It was revealed last week that the Ugandan government is investigating an apparent mismanagement of funds intended for the 1.4 million refugees currently in the East African nation, who have fled violence and persecution from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burundi. The commissioner for refugees for Uganda, Apollo Kazungu, and three of his senior staff have been suspended and stand accused of inflating refugee numbers in order to swindle millions of dollars of aid money, misusing government land and relief items meant for refugees, and trafficking girls and women. It has been alleged that these officials worked with staff from the World Food Programme (WFP) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to create fake names in refugee settlements across Uganda. Indeed, there is speculation that Bornwell Kantande, the UNHCR representative for Uganda, may be recalled back to Geneva as the investigation continues.
The UNHCR spokesperson for Uganda, Duniya Aslam Khan, has responded to the allegations by stating that the organization takes a “zero tolerance stance towards cases of corruption in our operations,” and asserts that the UNHCR is “in close contact with our government counterpart, donors, and UN sister agencies in an effort to support the government of Uganda in its actions to address these troubling reports.”
These allegations threaten to permanently tarnish Uganda’s internationally recognized reputation as the most ‘refugee-friendly country in the world’, a sanctuary for those forced from nearby countries. Uganda currently operates a progressive open border approach to displaced migrants, which grants refugees similar rights to its own citizens, including a work permit and equal access to primary education, healthcare, and the right to own and run a business.
Amnesty International and other organizations have, in the past year, accused the international community of failing refugees in Uganda and urged Western nations to “step up” their support for Ugandan efforts by increasing funding. An Amnesty International report from mid-last year warned that “these refugees must not become the latest victims of a collective and shameful failure of international cooperation.”
The alleged discovery of corruption within Uganda’s aid programme will ultimately affect the vulnerable migrants fleeing violence, who are solely reliant on refugee aid services to survive and establish themselves in a new country. Since the investigation was announced, international donors, including the EU, have threatened to withdraw funding to the refugee crisis in Uganda. The international reaction to this investigation thus has the potential to severely limit the work that the Ugandan government can continue to do to support and accommodate refugees.
The Ugandan government’s investigation is still in initial stages and therefore will take time to uncover the extent to which the country’s aid policies are marred by corruption. As this investigation develops, the government must endeavour to move forward with a more transparent method of aid collection and distribution that genuinely lives up to Uganda’s image as a free, fair haven for refugees, and actively serves the government’s current progressive refugee policies that differentiate it from other states. Ultimately, the focus must continue to be on the effective rehabilitation and integration of refugees into Ugandan society.