The impact of immigration in Uganda

The issue of immigration has taken center stage in domestic, regional and international debates. Global economic hardship and the associated high unemployment as well as demographic dynamics have triggered the resurgence of interest in reviewing the benefits and costs of immigration. In Uganda concerns about immigrants’ disproportionate participation in the economy, politics and security forces are being expressed in various forums. Globalization and East African economic integration processes have opened Uganda gates to all kinds of immigrants with serious political, economic, moral and cultural repercussions.

Uganda’s story about immigration goes back to the 1920s. Pull economic factors as Uganda began cultivating cotton and later coffee that required a lot of labor and push political and economic factors in neighboring countries especially then Rwanda-Urundi resulted in many immigrants entering Uganda in search of work. Other immigrant workers came from Kenya and then Tanganyika. They located in areas where they could find jobs according to their skills. Those with herding skills went to cattle herding areas in all parts of the country particularly in Ankole, Buganda, Eastern and Northern Uganda. Those with farming experience found jobs in cotton and coffee growing areas in Buganda and parts of Eastern Uganda. Some workers returned to their countries of origin, others stayed. Some of those who stayed married local women, adopted local languages and culture and got completely assimilated. Others adopted local languages and names but married women mostly from their country of origin or from their ethnic groups already in Uganda and resisted assimilation or Ugandanization.

The political disturbances in neighboring countries of DRC, Burundi, Rwanda and Sudan resulted in large refugees and their cattle entering Uganda beginning in the late 1950s. The British colonial administration discouraged concentration of many refugees in camps. Instead refugees were encouraged to stay with their kin and kith or settle on land outside the camps, engage in productive work and eliminate dependence on charity. Perhaps for political and ethnic reasons Kangaho, Member of Legislative Council argued that refugees and cattle could be accommodated in Ankole. By the end of 1963 about 35,000 Tutsi refugees with 15,000 head of cattle had fled to Uganda. One-third of them settled with relatives (B. L. Jacobs 1965). In Kigezi already densely populated, refugee pressure on limited resources especially land forced migration to other parts in western Uganda. Many refugees in camps slowly moved out in search of work as laborers or in the civil service. With their earnings they bought land and invited their families to join them.

Refugees who fled Rwanda with their cattle refused to reduce them to manageable size. They also moved out of the camps in search of pasture and water. The areas they moved to included Ntungamo, Mbarara, Bushenyi, Masaka, Mubende and Luwero. Some crossed the Nile River to Apac, Lira, Kitgum, Soroti and Kumi. Subsequent drought conditions in Ankole forced more Tutsi refugees and Bahima and their cattle to move to other areas including in Buganda where they have settled permanently. Towards the end of the 1960s, a large presence of refugees in rural and urban areas raised questions in political circles.

Batutsi refugees with a helping hand from relatives climbed the economic and social ladder quickly, causing resentment and confrontation with local communities. Conflict over land ownership between refugees and indigenous people became the single most critical factor. For example, “In the old Ankole District”, Mukama (1997) writes, “the Tutsi refugees were quickly drawn into the historical ethnic rivalries between the Bahima and the Bairu. Since the Batutsi were of the same stock as the Bahima and shared the same cattle culture, the lines of antagonism were quickly drawn and the Batutsi became the target of the growing wave of Bairu animosity against Bahima”. The ethnic animosity exploded into violence in 1982 and 1983 and resulted in 100,000 people displaced in Mbarara and Bushenyi districts.

During the guerrilla war Banyarwanda and Barundi refugees largely from the Luwero Triangle districts of Luwero, Mubende and Mpigi comprised 33 percent of the guerrilla strength. “By January 1986, when the NRM took over power in Kampala, as many as 3,000 of its 15,000 fighters were Banyarwanda of all categories, including Ugandans, descendants of pre-independent migrants and refugees”(Mukama 1997). Immigrant occupation of high and strategic positions in the security forces and government and the vicious war against Uganda Peoples Democratic Movement (UPDM) heightened resentment against immigrants that were dubbed “Rwandese mercenaries”(Mukama 1997).

Since 1986 Rwandese immigrants have played a prominent role in Uganda’s political and economic life. There are reports that they are increasingly contesting and winning elections at all levels on NRM ticket because they are better funded than indigenous competitors, occupying the commanding heights of Uganda economy including ownership of land. For national security reasons Ugandans are demanding that the profiles and background of those seeking public office and armed forces must be presented and scrutinized.

Since the launching of economic liberalism and direct foreign investment in 1987 accompanied by NRM’s liberal immigration policy, Uganda has witnessed a flood of skilled and unskilled immigrants. Uganda graduates with poor quality or irrelevant education have been unable to compete resulting in over 80 percent of youth unemployment which is threatening political stability. The allocation of land in towns and increasingly in the countryside to immigrants for commercial and farming enterprises has replaced indigenous people and raised serious problems.

Not least, the population of migrants and their children born in Uganda has undoubtedly added to Uganda’s rapid population growth of over 3 percent per annum and pressure on limited resources such as land and services such as public education and healthcare. In order to develop an appropriate population policy it is important that disaggregated data between indigenous and immigrant populations and their respective fertility rates be prepared in the next population census.

Although Uganda cannot close its gates to immigration completely, an appropriate immigration policy is needed so that immigration is managed in such a manner that it becomes an asset than it has demonstrated so far.