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Uganda Covid-19 approach on refugees, is it crisis within crisis?

Refugees from South Sudan in a camp in northern Uganda

Refugees from South Sudan in a camp in northern Uganda

An unprecedented trans-border global pandemic has brought into sharp focus the intersection of Uganda’s immigration, public health and welfare policy as well as the unique challenges that immigrants must deal with today.

Uganda, the third largest refugee hosting country in the world, and the largest in Africa has not been spared. As of February 29, Uganda hosted 1.4 million refugees in the 13 districts of Adjumani, Arua, Moyo, Yumbe, Lamwo and Kiryandongo. Others are Kyegegwa, Kamwenge, Isingiro, Obongi, Koboko and Kikuube.

With such refugee population, the country should brace itself for a comprehensive approach to prevent and contain the impact of Covid-19 on this vulnerable population by adopting stringent measures both within the country and across the borders to ensure their right to health.

This is especially important because several refugee-source countries like DR Congo are not only grappling with the said pandemic but are also recently recorded cases of Ebola.

The first action taken by the government in response to the Covid-19 outbreak was mandatory screening and quarantining of ‘returnees’ at the airport by the ministry of Health.

Once the severity of the health and economic crisis precipitated by the pandemic became evident through the confirmation of the first case on March 21, more drastic measures were adopted by government, including lockdown of the country as well as suspending the public transport system.

In perhaps one the government’s most abrupt actions, Musa Ecweru, the state minister for Disaster Preparedness, Management and Refugees, announced the suspension of refugee admission.

He ordered the immediate closure of all the refugee reception centers at the border points at Sebagoro, Nyakabande, Matanda, Elegu and Ntoroko as well as the Department of Refugees (DOR) offices in Kampala and Old 

Kampala Police desk refugee office for a period of 30 days. Even after the expiry of the suspension, the reception centers remain closed and there is no sign they will be opened anytime soon.

Whereas the general rule under International Law is that no country is obliged to allow foreigners to enter its territory, this decision could potentially contradict the international refugee reception standards. I will also adversely affect many refugees and asylum seekers who were already in transit and who did not pose any health threat to Uganda.

The decision left them in the middle of nowhere with no social support systems which exposes their life not only to the pandemic but also to numerous life-threatening challenges, especially persecution and armed conflict.

Whereas many Ugandans and other nationals travelling to Uganda were affected by the abrupt lockdown of the airspace and borders, the refugees are more vulnerable to shocks because they lack basic necessities and in most cases it is unsafe to return to their countries of origin.

Moreover, the exclusion of refugees, especially the children and people with disabilities who are among the most vulnerable from this protection, will inevitably compromise the effectiveness of the entire regional response and recovery from a virus that makes no distinction based on national origin or immigration status.

Therefore, the suspension of refugee reception does not only raise issues of morality, it is also a contravention of International Refugee Law and International Human Rights Law to which Uganda assented. 

Since the Office of the Prime Minister, which is in charge of the refugee management, is also coordinating the national Covid-19 response, it is incumbent of the responsible minister to come up with a comprehensive response to this pandemic, including how the refugee system should continue operating as part of the national response and to update the country on the same.

There are no parallels to the multidimensional challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic worldwide in this globalized and economically interdependent era.

However, the effect of total shut- down of the immigration system are likely to be disastrous, especially to the refugees reporting at the suspend- ed border points.

The vast public health crisis and subsequent economic challenges require a unified global or at least regional response, and certainly a robust and holistic national response where key institutions and individuals are adjusting their working protocols to match the turbulent times instead of shutting down key sectors such as immigration.

In the recent past, the government has ably dealt with trans-border crises, specifically the Ebola virus disease outbreak that ravaged people in the north and across neighbouring countries, especially DR Congo, where Ebola remains prevalent to date.


Most recently, on June 11, 2019, the ministry of Health confirmed a case of a five-year-old child from DR Congo suffering from Ebola in Kasese district. 

The ministry of Health responded by dispatching a Rapid Response Team (RRT) to Kasese to identify other people who were at risk and ensured that they were monitored and provided with care.

Nine Ebola Treatment Units (ETUs) were set up and more importantly, disease monitoring was intensified at border posts, health centers and communities, and health workers were trained on recognizing symptoms of the disease.

This preventive approach involved the district administration and local councils in the affected areas to ensure that any person with Ebola signs and symptoms in the community is immediately reported to the health workers for testing.

As a result of this and other outbreaks, Uganda has gained the necessary experience to competently deal with trans-border epidemics, including health and temperature screening and increased handwashing facilities in, transit and reception centres as well as in refugee settlements.

Just like government is conducting mandatory screening the truck drivers transiting through the country, the same measure could be applied to refugees seeking asylum in order to provide them with the protection they need while at the same time protect- ing Ugandans at the same time.

These refugees are entitled to protection accorded to them by various universal human rights instruments, as well as the applicable international refugee law standards, which comprehensively provide the norms of their treatment.

Amidst the current crisis that has paralyzed all sectors of the economy, it is incumbent on government to fulfill its international obligations by managing rather than suspending refugee admission.

As a country, we have come a long way regarding our willingness to host refugees from across the region, which has transformed our refugee management system into an international model. Uganda has ably managed health crises before which has enhanced the capacity of the ministry of Health and perhaps may explain its competent management of the current crisis thus far.

Considering the urgency and importance of refugee management during these hard times, and owing to Uganda’s international standing regarding refugee management, government ought to review its decision to suspend refugee admission.

These are not people who seek asylum as a matter of choice. It is a matter of necessity for them. As a country, this pandemic should not make us uncongenial.


The author is a lawyer interested in refugee law and migration.


0 #1 Akot 2020-05-11 20:42
With covid-19, USA/Europe are worried sick, but Uganda worries about refugees!

The death toll in USA/Europe should wake us up because it could have been Africa hit hard by covid-19 & still can be!

How can the African continent with natural riches, be in such mess with refugees all over?

Why have Africans not yet learnt it's just 'good governance' they need & people MUST come TOGETHER to ensure they get it?

How is leaving your country going to help you have a real country, real home outside your motherland?

But of course; migrant Amim made Uganda real home for Sudanese, migrant Museveni is making the country home for Rwandese!

Where will Ugandans take refuge when they shall have officially, legally, constitutionally handed over their country to Museveni?

Where will Uganda tribes take refuge, after handing over the country to Museveni?
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