When 51 women, men and children arrived at the Entebbe International Airport from Afghanistan on August 25, 2021 aboard a chartered flight, they were whisked away to the Imperial Botanical Beach Hotel.
Journalists were barred from talking to them and they have remained as mysterious as they came.
Wendy Kasujja, a communications officer at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told The EastAfrican that the Afghans are “guests of the government and the United States Embassy” and that they are neither refugees nor asylum seekers.
The Afghan “guests” were scheduled to spend three months in Uganda, which end on November 25, before leaving for a host country and arrived following a request by the US.
The exotic Imperial Botanical Beach Hotel charges upwards of $200 per person a night and the Afghans lived there for at least two months before being relocated to private apartments in the same neighbourhood, which boasts luxurious beachfront property and is associated with the well-heeled.
When The EastAfrican visited the apartments where the refugees are residing, we found two guards in plain clothes and an armed police officer. A request to meet the Afghans was met with an emphatic ‘no’ from one of the guards.
“You need to first seek permission from above,” he said.
But who is their host?
Refugees Minister Hilary Onek says the Afghans were never recorded under his ministry and that they are under the Foreign Affairs docket.
His junior minister Esther Anyakun, told The EastAfrican on November 17 that the responsibility for the Afghans was taken up by the Foreign ministry, as they were categorised as guests, not refugees.
Yet International Co-operation minister Henry Oryem Okello says the Afghans were asylum seekers. He said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs works closely with the Refugees ministry to make their stay comfortable, adding that the reason they recently left the hotel they had been booked into was because they wanted to be free.
Mr Okello said the Afghans are under the care of the US government, which meets their costs and will do so until they are relocated. There is no time frame for their stay.
Noting that each Afghan spends at least $200 a day, Mr Oryem said: “Imagine if we had received over 6,000 of them; how much money would have been pumped into the economy?”
Political commentators such as Prof Ndebesa Mwambutsya have expressed fears that Uganda is putting itself in the line of fire by hosting Afghan refugees.
A British political scientist familiar with Afghan politics, on condition of anonymity said Uganda was chosen for its relative geographic proximity to Afghanistan, its ideological distance from Afghan politics, a strong record on security and reliability as an ally of the US, the EU and the United Kingdom.
“The latter point, if it is indeed a factor, would imply strongly that these guests are themselves in some way close to the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom coalition that put troops in Afghanistan,” he said.
“They were tired of the hotel environment and wanted freedom to cook their own food and do their own shopping,” he said.
“Afghan refugees may turn the attention of international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, and ISIS to Uganda and destabilise the country,” he said.
However, the recent bomb blasts in Kampala have not been in any way linked to the Afghans living in Uganda. The Islamic State, who claimed responsibility for the deadly attacks, said their motivation was Uganda’s involvement “in the war against IS in Central Africa”.
The Afghan refugees arrived in Uganda following a request by the United States government to be hosted in the country for three months as they awaited relocation to the US. But why was Uganda chosen as a safe place to send such possibly high-profile people?