Today, the global refugee crisis is more pressing than ever before. As of mid-2020, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide had reached a staggering 80 million, comprised mostly of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees settled into host countries. The responsibility to host these vulnerable populations has not fallen equally on nations across the globe. While 149 countries have signed either the 1951 Refugee Convention, the 1967 Refugee Protocol, or both, developing countries currently host 86% of the world’s refugees

As a result, the funding afforded to forcibly displaced populations has not been distributed equitably. According to Oxford University professors Paul Collier and Alexander Betts, “for every $135 of public money spent on an asylum-seeker in Europe, just $1 is spent on a refugee in the developing world.” While this figure doesn’t take into account purchasing power or social and educational benefits provided for asylum-seekers in developed countries, developing countries rely heavily on international support to aid their refugee populations and often don’t receive enough funding for their programs. As nations contend with new and protracted wars and conflicts, haven countries, or those adjacent to fragile states, continually provide for the displaced people fleeing persecution of those events with a fraction of the funding afforded to nations in Europe or North America.

The Global Shift Away from Admissions and Funding

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the concerns of haven countries. In the spring of 2020, over 60 countries closed borders and ports to asylum seekers citing public health and safety concerns. According to Bill Frelick, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Division, “Governments are using COVID-19 as a pretext to block people from the right to seek asylum.” 

Refugee aid organizations have seen reductions in international support from countries and private donors since the onset of the pandemic as well. UNICEF’s Middle East and North Africa division only received 40% of the funding it needs to address humanitarian and COVID-related concerns, and the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) had to decrease food rations to refugees in East Africa by 30%.  While this was not the first time that the WFP has had to decrease rations, or that humanitarian organizations have lacked required funding, these changes came at a time when aid agencies and haven countries needed more funding than ever, not only to provide food and water to vulnerable populations, but also to implement health measures and develop health R&D spending and COVID vaccine distribution. According to a report by the UN Global Humanitarian Response Program, donors responded well to NGO requests for flexible funding to deploy rapid COVID response plans, but additional flexible funding would have allowed for a much more comprehensive response. In addition, as countries enacted protectionary measures to deal with their domestic economic and public health crises, many of them, for example the United Kingdom, drastically cut their foreign aid budgets. As a result, developing countries struggled to receive what they required to provide for newcomers and citizens from both aid organizations and direct foreign aid on which they depend.

The Impact on Uganda

Uganda has been one of the countries most impacted by reductions of funding for vulnerable populations. The East African nation undoubtedly qualifies as a haven country, hosting 1.4 million refugees and asylum seekers, most of whom come from adjacent destabilized countries, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).  Uganda has been well-regarded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other human rights groups due to its comprehensive protection and high rate of acceptance for refugees and asylum seekers. 

In 2017, the country developed its Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, relying on five pillars of admission and rights, emergency response and ongoing needs, resilience and self-reliance, expanded solutions, and voluntary repatriation. Uganda accepted asylum seekers of all nationalities, provided education and employment opportunities for refugees, and has created a variety of food aid and support programs for newcomers within the country. Perhaps most notably, all incoming refugee families are granted a plot of land for their own agricultural use. While Uganda has had a troubled past when it comes to refugee admissions and still struggles with refugee employment and infrastructure, innovative thinking and wide-ranging international support have made it the most comprehensive example of refugee hosting in Africa.

Unfortunately, Uganda’s unique program has come under threat during the pandemic. In March 2020, Uganda closed its borders for public safety reasons. In doing so, it has managed to limit the transmission of COVID-19 in its settlements by constructing isolation and health facilities, implementing health screenings at the border, and following strict national guidelines for quarantine. However, noting the high levels of forcible displacement in the DRC, Uganda continued to accept asylum seekers fleeing militias through an isolation center as early as May. Despite the need for additional aid in hosting refugees, Uganda’s budget to provide for its refugees and asylum seekers has continually decreased since 2017.  The country’s funding shortage escalated in mid 2020, as the Ugandan government suspended the operations of 208 refugee aid organizations within the country because they operated with expired permits, or ran unauthorized projects.

Conditions in Uganda’s refugee settlements steadily deteriorated through 2020, as refugees experienced severe food shortages. The UNHCR reported in July 2020 that it had only received 18% of the $357 million it required for its operation in Uganda.  Furthermore, in addition to the 30% food ration decrease by the WFP in early 2020, the WFP’s ongoing shortages in funding have led to increased food ration cuts by up to 40% in Uganda and 60% in Rwanda. This shortage has led to food riots and acute malnutrition in Uganda’s refugee settlements. Some South Sudanese refugees have even begun to cross the Ugandan border back to where they had been persecuted in search of food to sustain their families. 

A Potential Solution

Some groups, such as Salesian missionaries, have reached out to Uganda’s refugee communities in order to provide vital aid in their time of need. However, Uganda needs far more assistance in order to provide for both its domestic population and its refugee communities. In order to preserve the livelihoods of its refugee populations, Uganda must work to make its refugee aid organizations operable, and countries in Europe and North America must restore their respective refugee resettlement and foreign aid programs, recognizing that their international humanitarian responsibilities do not fade with the emergence of domestic concerns, as grave as they may be.

Such cohesive international coordination is unlikely to take place on its own and may require a large-scale effort coordinated by the UNHCR. In the past, the UNHCR has created extensive action plans such as the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese Refugees (CPA) and the International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA) to provide durable solutions for large numbers of displaced people. While far from perfect, these action plans required multilateral coordination and resulted in greatly increased donor, national, and international support for populations in dire need. East Africa currently has more IDPs and fewer resources for its refugee populations than it has in decades. For the benefit of millions of forcibly displaced people in East Africa, the UNHCR should work closely with East African countries and international stakeholders to develop a novel comprehensive plan of action.

Author Biography:  Mark Rook is a moderator for the International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) at The George Washington University Law School. He graduated in 2020 from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. Prior to attending law school, he interned twice with the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigration. His primary field of interest is international human rights law.