They don’t come over the Mediterranean on boats, rather crossing the borders on foot or on the backs of battered trucks with all their belongings: a bundle of cookware and clothes, half a sack of millet flour, a mattress, a blanket, a water canister. Most cannot carry more or had too little time to pack up when they had to flee the fighting.

Family father Pierre Karimumujango also had nothing but the clothes on his back, when he, his wife and their three children fled their village in Burundi in late 2015. The farmer braved the over 600 miles to Uganda on foot and by bus to seek protection. A few months later, he is the proud owner of a new hut and hoes his cassava field with loving care. Soon he will harvest his first crop. ‘We got asylum and a piece of land; I’m happy we found peace in Uganda,’ says the 39-year-old.[1]

Like Karimumujango, hundreds, sometimes thousands of desperate people enter Uganda every day. The small East African nation has one of the world’s most liberal refugee policies. Around 1.3 million people are currently seeking protection in Uganda. This exceeds the number of those who came to Germany along the Balkan route in the record year of 2015.[2] Nowadays, the small country of only 39 million hosts the world’s largest refugee camp.

Uganda likes to present itself as a stable island at the heart of a crisis-plagued continent. Neighboring Congo has been wracked by civil war for over 20 years. In the northern neighbor state, South Sudan, a conflict broke out two years ago; fights have been raging since 2015. 1.8 million South Sudanese have since left their country, most for Uganda.[3] Burundi’s state has been terrorizing the population since 2015, after President Pierre Nkurunziza had himself elected for a third term despite the constitutional limit of two. The government cracked down on protests and had opposition members murdered. More than 400,000 people fled, most to Rwanda and Tanzania initially, but camps there soon filled up, so the Burundians moved on to Uganda, since it offers chances of long-term settlement.[4] No other African nation has been providing for so many refugees for decades.

Uganda’s oldest refugee camp, Nakivale, is 20 years old. With over 100,000 residents, it seems like a small city. The sprawling settlement among the green hills of Uganda’s uninhabited Southwest is also where farmer Karimumujango has built his house. Refugees of various nationalities have formed neighborhoods named after their hometowns in Rwanda, Somalia or Eritrea: ‘Little Kigali,’ ‘Little Mogadishu’ or ‘Little Asmara’ is written on the signs leading through the camp. Each war in the region has left traces here. Now, Burundian refugees like Karimumujango are erecting Little Bujumbara atop one of the hills – straw-thatched huts made of wood and clay donated by Uganda’s government. The UN refugee agency UNHCR has drilled a well in a central location and set up huge water tanks, where dozens of children holding canisters are standing in line. The circular settlement grows all around this well into the hillscape.

The government assigns a plot for growing food to each family. The unpopulated pastureland along Uganda’s southwestern border to Tanzania belongs to the state. Usually, only cattle herds come here to graze and search for waterholes during the dry season. To bridge the time until Karimumujango’s freshly plowed field yields a crop, the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) hands out rice, beans, oil, salt and milk powder for the children.

‘Although we pursue a very open-hearted policy, providing for the refugees arriving in great numbers is an enormous challenge,’ says Uganda’s State Minister for Relief and Disaster Preparedness, Musa Ecweru.[5] One such challenge came up in July 2016, when heavy fighting broke out in South Sudan and thousands of people fled across the border within a few days. Ecweru explains that there is more to it than just registering them at the reception camps along the border. There is much to do: police officers must search the luggage for weapons; children from the war zones who have never seen a doctor in their lives must be vaccinated against polio and measles. Neighboring Congo suffered an Ebola breakout in April 2017. Now nurses from the health department need to take every Congolese refugee’s temperature to prevent the deadly disease from spreading. A government that can hardly provide for its own citizens simply cannot afford all these services.

The Minister stresses that Uganda’s government needs international aid to offer primary care at all the reception centers along the borders. The money is going elsewhere, though, since Europe has its own refugee stream to handle. The UNHCR estimates it will need $550 million for Uganda in 2017, yet only $150 million have been provided so far.[6] The UNHCR calls it ‘the largest refugee crisis since the end of World War II’ and praises Uganda’s efforts, while adding that traditional donors, including Germany and the EU, are scaling down their contributions.[7] Hence, the small nation is nearly alone with all the refugees.

