Uganda’s Acclaimed Refugee Policy: The Difference Between What is on Paper and Reality

Uganda is described by many in the humanitarian circles as one of the friendliest countries in the world to refugees. Some reports, such as one from the Norwegian Refuge Council (NRC), state that the East African landlocked country, which hosts the largest number of refugees in Africa – more than 1.5m by May 31, 2022 – is “a pioneer in integrating refugees and giving them full rights”. Another Another report, from the UN’s Africa Renewal Magazine, refers to Uganda’s open-door refugee policy as “the most generous in the world.” And, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Uganda’s Refugee Act 2006 “unquestionably constitutes the most progressive refugee law in Africa.” While Uganda maybe credited for a policy that allows refuges freedom of movement, rights to education and health services, as well as access to life sustaining activities such as farming or doing business, the life of a refugee in Uganda is not as comfortable as it may be portrayed.


Adjumani District, in the north of the country, is home to the highest number of refugees – more than 235,000 (by June 30, 2022) of them spread out in 19 settlements. The general picture here is of refugees hardly integrated and surviving on the bare minimum, their landlords or hosts feeling ignored and pushing for recognition and benefits, and an elite class – representing the government and aid agencies – suspiciously looked at and envied by the locals for its status.

On a hot afternoon in May, Simon Mayik, a refugee from South Sudan sits directly facing me during an interview conducted under a huge tree in a church yard in Alere Refugee Settlement. I ask him what challenges he faces. He turns his narrow eyes away from me, stirs meekly at food supplies covered in the church yard with tarpaulins, and turns to face me again.

“Hunger,” he tells me. “You can see it from my appearance. We don’t get enough food.” The food he just stirred at has apparently been in the yard for five days, guarded there as residents await an official announcement about its distribution.

“Our stay here is OK. Socially we are fine – sharing everything [including water, health and education facilities]. Security, we have. But hunger! Without food you sometimes feel you are about to die,” Mayik adds, speaking to me in Arabic through a translator.

Since 2014, refugees in Uganda have been allowed to choose between receiving food rations as their monthly sustenance or a cash equivalent. By now, 55 percent of them has gone for the cash option, according to Patience Akumu, Programme Policy Officer (Editorial and Corporate Improvement), World Food Programme (WFP).

“When we give you money it gives you liberty to choose what to eat. If you grew beans and I give you money, for example, it means you can spend the money on something else. That is a more dignified way to respond to your needs,” Akumu says. “It is also more convenient for us to give assistance in cash because we are not carrying food. We avoid all the logistics associated with food, and the risks. And with shrinking aid we really would rather give assistance in cash. I hope one day we shall be at 100 percent cash assistance everywhere.”

Those still choosing food rations do it because that way, they feel more food secure. “One of them told me that ‘when food is there I am sure I will have something to it but money – it can just disappear’,” Akumu says.

Food or cash?

Whatever the choice one makes, it is a rock or a hard place.

WFP provides food to all refugees in settlements – 1.2m out of the total 1.5m. Owing to funding shortfalls, however, the rations have over the last few years fallen from UGX 60,000 (USD16) per head to UGX 31,000 (USD8), and now to UGX 19,000 (USD5) for some people like Mayik. In short, each of Mayik’s family member receives a meagre daily allowance of UGX 630 (USD0.16) to cover all their daily food needs.  

“We have reduced rations over the past few years from 70 percent to 60 percent and then later on to 40 percent [based on one’s WFP calculated basic food needs]. Initially we would just do a general ration cut. We did an analysis and found out that refugees are not at the same level of vulnerability. Starting in October 2021 we started to give assistance according to levels of need,” says Akumu.

“Most of the most-vulnerable are in northern Uganda and West Nile. We kept them at 60 percent or even increased to 70 percent in case they were very vulnerable. In south western Uganda the assessment showed that they were relatively less vulnerable – not that they have everything they need – but when you look at their food basket it is better, so we reduced them to 40 percent. As we implemented this prioritization, the ration adjustments according to vulnerability, we also discovered that even in the south west we were disproportionately affecting the extremely vulnerable so we started targeting our assistance even in the south west – the sick, elderly, disabled, those with chronic conditions, they are being pushed back to 60 percent,” Akumu adds.

