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European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations
20 March 2024

A welcoming haven for those fleeing strife and insecurity: Uganda’s unique refugee policy

Uganda’s refugee policy presents a unique example to the world: refugees are welcomed to the country, they are given land and are provided with basic services. They enjoy freedom of movement – although they do not receive Ugandan citizenship.

International support is absolutely necessary for the country to maintain this policy. At the beginning of March, EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid organised a media trip for 5 journalists from European outlets to the Nakivale refugee settlement area—the oldest one in Africa—where the European Union works together with humanitarian partners to support Uganda’s refugee response.

A person walking on a sand road surrounded with lots of green.
New arrivals in Uganda are provided with a plot of land and a “starting kit” and they can start building their houses and working the land.
© European Union, 2024 (photographer: Peter Biro)

Settling in Nakivale

The Nakivale refugee settlement in south-west Uganda – established already in 1958 – covers an area of 185 square kilometres and is home to more than 170,000 refugees benefitting from Uganda’s “open door” policy.

They come from Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, South Sudan, Eritrea and elsewhere, fleeing strife and conflict, yearning for only one thing for themselves and their families: security.

Humanitarian partners including UNHCR, WFP, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Danish Refugee Council, and Medical Teams International, are funded by the European Union to support Uganda’s refugee response.

Close up of the side of a bus with the UNHCR logo on it.
400 refugees arrived at Uganda’s Kabazana Reception Centre on 6 March 2023, from conflict-torn eastern DRC.
© European Union, 2024 (photographer: Peter Biro)

The services provided by the government and humanitarian partners are not limited to refugees but extend to the host communities, who benefit from health care and education projects. In Nakivale secondary school, 21-year-old Reheima Bahati from DRC’s North Kivu province, was able to continue her education after dropping out of school and having a baby at the age of 19.

“I feel so happy when I see a teenage mum back in school,” one of her teachers says.

The school competes academically with secondary schools outside the settlement, and even members of the host community send their children there. A baby corner is under construction, to help teenage mothers like Reheima.

View of a classroom filled with people.
In the Nakivale settlement schools, children who arrive in Uganda without speaking English are offered “language bridging” classes.
© European Union, 2024 (photographer: Peter Biro)

In the Nakivale III Health Centre, refugees and members of the host community benefit from health and nutrition services.

Around 400 women show up at the centre for antenatal care each week. To address chronic malnutrition, WFP provides food support to pregnant women. However, mothers often share the rations with their children, as malnutrition is an ever-present risk.

A woman holding her young child in her arms. A health worker measuring the child's arm.
Nutrition services are important, as the stunting rate is at 40% -- much higher than the acceptable rate of 20%.
© European Union, 2024 (photographer: Peter Biro)

The health centre serves around 94,000 people, 82,000 of whom are refugees and 12,000 members of the host community. Services are provided not only by health professionals but also by refugees themselves.

Over 230 volunteers, organised in “village health teams” and trained to provide basic health care, visit households and refer patients to a health facility if needed.  

The particular challenges faced by urban refugees

Although refugees coming from rural settings in their own countries settle in Nakivale and remain there, the kind of life offered by the settlement does not always fit those fleeing big urban centres.

Arriving in cities, refugees – often not speaking English or any local language – can be exploited by landlords and employers. With EU funding, the NRC supports the Information, Counselling and Legal Assistance (ICLA) centre in the Ugandan capital Kampala.

Our interlocutors describe to us the challenges faced by refugees in the cities – an aspect of the refugee response that is sometimes overlooked.  

“In the beginning, integration was very difficult – also due to mistreatment by the police,” says Christian from the DRC. "After registration, life was better, although there are limited opportunities for refugees.” 

He highlights the need for the assistance offered by the NRC: 

“We go to them when we are stuck,” he says.

Asked whether refugees mingle with the local community, he is adamant:

“You can’t live in someone’s house and not relate to them.”

Children play together, and refugee associations even pay school fees for host community students if needed.

Photo of Christian in front of a colourfull wall.
© European Union, 2024 (photographer: Peter Biro)
Christian arrived from the DRC in 2012. Fluent in English now, he helps young refugees, including young mothers and vulnerable women.

Christian blames a lack of awareness for the exploitation of refugees, as some members of the host community think that refugees arrive with a lot of money.

“There are people who are not educated, and they don’t understand about refugees,” he smiles. 

Resources are never enough

Since 2017, the EU has supported humanitarian action in Uganda with more than €309 million. For 2024, the EU has allocated €27.5 million for humanitarian aid, to help address the needs of 1.5 million refugees, asylum seekers, and host communities.

Continued international donor support is crucial: 

According to UNHCR, around 2,500 people arrive in Uganda each week, mainly from the DRC. Combined with a birth rate of around 400 children per month, the needs are constantly increasing.

As a result of increasing needs and diminishing donor funding, the WFP, for example, has had to cut the food rations it provides to refugees, allocating this assistance following an assessment of refugees’ vulnerability.

Despite the welcoming attitude of host communities, limited resources can cause friction, especially in secondary settlement areas, such as towns and cities, where government support is limited. But for now, Uganda welcomes all refugees, no matter where they come from.

Photo of Yolanda Valassopoulou

Story by Yolanda Valassopoulou, Information and Communication Officer, EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations.

Photos: Peter Biro, Regional Information Officer, Nairobi, EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations

Publication date: 20/03/2024