At Oli River Secondary School in Arua, more than 50 per cent of students are from South Sudan. Photo: Cities Alliance.
The municipalities of Arua and Koboko in northwestern Uganda are both hosting refugees. With the borders of South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) just kilometers away, they are a natural entry point for refugees from both countries.
Others decide to skip the time-consuming process of registering with UNHCR altogether and head directly to municipalities in the border areas. Locals from Arua and Koboko municipality explain that these refugees typically come from South Sudanese towns and are seeking a similar urban environment. They do not want to stay in a refugee settlement. Many of the refugees also have the means to rent or buy a dwelling, send their children to school, and engage in small trade in the local market. As a result, it becomes difficult for the municipal administration to gather accurate and up-to-date statistics on their exact numbers.
A warm reception for refugees, but concerns over resources
A recent survey in Koboko Municipality estimates that self-settled refugees make up 26 per cent of the total estimated population, and 24 per cent in Arua district. Members of the Arua Municipal Development Forum (MDF) – which has a diverse membership that includes representatives of different stakeholders, the private sector, slum dweller associations and the local government – said that residents welcome the refugees from South Sudan and DRC as brothers and sisters. They tend to be well received and integrate easily, because most are from the same ethnic group: the Kakwa, who live mainly to the west of the White Nile river in northwestern Uganda, southwestern South Sudan, and northeastern DRC.
Although the Kakwa were separated by colonial borders, cultural and family relationships remain strong. Many locals from Arua and Koboko remember that South Sudan and DRC were equally welcoming when they were forced to cross the border to seek refuge during the liberation war that led to the overthrow of Idi Amin in 1979. Several rebel groups emerged to fight against subsequent governments, including the West Nile Bank Front, the Uganda National Rescue Front, and the Uganda People's Democratic Army. These conflicts displaced many communities who crossed the borders to settle in refugee camps in the DRC and Southern Sudan.
Despite the visible goodwill, host communities in both Arua and Koboko suffer from a lack of resources and planning to manage this large influx of refugees. A representative from the Arua Municipal Planning Department voiced his frustration: "Why does Uganda allow people to settle freely? I was a refugee for five years in South Sudan, and we could not leave the camp."
Other locals view the increased population as the cause of many of the municipality's issues, and they have started to clearly differentiate between "them" and "us." A look at the few available statistics explains the host community's frustration. The most pressing issue relates to public services. For instance, while the number of students in certain municipal schools has increased five-fold, the size of the facilities and the number of teachers has remained the same.
In the health sector, the number of visitors to health centres increased from 600 to 1,080 per month, exhausting the stock of medications and vaccines. The number of medical staff remained the same. Diseases which had become uncommon in Arua and Koboko have returned, and the available medical supplies are not enough to meet the needs of the increased population. Supplies are distributed according to an area's official population size. Without accurate data, the formula does not account for the refugee population residing in the municipalities, which can reach up to 30 per cent.
"We have lost brothers and sisters from diseases that came with the refugees. Whenever we go to the health centre, there is no more medicine. Local people are suffering," said a member of the Slum Dwellers Federation (SDF) in Arua.
The strain on the water supply and waste management has increased, and prices overall have gone up. "Our cost of living is not as it was before. The prices in the market and the rent have increased so much, as there are now so many more people. These refugees came with more money than we have and make us poorer," the SDF member noted.
The municipal authorities of both Arua and Koboko regularly went to the local representation of the Ugandan Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) to explain the situation and request additional support. The OPM holds the sole mandate in Uganda to deal with refugee affairs. When the municipality of Koboko presented statistics from a recent survey, the OPM began to acknowledge the situation; however, to date it has given no mandate or additional resources to either municipality to better manage the needs of both the refugees and the host community.
Cities Alliance: bringing together partners to support refugee-hosting cities
Funded by the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) Global Programme on Migration and Development, the Cities Alliance is implementing a three-year programme to understand and test how secondary cities in the Global South can improve the management of migration to and from their cities. The programme will work in the Horn of Africa and Northern Africa. In Uganda, one initiative will respond to the expressed needs of refugee-hosting municipalities and towns.
Cities Alliance and its partners will explore diverse platforms through which refugee-hosting cities can build and promote their case for an increased mandate on refugee affairs and increased resources to provide services to both refugees and host communities. The Municipal Development Forums supported by Cities Alliance in early 2009 will serve as starting point to gather data and agreements on advocacy messages at the municipal level. As a second step, a national-level platform for refugee-hosting municipalities and towns will be facilitated in partnership with the Uganda Local Government Association, the Urban Authorities Association of Uganda, and the Ministry of Land, Housing and Urban Development. With support of this partnership, refugee-hosting cities can gain access to the Office of the Prime Minister and the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework Secretariat to lobby for their case.
The Cities Alliance Country Office in Uganda is fully committed to accompanying the municipalities through this process. "There is much scope for success," noted Mayor Isa Kato, of Arua Municipality.
Cities Alliance has a strong history of advocating for greater urban infrastructure development and inclusion in Uganda's secondary cities. Its Country Programme in Uganda provided the basis for the World Bank's US $150 million Uganda Support to Municipal Infrastructure Development Project (USMID), which has recently been extended for a second phase with over US $350 million.
"Together we will drive the attention of the Government of Uganda and international development partners to the needs of refugee-hosting cities," said the Hon. Stansloas Mangasa, Koboko Town Clerk.
 VNG International (2018). Self-Settled Refugees and the Impact on Service Delivery in Koboko Municipal Council. The Hague.
 IMPACT Initiative (2018). Agora Assessment, Arua Profile. Geneva
 Cities Alliance (2009). Programme Document 70202 Transforming Settlements of the Urban Poor in Uganda. A Secondary Cities Support Programme (TSUPU). A Partnership between Cities Alliance and the Government of Uganda. Washington DC.