Resource challenges

In 2021 the WFP gave refugees in Uganda up to USD 35m in cash and close to 80,000 tonnes of food. Right now, Akumu says, the agency needs USD 297m to be able to cover the next six months. “If we are not able to get this money we will not be able to respond to refugees effectively,” she says. “Covid 19 coincided with the time donors had reduced their support to Uganda for refugees. The pandemic has complicated the aid terrain, then Ukraine [war with Russia] has made it worse. The donors have to respond to Ukraine, Climate Change, they have to respond to old crises, they have to respond to Covid-19. So, I guess the donors are also having a hard time.”

To try achieve food security, some of the refugees rent small pieces of land from the locals at between UGX 30,000 and 50,000 a year for cultivation. Mayik grows maize and sorghum. But, he says, sometimes the harvests are very poor and, other times, they are duped into hiring land from which they are later chased by other people who claim to be the real owners.

“It is not easy here,” Mayik says, and goes silent for about 10 seconds, certainly recollecting the lifestyle he lost when he was forced to flee South Sudan eight years ago. “Back home I used to grow a lot of food. One harvest would take me through two years. I had 127 heads of cattle but I lost all of them. The rebels, the government soldiers, would all torture you and take your animals.”

Policies backed with resources

In the article “Uganda has a remarkable history of hosting refugees, but its efforts are underfunded”, Dr. Evan Easton-Calabria, a Senior Researcher at the Feinstein International Center, Tufts University and a Research Associate at the Refugee Studies Centre (RSC), University of Oxford, says that “despite rights on paper in Uganda, refugees still struggle.”

She states: “Although refugees in Uganda are economically diverse – one study even identified over 70 different types of livelihoods activities by refugees in Uganda – for many in settlements, subsistence farming is their primary livelihood. But, despite plots of land being provided in settlements, many don’t have enough land to farm on and soil quality is often low. This means that, for many, farming is no longer a viable livelihood. This shows that liberal refugee policies, like those promoting self-reliance in Uganda, must be backed with adequate resources if they are to be more than just words on paper.”

Whose refugees?

In Adjumani settlements, each refugee family is officially allocated an area of 20 by 30 metres on which they can set their temporary home. The settlements I visited, Agojo and Alere, sit on poor soils or rock that you can hardly grow anything in your little yard, and the space is too small to keep animals. As the refugees base here to receive humanitarian handouts, and eke out a living in any way possible, there is a conflict over them between their official hosts, the Government of Uganda, and their unofficial hosts, the Madi people who gave them land where they are settled.

This misunderstanding mainly stems from a perception from local chiefs and elders that officials of the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), which is the government’s office in charge of refugee affairs, and others in the local government and humanitarian agencies such as UNHCR, are benefiting from refugee programmes while the landowners, the “hosts”, get nothing – not even recognition. 

Unlike in several other settlements in Uganda, where the land belongs to the government, the land in Adjumani was given voluntarily to the refugees by locals through their clan leaders. Forced migrations between northern Uganda and South Sudan date back to the 1900s. The major influx in the recent years started in 2013 following fighting between President Salva Kiir and his deputy Riek Machar two years after South Sudan gained independence.

“South Sudanese refugees have been coming here during difficult times – just like we were also forced to move into South Sudan in the early 1980s. When they returned to Agojo in 2016 we welcomed them back. We gave them land to settle on for free – from the road up to Linga Stream. We have stayed with them since then but the OPM has never said thank you. What has been done in the community is this water tank, nothing else,” says Modesto Dima, the leader of the Palemo clan, as he points at the tank in his backyard from which the nearby community fetches water.”

Rex William Angarasi, the leader of the Pagirinya clan says it is within Madi tradition to keep some reserve land for people escaping disturbances in other places. Pagirinya Refugee Settlement is one of the most populous.

“We are following in our forefathers footsteps. We sat with the clan elders and agreed to give them a portion of land. We hoped that they [OPM, UNHCR] would give us projects; that we would for example grow crops and UNHCR buys from us to feed the refugees. That does not happen. Last year the various clans identified some land on which we would grow crops together with the refugees and we gave OPM and UNHCR our proposal. We have received no response. Instead of taking our offer they went to a private individual and hired land for refugees to cultivate. We are saddened that despite our offers, there is no specific project that targets us, the land givers, so that we can also feel good among our brothers and sisters [the refugees]. I have sat in three meetings about this and nothing good has come out of them.

“These refugees come here because of us. We are staying with them. They may stay here for 50 years. But the people who come to visit them, for example the donors, stay up there – talking to government officials and they ignore the real people who are hosting the refugees.

