Over the last four years, persistent conflict and unrest in South Sudan have resulted in high levels of displacement.
Statistics from UN refugee agency UNHCR show that since the conflict began, about four million citizens have been displaced or forced to flee their homes.
Of these, 1.9 million are internally displaced while more than two million people have sought refuge in neighboring countries. Due to its open-door policy to refugees, Uganda is currently hosting more than one million of these refugees.
Although the daily arrival rate of South Sudanese seeking refuge in Uganda continues to decline; roughly 120 people arrived daily in December, compared to 2,000 per day in late 2016. In 2017, the Unicef humanitarian report projected that the total refugee population would increase from 1.4 million to about 1.8 million by December 2018.
While refugee-hosting is associated with some benefits to the local economy, the large-scale presence of refugees undeniably creates a heavy burden for hosting communities. Uganda’s refugee policy grants refugees’ access to healthcare, education, a right to work and freedom of movement.
Refugees are also provided with land for settlement purposes and to practice some agriculture to supplement food rations. However, with the current high refugee presence and expected new arrivals in 2018, can Uganda’s much-praised refugee policy stand the test of time?
First, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) shows that South Sudan refugees in Uganda are already facing acute food insecurity and this will probably remain the case through to April 2018.
In the absence of assistance in terms of food aid and cash grants, refugees are more likely to be in crisis after April. Food insecurity among refugees is likely to worsen environmental degradation through resource depletion. This may in turn fuel conflicts and lead to negative coping strategies among refugees such as violence, prostitution and theft.
Concerning social services, the education sector is already struggling with the current numbers and it is likely to crack under the weight of more refugee inflows.
Education in refugee and host communities is provided through an integrated model, thereby allowing refugees and nationals to access ‘free’ education at the available public schools. At both primary and secondary level, the limited number of classrooms has led to some children studying under trees or taking it in turns to attend school.
The large numbers have resulted in high pupil-to-teacher ratios, overcrowding and have strained sanitation services. Nationally, the standard teacher-pupil ratio is 1:45.
However, in Yumbe district (which currently hosts the highest number of refugees in Uganda), it stands at 1:96. This kind of schooling environment cannot be conducive for quality education and learning. Regrettably, this picture holds true for other sectors like the health sector where stock-outs of pharmaceutical supplies and health products have become the order of the day.
Taking into account the protracted nature of the refugee situation in Uganda, the allocation of agricultural land is meant to ensure a solid base for refugees to become productive and self-reliant in the long term.
However, the recent refugee influx has already threatened this aspect. Land size per refugee household has already been reduced from 50x50 metres to about 30x30 metres in order to accommodate new arrivals.
Based on the projected number of new arrivals for 2018, an additional 18,427 acres of land will be needed to settle the incoming refugees in 2018 if they are allocated 30mx30m per household. Given that land is a fixed resource, and the already high population growth in Uganda, it is highly unlikely that this model of land allocation can be sustained in the long run.
With a funding gap of about 60 per cent as outlined in the recent UNHCR update on the Uganda refugee response to the South Sudan situation, UNHCR, government and other key stakeholders cannot entirely meet the critical needs of refugees.
Subsequently, refugees will continue straining the limited resources in hosting districts and poverty and vulnerability are likely to increase.
Gemma Ahaibwe and Anita Ntale are researchers at the Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC).