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16 apr

Urban Refugees; They Are There, But They Are Not

In the second week of March two cars left Kampala and travelled up North, with Koboko Municipal Council as its destination. Slowly but surely the scenery changed. The surroundings became greener, with gentle sloping grounds, and, if lucky, an elephant crossing the road. Traditional round houses with thatched roofs popping up like mushrooms. Some of the houses are decorated with exuberant paintings and texts – a message of love from a husband to its wife, according to the Mayor of Koboko.

Oraba border between Uganda and South-Sudan

Oraba border between Uganda and South-Sudan

Uganda is known for its progressive refugee policy. Refugees receive (more or less) equal rights as the Ugandan citizens. They have the right to education, receive a piece of land, have the right to health care, right to work and so on. Moreover, in contrary to many refugee hosting countries, refugees are free to move in and out the refugee settlements.
Health care, and especially the supply of medication, in urban areas surrounding the refugee settlements is often much better. For example, the Koboko health inspector stated that in a refugee settlement people can often only obtain paracetamol. The Mayor of Koboko added that it costs only 1 US Dollar to travel from a refugee settlement to Koboko. When services provided in urban areas are much better than in the settlement, no wonder refugees leave the settlements and prefer to stay in urban areas.

The moment refugees leave the camps, they do not ‘count’ as a refugee anymore. Koboko District has seen an increase from 52.000 citizens to 120.000, according to their own estimations. These urban refugees, however, are not recognised by central government. This is the paradoxical part of the policy: the refugees are there, appealing to local governments services, while they are not recognised by central government. This implies urban local governments do not receive extra funds to supply services to all its citizens, including the new comers; the urban refugees. In Koboko the influx of refugees has led to service delivery being strained, like waste management, education and healthcare. Besides that local government services are overstretched, tensions arise between host and refugee communities.

Classroom in Abele Primary School, Koboko MC

Classroom in Abele Primary School, Koboko MC

We visited a primary school in Koboko, where the class attendance that day was 108 boys and 135 girls. There were no chairs or tables in the room, because otherwise the 243 children would not fit the room. Even though the little children seemed to have lots of fun learning English by singing songs, the view of the packed classroom made me sad.
The Urban Local Government Association (ULGA) in collaboration  with VNG International tries to advocate for the recognition of the existence of urban refugees, with the central government to recognise the existence of urban refugees. On the short term this shall not lead to concrete aid for the local governments, which now have to deal with a doubling of the citizens without a doubling of the budget. Nevertheless, efforts that are now being made are of great importance for the future.
The complexity of the country, its history, but mainly current interests and powers at stake all play a role in what is done today and why. At the end of my mission I unravelled just one of the many layers of why this progressive policy is conducted. But to be fair, the more I got to know, the more complex the picture became.

Myrte van der Spek

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