How long can Uganda maintain its open-door refugee policy?


As the influx of South Sudanese refugees continues to mount at Uganda’s borders, the country’s open-door refugee policy is straining. Aid workers are stretched to their limits while Uganda is now requesting additional aid from the international community to help it cope with the growing numbers.

Meanwhile, the conflict in neighbouring South Sudan rages on, without any signs of conditions improving for those most at risk in the conflict-ridden country. As things stand Uganda houses an estimated 1.25 million refugees – approximately 900,000 of whom are South Sudanese – and the number is quickly rising. For the last six months, Uganda has received an average of 2,000 refugees every day, each one in need of medical treatment and other essentials.

Uganda is widely praised for its open-door policy and it has helped almost a million South Sudanese refugees so far – but how long can it continue?

Uganda’s refugee policy buckling

Uganda’s refugee policy is undeniably unique, even compared to other “open door” policies around the world. Following the 2006 Refugee Act, those entering the country are allowed to work and move quite freely in Uganda. They’re able to buy land and access healthcare and education without a great deal of bureaucratic procedure getting in the way.

At least that was until the number of refugees coming into Uganda put a strain on the entire system. Now, tens of thousands are awaiting identification cards from a backlogged process that’s struggling to keep up with the numbers.

There are other factors putting a strain on Uganda’s open-door policy, too, in the form of food shortages, drought and high unemployment. In some parts of the country, refugees outnumber Ugandans and reports of tension are beginning to surface.

“Host communities that have shared their land have benefited from new schools and health centres. But expectations are not always met and we are seeing increasing tensions as refugees and locals compete for services and natural resources,” Isabelle D’Haudt, an adviser on humanitarian aid with the European commission, told the Guardian this month.

For the refugees entering Uganda, its trained policy leads to an increasingly difficult introduction to life in the country, after enduring so many hardships already.

“The above numbers [2,000 incoming refugees per day] are placing a huge strain on our already stressed ability to cater for the full water, sanitation, health and educational needs of the refugees and their host communities,” Uganda’s prime minister, Ruhakana Rugunda, said earlier this month.

Such strain is prompting Uganda to request $2 billion in donations at next month’s UN refugee summit in a bid to cater for those coming into the country.

The benefits of Uganda’s open-door policy

Refugees aren’t the only ones who benefit from Uganda’s open-door policy. The country itself gains a lot from welcoming refugees from across the border. Settled newcomers contribute to Uganda’s economy with many of them starting entrepreneurial ventures while also creating a larger market for existing businesses.

Data from the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford shows that almost all refugee households generate independent income with dependency levels “generally low”. Meanwhile, in the capital, Kampala, around a fifth of refugees run a business that employs at least one person.

When the system works, it works incredibly well. However, Uganda can’t sustain its open-door policy unless an increase of funding matches the rate of refugees.

“The crisis is a financial one – the framework is there but we need funding to provide better facilities – we can’t work miracles without money,” Isabelle D’Haudt says.

Should the rest of East Africa be doing more?

Uganda’s open-door policy is an obvious attraction for people attempting to flee South Sudan, but this isn’t the only factor at play. South Sudan’s shares its borders with six surrounding countries: Sudan, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia – all of whom host South Sudanese refugees.

Source: UNHCR

Uganda receives the largest number of these by far and the obvious suggestion is its refugee policy attracts the most numbers. However, Ethiopia also has a similar open-door policy while the second largest recipient of South Sudanese refugees is Sudan – the country South Sudan fought so bitterly for independence from.

For those who leave South Sudan, their list of options normally consists of two: find the fastest way out of the country or risk being another fatality statistic.

Mapping the conflict in South Sudan reveals a more practical reason for Uganda’s influx of refugees from the country.


The majority of fighting in South Sudan surrounds the capital, Juba, which is relatively close to the Ugandan border further south. Meanwhile, Ethiopia plays a similar role for refugees from Eritrea, which also shares borders with Ethiopia and Sudan. And then you have Kenya, which is scaling back its refugee policy after housing hundreds of thousands from Somalia.

In February, UNHCR said South Sudan is now Africa’s largest refugee crisis – the third largest in the world – and Uganda is taking the brunt of it. Unfortunately, South Sudan’s other neighbours are out of reach for many and experiencing refugee pains of their own – at a time when immigration becomes a heated subject among key members of the international community.

At this stage, hoping for peace in South Sudan feels like a naive sentiment, which means Uganda has a real problem on its hands. With few allies ready to share more of the responsibility, does it keep the doors open or change its policy and concentrate on helping a more sustainable number of refugees?


Featured image: UNHCR

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.