Uganda Most Hospitable for Refugees, Hosts Most Displaced in the Region: Jesuits’ Report

Participants at the just ended Jesuit conference for Africa and Madagascar in Nairobi.
Credit: Jesuits conference of Africa and Madagascar

The East African nation of Uganda is the most welcoming and hospitable country in the region for vulnerable refugees and immigrants seeking sanctuary from neighboring countries, members of the Society of Jesus (SJ) in Africa and Madagascar have confirmed at their three-day Conference held in Nairobi that concluded Wednesday, January 22. The conference also revealed that Uganda hosts the greatest number of displaced people including Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), refugees and asylum seekers. 

The International Strategic Conference on Migrants and Refugees that was organized by the Jesuits Justice and Ecology Network (JENA) “to look for an integrated response to vulnerable migrants in and out of Africa”, according to a communique, brought together social centers, Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), universities, Lead Magis (youth network), Church institutions and partners in mission from Europe.

Christina Manzanedo, a Migration officer at Entreculturas, a global not-for-profit organization that focuses mainly on educating the poor, noted that Uganda has the friendliest policies that favor the living and working conditions of migrants and refugees settling in the country. Entreculturas is affiliated to the Society of Jesus and works in several countries in Africa and Latin America.

“In Uganda, refugees are given the necessary documents that allow them to access education and other services. They are also given work permits to work in the country and to lead a normal life,” said Ms. Manzanedo in an interview with ACI Africa Wednesday.

Ms. Manzanedo noted that Ethiopia is also welcoming to these vulnerable groups, and that it beats Kenya and South Africa which were, for a long time in past years, the biggest host countries for refugees in Africa.

Today, some 941,000 refugees fleeing from violence and poverty in their home countries come to Uganda, making it the largest refugee-hosting country in the region. They mostly come from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Somalia where there has been protracted violence, according to the migration officer.

“It is difficult to understand why there has been a protracted crisis in countries in the Great Lakes Region when other countries elsewhere are making progress. DRC is one of the richest countries in Africa yet the people can’t stay there because of the unending violence,” said Manzanedo.

With a refugee population of 792,000, Ethiopia comes second on the list of countries giving homes to vulnerable migrants and refugees who mainly come from Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan.

Explaining the context of migration and vulnerable migrants in Africa, Ms. Manzanedo, a native of Spain, also noted that 75 percent of Africans were migrating to other African countries, mostly across the border while only 25 percent moved outside the continent.

Most African youth who migrated within and outside the continent were looking for better living conditions, only to end up as victims of sexual exploitation, forced labour and other social evils, said the migration officer.

“They (youth) migrate thinking they are going to make a good life for themselves only to end up cleaning toilets and living in destitution even with their degrees. Others end up as sex slaves in the European countries where they migrate to,” the Spanish citizen said.

She added, “African youth need to believe that they can make a living within Africa. And it isn’t always about poverty, some of the migrants flee from poor governance and lack of democracy in their countries.”

She foresaw a surge in the population of refugees and migrants within Africa, underscoring the need for host countries to be more welcome to the vulnerable groups especially persons with disabilities, women and children.

“Already, there is severe drought in Ethiopia amid other issues of global warming and this could eventually force people out of their countries to seek refuge elsewhere,” she said adding, “Again, Africa is a young continent, which is growing very rapidly. It is a fact that migration could be an opportunity for development much as it is a challenge for migrants and refugees who face unimaginable suffering in their host countries.”

She urged African countries “to be welcoming to vulnerable refugees and migrants, since it has always been the message from Pope Francis to all countries hosting refugees.” 

Participants in the conference highlighted exclusion as one of the major challenges that refugees and migrants face in their host countries. When excluded, these vulnerable people do not access education, healthcare and jobs in countries where they go seeking refuge.

South Africa, for instance, where Jesuit Fr. Tim Smith ministers, has been notorious for xenophobic attacks against foreign nationals

Providing an insight into the situation in South Africa, Fr Smith, the Regional Director of the Southern Africa region where Jesuits operate blamed the attacks on the country’s plunging economy, lack of charismatic leaders to encourage integration of foreign nationals as well as jealousy by locals when people from other countries seem to lead successful lives.

According to the Jesuit priest, South Africa was an attractive country around 1994 and had one of the best economies in Africa, factors that attracted people from Zimbabwe and Nigeria and other countries who were welcomed by Nelson Mandela and other charismatic leaders.

In 1998, the country passed a refugee Act that allowed asylum seekers to live and work in the country.

“It was a period of excitement. The economy was doing so well and other nationals were quickly welcome to contribute to the growing economy,” Fr Smith recalled in an interview with ACI Africa, adding that the situation has gradually changed, forcing locals to turn on people from other countries.

“There is a growing perception that people from other countries have to come to take the jobs from locals. But this is not true. The people we have here are hardworking Somalis who have set up shops in the cities, people from Zimbabwe who have set up restaurants from their own sweat and Nigerians who are also creatively engaged in their own businesses. On the other hand, South Africans have been passive individuals, always waiting for an incident that can trigger violence,” he said.

The Jesuit priest added, “In the end, it isn’t just the foreign nationals they are killing. In a recent attack, 10 people out of the 12 that died were South Africans.”

Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) initiatives in the southern parts of Africa target vulnerable refugees and migrants in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Angola. Most immigrants in South Africa came from DRC, Burundi, Somalia and South Sudan.

The Jesuits work in refugee camps in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Angola and also help refugees that have chosen to stay in cities in South Africa. In camps, they are provided with primary and secondary education while older refugees are taught life skills to help them survive in these countries.

These priests, just like Jesuits in the two other regions of West Africa and East Africa, also provide psychosocial and healthcare services in refugee camps and in cities.

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ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.

Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa
[email protected]