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An Overview of Uganda’s Migration Profile

by Ojok Okello

Public Dialogue at Makerere University

On Wednesday 7th December we set out to Makerere University for a public dialogue on the state of migration in Uganda. A youth engagement, we hoped to provide more information, correct misconceptions, and inspire their scholarly pursuits. Most curious about Karamoja and the increasing presence of homeless Karamajongs on the streets around them, critical about the government’s capacity to meet the refugee policy’s demands, the 174 students we met up with were an intelligent and challenging crowd for our panelists. The panelists included; Edgar Mwine, an Huduma fellow, and Migration Expert, Sheila Nsekanabo, a researcher at the Centre for Multilateral Affairs, Natasha Hadijjah Sebunya, an Artist and Writer, Lomilou Lucious, a Programme Manager at Mercy Corps, and Ian Katusiime, a journalist at the Independent Magazine. The public dialogue was moderated by Ojok Okello, the founder, and CEO of Okere City.

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Edgar Mwine, the keynote speaker walked the students through the big picture of migration. “How does it feel to sit in class next to a South Sudanese?” Uganda has for years, and across regimes, given refugees enough freedom to even attend the best universities, and true to that, the room is punctuated with Somalis and South Sudanese. Drawing their attention to the new changes in the policy, Edgar begins with the social tension that Iraq labor expatriates caused when they returned to Uganda upon the close of their contracts. With new security skills and a narrow economy, the returnees began to break into people’s homes to meet their new consumer appetites. “We could not absorb them, and unless we as a country do proper migration planning, we will continue to face challenges.”  The concerning shifts today include, “workforce reduction in rural areas of Uganda which had a great bearing on agricultural production.” The unprecedented size of migration in the history of modern Ugadan to the gulf is doubly concerning as the patriarchal structure of the country is being challenged by the unprecedented  size of females leaving the country but also becoming the breadwinners of their homes.” Family disintegration and degradation of values since more females are going out to work and shoulder the biggest economic burdens within the home.” The Ugandan diaspora has also established itself as the “ biggest supporter of the opposition.” 

The students like many Ugandans expressed anxiety about the increasing number of refugees in the country. One student jokingly shared. “If the government has failed to handle us Ugandans, why should it take on more refugees?” Not dismissing his concerns, Edgar expertly explained that migration and mobility is a human right and can be of mutual benefit to both refugees and hosts. Pre-colonial Uganda for example gained its strength from absorbing refugees. While modern nations find themselves challenged by migrants, kingdoms saw expansion as strength, and with Buganda for example, so long as migrants could adopt the culture of the kingdom, they were welcomed. However like the sophisticated management of Buganda,( Stonehouse, 2012) Edgar emphasized the importance of careful management of  migrants within the nation. 

The keynote speaker also noted that migrants and refugees are key facilitators of economic development. For instance, “Some migrants and refugees are now part of the political-economic elite and have been able to build thriving businesses.” A case in point is Mandela, who owns dozens of businesses in Uganda, including Café Javas, City Oil, Mandela Millers, among others. These businesses provide employment opportunities to some Uganda citizens, as well as, refugees.

Similarly, host communities can benefit from refugee services such as what happens with the settlements.In Lobule recently, camp commandant David Abili shared on the creation of the camp. Looking for a home for the refugees, UNHCR and UN approached the community elders of the region. Happy to assist their brothers and sisters as the elders saw the refugees more as fellow Kakwa than Congolese, the land was gazetted for free. With time, UNHCR rewarded the elders with livestock and money as tokens of appreciation and permits the host community to share in the services that they provide for the community such as the schools and hospitals. Today, the formerly deserted and undeveloped region is cut through by highways and many of the hospitals run development programs such as the program that was targeted at breastfeeding mothers when we visited. .   

Commenting on the issue of domestic workers' exportation, Egar Mwine spoke of the challenges that the Ugandan government was facing. “Being a poor country, with little negotiation power, we have the short end of the stick. However, we can improve the quality of the migrants that we send by skilling them as we actively work on other solutions to the crisis”. Mr. Mwine invited students to meaningfully engage in migration whether or not they go into the field, as “Ugandans migration touches each and everyone in this room.”

