Op-ed – Condition of refugees in West Nile is far from glossy

By John Unzima

In June 2017, international attention shifted to Uganda as it hosted the United Nations Refugee Solidarity Summit.  As part of the event, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres graced the summit and was taken on a “guided tour” of refugee camps in West Nile. The unsuspecting Guterres was driven through freshly-paved roads, strategically selected homesteads and stage-managed projects to falsely justify the billions of donor money poured for refugee emergency in the region.

Armed with the dose of falsehoods, Guterres returned to Kampala to drum up support for refugees and humanitarian organisations operating in the region. In a highly emotional speech, the UN chief said, “I have seen Ugandan’s doors open, I have seen the doors of Uganda’s people open, I have seen the hearts of the Ugandan people open”.

Mr Yuna Cho of Doctors Without Borders, re-echoed Mr Guterres’ rally call, and decried the fundraising done thus far as “disappointing and worrying”. By July 2017, only 341.5 million dollars had been raised for refugee assistance, against a target of 2,000 million dollars – leaving a shortfall of 82.3%.

Nevertheless, the government of Uganda continued to receive applause for hosting 1.2 million refugees as of May 2017 – the third largest number in the world – plus its “friendly” refugee policy such as; providing land for settlement and agriculture, providing social services for refugees and, by extension host communities, freedom of movement in any part of the country and freedom to work without additional requirements, etc.

For Guterres and his team, critical facts were kept hidden about the situation in West Nile, a region that hosts the biggest refugee resettlement camp in the world at Bidi-Bidi in Yumbe District.

While host communities surrendered their land for resettlement of refugees in exchange for social services such as roads, healthcare facilities, schools and markets; these promises have not been forthcoming, amidst loud silence from the media and local authorities.

Roads, bridges, boreholes and classrooms have been either shoddily constructed or abandoned without completion after being fully funded. For example, the Shs1 billion Eraji Bridge connecting Ayilo 1 Refugee Settlement to the rest of Pakelle Sub-County in Adjumani District, has been abandoned by the contractor under mysterious circumstances. To date, nobody is willing to explain the fate of the bridge, funded by Danish Refugee Council, a UN partner NGO.

Mr. Kenyi Wellborn, the Pakelle Sub-County chairperson, said nine people, including school-going refugee children – have drowned while attempting to cross the incomplete bridge.

…what we see are guided tours of refugee camps by humanitarian agencies to local, national and international media, while the journalists write glossy and “facilitated” PR stories to account for donor money and justify the need for more.


It was therefore telling that soon after the solidarity summit, several youths in West Nile staged sporadic protests, accusing some humanitarian agencies operating in the region of marginalizing host communities.

The protesting youth also indicted the Office of the Prime Minister for not acting when locals get marginalized in recruitment for jobs with the UN and other humanitarian agencies. At a meeting with donor representatives in Pagirinya settlement in Adjumani District on 26 June 2017, a refugee pointed out that the presence of the agencies had become “a source of stress” for the refugees and their hosts.

These agencies therefore owe an explanation to the people of West Nile whose generosity and hospitality towards refugees is the only ‘jewel on the crown’ of Uganda’s international relations for now. Self-seeking humanitarian workers who have turned the suffering of the refugees for self-aggrandizement must be stopped because no one chooses or wishes to become a refugee.

The plethora of reports and project proposals for more funding written from air-conditioned offices, must at the end of the day bear fruit for the rightful beneficiaries.

However, what we see are guided tours of refugee camps by humanitarian agencies to local, national and international media, while the journalists write glossy and “facilitated” PR stories to account for donor money and justify the need for more.

There were even reports of people being coached and paid to act as refugees during the summit. While this sounds farfetched, what remains clear is that the refugee situation in West Nile has attracted NGOs of different backgrounds, some with questionable credibility that needs scrutiny by relevant authorities.

The reluctance by some humanitarian agencies to sign Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with local governments in West Nile and therefore operating without clear budgets and activity descriptions, should be a point of concern.

A MoU would ensure audit of NGO activities thus ensuring improved service delivery to beneficiaries, accountability for work done and curbing corruption.

If these measures were undertaken from the start, we would not be seeing angry youth protesting. For example, in June, youth from Moyo district joined by their refugee counterparts, went on rampage paralyzing NGOs activities for weeks. The protest turned bloody with police engaging them in running battles for days until Moyo District council kicked out World Vision, one of the NGOs out of the district on various allegations.

While the refugee crisis in West Nile and Uganda at large may not end soon, plugging gaps that exist in refugee settlement, protection and management, should remain key in ensuring dignified and humane conditions for both refugees and host communities.  

Unzima is a freelance journalist based in West Nile

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