“We have heard that they want to lease the land. We don’t accept that. It is like they want to take our land so that they can bring refugees from wherever and at any time they want. When we sat with OPM we agreed on them settling refugees here, not leasing land. OPM took minutes and promised to give us a copy but they have never. We are very suspicious of them.”

There are no formally binding documents between the OPM and the landlords. The elders and chiefs say they drafted an MOU which OPM did not sign. “The common man gives land with a good heart. The learned man crooks. This is the problem with refugee things,” says Paulino Vusso, Chairman, Adjumani District Elders’ Forum (ADEFO).

The OPM stopped registering refugees in Adjumani in 2016, apparently because the number had become high, to the extent of surpassing the local population. But some elders think refugee handlers are taking refugees somewhere else for other motives.

“They say the Madi don’t have any more land for refugees which is a lie. We, who gave land, have never said that we don’t have more land. They want to take the refugees somewhere else but the most peaceful place for them is Adjumani,” says Muhammoud Doka, General Secretary, ADEFO.

Sharing natural resources

As if to add salt to injury, sharing natural – including grass for thatching, wood for construction and energy, as well as grass for animals – has brought conflicts between refugees and their hosts.

“The refugees now assume that the land has become theirs because OPM is giving them that impression that it is the land the government has given them. They are deliberately not made aware that it is the chiefs who gave permission for them to settle on the land free of charged. Now the OPM and UNHCR are giving refugees cows, goats. They cross and graze on the land that we didn’t given to them. There is a problem between us the host community and the OPM,” says Doka. “When you go to where the Dinka have settled they have more cattle than the hosts. The way they graze is also different from ours. They feed their cattle on our crops. They cross the border with their cattle claiming it is for bride price. When you stop them they call OPM and OPM calls the police. They are well connected.”

Benefit sharing

One of the most contentious issues on the part of the hosts is benefit sharing which is talked about in refugee programmes.  While the district leadership moves for equal sharing, from 70 percent for refugees and 30 percent for the host community, the chiefs and elders say that they don’t know what is really being shared, and where the share of the host community is taken.

The problem, however, could be with major communication gaps, or a lack of accountability on the part of refugee programme implementers. Titus Jogo, a Refugee Desk Officer based in Adjumani, recently told researchers from Gulu University and the University of Copenhagen that the district local government receives the community’s share and it is basically for social service delivery.

“The 30 percent goes to the district, not necessarily to the communities where the land was got from. The condition which we agreed with the landlords to settle refugees there was for the locals to access social services. For the last 10 years we have been doing roads and other things. When resources are given, for example for digging boreholes, the local government determines where such resources are most needed,” Jogo said.  

Peter Buol, also a refugee from South Sudan, and the Chairperson of Alere Refugee Settlement, says the host community’s share is not visible in the community. “When the host community is seeing us they put that anger on us. The 50 percent is not seen in the community and it is not even coming to us. Maybe it ends up in the hands of a few.”

Uganda’s handling of monies involved in refugee programmes has not been without questions before, as a 2018 audit revealed gross mismanagement that led to the loss of tens of millions of dollars.

Benefit for landlords

Ben Anyama, the Adjumani District Local Government Chairperson admits that there is, indeed, no direct benefit for the landlords. “We are trying to negotiate with OPM. They give the land free but they are given nothing,” Anyama says.Anyama also confirms that there were proposals for the central government to lease the land where refugees are settled but the district authorities rejected it.

“We totally rejected it and we shall continue to reject it. We shall not accept this land to go to the central government. For example in Adjumani the refugees are even more than the local community. Once we give away that land it directly implies that we don’t have land left,” Anyama says.


Uganda’s receptive hand to refugees has won her international fame, but the refugees are far from leading a comfortable life. And with a world facing different global crises including pandemics, Climate Change and war, support to them could dwindle further. But they badly need it!

 “For us in Uganda we say, and this is the theme for this year’s World Refugee Day: ‘Wherever they are, wherever they come from, whoever you are’, you have a right to safety, safety with dignity, which includes the right to receive support in case you have been displaced,” Akumu says.

William Odinga Balikuddembe is a science journalist based in Kampala, Uganda

Doka speaks to Alere Refugee Chairman Peter Buol (blue t-shirt) as other members of the refugee community listen
Food covered in Alere Church yard
Muhammoud Doka
William Odinga Balikuddembe