Widely hailed as having one of the world’s most welcoming refugee policies, Uganda is nevertheless buckling to provide for an influx of South Sudanese refugees.
The secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, an independent charity that provides aid to migrants and asylum-seekers, recently drew attention to this.
“The reality is that more refugees sought safety in Uganda per day at the end of 2016 than many wealthy European countries received the entire year,” Jan Egeland was quoted as saying in an article on the organisation’s website.
Only South Sudanese refugees in Uganda counted
In defining a refugee, the Norwegian Refugee Council relies on the United Nations’ definition, the council’s media adviser Tiril Skarstein told Africa Check.
The UN classifies a refugee as someone “unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted”. This would be for reasons such as race, religion, nationality or political opinion.
Skarstein told Africa Check that in making the claim, the council used the number of people listed as refugees by the UNHCR, the UN arm responsible for registering and helping refugees.
Further, the council only considered refugees from South Sudan hosted in Uganda because those were the figures available to them, Skarstein said.
“The other figures were less up to date or not for the same period. However, adding other refugees in Uganda would of course only strengthen the argument,” Skarstein added.
Between 30 August and 5 December 2016 the average number of South Sudanese refugees registered in Uganda “was well above 3,000 a day”, Skarstein said.
This figure was then compared to that of refugees received in various European countries throughout 2016, specifically “Norway, Iceland and Ireland”.
What led to the refugee crisis?
Conflict in South Sudan erupted in December 2013, causing thousands of people to flee their country.
In October 2016, 1.28 million people had been displaced, compared to 115,000 in 2013, according to the UNHCR. In response, South Sudan’s southerly neighbour Uganda took in many refugees.
Petra Nahmias is a senior statistician at the UNHCR. She drew Africa Check’s attention to the sharp increase in displaced persons from South Sudan in 2016 following renewed hostilities mid-year.
The data shows that 602,212 people from South Sudan were either registered or awaiting listing as a refugee in Uganda as at 5 December 2016. More than half of them (309,896) arrived or applied after 30 August.
This would mean that in those 98 days, an average of 3,162 South Sudanese daily sought safety in Uganda, close to Skarstein’s ballpark figure of “well above 3,000”. (Note: UNHCR data doesn’t separate the figures into registered and awaiting registration. Only a total figure is provided. Data for refugees from other countries are not yet available.)
But how does this compare with the number of refugees hosted in Europe in 2016?
Distribution of refugees across Europe ‘very uneven’
An associate professor in international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand, Malte Brosig, told Africa Check that the distribution of refugees across Europe is “very uneven”.
Countries like Germany and Italy received high volumes of asylum applications throughout 2016, compared to others such Denmark, Poland and Estonia.
To get refugee figures for Europe, Nahmias directed Africa Check to the European Union’s statistical office, Eurostat. That is because in Europe, “refugees are usually registered by governments and not by UNHCR”, she said.
Eurostat collects information from 32 European states on several issues, including migration. (Note: Eurostat provides figures on asylum applications. These include both migrants accepted as refugees as well as those whose applications might have been rejected.)
Its data shows that at least 6 countries – Luxembourg, Croatia, Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia and Slovakia – received fewer than 3,162 applications in total in 2016.
Twelve Eurostat members are yet to report full-year figures, of which 3 countries already had far more than 3,162 applications at last report: France (75,945), Greece (44,390) and Austria (39,495). The other nine had registered fewer than 3,162 refugees.
Looking at the countries that the Norwegian Refugee Council specifically considered, Norway received 3,485 asylum applications in 2016, while Ireland’s count was 1,990 between January and November 2016. Iceland registered 1,000 people over the same period.
Brosig told Africa Check that a number of factors, such as location, need to be considered when analysing migration. Countries that neighbour conflict areas – such as Uganda – could expect a higher influx of refugees compared to those further out.
“Getting to Iceland is a major undertaking. I’d assume refugees would need to pay large sums for such a trip,” Borsig said.
He added that most refugees affected by war “remain close to their home assuming they want to return once the war is over, stay in contact with relatives or simply don’t have the means to move on”.
Conclusion: Number of European countries had fewer annual asylum applications in 2016 than those lodged in Uganda daily
UN data showed that, on average, 3,162 South Sudan refugees were listed or awaiting registration in Uganda per day between 30 August and 5 December 2016. Refugee figures for other nationalities, such as those fleeing Burundi and the DRC, are not yet available. This will of course push up Uganda’s average daily intake.
Of the European countries for which full-year data for 2016 is available, six had registered fewer than 3,162 refugees. At last count, 9 of the countries for which full-year figures are not yet available had fewer than 3,162 asylum applications in 2016.
Unless all of these countries had experienced a big spike in end of year applications, the claim is correct that more refugees sought safety in Uganda per day at the end of 2016 than many wealthy European countries received that entire year.