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April 23, 2018

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Uganda’s refugee policies a model for other nations

After several years of severe violence and conflict in Syria, millions of displaced citizens have fled and continue to flee from their country in pursuit of safety. The words “refugees” and “migrants” have made headlines across the globe, and the international community continues to struggle to find a solution for helping these people.

But while the world remains fixated on the refugee crisis in the Middle East, there exists another perilous crisis, in South Sudan, and in many regards, this tragedy is more incredible — and perhaps offers a more inspiring and thoughtful approach.

The split of the southern region of Sudan from the northern part of the country has brought on a tumultuous transition. The ripples caused by this bloody civil war have created waves of disruption to local agriculture and infrastructure, and famine has become widespread.

Many citizens still face extreme poverty and starvation. These horrific conditions have spurred a massive exodus of citizens seeking food, water and survival, with the vast majority ending up in neighboring countries.

Recent estimates indicate 1.6 million people are now displaced from South Sudan, or almost 15 percent of the total population. This has placed an enormous burden on the surrounding region, most of which was already plagued with poverty, disease and other social ills.

Many Sudanese migrants fled north to Uganda, which has historically had an open-door policy to refugees. Uganda relief efforts have stretched the nation beyond what anyone thought was possible.

The country has started to run out of adequate food rations and clean water, and health and educational services can’t keep up with the tremendous demand.

The U.N. Refugee Agency reports that there are 800,000 South Sudanese refugees currently in Uganda, and that figure is expected to surpass 1 million before the middle of 2017. In March alone, there was an average of 2,800 new refugees entering Uganda each day.

While cynics may condemn the Ugandan government for accepting strangers into its country at the cost of its own local resources, the nation’s humanitarian efforts should be applauded.

Ugandan immigration policies aim to protect newcomers while bolstering host communities. These actions have upheld the commitment Uganda made as a member state of the United Nations at the Summit for Refugees and Migrants in September 2016, when the New York Declaration was drafted. The purpose of the declaration was to address the growing need for a standardized and comprehensive response to migrants, one that would protect refugees’ rights and ensure safety and support during what is often a very painful transition.

As a champion of this endeavor, Uganda has done an outstanding job at providing land for refugees, including them in national development plans, and granting them access to job markets. These policies — which, remember, have been implemented by a relatively poor (by Western standards) nation — provides a stark contrast to other countries’ policies, which too often place refugees in camps that become unsafe and unsanitary or close a nation’s doors altogether, shutting those out that desperately need aid.

Let’s put things into perspective: Amnesty International reports there are 4.96 million registered Syrian refugees. The United States admitted 18,007 of these refugees from October 2011 to December 2016.

In the final year of the Obama administration, the overall refugee ceiling was raised to 85,000 persons for fiscal year 2016, but this target was far from hit. And now that President Donald Trump has issued an executive order suspending admission of Syrian refugees for some unknown period, it is unclear what the future holds for refugees in the United States.

So while the U.S. has, even under Obama’s more-generous policy, allowed a number of refugees from Syria that equates to far less than even one-tenth of 1 percent of the total U.S. population and less than 3 percent of the total number of Syrian refugees, Uganda, a country with fewer than 40 million citizens and limited resources, has accepted about half the total number of displaced South Sudanese.

Uganda has taught us being a good neighbor means rising to the occasion when those in need ask for help. Its actions are to be commended, and the international community should not only support Uganda’s efforts, it should emulate them.

Jacquelyn Corley is a member of the Duke Global Health Institute. She wrote this for

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