Uganda’s liberal refugee policy has a long history; it took in Polish Jews back in World War II. In the 1970s and 1980s, when dictator Idi Amin and his successor Milton Obote spread terror, many Ugandans became refugees themselves. The Minister recalls: ‘We were treated well then, so we now want to treat our neighbors well if they are having problems at home.’ Uganda’s current president, Museveni, started his guerrilla movement in Tanzanian exile and recruited his young fighters from the refugee camps. In 1986, they conquered and have since ruled the country. Refugee minister Ecweru estimates that three quarters of his colleagues are former refugees, just like himself. Hence, he says, Ugandans see refugees not as a burden, but recognizing their potential to become tomorrow’s presidents. One well-known example is Paul Kagame, president of neighboring Rwanda, who grew up and went to school in Uganda’s refugee camps.

Uganda: victim of EU anti-migration policy

The center of Nakivale, where the refugee camp’s management is headquartered and goods and food are handed out, is a busy place crowded with small alleys full of carpenters, tailors, workshops, pharmacies and shops, all run by refugees. Many bring their sewing machines, workbenches, tools or even grain mills to Nakivale. One Internet café owner fled with all his computers and set them up again at the camp. Teenagers are staring at the screens and chatting online with their former schoolmates from back home, who live in the region’s other camps.

A small distance from the huts, young men are playing soccer on a field with a rickety goal: Congolese against Somalis. Exercise is a good way to stay busy, overcome trauma and solve conflicts peacefully. Nakivale’s soccer champions are the Eritreans. In late 2012, Eritrea’s national team had stormed Minister Ecweru’s office after losing a cup match in Uganda; he issued them asylum papers. Now some of them are training the youth in Nakivale.

Uganda’s example disproves the notion that all Africans are fleeing to Europe across the Mediterranean. Those who arrive in Italy, Spain or Greece are just a fraction of the millions fleeing war or seeking work within Africa. The real refugee drama is happening in Africa’s countless refugee camps in civil war zones and in tent cities across Uganda and other host countries. While sub-Saharan Africa shelters 30% of all refugees worldwide and another 40% are seeking shelter in North Africa and the Middle East, Europe hosts only around 6% of all refugees worldwide according to UNHCR figures.

‘U are most welcome,’ reads a poster at the counter for asylum applications at the immigration office in Uganda’s capital Kampala, over 300 miles from Nakivale. Underneath stands the same greeting in the regional language Kiswahili: ‘Karibu Sana.’ Next to the greeting hangs a poster warning against human traffickers who promise jobs in Dubai or Qatar. Around the corner lies the Department of Refugees on the seventh floor of the Office of the Prime Minister. Minister Ecweru is signing residence permits non-stop. These papers allow refugees to work and start their own businesses – Uganda cannot feed them, but it profits from their labor.

Refugees from the crisis countries include entrepreneurs, the middle class and small business owners. In Kampala, you see mid-size cars with Burundian or Sudanese license plates; the so-called urban refugees own enough capital to keep themselves afloat for a while. Most arrive with their life savings in the trunk to start over. They rent a house, open a business or restaurant or trade with their relatives back home. Ideally, they even pay taxes and hire a few Ugandans. The colorful Kabalagala neighborhood hosts Eritrean restaurants and hotels side by side with Somalian gas stations and Rwandan dairy shops selling cheese and yoghurt. African longhorns may be grazing outside, since many Rwandan refugees came here with their cattle herds.

