[Marxism] NYT: As Rich Nations Close the Door on Refugees, Uganda Welcomes Them
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Wed Oct 31 10:20:44 MDT 2018
By Joseph Goldstein
Oct. 28, 2018
ARUA, Uganda — President Trump is vowing to send the military to stop
migrants trudging from Central America. Europe’s leaders are paying African
nations to block migrants from crossing the Mediterranean — and detaining
the ones who make it in filthy, overcrowded camps.
But Solomon Osakan has a very different approach in this era of rising
xenophobia. From his uncluttered desk in northwest Uganda, he manages one
of the largest concentrations of refugees anywhere in the world: more than
400,000 people scattered across his rural district.
He explained what he does with them: Refugees are allotted some land —
enough to build a little house, do a little farming and “be
self-sufficient,” said Mr. Osakan, a Ugandan civil servant. Here, he added,
the refugees live in settlements, not camps — with no barbed wire, and no
guards in sight.
“You are free, and you can come and go as you want,” Mr. Osakan added.
As many nations are securing their borders and turning refugees away,
Uganda keeps welcoming them. And they keep coming, fleeing catastrophes
from across this part of Africa.
Solomon Osakan, a government official who manages refugee issues, worries
about maintaining harmony between migrants and host communities.
In all, Uganda has as many as 1.25 million refugees on its soil, perhaps
more, making it one of the most welcoming countries in the world, according
to the United Nations.
And while Uganda’s government has made hosting refugees a core national
policy, it works only because of the willingness of rural Ugandans to
accept an influx of foreigners on their land and shoulder a big part of the
Uganda is not doing this without help. About $200 million in humanitarian
aid to the country this year will largely pay to feed and care for the
refugees. But they need places to live and small plots to farm, so villages
across the nation’s north have agreed to carve up their communally owned
land and share it with the refugees, often for many years at a time.
“Our population was very few and our community agreed to loan the land,”
said Charles Azamuke, 27, of his village’s decision in 2016 to accept
refugees from South Sudan, which has been torn apart by civil war. “We are
happy to have these people. We call them our brothers.”
South Sudanese refugees and Ugandans gathering fruit after working in the
fields in Mireyi, Uganda.
United Nations officials have pointed to Uganda for its “open border”
policy. While the United States, a much more populous nation, has admitted
more than three million refugees since 1975, the American government
settles them in the country after they have first been thoroughly screened
By contrast, Uganda has essentially opened its borders to refugees, rarely
turning anyone away.
Some older Ugandans explain that they, too, had been refugees once, forced
from their homes during dictatorship and war. And because the government
ensures that spending on refugees benefits Ugandans as well, younger
residents spoke of how refugees offered them some unexpected opportunities.
“I was a farmer. I used to dig,” Mr. Azamuke said. But after learning
Arabic from refugees from South Sudan, he got a better job — as a
translator at a new health clinic that serves the newcomers.
His town, Ofua, is bisected by a dirt road, with the Ugandans living on the
uphill side and the South Sudanese on the downhill side. The grass-thatched
homes of the Ugandans look a bit larger and sturdier, but not much.
Josephine Bako, 13, was adopted by her aunt, Queen Chandia, after her
parents died in South Sudan.
As the sun began to set one recent afternoon, a group of men on the Ugandan
side began to pass around a large plastic bottle of waragi, a home brew. On
the South Sudanese side, the men were sober, gathered around a card game.
On both sides, the men had nothing but tolerant words for one another.
“Actually, we don’t have any problems with these people,” said Martin
Okuonzi, a Ugandan farmer cleaning his fingernails with a razor blade.
As the men lounged, the women and girls were still at work, preparing
dinner, tending children, fetching water and gathering firewood. They
explained that disputes did arise, especially as the two groups competed
for limited resources like firewood.
“We’ve been chased away,” said Agnes Ajonye, a 27-year-old refugee from
South Sudan. “They say we are destroying their forests.”
A crew building the foundation for a nursery school in Imvepi, Uganda. The
government ensures that spending on refugees benefits Ugandans as well.
And disputes broke out at the well, where Ugandan women insist they should
be allowed to skip ahead of refugees.
“If we hadn’t given you the land you live on, wouldn’t you be dying in
Sudan?” said Adili Chandia, a 62-year-old refugee, recounting the lecture
she and others got from a frustrated Ugandan woman waiting in line.
Ugandan officials often talk about the spirit of Pan-Africanism that
motivates their approach to refugees. President Yoweri Museveni, an
autocratic leader who has been in power for 32 years, says Uganda’s
generosity can be traced to the precolonial days of warring kingdoms and
succession disputes, when losing factions often fled to a new land.
