The man at the heart of the largest refugee crisis in Africa

In Uganda, refugees are immediately granted the right to education and work, says Ugandan Refugee Commissioner David Apollo Kazungu. He is coordinating Uganda’s response to Africa’s largest refugee crisis.

In 2016, more refugees crossed the border to Uganda than crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Their numbers totalled in over one million. Most came from South Sudan, which is where the largest refugee crisis in Africa originates.

Thus far, Uganda has succeeded relatively well in a situation that has driven Europe into turmoil. We interviewed Ugandan Refugee Commissioner David Apollo Kazungu on the Ugandan refugee policy.

How is Uganda managing the refugee situation?

“We have extensive experience in accepting refugees and many of our former and current government officials have been refugees at one point. The rights of refugees have been anchored in our legislation and in the founding principles of the UN, written out in the New York Declaration of the United Nations. The refugees are also an important part of the Ugandan national development plan. We treat them as an opportunity rather than a threat.”

What actually happens when refugees arrive into the country?

“Immediately after registration the refugees are given the right to study, work, set up enterprises and move freely within the country. They are also given a plot of land on the refugee settlements for cultivation. They have all the same rights as native Ugandans apart from the right to vote.

In my opinion, it is crucially important to invest in the education of refugees, because it empowers them. It will also serve them when they return to their home country. We have seen how education changes people.”

What is the role of Finn Church Aid in Uganda?

“Finn Church Aid has supported education in emergencies and also organises vocational education. For the refugees it is extremely important, because it provides them with practical, professional skills, and Uganda in turn benefits from their employment.”

Is Uganda ever consulted for advice in refugee matters?

“Yes. The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR has stated that our approach could serve as an example for the entire world. We have exchanged ideas with and answered questions from many other countries, and have had observers visit from Malawi, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Zambia.”

Since July 2016, thousands of refugees have arrived in Uganda every day. How serious is the situation in your estimate?

“We are working with the refugees with very scarce resources. Our approach requires sustainable funding from the international community (last year, only 40% of the required 250 million dollar funding was covered). Uganda is committed to keeping its borders open to refugees, and the international community must, for their part, make sure that there are sufficient resources available to guarantee these people a chance for a life with dignity even as refugees.”

What motivates you in your work?

“Working for humanity, and the fact that I can, for my part, somehow respond to humanitarian needs.”

Text: Erik Nyström, photo: Tatu Blomqvist