‘Uganda has a very open refugee policy, and its economy is profiting in the long run,’ confirms Charly Yaxley of the UNHCR. The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) buys the food from local farmers at a fair price and sells it to the newly arrived refugees at the reception camps.[8] This helps Uganda’s farming sector. A WFP study released in October 2016 states that each field granted to a refugee family returns €200 in annual profit. This is a lot of money in Uganda.[9]

Owing to this experience, Uganda admits not just refugees but labor migrants from all over Africa, India and China. The labor migrants need a work permit, one for which they’ve been able to apply online since early 2017. Most middle-class businesspeople in Uganda are migrants. Entrepreneurs from Eritrea are emigrating to Uganda for business, because their own economy is in ruins. They send their income back home and pay taxes to the regime in Asmara. To better integrate the East African Community (EAC), Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda have formed a common labor market, just like the EU. While more and more Ugandans move to Nairobi for work, Rwandans and Burundians come to Kampala. The transition from refugee to labor migrant tends to be fluid.

Ugandan President Museveni is a major advocate of the AU’s idea to abolish visas on the continent or even introduce a single AU passport. In May 2017, more than 100 delegates met to formulate a visa-free travel agreement, which is set to take effect in 2018.[10] This was followed by the third Pan-African Forum on Migration under President Museveni’s chairmanship in Kampala. After 30 years in power, the 72-year-old likes to play the grandfather figure for the region, or even the entire continent. Hence, he also feels the call to represent Africa’s position in the migration debate to the international community. In November 2016, the UN General Assembly in New York City decided to develop a Global Compact for Migration by 2018. The meeting in Kampala was intended to produce a common African position in advance, as Museveni emphasized in his opening speech. The EU’s delegation leader in Uganda, Kristian Schmidt from Denmark, agreed: ‘[The] EU and Africa work together and have dialogues on migration at continental, regional and national levels.’[11]

However, they are not on the same page. Museveni is against the EU’s preferred method of fending off migrants and closing the borders, and in his opening speech underlined that he did not wish his people to die in dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean looking for a better life.[12] He added that migration was known as the oldest remedy to poverty and a driver of positive development if managed well, especially since most current migrants and refugees were people of prime working age. Their labor could be put to good use in the EU as well. Uganda could serve as an example. Refugee Minister Ecweru is indignant and considers it a grave mistake by Europe to close its borders now. He considers refugees the victims of a failed international peacekeeping system, for which the European powers and the UN Security Council are very much responsible. ‘These people are running for their lives, and if we don’t open the door, they will die,’ says Ecweru: ‘We can’t say “Sorry, go and die!” like they are now doing with the drowning migrants in the Mediterranean. This is not acceptable.’  He adds that Europe is the cradle of human rights, since Europeans have not only written down these rights, but also exported them into the world. ‘They have to respect these rights, otherwise they’re hypocrites.’

In June 2017, Uganda convened the Uganda Solidarity Summit on Refugees in Kampala and invited UN General Secretary António Guterres. The summit demanded more support for Uganda and was intended as a wake-up call to the EU. Uganda’s Refugee Minister Ecweru said the EU was acting deceptively and following a very bad policy, which is why Uganda was now trying to show alternatives by welcoming in the world.

Europe’s anti-migration policy negatively affects this small country. Uganda plays only a minor role – also financially – in all the EU migration talks with African states. While the Europeans promise countries like Sudan, Niger or Eritrea aid packages worth hundreds of millions of euros, Uganda was granted only a fraction – around €7 million – in the first half of 2016.[13] Only when the refugee streams from South Sudan steadily increased in the second half of 2016, overwhelming Uganda’s government, did the EU send another €13 million. For 2017, the EU then promised around €65 million.[14] But there still is not enough money. The UN aid agencies WFP and UNHCR as well as the international NGOs in Uganda are badly underfunded. Uganda’s refugee minister estimates that $2 billion per annum over the next four years would be needed to take care of the refugees, totaling $8 billion over four years. In informal conversations about why the EU is not sending more aid, European actors mention Uganda’s location – far away, along the equator. Europe’s generosity instead targets the states north of the equator, which border directly on the EU and are crossed by refugees and migrants advancing towards the Mediterranean.

