Uganda Refugee Summit is a critical juncture for global refugee policy reform

South Sudanese refugee, Betty Unzia, stands with her family in front of the new home she is building at Imvepi Refugee Settlement. Kellie Ryan/IRC

Uganda Summit must address refugee self-reliance

With no resolution to the South Sudanese conflict in sight, and one million refugees in Uganda, the upcoming Uganda Refugee Summit can ill afford to solely invest in humanitarian aid. Investments that enhance refugee self-reliance and long term resilience are weak and desperately needed.

To witness the arrival of South Sudanese refugees in West Nile is to know the essence of humanity. West Nile sub-region in northern Uganda is ground zero of the largest refugee crisis in Africa, which has affected nearly two million people. Since July 2016, thousands of mostly women, children and the elderly have poured across the border each day to escape fighting in South Sudan.

A South Sudanese refugee woman and her daughter cross the border from South Sudan to Uganda. Kellie Ryan/IRC

Many, like 22-year-old Margret Ajipa, arrive exhausted and deprived but relieved. Margret trekked for six days through thick bush and wilderness to avoid soldiers who are killing refugees attempting to flee. On the third day of her ordeal, she went into labor and with the help of fellow refugees, delivered a baby girl in the bush. For now she is safe, and her newborn is attended to by health workers at the Imvepi refugee reception center in West Nile.

Margret came to Uganda, not because it was the nearest country — she first passed through the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where her baby was born before reaching Uganda. She is here because she believes it is her only hope.

This week’s Uganda Solidarity Summit on Refugees is significant because it addresses the fate of Margret and millions like her. The summit, which is jointly convened by the UN Secretary General and the President of Uganda, intends to raise USD 2 billion to support refugees and the communities that host them.

However, raising funds for the South Sudanese refugee response is not the only reason the summit is important. It also marks a critical juncture in the global effort to reform international refugee responses. The refugee crisis in Uganda has exploded at a time when the international community is looking for leadership on how to establish a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF); a novel approach agreed to by UN member states in September 2016, which is intended to enhance the effectiveness of refugee assistance by redressing previously disjointed approaches.

This new approach aims to unite humanitarian, development and private sector actors under the leadership of host governments with the support of UN member states. This new standard is set to be the basis for a United Nations Global Compact on Refugees, which will reform international refugee assistance once concluded in 2018.

Thursday’s Summit is faced with the task of not only addressing the extensive and pressing humanitarian needs, but also navigating the refugee response beyond basic humanitarian aid. Building refugee self-reliance is indispensable to achieving durable solutions. Long-term reliance on humanitarian aid is both unsustainable and counterproductive, as recent examples from the region, particularly in the case of Somali refugees in Kenya, has demonstrated. After more than two decades, over 300,000 Somali refugees are still almost entirely dependent on humanitarian handouts because little was done to enable them to become self-reliant.

Unlike most countries in the region, Uganda does not confine refugees to camps. In 2015, Uganda established the Settlement Transformation Agenda, a national policy to build refugee self-reliance through public investments to promote economic and social development in the refugee hosting communities. The government has also partnered with UNHCR and the World Bank on the Refugee and Host Population Empowerment (ReHoPE) strategy, which seeks to integrate refugee assistance within the national development plan.

Through both initiatives refugees are afforded an array of rights and freedoms, including land, freedom of movement, and the right to work and own a business. Refugees are also entitled to equal access to primary education, healthcare and basic social services. However, this strategy has yet to deliver the expected outcome of self-reliance for the majority of refugees, because resources have been scarce and geared towards the provision of basic goods and services for new arrivals. This is where the Uganda Solidarity Summit on Refugees must make a difference.

Under the current plan, Margret and her family will receive food and other essential supplies from humanitarian agencies like the IRC over the next few months, during which she will be given a plot of land by the government somewhere in West Nile. She is expected to grow her own food and will receive decreasing food rations through the coming months.

In fact, Margret would prefer a sewing machine, so that she can resume dress-making, which is what she knows best. With no husband and a newborn baby, her chances of self-reliance are already grim. The problem for Margret is that development agencies have been conspicuously absent in the vast refugee settlements in West Nile, and she is more likely to find other, less dignified work in order to cope with her family’s needs than she is to find capital to start her dress-making business.

A South Sudanese refugee woman sits with her children in front of their home in the Bidibidi Refugee Settlement in northern Uganda. Kellie Ryan/IRC

Margret’s dream can still be realized if the Summit backs a proposal by the Government of Uganda to establish the Uganda Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework. This is Uganda’s iteration of the CRRF, a new approach that promises to redress the current imbalances in investment by allocating resources across five priority sectors, one of which is building refugee self-reliance. The promise is to finally bring on board development and private sector actors, as well as the human and technical resources required to manage their engagements with refugee communities. Development actors can help to strengthen the capacity of local governments to deliver basic social services like healthcare and education, which can significantly alleviate the burden on refugees. The private sector can support micro-enterprises that empower refugees economically.

By enabling the Uganda Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, this Summit can set a precedent for future refugee responses in the region and globally. To do so, the Summit needs to allocate resources for the establishment of the proposed national secretariat which will bring on board additional skills and competencies required for the government to coordinate the response. Secondly, the summit must venture beyond basic humanitarian aid with dedicated investments for economic and social development projects. Thirdly, the conference must provide incentives to attract private investors in refugee hosting areas like West Nile.

In the end, the commitment to refugee self-reliance will be apparent in how much of the resources mobilized at the summit will be apportioned to building refugee self-reliance. A default on such investment will not only shutter Margaret’s dreams, but may also usher the beginning of an endless cycle of deprivation and dependency for millions of refugees. The outcomes of the refugee response in Uganda may offer an early signal as to the viability of the proposed comprehensive approach. A default on such investment will not only shutter Margaret’s dreams, but may also usher the beginning of an endless cycle of deprivation and dependency for millions of refugees.


The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 26 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future and strengthen their communities.

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