Making a new life: Refugees in Bidi Bidi, the largest refugee camp in the world. Picture: Getty Images
Making a new life: Refugees in Bidi Bidi, the largest refugee camp in the world. Picture: Getty Images

It is the world’s largest refugee camp, but Bidi Bidi doesn’t look very much like one. It is spread over a large area, with small mud huts gathered in village-like formations, and there are few visual clues that the people living here aren’t indigenous to the area. In fact, locals and newcomers cohabit in parts of the sprawling settlement, and share resources and services.

Refugees from South Sudan are free to come and go as they wish, or even to leave the camp to seek employment.

Sharing land with the host communities, they are given a small plot on which to cultivate food. This, the UN hopes, is the future of refugee settlement.

What it means

Refugees and local residents live side by side and share land and other resources

Uganda is the site of a pilot project for an approach to the global refugee crisis that emerged from last year’s high-level summit in New York, when UN member states signed a declaration of commitment to the comprehensive refugee response framework.

The document forms the basis of a ground-breaking compact on refugees due for adoption this year, and is based on principles of international co-operation and responsibility-sharing that aims to shift the refugee paradigm for good.

But there are challenges to be overcome to ensure that the framework is more than wishful thinking.

Mamadou Dian Balde, the deputy director of the framework task team — created and led by the UN high commissioner for refugees with partners such as the World Bank — says implementation is a work in progress.

"Since the adoption of the New York declaration, we have seen some fundamental changes, but the pace is slow and funding is not coming in as we wished. There are important commitments, but we need to do more. It is up to us to sustain the spirit of the declaration," he says.

Uganda is a prime example of these challenges, where good intentions and words of praise are not followed up with sufficient funding and involvement by donors.

Uganda’s progressive approach to refugees predates the New York declaration, and in many ways was the inspiration for its principles and guidelines.

Today it is put to the test with the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world. Every day an average of 1,800 South Sudanese cross its border to flee the violence that’s been ravaging their country since a peace agreement fell apart in July 2016. In August, the 1m refugee threshold was crossed.

The humanitarian response remains underfunded, and tensions between refugees and host communities over resources and services are growing.

"These are very poor communities who have themselves experienced displacement. The people here are extremely welcoming. But for them to be able to share the area with so many refugees, we need to find sustainable solutions that benefit the host communities too. We are doing all we can with the limited resources we have," says Bidi Bidi settlement commandant Robert Baryamwesiga.

In June, Uganda and the UN appealed for US$2bn to respond to the immediate crisis and to fund the long-term solutions outlined by the framework. But donor countries have pledged far less than the $637m the UN estimates is needed just to cover the emergency response.

The holistic approach laid out by the framework calls for a new type of actor to get involved. Already the World Bank has allocated $2bn in grants and concessional loans over the next three years for projects in low-income countries hosting large numbers of refugees. Balde says the task team is hoping to get private sector actors involved.

Eleven other countries are taking part in the initial project, including Tanzania, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia and Kenya, with positive outcomes.

Djibouti passed a national refugee law in January that will allow thousands of refugees to obtain official identification documentation, better access to education and health services, and the right to work. In Ethiopia, refugee children will be issued with birth certificates and tens of thousands of refugees will qualify for work permits.

"Many studies show that local economies get a boost from refugees. We need to stop thinking about them as a burden," says Isabelle d’Haudt, the European Commission’s humanitarian adviser for Uganda.

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