The two-day summit produced only $352.6 million of the estimated $2 billion. Speaking in Kampala, UN General Secretary Guterres said: ‘International solidarity is not just a matter of solidarity. It is a matter of justice.’[15] The former High Commissioner of the UNHCR visited the overcrowded camps before the summit and tweeted: ‘Don’t stop the refugees; stop the wars that produce them.’[16]

In mid-August 2017, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel goes to Uganda and visits the refugee settlements along the northern border to South Sudan. Sporting a functional khaki outfit, he boards the helicopter. His first stop is a solar-powered well drilled by the German Catholic organization Malteser Hilfsdienst, followed by a school a short distance away, where refugee children are sitting in crowded classrooms. A South Sudanese woman tells the minister how a sewing machine donated by the German Welthungerhilfe organization allows her to make dresses and feed her kids. Gabriel listens attentively and asks questions in English. Then he presents soccer balls from Berlin bearing the Bundesliga logo to the children, and they sing well-rehearsed thank-you songs.

A retinue of journalists has come from Berlin. By now, the refugees are used to elaborately staged VIP visits. The NGOs want to raise awareness for Uganda. Just a week before, the UNHCR had hauled in some journalists to welcome the one-millionth refugee from South Sudan. Occasions for publicity events are quickly found. But ongoing fighting along the border caused the refugee flow to stop. The one million mark had to wait. When Gabriel arrives, the number is at 994,642.

Foreign Minister Gabriel was impressed nonetheless. After his ‘field trip’, he expressed ‘great admiration’ for Uganda’s refugee policy to President Museveni at his palace next to the airport. Germany had promised Uganda €55 million in refugee aid, while contributing another €22 million via EU funding. ‘I wish other states in Europe to would show the same openness to refugees,’ said Gabriel at the later press conference. He also found the work permit policy could serve as an example to Germany: ‘We keep being surprised over parallel societies and the lack of integration.’

Shortly thereafter, information emerges which takes Uganda’s refugee problem to the tipping point. The model nation is committing a mortal sin – systematic embezzlement of refugee aid money. When UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi visits Uganda in late 2018, the relationship is visibly strained. After a helicopter stopover in the northern refugee camps, he meets Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda. When the journalists enter the conference hall after a two-hour delay, the air is thick. Grandi briefly praises Uganda as a model country for its refugee policy and calls for peace in the source countries South Sudan and Congo before taking questions. Asked by the German newspaper tageszeitung about the consequences, should Uganda’s government really be embezzling the scarce refugee aid money, the UNHCR chief turns dead serious: ‘We have a zero-tolerance policy toward corruption.’ Should the claims be true, sanctions would have to follow, and Uganda would have to repay every missing cent.

That blow struck home. As soon as the conference was over, Uganda’s Prime Minister and his delegation stormed out of the room. Grandi was left standing in the hallway alone. That same day, he demanded full disclosure from Uganda’s authorities and initiated an internal investigation into UNHCR efforts in Uganda. The internal report published ten months later speaks of fraud, theft and corruption. It starts with Uganda’s official refugee figures. The country claimed to be harboring 1.4 million refugees in summer 2018 – more than any other country in Africa. With this figure in hand, the government went out demanding solidarity and soliciting aid money. It worked – UNHCR spending in Uganda rose to over $200 million in 2017/18. The EU, Germany, Great Britain and the USA paid the lion’s share. But biometric verification proved that 300,000 refugees existed only in the database – either Ugandans were registered as refugees, or the figures were manipulated. The investigation alone cost $11 million.[17]

Hence, all the aid money was granted on the basis of inflated figures. But it goes on: The 41-page report criticizes a lack of oversight over the spending of project funds. In 2017, the UNHCR handed out more than $31 million to partners – international or local aid agencies, as well as contractors providing the camps with cookware, toilets or drinking water. In a breach of UNHCR policy, however, Uganda’s Ministry of Disaster Preparedness and Refugees decided who would run the projects, which opened the doors wide to cronyism. It is an embarrassment for the UNHCR and for Uganda – this model country so desperately in need of more funding. Aid agencies are estimating that 60,000 Congolese citizens could come fleeing across the border during the December 2018 elections in neighboring DRC.

Global village: ‘We’re also part of it’

‘Africa is often seen as a continent of mass migration and displacement caused by poverty, violent conflict and environmental stress. Yet such perceptions are based on stereotypes,’ states a comparative study on migration in Africa from 2016.[18] According to this study, only 14 percent of all migration on the continent is caused by ‘people in refugee-like situation[s]’. The overwhelming majority of Africans on the move (86%) are labor migrants. Most job seekers do not travel north to Europe. South Africa, for example, is attracting more migrants than the EU.

