Afghan refugees who fled Afghanistan in 1996, hold a poster as they attend a rally in front of the US Embassy in Bishkek. AFP Photo
NewVision Reporter
Journalist @NewVision

The Government has finalised preparations to receive over 2,000 Afghan refugees who are fleeing their country following the collapse of the US-backed regime.

According to the Ministry of Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, which is coordinating the process, the development comes after the US administration made a formal request to President Yoweri Museveni to take in some of the people fleeing the country following the recapture of power by the Taliban, who were ousted 20 years ago.

“Our President was contacted and he gave a green light,” Esther Anyakun, the state minister for disaster preparedness and refugees, said Tuesday.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reportedly fled the country on Sunday as Taliban insurgents entered the capital, Kabul, marking the collapse of the government-backed by the US and its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies.

The collapse followed a decision by the US government to withdraw its army – two decades after it ousted the Taliban from power following the September 11 (9/11) attack on its facilities in the US that claimed the lives of over 3,000 people.

By Tuesday, the radical Islamic militant group had retaken control of nearly all of Afghanistan and this caused a refugee influx into other countries.

“As I speak, our teams are already at the airport,” Anyakun said, adding that the arrival of the Afghans would be spread out over several days, starting with a group of 500 people.

When they land at Entebbe Airport, Uganda will become the first African country to take in people fleeing the current crisis in Afghanistan.

“What is happening in Afghanistan is bad. They were not expecting it. You can only sympathise with women and children still trapped there,” she noted.

Anyakun named the other agencies involved in the process of receiving the Afghan refugees as the Ministry of Health, security agencies, immigration officials, foreign affairs ministry and the Office of the Prime Minister, together with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR).

“As soon as the radar indicates that they are in our airspace, we will be ready to receive them. We will take them through all the procedures of processing refugees, including testing them for COVID-19. We shall take them to hotels we have identified in Entebbe for isolation, in line with the health ministry guidelines on COVID-19,” she said.

US government responsible

She said all logistics and costs of handling the refugees would be borne by the US government.

The minister said, however, that the agreement is that the refugees stay temporarily in the country as the US plans for their permanent relocation.

She thanked the US for trusting Uganda, saying choosing Uganda as the destination for the Afghan refugees showed confidence in the country’s capacity as a major player in international affairs.

Ugandans trapped

The minister also spoke of Ugandans who might be trapped in Afghanistan, saying the matter had been discussed and that the Government would do everything possible for their safe return.

According to the minister, they have contacted labour export companies for their details.

Earlier Tuesday, Okello Oryem, the state minister for foreign affairs, had also revealed that the Government was closely monitoring the situation.

However, he said they were not aware of how many Ugandan nationals may be trapped because many recruitment agencies do not provide that information to the Government since Afghanistan is not among the countries with agreements with Uganda as a destination for labour externalisation.

“The agencies that take Ugandans to Afghanistan are cagey about the people they took because they know we have no agreement with the country,” he said.

The source told New Vision Tuesday that a number of Ugandans were repatriated to Uganda by the end of last year as COVID-19 ravaged Afghanistan.

Many of them had tested positive for coronavirus.

But the source could not say whether there were still Ugandans in the country.

Why the US chose Uganda

New Vision has learnt that as of Tuesday, Uganda was the only country in Africa that had agreed to host the Afghan refugees. The other countries are Albania and Kosovo.

A senior source in Government told New Vision that the hosting of the refugees was discussed in Cabinet on Monday and, thereafter, the Prime Minister, Robinah Nabbanja, held a highlevel meeting to work out arrangements for receiving them. A team spent Monday night at the airport waiting for the arrival of the first batch.

“This was discussed in Cabinet on Monday. Uganda is seen as the best destination to handle an emergency of this nature because of its progressive refugee policy,” the source explained.

“A request was made to the President by the US Government to have about 2,000 of them as the US identifies the next destination. This is a stop-gap measure to get them out of harm’s way,” sources added.

According to experts familiar with diplomacy, a request to the President could only have been made either by US President Joe Biden or US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, most likely through a telephone conversation. The US State department is in charge of the evacuation exercise, though the real work is handled by the military.

The Afghan refugees are reportedly mainly those who have been working with the US Government and fear reprisals by the new Taliban rulers.

Sources said on arrival, the refugees will be subjected to COVID-19 test, isolation and temporary hotel accommodation.

Subsequently, they may be shifted to another convenient place.

“This should be seen in positive that Uganda has got this reputation and when there is trouble anywhere in the world, it is among the first safe places that they think about,” the senior Government source stressed, adding that this is a matter where all Ugandans should feel proud that the country has good reputation globally.

On August 15, Uganda, jointly with the US and other countries, issued a statement on Afghanistan. The statement was released by the US Department of State The statement read: “Given the deteriorating security situation, we support, are working to secure, and call on all parties to respect and facilitate, the safe and orderly departure of foreign nationals and Afghans who wish to leave the country. Those in positions of power and authority across Afghanistan bear responsibility and accountability for the protection of human life and property, and for the immediate restoration of security and civil order.”

“Afghans and international citizens who wish to depart must be allowed to do so; roads, airports and border crossing must remain open, and calm must be maintained. The Afghan people deserve to live in safety, security and dignity. We in the international community stand ready to assist them,” the statement added.

Other refusgee hosts

Uganda has a long history of hosting refugees and is currently home to 1.6 million people, who have fled conflict or other disasters.

Only Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Pakistan host more refugees than Uganda, according to records from UNCHR.

Refugees in Uganda live in settlements or villages alongside the Ugandan communities and some are given plots of land and allowed to work.

Most of the refugees are a result of the region’s unending conflicts — a civil war in South Sudan and ethnic skirmishes in the DR Congo. These have, over the years, forced an intermittent exodus of thousands of people, including women and children, in recent years, in search for safety.

Most have been from the north of the country, in South Sudan. Each time, Uganda has received them warmly, which has won the country international acclaim.

As a testimony of that, the Ugandan Government and UNHCR hosted a Solidarity Summit on Refugees in June 2017 in Kampala.

According to the UN refugee agency, Uganda is one of the most favourable environments in the world for refugees.

Other countries, such as Kenya and Ethiopia, host refugees in camps, but Uganda allows them to set up businesses, find employment and move freely around the country.

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