Italy has threatened to block rescue ships due to the “unsustainable” flows of people. EU countries were meant to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers between them, under a plan set out in 2015. So far only 20,900 people have been relocated. The UK and Ireland were exempt from the plan. The EU has begun legal action against the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland for refusing to accept their share of asylum seekers.
Imagine a city the size of Birmingham with a population of a million or so. Now imagine that a disaster has befallen that metropolis, a brutal war that has caused its citizens to flee with little more than the clothes on their backs. Picture the lines of refugees heading west to find a place of safety, which they eventually find across the border in Wales. There, despite severe financial constraints, the million displaced people are met with warmth and generosity. This is not a science-fiction story. Substitute South Sudan for Birmingham and Wales for Uganda and you get an inkling of what is happening in one of the poorest parts of the world’s poorest continent. Unlike many western countries, Uganda has not demonised the new arrivals. The government has given the refugees land and seeds in the belief that they will be better off making a new life for themselves than doing nothing in a camp.
Around half a million of the refugees that have crossed the border into Uganda from South Sudan are children. They have been fleeing at the rate of one a minute for the past year, putting additional strain on an already stretched Ugandan education system. They are being educated in classes of up to 150, without textbooks and by teachers who speak a different language.
Western countries talk about how the only real way to reduce the flow of economic migrants out of Africa is to provide them with an incentive to stay where they are. That means providing them with hope, which in turn means giving them a decent start in life through a decently funded education. Likewise, the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, expressed concern back in April that there were now two billion people living in parts of the world affected by fragility, conflict and violence. Kim predicted there would be serious consequences if the aspirations of people living in developing countries were not met.
The South Sudan-Uganda refugee crisis is going to show whether these fine words mean anything. It is a test for donor governments. Thus far, they have not exactly covered themselves in glory.
According to Save the Children, donor governments have funded just 17% of the UN appeal for the South Sudan refugee response in Uganda this year. The UN appealed for $61.6m (£46.8m) for the education emergency, of which only a small fraction has been provided. As the charity notes, there has been quite a contrast between the response of the Ugandan government and that of the rest of the world. Uganda’s response has been extraordinarily generous. The response of the international community has “bordered on the derisory”.
To make matters worse, a Save the Children report adds that the funding provided has been short-term, unpredictable and focused on individual projects. “This has made it impossible for the government of Uganda, UN agencies and national and international NGOs to plan for what has all the hallmarks of a protracted and systemic crisis requiring a long-term, predictable finance to underpin a credible programme. In effect, the international community has turned its back on some of the world’s most vulnerable children, leaving Uganda and host communities living in endemic poverty, to shoulder the responsibility alone.”
Save the Children estimates it would cost $132m a year for three and a half years to provide pre-primary, primary and secondary education for all the South Sudanese children living in Uganda. Given the numbers, this amounts to $152 per child annually – or less than $3 a week. Such a scheme would have the added benefits of employing refugee teachers from South Sudan and of strengthening the Uganda education system.