Sunday, June 25, 2017

Uganda and Welcoming Refugees

65.6 million people are displaced worldwide. Last September, members of the United Nations convened in New York for the Summit for Refugees and Migrants, at which 193 countries committed to developing a comprehensive approach to welcoming and helping refugees. There are more than 22 million refugees in the world, 84 per cent of them in low- or middle-income countries – not in Europe, the United States or Australia, but in places that, in many cases, already struggle to provide basic services for their own people. The system protecting refugees has collapsed.

Refugees are a truly global and heavily politicized phenomenon; Europe's handling of the Syrian refugee crisis being but the most obvious case. Even in countries where refugee populations are, relatively speaking, tiny -- as in most of Europe and the United States -- refugees almost automatically enter the minefield of political debates. Fact and fiction, often happily coexisting, produce ill-informed rhetoric aimed at maximum immediate political benefit. Scare-mongering and the linking of refugees with terrorism -- as well as careless equations of migrants and refugees -- are but some examples of this kind of instrumentalization of vulnerable populations. In other words: just throw in a mention of 'radical islam' and you have managed to politicize (or securitize) a large group of people fleeing for their lives. There is nothing new about people fleeing for their lives. Wars and persecution -- based on religious, political or ethnic grounds -- were hardly inventions of the 20th century. For millennia people have been forced to leave their homes in search of safety.  Prejudice and fear still tend to be the most widely shared reactions among native populations when faced with the arrival of large -- or even relatively small but heavily mediatised  (such as the Roma) groups of 'aliens' and they become  what is euphemistically called the 'refugee problem'.

 Refugees from South Sudan are simply out of sight and out of mind for the rest of the world. 

A refugee flees unspeakable violence and finds herself in a peaceful village where, not only is she welcomed, but the local farmer offers her half his land to farm. In a village in the far north of Uganda, 54-year-old farmer Lagu Samuel has given a new home to a group of South Sudanese women, refugees who fled the violence over the border. His generosity is rooted in compassion: “They have no land and I do.” Uganda still provides a safe haven for a large number of people forced to flee. No other country received more new refugees last year than this relatively poor country in East Africa. 

Years of war in South Sudan, and now drought and famine, have created the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis. Of the 1.9 million South Sudanese who have fled the country, half have gone to Uganda. Famine has already been declared in parts of South Sudan. Since last July, an average of 40,000 people have arrived in Uganda from South Sudan every month. The numbers keep growing. Those arriving tell of indiscriminate killing, rape, destruction of property, arbitrary detention and a struggle to find food and access basic services. Many are living in areas out-of-reach for aid organizations. Parents are faced with the impossible choice of a long and dangerous flight to a safer country, or stay behind without knowing when or whether they will be able to feed their children.  Every day, more families are forced to make life and death decisions.  Displacement inside South Sudan is also widespread, with another 1.9 million uprooted within the country.  The world is leaving the country to face this crisis on its own. 

A miserly 17% of the humanitarian funding target has been met. Uganda’s Prime Minister, Ruhakana Rugunda, said “We continue to welcome our neighbours in their time of need, but we urgently need the international community to assist as the situation is becoming increasingly critical.”  Many African borders stay open and attitudes remain positive towards refugees. The village Bidibidi in the north of Uganda has fast become one of the world’s largest refugee settlements.  African nations, though, cannot be expected to shoulder the entire cost. To prevent Africa’s host countries from breaking under the pressure of an increasing number of refugees, other countries must fulfil their promise of support and scale up their assistance.  

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