After all, those seeking their luck elsewhere are not the poorest Africans, but the well-educated, urban middle class, who can afford to migrate. According to Richard Danziger, IOM Regional Director for West Africa, 40% of all job-seeking migrants have completed secondary school. However, their qualifications do not earn them jobs due to prevailing cronyism. Hence, well-educated migrants hope their training will be appreciated elsewhere.[19] A GIZ study from June 2017 confirms that corruption is a decisive push factor for voluntary and involuntary migration.[20]

Nigeria is a good example. Africa’s most populous nation of 182 million also ranks among the continent’s most developed economies. Around 20 million Nigerians are working abroad. In 2015, this diaspora remitted $21 billion to relatives back home, states the Central Bank of Nigeria.[21] This far exceeds the aid from all EU member states put together. While remittances amount to $117 per capita, European development aid does not even amount to $3 per capita.[22]

The great majority of Nigerian labor migrants live in other African countries.[23] In comparison, the number of Nigerians who requested asylum in the EU in the last decades is small. In the entire 15 years from 2000-15, the total for all EU member states was 165,000. Nevertheless, Nigerians remain second only to Eritreans among all African asylum seekers in the EU. Only 25% of Nigerian applicants in 2015 were granted asylum – all others are marked for deportation. And deportation is exactly what the EU Commission and the member states consider to be the problem.

The ‘Clearing Point’ of the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) maintains a list of ‘problematic states’. These states readmit only small numbers of rejected asylum seekers. The country statistics read like cost calculations. Nigeria leads the list for 2014. From 2003-13, Germany registered exactly 9,415 ‘incoming’ Nigerians but only 3,335 ‘outgoing’ ones (due to deportation or voluntary return). The remaining ‘balance’ are 6,080 suspected Nigerians who cannot leave Germany because missing travel documents make their identity unverifiable, causing Nigeria to refuse their readmission. Nigeria is considered a passport forging hub. The stranded Nigerians seem to be very expensive – the list reports ‘average costs’ of over €10 million for all of them.[24]

The EU, led by Germany, wants to make Nigeria a ‘partner’. A Joint Declaration on a Common Agenda on Migration and Mobility was signed back in 2015 – it explicitly excludes labor migration to Europe.[25]

Border demarcation: resettling whole villages

Many Africans cannot understand why the EU is closing its labor market, or they see it as pure racism. ‘After all, many industries in Europe need labor migrants,’ notes Mohamed Ibn Chambas in an interview.[26] He is the current head of the UN Office for West Africa (UNOWAS) and chairs the joint border committee for Cameroon and Nigeria, which was set up in 2002 to monitor the demarcation process between the two countries. Before, he was Secretary General of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). On his latest visit to Berlin, Paris and Brussels in October 2016, this Ghanaian diplomat denounced the EU’s anti-migration policy and demanded legal routes for labor migration: ‘We must realize these opportunities and allow Africans to generate income in Europe and take their savings back home after a while. I can guarantee that a good percentage of migrants are just seeking a chance to save start-up capital and open a business back home. They don’t want to stay forever.’

Chambas sees migration as an ‘elementary part of human nature,’ especially now with globalization. ‘The world is becoming a global village, and we Africans are also part of it,’ he says. From his experience as ECOWAS Secretary General, he knows: ‘The majority of Africans migrate from one African country to the other, especially in West Africa.’ He says this is the reason why governments refuse to build border fences in the desert. Migration and cross-border trade are not just crucial to the regional economy and everyday life, but especially to the local communities along the borders.

The 1,300 mile-long line between Cameroon and Nigeria was drawn up by the colonial powers at the Berlin Conference from 1884 to 1885. Like many borders on the continent, its exact shape was disputed for over a century and caused frequent conflicts. In 2002, after a trial that lasted years, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague passed a judgement fixing the border. Since then, Chambas’ UN agency has been responsible for installing the demarcation on the ground using satellite data and maps. 198 concrete blocks were rammed into the barren desert at regular intervals to serve as border markers. 1,800 are still missing, so Chambas came to Berlin to ask for money.

