Kampala, Uganda — On Aug. 17, Ugandans woke up to the news that the government had agreed to temporarily host about 2,000 Afghan refugees following a request from the U.S government.
Until then, many Ugandans had known about the long-running conflict in faraway Afghanistan. But few could have imagined their country somehow getting involved - albeit as a refuge of humanitarian assistance in the crisis.
Instead, when the Taliban fighters swiftly swept through the country and took over the capital, Kabul in the middle of August, thousands of Afghans immediately started scampering for their lives when President Ashraf Ghani left Afghanistan and was widely quoted saying he did so to avoid bloodshed.
Esther Davinia Anyakun, Uganda's state minister for relief, disaster preparedness and refugees, broke the news that America had requested Uganda to host 2,000 of the fleeing Afghans.
She said President Yoweri Museveni had ordered her to make preparations to host 2,000 refugees from Afghanistan who would be brought in shifts of 500.
She revealed that the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) had secured the Imperial Group of hotels in Entebbe as a transit centre for the Afghans to arrive at and be screened. She said the Afghans are expected to stay in Uganda for at least three months before being relocated to a third country.
In the early morning of Aug.25, a chartered flight carrying 51 evacuees from Afghanistan touched down at the old airport in Entebbe. The Independent understands the flight was organised by an Afghan-American services company known as Sayara International.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Uganda, an American humanitarian agency that has worked in Afghanistan for 30 years and in Uganda since 1998, received the Afghan evacuees and they will be helping them with accommodation, healthcare and general welfare services during their temporary stay in Uganda.
"The IRC is proud to be complementing the efforts of the Government of Uganda and US embassy to receive and support 51 Afghan evacuees that arrived in Uganda at 7.53am this morning," Elijah Okeyo, the IRC Uganda Country Director said shortly after the Afghan evacuees' arrival in Uganda.
"The evacuees from Afghanistan will stay temporarily in Uganda whilst in transit whilst applying for asylum to countries of resettlement such as the US."
"Uganda has a long history and tradition of welcoming refugees from all over the world and is one of the world's largest refugee hosting countries, with 1.5 million refugees mainly from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Foreign Affairs ministry said the evacuees who included men, women and children underwent the necessary security screening as well as the mandatory COVID-19 testing and the required quarantine procedures.
A statement from the American embassy in Kampala noted that as the largest bilateral supporter of refugees in Uganda and their Ugandan host communities, the United States appreciates the Ugandan people for their generosity and hospitality toward these communities.
"The Government of Uganda has once again demonstrated a willingness to play its part in matters of international concern. We commend its efforts and those of the local and international organizations in Uganda who are providing humanitarian support in partnership with the Government of Uganda for these evacuees from Afghanistan."
"The United States appreciates the Government of Uganda's offer to provide temporary assistance to Afghanistan evacuees and commends international organization representatives in Uganda for their partnership and for lending their expertise and support to Afghanistan evacuees," the spokesperson of the US mission in Kampala told The Independent in an email.
The UNHCR country office in Uganda also told The Independent on Aug.26 that it commends Uganda for opening its doors to Afghan nationals in their hour of need. Uganda has a long-standing tradition of welcoming refugees and this is another great show of solidarity with people whose lives and freedom are threatened at home.
"In coordination with OPM and the US government, we are exploring our level of involvement in line with our mandate to protect asylum seekers and refugees," the UNHCR said in a statement.
On its social media platforms where daily updates to the public on the evacuation exercise are posted, the White House says the U.S government is evacuating thousands of Afghans eligible for Special Immigrant Visas (VISs).
Special Immigrant Visas are visas for Afghans (and their families) who have worked alongside the U.S and played invaluable roles, such as translators and interpreters.
"Our Administration is continuing our efforts to get VISs and other vulnerable Afghans out as quickly as possible through one of the biggest airlifts in human history."
The White House said on Aug.26 that since the end of July, the U.S government had re-located about 101,300 people on US military and coalition flights to the U.S, the UK as well as Canada, South Korea, North Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo and Uganda.
But, as the Afghans made their way to a posh hotel on the shores of Lake Victoria in Entebbe, many Ugandans wondered why the Afghans would fly thousands of kilometres to a poor African country.
The reality is different. According to World Bank's World Development Indicators (WDI), in 2021, Afghanistan is ranked as the 10th poorest country in the world with a per capita Gross National Income (GNI) of US$500. America has a per capita GNI of US$65,910 and Uganda US$800. And accepting of refugees is not about being rich or poor.
Gen. Jeje Odongo, the Minister of Foreign Affairs talking to CNN on Aug.24, said it was the evolving security situation in Afghanistan, particularly around Kabul, that compelled the Americans to seek refuge for the Afghans in Uganda.
"We accepted to host these people and our discussions indicate that the Americans will take responsibility of looking after these people while in Uganda."
He noted that Uganda's compassion towards refugees is informed by the experience of the people in government, many of whom were in exile as refugees in the 1970s and 1980s.
"We have been in exile before; we know the pain, the suffering and indignity of being a refugee," he said, "We have a philosophy that makes us understand that in a community of nations, we have a responsibility to the international community."
Olara Otunnu, Uganda's former Permanent Representative to the United Nations who also served as the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict noted that Uganda is not receiving refugees. He was appearing on a local television talk show on Aug.24.
"These are evacuees; this is an organised evacuation of the people who have been supporting the USA. They may become refugees elsewhere," he said.
Otunnu said Uganda has a duty to demonstrate solidarity with those in humanitarian distress. He said Uganda is one of the biggest host countries in the world at the moment and it has been one of the most hospitable countries for refugees, and it should continue that way.
"That, however, does not mean the decision to host refugees should not be debated or discussed. It is important for the people of Uganda and the government to probe and analyse our own capabilities and preparedness to receive these people."
"That's how a decision of this magnitude is made so that the people know what is happening, there should be transparency about the Afghan refugees."
Indeed, Uganda, through the 2006 Refugee Act and the 2010 Refugee regulations, has demonstrated many of the principles of the 1951 Refugee Convention which defines the rights of refugees.
These include the right not to be expelled, except under certain, strictly defined conditions; the right to work, the right to housing, education, public relief and assistance, freedom of access to the courts; right to freedom of movement within the country and the right to be issued identity and travel documents.
As soon as the refugees cross Ugandan borders, the government works in collaboration with UNHCR and other local refugee agencies to register and issue civil identity documents to individual refugees, decide on asylum applications and appeals, deploy civil servants, health workers and teachers to refugee settlements; and contribute medical supplies and staff to refugee operations.
Several refugee settlements have been set up around the country in the districts of Arua, Adjumani, Moyo, Kyenjojo, Hoima, Masindi and Isingiro.
Active settlements include Nakivale, Oruchinga, Kyangwali, Kiryandongo, Parolinya and the integrated camps of Adjumani. There are options for asylum seekers and refugees to stay in urban areas like Kampala as long as they can be self-reliant. Today, Uganda hosts over 1,300,000 refugees mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Burundi, Somalia, and Central Africa Republic, Egypt, Pakistan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Eritrea and Sri Lanka.
Uganda's experience with refugees dates back to the colonial era. At the peak of World War II in 1942, for instance, the country hosted 7000 Polish refugees mainly women and children at Nyabyeya (Masindi) and Kojja (Mukono).
But not all Ugandans are impressed with the Ugandan government's decision to bring Afghan evacuees to the country.
Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a historian and lecturer at Makerere University in Kampala, told the German international broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, 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 also not pleased with the decision. He fears the ruthless new Afghan leaders.
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. Babu also believes that the U.S. is eminently better-suited to take in the evacuees.
"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," Babu said.