KAMPALA, Uganda — Uganda will host 2,000 Afghan refugees at a five-star hotel on the shores of Lake Victoria once it agrees on details on their relocation with the United States.
“We are working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and we’ve secured Imperial Hotels properties in Entebbe to serve as a transit hub for them to come and be examined first,” Esther Anyakun, Uganda’s Minister of State for Relief, Disaster Preparedness, and Refugees, told Zenger News.
“They will be tested for Covid-19 and then placed in isolation centers before being reintegrated.”
The Ugandan government agreed on Aug. 17 to host at least 2,000 refugees fleeing Afghanistan following the collapse of President Ashraf Ghani’s government.
Ghani fled to the United Arab Emirates on Aug. 15 as Taliban militants took control over the country as the United States withdrew troops after a 20-year presence.
Anyakun said Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni approved a three-month arrangement with President Joseph R. Biden’s administration to welcome evacuees working with the United States government in Afghanistan.
“Because of our good refugee policy, our president was approached by his counterpart Biden to host 2,000 refugees from Afghanistan in Uganda for three months, which he accepted,” Anyakun told Zenger News.
“Arrangements are underway to receive them in shifts of 500.”
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, senior external relations officer for Uganda, Rocco Nuri, welcomed the gesture.
“Ugandan government’s generosity is at play again,” he told Zenger News.
“We are preparing for their arrival at the airport, with the Prime Minister’s Office receiving them and lodging them. Then they’ll be screened and tested [for Covid-19]. Resettlement plans will follow after the Uganda and United States reach an agreement.”
Uganda’s Minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness, and Refugees, Hilary Onek, and his Foreign Affairs counterpart, General Jeje Odongo, told Zenger News that besides Uganda, America is considering sending other Afghan refugees to unnamed African countries.
“But, before we could agree, we asked them for certain information: under what terms and conditions, who are they bringing in—are they former soldiers, prisoners, translators, and for how long are they staying here?” Onek said.
The United States embassy in Kampala also said America continues to negotiate other destinations for Afghans who supported the United States and its allies during the Afghan war.
“We are grateful to Uganda for their generous offer to shelter Afghan evacuees temporarily,” the embassy said in a press statement.
“We have not made a final determination of aid needed in Uganda, and discussions with the Ugandan government about the situation in Afghanistan are ongoing.”
Some Ugandans questioned the wisdom of the move.
“America has enough  states to receive 2,000 refugees. Why are they pressuring us to absorb more?” Francis Babu, a senior member of Museveni’s ruling National Resistance Movement.
He said Uganda already has enough problems to deal with since it hosts refugees from neighboring countries such as South Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Somalia.
“Do we want more? We’ve already paid the price for being in Somalia.”
Members of parliament also questioned Uganda’s capacity to accommodate more refugees.
“We’ve heard on social media that Uganda is planning to take in over 2,000 Afghan refugees,” Gilbert Olanya, the Kilak South member of parliament, told Zenger News.
“We are third in the world as a country hosting refugees, and I don’t think we have the capacity to accept many more. Our resources are stretched.”
The head of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, Norah Bigirwa Nyendwoha, requested a clarification from the government on the refugees’ issue while speaking in parliament on Aug. 18.
However, Bugiri Municipality MP Jeema Asuman Basalirwa told parliament the same day that Uganda is bound to welcome such refugees as a party to international refugee conventions.
This is not the first time the international community is requesting Uganda to host refugees. In 2018, Uganda said that Israel had asked Kampala to take in 500 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees.
Uganda hosts the highest number of refugees in Africa, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, standing at over 1.4 million at the end of 2020.
Though Uganda noted for its welcoming laws, which provide refugees with a wide range of rights, including access to school, employment, and property ownership, Uganda has had fractious relations with refugee aid agencies, which have worsened lately.
In 2020, the government suspended 208 refugee aid organizations for allegedly flouting Ugandan laws. Only 69 humanitarian organizations are now permitted to assist Uganda’s over 1.4 million refugees.
“Uganda’s closure of refugee relief organizations sends a message to the rest of the world that the country cannot handle the continued refugee influx without more aid from the international community,” Henry Nickson Ogwal, the programs and policy director at ActionAid Uganda, told Zenger News.
Uganda and the United States government have a long history of security and bilateral ties.
Each year, the United States gives Uganda roughly Sh3.5 trillion [$1 billion], primarily for health and security assistance.
In exchange, the Museveni administration acts as a stabilizing force in the troubled Great Lakes region, performing security tasks, most notably combating Al-Shabaab in Somalia and acting as a diplomatic intermediary.
(Edited by Kipchumba Some and Amrita Das)
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