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COVID-19 Crisis: Uganda Caught Between Two Worlds on Nationals Stranded Abroad

Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa will soon present a paper to Cabinet to discuss the fate of over 2,500 Ugandans living in foreign countries who want to return home amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 1.9 million Ugandans, according to President Museveni, live abroad.

About 170,000 Ugandans live in North America (USA and Canada), 558,982 in Europe, 138,200 in the Middle East, 1.1 million in Southern Africa, 250 in Nigeria, 400 in Algeria, 2,500 in China among others.

Addressing the nation on Monday, President Museveni expressed worry about the return of thousands of Ugandans especially those living in Coronavirus-infected areas.

“If all our people decided to come back in panic, without a vaccine and without a cheap reliable and affordable diagnostic test and without a dedicated treatment for the virus that can be deployed on a mass scale, how would the country be saved?” said Museveni.

“How would the base, Uganda, of that diaspora and the stayee populations be saved? You have seen how much trouble the lorry drivers are giving us.”

However, many Ugandans living in foreign countries want to return home.

According to J P Rugaba, a Ugandan student in China, many of his colleagues who will be graduating this year will see their visas expire in July.

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He said this situation could be saved by the Chinese government extending their visas.

“There was registration of students who may be stranded. But that is as far as the student body could do. I know many students who would like to go home,” he observed.

Uganda’s airports remain closed to commercial flights. Students and other Ugandans stranded in foreign countries may not be able to afford chartered flights.

“Starting next year, some international airlines such as Qatar Airways may resume flights to and from China. And some airports may gradually open up although the process may be gradual. But all in all, it depends on Entebbe opening and the ability of the Ugandan government to charter a plane,” Rugaba told ChimpReports on Wednesday.

Flexibility

Several diplomats we’ve talked to say the Ugandan government should be flexible and allow those who can afford their transport and quarantine to return home.

Many who are stranded can barely survive due to lack of money.

And as many are laid off from jobs, returning home is the only option to secure a livelihood.

Hon. Monica Amoding (NRM, Kumi district) recently said that the situation of Ugandans in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is alarming, as over 30,000 Ugandans who went under several labour export companies are stranded because they have been rendered redundant following the outbreak of the pandemic.

“Majority are camped in hostels and were told that by April they need to return to their country. Those who are sick cannot receive treatment but recovering naturally,” she said.

Officials told ChimpReports that government should use over Shs 100bn which had been earmarked for travel by government officials to be used in helping the troubled Ugandans overseas.

President Museveni said he would not accept the idea of cargo planes being used to transport passengers.

He, however, said, “given these big numbers, now that we seem to have stabilized the home situation, we should seriously and transparently discuss the issue of the diaspora if they want to come back in big numbers. Of course, we can say that the evacuees should pay for the tickets or the special flights. The problem, however, is not just paying for the air-travel.”

The President emphasised: “The main factor is the health considerations ─ the fear of the spread of the virus when we do not yet have a vaccine and when we cannot yet handle too large numbers for treatment, the way we have handled the 63 that have recovered.”

Museveni said Uganda faces a big risk if it allows large numbers of returnees without a vaccine and without treatment capacity for them.

“With malaria, we can treat large numbers at the same time. With corona, we cannot. Even quarantining. Can you quarantine 100,000 people in one area?  With the 15 million learners, our solution was dispersal. Fortunately, we had our 7,304,100 million homesteads to disperse them to and we acted in time when the virus had not spread. We dispersed the learners into the 7 million homes because we were reasonably sure that the learners would not infect their families and vice-versa because, at that time, the virus had not spread to the population. Are you sure of the health status of the 2 million Ugandans in the diaspora that live in such highly infected countries?  These are the issues we need to study seriously and not engage in shallow propagandizing,” said Museveni.

Return home

However, not all Ugandans want to return home. The number is estimated at 2,500.

Hon. Anna Adeke Ebaju (Indep., National Female Youth) who raised a matter during plenary sitting on 06 May 2020, said that over 70 students are stranded in the United States of America while several Ugandans have been rendered jobless in East African countries including Tanzania and Rwanda.

She urged government to emulate their East African counterparts who have repatriated their citizens.

“Countries like Rwanda and Kenya have repatriated their citizens. Ugandans are stranded abroad and I am speaking for young people who have nowhere to go,” said Adeke.

Germany, Canada and the United States of America have since repatriated their citizens from Uganda.

President Museveni insisted that Ugandans in the diaspora are living in very highly infected countries.

“That is the issue that needs to be discussed rationally. Small numbers, using special passenger and not cargo flights, can be handled.  The question is:  “Which small groups and why?” The Paper of the Ministries of Health and Foreign Affairs, to which you should all contribute, will help us get correct answers,” he observed.

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