Uganda is on a mission to reassure international donors amid allegations of fraud and misuse of funds intended to serve the country’s nearly 1.4 million refugees. On Thursday, the government called for a speedy investigation, giving police three weeks to present the results of their inquiry.
The allegations first surfaced in early February, aired by United Nations Resident Coordinator Rosa Malango, and they target both Ugandan government officials and staff with U.N. humanitarian agencies.
Full details have not been released. However, the accusations include reports of inflated refugee numbers, fraudulent food distributions, and subjecting arriving refugees to extortion.
There are also reports of trafficking of girls and women within the refugee settlements.
Aid cuts feared
Hillary Onek, Uganda’s minister of relief, disaster preparedness and refugees, expressed fear Thursday that the scandal would lead to a cut in aid.
“We want to reassure the country and our partners that no stone will be left unturned. We have zero tolerance on corruption and abuse of public funds. Whoever will be found to have been involved will be firmly dealt with in accordance with the law of the country.”
Onek said four officials from the Office of the Prime Minister, which oversees refugee affairs, have been suspended pending the outcome of the investigation.
President Yoweri Museveni had tough words for anyone found guilty.
“The ones who are stealing refugee money will go to jail. Because to steal what is meant for refugees, what is meant for desperate people, so, these thieves they will pay. They bring shame to Uganda. Because these refugees, they are from other countries, the donors who are giving support to the refugees are from other countries.”
$2 billion sought
The conflict in South Sudan has sent more than one million refugees into northern Uganda since 2016. Last year, Uganda hosted an international donor summit calling for $2 billion to meet the humanitarian needs of the refugees and host communities for one year.
According to U.N. agencies and the Office of the Prime Minister, only 30 percent of the funds pledged have been received.
Meanwhile, Uganda is grappling with yet another influx of refugees fleeing communal clashes in the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to the U.N. refugee agency, about 3,000 Congolese are crossing into Uganda on a daily basis, making a precarious ten-hour journey over Lake Albert in rickety boats.
Nearly 40,000 Congolese refugees have arrived since the start of the year.
Minister Onek says Uganda is overwhelmed and needs more support.
“Where shall we be? It’s a big problem. We need the international support. Without that, our policy may change, to make sure that we don’t get all this burden. It’s too much, for a small country like ours.”
As Ugandan authorities investigate who is stealing refugee money in their own backyard, they are also calling on neighboring countries and the international community to end the conflicts forcing people from their homes in the first place.