This history of flight and resettlement is embedded in some of the names of
local groups around western Uganda, like Batagwenda, which means “the ones
that could not continue traveling.”
Samuel Lagu set aside five acres in Mireyi for a rice venture in which
South Sudanese refugees and Ugandans work side by side.
The government encourages the nation to go along with its policy by
directing that 30 percent of foreign aid destined for refugees be spent in
ways that benefit Ugandans nearby. So when money for refugees results in
new schools, clinics and wells, Ugandans are more likely to welcome than
For Mr. Museveni, hosting refugees has given him relevance and political
capital abroad at a time when he would otherwise have little.
A former guerrilla fighter who quickly stabilized much of his country, Mr.
Museveni was once hailed as an example of new African leadership. He was
relatively quick to confront the AIDS epidemic, and he invited back
Ugandans of Indian and Pakistani descent who had been expelled during the
brutal reign of Idi Amin in the 1970s.
But his star has fallen considerably. He has clung to power for decades.
His security forces have beaten political opponents. Freedom of assembly
and expression are severely curtailed.
Students carrying a blackboard outside Imvepi Primary School.
Even so, Uganda’s openness toward refugees makes Mr. Museveni important to
European nations, which are uneasy at the prospect of more than a million
refugees heading for Europe.
Other African nations also host a significant number of refugees, but
recent polls show that Ugandans are more likely than their neighbors in
Kenya or Tanzania to support land assistance or the right to work for
Part of the reason is that Ugandans have fled their homes as well, first
during the murderous reign of Mr. Amin, then during the period of
retribution after his overthrow, and again during the 1990s and 2000s, when
Joseph Kony, the guerrilla leader who terrorized northern Uganda, left a
trail of kidnapped children and mutilated victims.
Many Ugandans found refuge in what is today South Sudan. Mark Idraku, 57,
was a teenager when he fled with his mother to the area. They received two
acres of farmland, which helped support them until they returned home six
Agnes Ajonye gathered hibiscus leaves for tea in a settlement in Ofua in
“When we were in exile in Sudan, they also helped us,” Mr. Idraku said.
“Nobody ever asked for a single coin.”
Mr. Idraku has since returned the favor, loaning three acres to a South
Sudanese refugee named Queen Chandia, 37. Ms. Chandia said the land — along
with additional plots other Ugandans allow her to farm — has made all the
Her homestead of thatched-roof huts teemed with children tending their
chores, grinding nuts into paste and maize into meal. Ms. Chandia is the
mother of a girl and two boys. But over the years, as violence hollowed out
her home country, Ms. Chandia started taking in the orphaned children of
relatives and friends. Now 22 children call her “mom.”
A refugee for nearly her entire life, Ms. Chandia arrived in Uganda as a
young girl nearly 30 years ago. For years, she worried about being expelled.
A goat shelter on the land being used by Queen Chandia. She said the
donated land has made all the difference.
“Maybe these Ugandans will change their minds on us,” she said, describing
the thought that plagued her. Then one day the worry stopped.
But Mr. Osakan, the administrator who oversees refugee affairs in the
country’s extreme northwest, is anxious. There is an Ebola outbreak over
the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mr. Osakan fears what might
happen if — or when — a refugee turns up in Uganda with the dreaded illness.
“It would destroy all the harmony between refugees and host communities,”
he said, explaining that it would probably lead to calls to seal the border.
For now, the border is very much open, although the number of refugees
arriving has fallen significantly. In one of the newer settlements, many of
the refugees came last year, fleeing an attack in a South Sudanese city.
But some complained about receiving too little land, about a quarter acre
per family, which is less than previous refugees had received.
“Even if you have skills — in carpentry — you are not given a chance,” said
one refugee, Simon Ludoru. He looked over his shoulder, to where a
construction crew was building a nursery school. The schoolhouse would
teach both local Ugandan and South Sudanese children together, but the
workers were almost entirely Ugandan, he said.
At the construction site, the general contractor, Sam Omongo, 50, said he
had hired refugees for the job. “Oh, yes,” he exclaimed.
“Not a lot, actually,” he acknowledged. “I have about three.” Mr. Omongo
called one over.
“Are you a refugee?” Mr. Omongo asked the slight man.
“No, I’m from Uganda,” he said softly. His name was Amos Chandiga, 28. He
lived nearby and owned six acres of land, though he worked only four of
them. He had lent the other two to a pair of refugees.
“They asked me, and I gave it to them,” Mr. Chandiga explained. He patted
his chest. “It comes from here, in my heart.”
Lydia Namubiru contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in print on Oct. 29, 2018, on Page A4 of
the New York edition with the headline: As the Rich Shun Refugees, Uganda
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