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No Deal Yet, According to Govt, But Who Are The Afghan Refugees Destined for Uganda?

First, they are not the ordinary Afghan children, women and men living an ordinary life of an Afghan, or those doing private businesses in Afghan cities. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, General Jeje Odongo stressed Thursday, that so far there is no commitment made by Uganda to host the refugees from Afghanistan, despite being approached under an arrangement facilitated by the US.
Afghan refugees planning to flee the country. Courtesy Photo
News earlier this week that 2,000 refugees from Afghanistan were headed to Uganda drew mixed reactions from different sections of Ugandans. 

While some are questioning the rationale of adding to the already existing refugee burden to the country, others made light jokes out of it, saying they would happily welcome Afghans to the country for social reasons. 

Both viewpoints are largely based on little or no knowledge of the kind of refugees that are due to come to the country, or even why one would have to move more than 5,000 kilometres from Central Asia to East Africa for refuge.

Who are the Afghan refugees going to Uganda? 

First, they are not ordinary Afghan children, women and men living an ordinary life of an Afghan, or those doing private businesses in Afghan cities.  They are the kind that has been employed to work for the US Army and other US departments, or for the fallen regime under the support of the US.

The US government has been in talks with several countries around the world and to temporarily host these refugees, and seven African governments, including Uganda, have expressed willingness. Meetings involving President Yoweri Museveni and responsible ministers from foreign affairs, internal affairs and disaster preparedness ministries, among others, are still ongoing about the same.

The ongoing meetings are about where the refugees will be hosted. On arrival, they are expected to be accommodated in hotels before they are relocated to refugee camps, where they could stay for about three months or more, according to information from a person privy to the discussions at State House. 

But the Minister of Foreign Affairs General Jeje Odongo stressed on Thursday, that so far there is no commitment made by Uganda to host the refugees from Afghanistan, despite being approached under an arrangement facilitated by the US.  

“We were approached by virtue of Uganda's international humanitarian record and we are still in talks. We have been approached but no decision has been made. We are still in discussions," he told a parliamentary committee Thursday. 

This means that even the said first batch of 500, is not expected in the country soon, according to the minister. He insists there are no favours like cash or other returns.   

An official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter confirmed that the government had agreed in principle to receive the refugees on a temporary basis as their final host country is sought.  The biggest number of the refugees under this arrangement is being settled in the US, Canada and the UK. 

The source says the refugees were not yet in the country but are in countries neighbouring Afghanistan, under the care of the US government. “The US is facilitating these people and their families including their safety, accommodation and meals. Most of them are now in high-class hotels in Qatar.”

Most of these are equivalent to expatriates, who have studied and worked in other countries,  speak languages like English, Spanish and French, on top of their native ones, and have been employed as mechanical and construction engineers and medical doctors, among others, according to the same source.   

Asked where Uganda will get the resources to manage the refugee needs, the source said Uganda has adequate policies, if only the refugees into the country are controlled as it is in western countries. 

“We already have our own policies that have been piloted over the years, that include economically empowering refugees through education, giving them land for cultivation as well as allowing them to do petty business and receive cash from their home countries, friends and donors.”        

However, some analysts are not convinced that Uganda is doing this is purely on humanitarian grounds. 

“Washington gives Uganda nearly USD 1 billion each year…In return, Museveni's regime has positioned itself as the anchor-man of stability in the Great Lakes region, running security errands, fighting al-Shabaab in Somalia and playing a diplomatic broker,” says veteran Ugandan journalist Charles Onyango Obbo. 

Emmanuel Dombo, the ruling NRM spokesman was welcoming in his tone, stressing Uganda’s policy towards refugees. 

“We welcome our brothers and sisters from Afghanistan, when they arrive. 35 years ago Uganda used to be a net exporter of refugees, but now we are happy to make our contribution by hosting those in need,” he said. 

Uganda has had an open refugee policy for decades, allowing in people from neighbouring countries, mainly fleeing wars at home, but also other disasters like drought or famine. 

But it has also received refugees from outside Africa under agreed arrangements with the international community, prominent of which are the Polish nationals, mainly women and Children who were resettled in Uganda between 1942 and 1944 during World War II. In the same period more than 4000 Italian prisoners were also received in Uganda’s refugee camps.

Most were later resettled in Australia, Britain and Canada in 1948. Uganda has at least 35 registered refugee camps, with Adjumani District hosting 24, the largest number. 

The other camps are in Arua, Hoima, Kabarole, Mbarara, Moyo and Kitgum. There are also refugee maintenance projects in urban areas like Kampala. 

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