How Uganda and UNHCR failed refugees


Uganda hosts Africa’s largest refugee population and is heralded as a model of progressive refugee policies. But damning 2018 reports have revealed fraud and corruption within Uganda refugee operations.

The 1.15 million refugees in Uganda who are depending on US$1.86 billion in 2019 will bear the brunt if donor countries follow through with threats to withdraw funding. At a time when anti-refugee sentiments are rising and refugee protections are shrinking globally, the world desperately needs positive examples.

A disgraced African success story could damage political will on refugee-related issues. Both the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the Ugandan government should urgently reaffirm their commitments to the ongoing refugee situation, improve management, and work diligently to prove that robust refugee approaches can benefit all.

On 27 November 2018, the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services produced an internal audit report into the UNHCR’s Uganda operations. Covering the period 1 July 2016 to 31 December 2017, it revealed the agency wasted tens of millions of dollars and critically mismanaged operations.

A disgraced African success story could damage political will on refugee-related issues

These include ‘vast’ overspending on water, trucking and roads, payments to ‘ghost’ civil servants, procurement irregularities and overpayment of VAT costs by US$10 million. The audit further revealed that UNHCR representatives stockpiled goods meant for refugees including blankets, wheelbarrows, kitchen sets, solar lamps and 30 000 sanitary pads worth over US$10 000.

The report highlighted inappropriate arrangements between UNHCR and the Ugandan Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), including awarding contracts to questionable entities using government recommendations. The agency paid US$320 000 – more than twice the stated value – to buy an empty parking lot adjacent to the OPM’s premises that nobody could produce a title for.

The audit exposed the highest number of problems and made the highest number of recommendations out of 907 audits conducted by the Office of Internal Oversight Services since 2013.

The audit followed allegations made in February 2018 claiming that refugee operations in Uganda were inflating refugee numbers, skimming aid, and trafficking girls and women. The OPM and UNHCR subsequently spent US$11 million on a nationwide biometric verification exercise between March and October. It counted 1.15 million refugees, not 1.4 million as claimed. The OPM and UNHCR issued a joint statement explaining that verifications often resulted in reductions and that the 2016/17 emergency South Sudanese influx overwhelmed registration systems.

Throughout 2018, the UNHCR tried to distance itself from the allegations. In a series of carefully worded statements, it denied any fraud or abuse. It claimed the government was responsible for refugee registrations and positioned itself as ‘supporting’ the government with re-verification. But the internal audit clearly identifies critical management issues within the agency itself and its partnership with the Ugandan government.

The UNHCR Uganda audit exposed the highest number of problems out of 907 audits done since 2013

The consequences will be steeper for the UNCHR – and its refugee beneficiaries – than for the Ugandan government. As a donor funded agency, the UNHCR is subjected to greater scrutiny and accountability. Just three weeks after the audit report, the agency released its 2019 country response plan, including a US$1.86 billion budget.

Uganda has the most refugees of any African country and the hosting of refugees is one of the country’s core national policies. World leaders have praised Uganda for its refugee policies. It has used this platform to gain political capital and raise substantial funds. Uganda also ranks 151 out of 180 in Transparency International’s Corruption Index. The ramifications of corruption for the OPM are unlikely to be major.

No funding has officially been withdrawn to date. Four donors – Britain, the European Union, Germany and the United States contributed roughly 80% of 2017 funding. Britain, the US and the EU threatened to withdraw in February. On 14 December, heads of mission from 16 donor countries issued a statement calling for the prosecution of those responsible for abusing funds and inflating refugee numbers.

The US Embassy in Uganda issued a statement acknowledging the findings and ‘demanding transparency and accountability from those receiving funds on the part of our taxpayers’. The US has reduced its refugee programme to a third of its 2016 size and may look for reasons to scale back even further.

Uganda has more refugees than any other African country and hosting refugees is a core national policy

The UNHCR understands the relentless pressure on refugee protection and how deeply this type of scandal can erode public and donor confidence. Embezzling funds and stealing supplies from vulnerable people is especially sinister when perpetrated by the world’s leading refugee agency. It will inevitably be used by parties looking to cut refugee protection or support.

The agency has an enormous responsibility to refugees. Its staff must clearly understand the costs of corruption and the long-term impact on the people it serves. The UNHCR has called on its highest leadership, issued statements promising to address all matters, and is setting out new processes to improve feedback and accountability. The organisation must rigorously follow through on all these assurances.

Uganda should investigate and prosecute officials who misused funds, and treat the refugee situation with the care it requires. It must improve accountability or risk losing billions in humanitarian funding which will harm the prospects of refugees and nationals alike.

Rather than withdrawing or cutting their support, donors should demand improved accountability. Uganda still hosts 1.15 million refugees – the third most of any country in the world. Its borders are still open. It still has progressive refugee policies. As a less developed country, it remains uniquely positioned to prove that all countries can host, protect and integrate refugees, and counter false perceptions that refugees pose security threats or are costly to societies.

Aimée-Noël Mbiyozo, Senior Research Consultant, Migration, ISS Pretoria

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Picture: UN Photo/Mark Garten

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