catching. Articles were, for example, titled “Uganda’s example to the world”, “Uganda may be best place in the world to be a refugee”, “Uganda’s lesson in how to treat refugees” and so on.

This euphoric coverage obscures a not-so-paradise-like reality. It serves a range of political agendas but it does not help the refugees’ situation.

Uganda’s refugee policy is indeed progressive and open, and the country’s attitude may be remarkable in light of the high degree of resistance that refugees experience in other parts of the world today.  

In Uganda, refugees are given small plots of land on which to build houses and cultivate crops, and they are allowed to work and move freely within the country. Because of this basic premise, Uganda’s refugee policy has been lauded as one of the most progressive in the world. But what happens in reality is not as exemplary as has been reported in the media.

The north of Uganda, where most settlements for South Sudanese refugees are based, is characterised by structural underdevelopment and poverty. As a result, the presence of refugees, and the humanitarian aid which comes with it, leads in a number of areas to serious tensions.

Incidents have been reported in which refugees were attacked by the local population, for example when collecting firewood. Locals have disguised themselves as refugees to access the relief aid, which is considered an “illegal and criminal” activity. Incidents have also been reported in which refugees were allowed to rent or use land for cultivation, but were forced to give it back to the host community when the yield was ready. In urban areas, clashes have emerged in a university between refugee students and “local” students. A

necdotal, for sure – but so are many of the success stories which appeared in the press in recent months. In Lamwo, one of the districts currently receiving new arrivals, the local population has tried to stop the relocation of refugees on its land. This region has an exceptionally high unemployment rate and the government’s decision to allow refugees to gain lawful employment has led to the fear that the refugees will take away the scarce jobs.

OPINION: The world has abandoned South Sudanese refugees

So, why is the media insisting on presenting Uganda as a success story?

First, this narrative is politically useful for different groups in Western countries. On the one hand, it allows Western governments to push forward with the externalisation of their asylum policy. For example, the EU’s emergency trust fund for Africa is already aiming to externalise the bloc’s asylum policy and to tackle migration “at the roots”.

Uganda’s success story allows it to show that African countries are also able to host refugees, which in turn supports European efforts to withhold migrants and refugees before they reach EU borders. On the other hand, this positive narrative strengthens the hands of people pushing for a more liberal and open refugee policy in the West: “Look, if this poor country in Africa can host all these refugees, we should certainly do it!”

Such one-sided success stories, depicting Uganda's refugee policy as an example to the world, hamper a critical questioning and a debate about durable solutions for the fundamental problems South Sudanese refugees are facing.


Second, the story also comes in handy for Uganda. At best, the country can be described as a “hybrid” democratic regime. This success story allows it to deflect attention from its semi-authoritarian tendencies, as shown in the regime’s recent efforts to abolish presidential term limits (effectively allowing a presidency for life), or neglect the international call for an independent investigation into the army’s behaviour in a conflict in Western Uganda. Equally, the narrative on its hospitality allows Uganda to crucially deflect attention from its involvement in the South Sudanese conflict and particularly its support for Salva Kiir.

Third, the Ugandan success story is crucial for NGOs and humanitarian aid agencies. They use stories like this one to raise much-needed funds for the victims of the South Sudanese crisis.

All these hidden interests naturally make it difficult for journalists to tell a nuanced story about refugee experiences in Uganda. But, the way journalists obtain stories about Uganda’s refugee policy is also part of the problem.

Much of the reporting on this issue is done through press trips organised by embassies or humanitarian organisations. This kind of hit-and-run journalism consists of a number of pre-arranged field visits and interviews, highlighting the positive work of the organisation and Uganda’s refugee policy.

So, presenting Uganda’s refugee policy as a success story benefits all actors concerned and makes journalists’ jobs a lot easier. But how is this narrative affecting the refugees?

It is true that Uganda and the humanitarian organisations working in the region are making an enormous effort to host the refugees. But they are not offering long-term solutions and the refugees’ future in Uganda is still in question. The humanitarian agencies will eventually scale down their efforts and leave, and the refugees won’t be able to survive solely by cultivating the small plots of land given to them by the government. These lands are too small to provide a decent living and the local population still officially owns them. As a result, refugees are constantly feeling uncertain about their future in the country for good reason.

Such one-sided success stories, depicting Uganda’s refugee policy as an example to the world, hamper a critical questioning and a debate about durable solutions for the fundamental problems that South Sudanese refugees are facing. Also, such rosy presentations may be particularly offensive for the people whose harsh reality is buried under superlatives. So maybe instead of praising Uganda it is time to ask questions: Why is Uganda’s refugee policy so progressive? Who wins, and who loses? And what does this refugee policy mean in practice, in the experiences of the refugees and host communities who are subject to it?

Julie Schiltz is a PhD student at the department of Special Needs Education of Ghent University and has been conducting ethnographic research among South Sudanese refugee youth in Northern Uganda for more than two years.

Kristof Titeca is a lecturer at the Institute of Development Policy at the University of Antwerp, who has been conducting extensive research in Northern Uganda.