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Coronavirus

Stranded Abroad, Many Ugandans Don’t Know When They’ll Get Home

Uganda

Uganda’s border closure was meant to protect citizens from the spread of the coronavirus. But the policy also left some Ugandans trapped in the diaspora – and many are still waiting to return.

KAMPALA, UGANDA — Kyomuhendo Annet flew to Kuwait in mid-February to see her ill husband. She hoped to return by early April.

Now, four months later, she is still stranded there. And she does not know when she’s coming home.

“I stayed here trapped in Kuwait,” says Kyomuhendo, 36, whose three children are in Uganda. “My children are under the mercy of neighbors and friends.”

Kyomuhendo is among those Ugandans stuck abroad since the country registered its first case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, on March 21. As of June 13, Uganda had 694 cases and no deaths.

President Yoweri Museveni essentially locked down the nation’s borders, including airports, effective March 22. Cargo planes and United Nations flights were among the few exceptions, as Museveni called on Ugandans, both home and away, to postpone travel.

The policy has stoked class tensions, highlighted challenges faced by Ugandans abroad, and exposed the double-edged nature of the country’s decision: An order meant to protect Ugandans has also kept scores of its people from coming home.

“I stayed here trapped in Kuwait. My children are under the mercy of neighbors and friends.”

On June 2, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sam Kutesa told Parliament that “while these closures were timely and done in the best interest of the country, they also created a parallel problem whereby several Ugandans who had traveled abroad on short visits for business, medical treatment, tourism and other valid reasons got stranded.”

He announced that although the borders remain closed, the government will repatriate 2,400 nationals from 66 countries. He added that returning nationals must pay their way home, prove they are not sick with COVID-19 and quarantine for at least 14 days. They will return on charters as well as U.N. flights. Kutesa did not provide a timeline.

Government officials say they don’t know how many Ugandans live outside the country. In 2007, the group was sizable enough to prompt Museveni to create a Department for the Diaspora. The United Nations Development Program has estimated that more than 2 million Ugandans live elsewhere.

One indication of how many Ugandans live abroad is that in 2019, they sent home nearly $1.3 billion. Two years earlier, remittances to Uganda were the fifth highest in sub-Saharan Africa.

Those contributions alone should compel the government to help them return, says Member of Parliament Sebaggala Abdulatif. Among the first lawmakers to call for Uganda to repatriate its citizens, Sebaggala says Kutesa’s statement does not ease his concern.

“They are still working out the modalities,” Sebaggala says. “Nothing has changed yet.”

Twasiima Patricia and Musinguzi Blanshe finished their studies at universities in Washington, D.C., and New York City, respectively, days before Uganda shut its borders.

“When I was about to travel in March, the president closed the airport,” says Musinguzi. “My visa and academic documents expired.”

Twasiima says she has hopped among the homes of friends in recent weeks, and she worries that she’s vulnerable to the coronavirus in the country with the world’s highest number of COVID-19 cases. And, she says, “my health insurance is running out.”

Twasiima and Musinguzi have doubts about the government’s plan to repatriate Ugandans.

“This is what they were saying [three] weeks ago,” Twasiima says. “There is no change.”

Tensions over Ugandans abroad erupted in May when the government allowed Ben Kavuya, a prominent Ugandan businessman, to fly three family members home from the United States on a chartered flight via Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.

When I was about to travel in March, the president closed the airport. My visa and academic documents expired.

At the time, government spokesman Ofwono Opondo defended the move, suggesting that the businessman’s family did not receive special treatment.

But Twasiima says most Ugandans cannot afford a charter flight. She and others want the government to both arrange and pay for their return.

“This shows that Uganda has more privileged people than others,” she says.

Over the years, Ugandans have flocked to the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe, the United States, Canada and the Middle East. They have also migrated to other African nations, particularly South Africa, Kenya and Rwanda.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Ugandans live in China, many of them students and traders. They have allegedly suffered forced quarantines, evictions and discrimination in public services since the coronavirus crisis began.

In response, Kutesa met with China’s ambassador to Uganda in April. A few days later, he announced that the Chinese government had agreed to a series of measures to help Ugandans there.

They included assistance for Ugandans in quarantine, a halt to targeted evictions, and “no discrimination in access to services such as hospitals, markets, public transport, restaurants, etc.”

Meanwhile, in Kuwait, Kyomuhendo’s visa has expired. She sought help from the Ugandan Embassy in Saudi Arabia, which serves several countries in the Middle East, including Kuwait. She says officials told her to wait for government approval.

As of June 9, Kyomuhendo says, she still had not heard from the embassy.

She estimates that there are dozens of other Ugandans in Kuwait. She was part of a WhatsApp group that included maids whose work permits have expired. She says they are kept in shelters.

Kyomuhendo’s children, ages 5 to 10, are being cared for by a relative who has moved into her house.

She calls them every other day, and they batter her with questions: When are you coming? Why have you abandoned us?

And during the calls, she says, the youngest child always cries.

“I am here praying that one of these days my country thinks about us,” Kyomuhendo says, “and I get reunited with my three children.”