A captivating issue for the students was Karamoja and having Lucius in the room was quite resourceful in unpacking human trafficking and it’s intricate relationship with the underdevelopment of the sub-region. As he explained, little data exists on the matter to begin with and we are forced to rely on media reports as well as common conversations directed and unchecked by the biases that have informed our relation to Karamoja for a while. Therefore, it was unsurprisingly the issue that had the most stereotypes. Many for example related the challenges to this regime and not to an issue that pre-dated even the national formation of Uganda. The product of extensive programs to educate Karamajongs, some Karamajongs spoke to the formation of these harmful stereotypes. “We have researchers coming to Karamajong for two days, sleeping in hotels, and then making conclusions that have no real basis”. He then elaborated on the mineral curse and the failure of Karamoja’s leaders to meaningfully stand up to capitalist vultures. Sheila spoke about the extractive multinationals that have occupied Karamoja. “They have not fulfilled their social responsibility to the Karamajong.” Natasha worried that by understanding the issue as a Karamajong issue, many students would fail to see that much of what was happening in Karamajong was related to the less spectacular issues the rest of the country was dealing with.

Ian Katusiime helped the students to understand spectacle and spoke to the role that the media had in shaping the narrative of migration. For instance, due to the profit model of Uganda’s media, many media houses rely on sensationalism and click-bait, and that has been the biggest challenge for positive migrant interaction. For example, the Karamajong on Kampala streets.  Our collective imagination is filled with many possibilities of how exactly they arrive on these streets. Some people posit them as victims of human trafficking and it is illegal to give them money. Some believe them to be from settlements around Kampala and like in this discussion, some believe them to be “ following their wealth”. An absurd way as Edgar Mwine pointed out of responding to the migrant crisis. Recently a newspaper article collapsed Karamajong into one inseparable body of people refusing to embrace government programs. Already looking for an excuse to dissuade responsibility, such conversations allow the more privileged to turn away from the urgent situation. Ojok reminds us of the time, President Milton Obote state that“ we cannot wait for Karamoja to develop.” This phrase bore further jokes that bore into many of us  the idea that Karamoja was a static place, doomed to a state of permanent “failure” - a normalization of their crisis and a continuation of their otherization. Feeding into this perception, the media invites the south to continue to look away and divorce themselves from the issue after all, who can wait for Karamoja to develop?

Most enjoyable for the students was a quiz game led by Anisha Alinda, a program associate at KAS. It was important to us that we involve students in the policy formation of Uganda. Youth in Uganda is the largest portion of the population and yet still marginalized within society, with the larger portion making their living in the informal part of the economy and severely under-employed.  Given the presence of migrants in the class, and the lack of xenophobic talk, we left with the impression that migrants had a sense of belonging within their classrooms. However, sentiments about the better treatment that refugees seemed to receive compared to them, and the lack of faith in the government to deliver on their promises were hard to ignore. Hearing their understanding of issues such as the “government’s failure” or the “Karimajong issue” alerted us to the separation between them and the critical aspects of society. “ Why would a doctor leave Uganda to go abroad to burn bodies?” said one student, a challenge to the increasing flight of people in migrants. The students are dealing with the immediate realities of migration, asking desperate and personal questions every day.

Realistically, a student comes to these kinds of things because maybe there is a free lunch or a chance to speak to a possible employer. Used to being talked at and about, we wanted in a small way to include these students as potential decision-makers. In line with the intent of the dialogue mentioned above, with the quiz, we aimed to correct misinformation and stereotypes, generate awareness, draw curiosity and inform future scholarships. The last one especially given that the arts pale in favor to  STEM. We asked about the history of the refugees, and while most groups knew this, some believed that the Rwandese and not the Poles were the correct answer. 

This was also the case with the biggest refugee influx. Despite the avalanche of refugees from South Sudan in 2016, it seemingly went unnoticed by the Kampala students dishearteningly speaking to the separation between the south and the north. We asked about the diaspora, and how many of us are abroad, and we drew attention to the ongoing conferences and the citizen laws for Uganda. We challenged them on the definitions of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers, and tasked them with the existing labor agreements between Uganda and the gulf countries. This opening was met with enthusiasm and the room was abuzz with conversation in groups about the answers. We believe that it also encouraged the boldness of the questions that followed from the students. 

This article was written by Natasha H. Sebunya and Ojok Okello


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