Uganda has lived up to its reputation as Africa’s most hospitable nation by opening its border to 1,500 people fleeing militias. But the coronavirus lockdown means many more fleeing conflict have been locked out.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) oversaw the transfer of the asylum seekers from the DR Congo via the Guladjo and Mount Zeu crossings in Uganda’s Zombo district. Most of the 1,500 people seeking asylum are women, children and the elderly. They are among the first of the estimated 10,000 people who fled in the direction of Uganda but became stranded at the border in May.
In mid-June, President Yoweri Museveni directed his ministers to reopen the border crossings and take them all in. The East African country had suspended the intake of refugees in March as a measure to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
The pandemic and the restrictions on the movement of people in recent months has collided with other crises around Africa — drought, floods, locust plagues, poverty and other diseases, such as malaria and measles.
“Uganda is an exemplary country. Other countries in the world can learn a lot of Uganda’s generous and open door refugee policy,” said Duniya Aslam Khan, Uganda’s UNHCR spokeswoman.
Uganda has redirected some of its resources to fight COVID-19, but even Museveni admits that there’s not much more his country can do for refugees due to its limited means. The country already hosts 1.4 million refugees, mostly from the DRC, South Sudan and Burundi.
The bulk of Uganda’s refugee spending is through the UNHCR, which is almost entirely donor-funded. The UNHCR has set up quarantine facilities in border districts for people crossing into Uganda where it provides support to local health authorities, according to Khan. UNHCR-run refugee reception and transit centers have been turned into COVID-19 isolation and quarantine facilities.
The UNand international humanitarian organizations appealed for funding to support the efforts of countries such as Uganda concerning refugees and asylum seekers.
The UNHCR funding requirement for 2020 was #357 million (€),however only 18% of that amount has been raised.
“Now that we are faced with the global COVID-19 crisis, which has forced us to redirect our resources to respond to the health needs of not only refugees, but their local hosts. We are really running short of money.”
At the Bidibidi Refugee Settlment in northwestern Uganda, superviser Michael Nabugere told DW that measures taken around the world to slow the spread of COVID-19 have also slowed his operations.
“Everything is slow. Partners have been affected by different lockdown measures put in place by governments,” he said.
“We don’t have any community infections as of yet but the measures have also had drastic impacts on the operation.”
UN figures show that Uganda has more than 800 reported COVID-19 cases — 52 involve refugees.
Bidibidi — until recently the largest refugee settlement in the world — houses more than 270,000 people from around Africa.
“The life is hard these days since COVID. We had to first of all cut food from 100% food rations to 70% food rations. So, it has complicated the lives of the majority of the families that cannot make ends meet. This is a big problem.”
There are also other problems: Bidibidi has seen a spike in teen pregnancies since the lockdown started in March. Clean water and firewood are also not always easy to come by.
Reports of government corruption involving funds for people housed at Bidibidi have been making the rounds.
“There are investigations that are ongoing. They have not been conclusive. I’m not in the best position to make a comment,” said Nabugere.
“What I will tell you is that the majority of the activities in the settlement are implemented through partners — international organizations carry most of it and they spend most of the funding that comes in the refugee operation.”
Most countries are concentrating on the deadly mark left by the pandemic rather than hardships in far-flung countries.
‘Charity begins at home’
In Uganda, COVID-19 has put a lot of strain on the available resources — which had already been dwindling, according to UNHCR spokeswoman Kahn.
“I think for Uganda, a country with 40 million of its own people and poverty levels pretty high, aid should not be taken for granted. And if the world community wants to see Uganda continue this responsibility, more global solidarity in terms of financial support is required.”
However, even developed nations have been struggling to provide adequate services.
“There is a need for significant fresh funding for COVID response in Africa. This is to prevent a health and socioeconomic catastrophe in the waters of such a pandemic. It is also to protect the advances against poverty that we have made in the last 20 years,” said Karoline Rosholf, the regional head of the East Afrian support unit at the Norwegian Refugee Council(NRC).
COVID-19 funding cannot depend solely on reprogramming and the realloction of preexisting contracts, Rosholm noted. “Now, when donor governments are also battling the same pandemic in their own countries and deaths are increasing, charity may begin at home.”
Access is critical
“It’s a complex situation. If we look at East Africa and the Horn and the Great Lakes, in total we now have 4.6 million refugees and 8.1 million internally displaced people. We have not yet seen a large outbreak in terms of COVID in this population, said Rosholm.
Conditions at refugee camps in the region are poor and conducive to the spread of the coronavirus. “This COVID crisis is coming on top of many crises in this region that were here before and are continuing to evolve,” she told DW.
“We also see that many governments are not prioritising refugees and we think that it is critical that they do.”
Governments are swamped. “Ethiopia has been strugging in the last few days with demonstrations but we have seen efforts from the government to decongest overcrowded IDP sites throughout the country during this pandemic,” said Rosholm.
“We are seeing some examples of that, but in general we are seeing that governments are focusing on their national populations and maybe less so on refugees — deprioritising refugees.
Josephine Mahachi contributed to this article.