Tensions in Uganda over Afghan refugees

Published : August 26, 2021 17:27 IST
Afghan evacuees fleeing the Taliban arrived in Uganda for temporary refuge. But some locals are wary about security.

A group of Afghan refugees including men, women and children has been transported to Uganda in a chartered flight, said authorities in a statement. Kampala gave no more details on the identities of the evacuees. It is the first batch of the 2,000 Afghan refugees expected to be resettled in Uganda.

"The Government of the Republic of Uganda this morning received 51 evacuees from Afghanistan who arrived aboard a privately chartered flight at the Entebbe International Airport," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Their arrival follows a request from the U.S. government to temporarily host "at-risk" Afghan nationals and others who are in transit to the United States and other destinations worldwide. The U.S. embassy in Kampala thanked Uganda for its "generosity and hospitality toward these communities."

"The Government of Uganda and the Ugandan people have a long tradition of welcoming refugees and other communities in need," the embassy wrote on Twitter.

Fears of imminent 'terrorist attacks'

However, some Ugandans fear that the presence of Afghan refugees could spark attacks from Taliban sympathizers and Islamist militants like Somalia's al-Shabab. Professor Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a historian and lecturer at Makerere University in Kampala, told DW that Uganda could attract unwanted attention from terrorist groups by hosting Afghan refugees. "Afghan refugees may turn the attention of international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, and ISIS to Uganda and destabilize the country," he said.

Francis Babu, a politician and former legislator in the Ugandan parliament, is not pleased with his government's decision. He is worried that the deal hatched between the United States and Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni to host the Afghan refugees could dent relations between Afghanistan and Uganda.

"What will the people of Afghanistan and the Taliban who have taken over the country think of us?" Babu queried. "If you think about America having 50 states, some of these states are bigger than Uganda. Suppose you took the 50 states and divided them into 2,000 people; each state would take 40 people. I wonder why Uganda should accept to take 2,000 people."

Refugees 'are not a burden'

But Uganda's minister for information and communication technology Chris Baryomunsi says the government will not be constrained by the Afghans' welfare since the U.S. will take care of their expenses for the three months they will be in Uganda before they are relocated to either Canada or the U.S.

"Right now, we have over 1.6 million refugees here in Uganda. So when we received the request, and from a moral point of view — we could not refuse because we have to support humankind," he said. "We shall support them for the short time that they will be here before they proceed to their destination," Baryomunsi added.

Uganda has long been an ally of the U.S., especially on security matters in the region. But some activists and opponents of President Yoweri Museveni, who was reelected in January, say the arrangement with the U.S. is problematic. They say the deal appears blind to allegations of rights abuses and bad governance in a country that has never had a peaceful transfer of power. Ndebesa also underscored that the deal to host Afghan refugees would only boost Museveni's image abroad.

"Now, the West will look at Uganda as strategically that can serve its interests in East Africa. But, on the other hand, the president of Uganda [Museveni] will get a positive image internationally that he is generous so that he will whitewash his image about human rights abuses," Ndebesa said.

Despite such concerns, some ordinary Ugandans have welcomed the decision to resettle Afghan refugees in Uganda. Many took to social media platforms to show solidarity with the Afghan refugees.

For Fred Itogoro, Uganda should have first repatriated its own citizens stranded before welcoming Afghan refugees. "Bringing Afghans in Uganda shouldn't be an issue. But the Ugandan government is not even concerned about its people stranded in Kandahar province. They [stranded] are going to be seen as traitors," Itogoro told DW. "They could be attacked because of their skin color and cultural differences."

Self-praise for good refugee policy

The Ugandan government says its consistent policy informs the decision to host those in need of receiving refugees and persons in distress and play a responsible role in matters of international concern. Since the Taliban's August 15 takeover of Kabul, Afghans have grown increasingly desperate to escape the country, with many terrified of facing life under the hardline Islamist group.

Most refugees in Uganda live in large refugee settlements in the sparsely populated north of the country, but around 81,000 urban refugees live in the capital Kampala. Aid agencies have repeatedly said that the international response to support refugees in Uganda, a country of about 44 million people, has been underfunded.