Uganda has announced measures to suspend the reception of new refugees and asylum seekers for the next 30 days, as confirmed cases of COVID-19 reached 14 in the East African country.
Transit and reception centres will be closed with immediate effect, the government said, while flights in and out of the country have been grounded and borders sealed since Sunday following a first case of the viral disease.
“Under emergency situations, refugee law and practice can be suspended,” Dismas Nkunda, executive director of Atrocities Watch Africa, told The New Humanitarian. “But, of course, this will greatly affect those seeking asylum, which goes against the policy and practice of Uganda.”
Uganda has been widely praised for its “open door” policy for refugees – it currently hosts some 1.4 million, mainly from neighbouring South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Duniya Aslam Khan, a spokesperson for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, in Uganda, said there aren’t enough intensive care units and ventilation equipment in the country’s underfunded refugee settlements.
Pauline Byakika, a professor of infectious diseases at Makere University College of Health Sciences, added that health facilities in the camps are crowded and social distancing measures would be hard to enforce.
“It’s a very high risk to imagine that you are going to manage patients in those health facilities,” Byakika said.
Earlier this month, UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi said governments should avoid measures that “result in closure of avenues to asylum, or of forcing people to return to situations of danger”.
“In these challenging times, let us not forget those who are fleeing war and persecution,” Grandi said.
– Samuel Okiror