He says the countries had explicitly decided not to build insurmountable fences or walls: ‘Like in all African border regions, the local communities on both sides of the border have strong ties.’ Some of the villagers have never been to the capital to have a passport or ID card issued, but they cross the border every day and hardly notice it. They are herders guiding their cattle and goats through the desert searching for watering holes; they are traders buying or selling goods in the neighboring country; they are families whose ties span the artificial borders, speak the same language, visit each other and intermarry. Chambas says:

‘People here generally have a good notion of which river, which mountain or tree is on Nigerian or Cameroonian territory. But during our demarcations, some communities who thought they were living in Nigeria actually lived in Cameroon and vice versa. We resettled entire villages across the border. Those who wanted to stay were allowed to but had to take the other state’s nationality. Most African borders are like this, and ethnic groups are related across borders and speak the same language. Therefore, we asked the two states not to separate these communities through a wall or a fence. We want to respect the free flow of people and goods to promote the principles of integration and free movement,’ Chambas says. ‘Although it is important to know the exact location of the border, we have to place the demarcations in a way that doesn’t threaten mobility and trade.’

  1. Interviews and description after visit to the camps, Nakivale, 23 March 2016
  2. Süddeutsche Zeitung (2016) As stated by Federal Minister of the Interior de Maizière: ‘In 2015, 890,000 asylum seekers came instead of 1.1 million’, 30 September |
  3. UNHCR (2017) Fact sheet on South Sudan, 30 April |
  4. UNHCR (2017) Uganda fact sheet, latest update, 31 March |
  5. This quote and following ones from personal interview with Uganda’s State Minister for Relief and Disaster Preparedness Musa Ecweru, Kampala, 1 June 2017
  6. UNHCR (2017) Uganda fact sheet, latest update, 31 March |
  7. Interview with Uganda’s UNHCR spokesperson Charly Yaxley, 27 June 2015
  8. Interview with Uganda WFP speaker Lydia Wamala, Kampala, 5 August 2014
  9. USAID (2016) Economic Impact of Refugees Settlements in Uganda, Study by WFP and USAID
  10. The East African (2017) ‘Visa-free travel across Africa closer to reality’, 27 May
  11. Musisi, Frederick (2017) ‘Uganda’s Museveni Urges Countries to Open Borders to Migrants’, East African Business News, 17 May |
  12. Speech read by Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, Kampala, 15 May 2017
  13. EU fact sheet on Uganda (2017) ‘European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations’, 6 April |
  14. Ibid.
  15. UNHCR (2017) ‘UNHCR chief praises Uganda’s commitment to refugees’, 23 June |
  16. Gerres, António (2017) ‘Don't stop the refugees; stop the wars that produce them’, Twitter, 20 June |
  17. Tageszeitung (2018) ‘So schummelt das Musterland Uganda’, 4 December |!5553354/
  18. Flahaux, Marie-Laurence and De Haas, Hein (2016) ‘African migration: trends, patterns, drivers’, Comparative Migration Studies 22 January |
  19. Danziger, Richard (2017) ‘Voting with their feet? Why young Africans are choosing migration over the ballot box’, World Economic Forum, 11 July |
  20. GIZ (2017) A Study on the Link between Corruption and the Causes of Migration and Forced Displacement, 29 March |
  21. Stäritz, Andrea (2016) ‘Immer auf Augenhöhe’,’ Migration Control Database, Tageszeitung, 15 December |
  22. Migration Control Database, ‘Statistics and charts under Thesis 3’, Tageszeitung |
  23. Information by Nigerian Diaspora Organization |
  24. Problematic states list for Nigeria, BAMF, 4 February 2014 in authors’ archive
  25. Joint Declaration on a Common Agenda on Migration and Mobility between the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the European Union and its Member States, 12 March 2015 |
  26. This quote and following ones from interview with Mohamed Ibn Chambas, Berlin, 24 October 2016


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