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A lesson from one of ‘those’ African countries
Saturday February 3, 2018
Contributed to The Globe and Mail

Compassion and empathy ... children from South Sudan play at the Bidi Bidi settlement, Uganda Image: Juozas Cernius/Save the Children

U.S. President Donald Trump's appalling reference to states in Africa and elsewhere as "shithole" countries earned him well-deserved condemnation. Despite his crude epithet, some of the states he derided can teach him something about how to treat refugees fairly and humanely.

Mr. Trump's own refugee policy is in disarray. Simon Henshaw, acting assistant secretary of the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, recently announced his resignation, only the latest in a string of high-level departures or reassignments in refugee-related portfolios since Mr. Trump's inauguration.

These resignations follow drastic reductions in U.S. refugee-allocation targets, America's withdrawal from the United Nations Global Compact on Migration, and funding cuts to the UN Relief and Works Agency. Ironically, Mr. Trump need look no further than to Uganda, one of "those" African countries, to see just what an effective refugee system looks like.

First, consider the urgent global need. With more than 70 million refugees and internally displaced persons worldwide, the global level of forced migration has never been greater. The main drivers are war, climate change and bad governance. Given the state of the world, the numbers are only going to grow. Meanwhile, too many countries shirk their shared responsibility to see that refugees are assisted fairly and humanely. The immense challenges presented by displacement on this scale therefore remain unmet.

Front-line neighbouring countries play an outsized role. Syrians sought refuge in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. The Rohingyas escaped Myanmar for Bangladesh. Yemenis fled to Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia. And South Sudanese were driven by civil war across the border into Uganda. These neighbours received large numbers of refugees, but not the international support needed to accommodate them.

This failure was sadly evident during my recent visit to northern Uganda. Uganda hosts 1.3 million refugees, more than any other country in Africa and the third-largest number globally. Of these, 82 per cent are women or girls and 61 per cent are children. The vast majority arrived from South Sudan, including 330,000 in 2017 alone.

And yet, Uganda's refugee policy is a model for the world, with no limit on the number of refugees it will receive. Refugees can work without restriction and have full rights of mobility. They reside in "settlements," where each refugee family receives a plot of land, rather than in "camps." Refugees have access to education, health care and other social services on par with Ugandans.

But Uganda's generous policy is betrayed by lack of funds. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) depends on voluntary contributions from UN member states, making its funding both unpredictable and insufficient. For Uganda alone, UNHCR received only 36 per cent of the funding required in 2016 for its operations, and was only 38-per-cent funded for 2017 as of the end of October (US$215-million out of US$568-million requested).

The consequences were evident everywhere I went in the refugee "settlements" in northern Uganda. Despite excellent work by UNHCR and humanitarian groups, urgent needs are left unmet. Refugee survivors of sexual violence lack the counselling and support they need. Health facilities are overwhelmed by widespread malaria, pneumonia and diarrhea-related dehydration. Sanitation is inadequate, and 100,000 refugees get about half the recommended daily amount of clean water. Primary schools are overcrowded and secondary schools simply do not exist.

Sadly, Uganda is not unique. Similar shortfalls can be found in refugee camps from Jordan to Bangladesh, and from Lebanon to Djibouti.

But beyond funding, the refugee policies of UN member states also illustrate the failure to share responsibility. Despite record asylum claims, the number of refugees a given country will accept is ad hoc and often highly politicized. The result is a gravely unequal global distribution. Neighbours take on the greatest number, while too many others refuse to do their part.

This must change. UN member states are now negotiating a Global Compact on Refugees. It must include terms that will more fairly distribute responsibility. This means adequate levels of stable funding for host countries, a role for every state in responding to cases of forced migration, and protection for the internally displaced.

Finding solutions will require fresh thinking and a willingness to change old ways.

Groups such as the World Refugee Council are examining possible reforms, influenced by the successful measures employed in such countries as Uganda.

Changing the global system won't be easy, and is only made more difficult by Mr. Trump's ignorant outbursts and the lack of U.S. leadership. But the vulnerable refugees waiting in camps and settlements in Uganda and around the world are counting on us to find better, fairer ways of meeting their needs.

Allan Rock is president emeritus and a professor of law at the University of Ottawa, and a senior adviser to the World Refugee Council at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

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