• October 6, 2022


Uganda’s new refugee population is one of the largest in the world driven by conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to the west, as well as South Sudan, to the north. Uganda hosts the largest number of refugees in Africa, and is one of the top refugee-hosting countries worldwide. More refugees continue to arrive daily, with most fleeing from extreme violence in South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and other conflict-affected countries. More than 130,000 have arrived this year alone, and at least 61% are children under the age of 18. The influx is putting a severe strain on already limited school resources in local communities. Many classrooms have no walls or electricity and lacking latrines and basic sanitation facilities that are needed to accommodate so many children safely and with dignity. There is also a drastic shortage of teachers and basic materials such as books and desks.

Currently Uganda is hosting over 1 million refugees, of which over 900,000 are from South Sudan Refugees are fleeing horrific human rights violations including sexual violence, torture and even death in South Sudan Uganda, the majority of refugees from South Sudan over 64%  are children under the age of 18. Together with women they make up 86% of the South Sudanese refugee population in Uganda.

For many years now, groups that work with refugees have fought to put an end to the refugee camp. Camps are a reasonable solution to temporary dislocation. But refugee crises can go on for decades. Millions of refugees have lived in their country of shelter for more than 30 years. Two-thirds of humanitarian assistance intended for emergencies is spent on crises that are more than eight years old. Camps are stagnant places. Refugees have access to water and medical care and are fed and educated, but are largely idle. “You keep people for 20 years in camps don’t expect the next generation to be problem-free,” said Xavier Devictor, who advises the World Bank on refugee issues. Uganda, which is a global model for how it treats refugees, has one-seventh of America’s population and a tiny fraction of the wealth. Yet it took in 1,800 refugees per day between mid-2016 and mid 2017 from South Sudan alone. And that’s one of four neighbors whose people take refuge in Uganda.

Over the last 50 years, only Uganda has granted refugees full rights. In Uganda, refugees can live normally. Instead of camps there are settlements, where refugees stay voluntarily because they get a plot of land. Refugees can work, live anywhere, send their children to school and use the local health services. The only thing they can’t do is become Ugandan citizens.

The New York Times quotes that; given the global hostility to refugees, it is remarkable that Ugandans still approve of these policies, there have been flashes of social tension or violence between refugees and their hosts, mostly because of a scarcity of resources and  they have not become widespread. This is the model the United Nations wants the world to adopt.

Uganda’s refugee hosting model is one of the most progressive in the world. However, Uganda’s generous policy towards refugees is under threat, as thousands of new refugees arrive each day while its refugee appeal is chronically underfunded.  Refugees are given relative freedom of movement, equal access to primary education, healthcare and other basic social services, and the right to work and own a business. In Uganda, refugees are hosted in designated areas called ‘settlements’ where they are allocated pieces of land to put up shelters, grow food and start their own businesses. The idea is that in five years they can be self-reliant and will no longer need to depend on humanitarian aid.

Uganda has been touted as having one of the most liberal and progressive refugee-hosting policies in the world. The Ugandan setting is different from other host countries by that fact that while refugees are still initially placed in settlements, they have the right to free movement and employment within the country.

The economic impact of refugees on host areas, however, is not necessarily negative. An economic stimulus may be generated by the presence of refugees and can lead to the opening and development of the host regions. This stimulus takes place, inter alia, through the local purchase of food, non-food items, shelter materials by agencies supplying relief items, disbursements made by aid workers, the assets brought by refugees themselves, as well as employment and income accrued to local population, directly or indirectly, through assistance projects for refugee areas.

The presence of refugees also contributes to the creation of employment benefiting the local population, directly or indirectly. Moreover, relevant line departments involved in refugee work as counterparts to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, both at central and local levels, also benefit from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees assistance aimed at strengthening their coping and management capacities. Such assistance may include equipment supply, capacity building and related training components.

According to the article published by the world economic forum in collaboration with Quartz Africa, it talks about Nyantet Malual a South Sudanese refugee in Uganda who started a small farm in northwestern Uganda which helped her to own property and provide for her family.

Another example is featured in The Observer indicating Sephora Uzele Murogo who was forcibly driven out of Democratic Republic of Congo into Uganda by political unrest in 2015 together with her mother and siblings. Uzele settled in Nakivale refugee settlement in Isingiro district.

The presence of refugees, as a focus of attention, also attracts development agencies to the host areas. While infrastructure is developed in the initial stage primarily to facilitate the work of host governments, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and its implementing partners in the refugee affected regions, it also serves as a catalyst to ‘open up’ the host region to development efforts that would otherwise never reach these ‘marginal’ areas.

While it is recognized that there may be some “positive” aspects to the impact of a refugee influx on the economic life of a host country, the large-scale presence of refugees invariably constitutes a heavy burden for receiving countries, particularly Low developing countries.

On the other hand, refugees can bring assets to the hosting area. Refugees indeed bring skills and knowledge with them that can be utilized to the benefit of local people. These skills vary, but do often include those of the more educated group, such as health professionals and teachers, who, even in limited numbers, can make a significant contribution in remote areas. An additional range of skills that can be brought by refugees may include an enterprise culture which can stimulate the local economy or offer innovative agricultural techniques previously unknown to the host areas.

Uzele took entrepreneurial lessons at a social entrepreneurship hub, Sina Opportuneness. The organisation, started by refugees, supports refugees to gain skills in various sectors. They are taught how to start and run a small business with meager resources. Following her training, Uzele started farming, growing vegetables to supplement the food they receive from aid agencies. The harvest was boundless, prompting her to find a market for her produce. The search attracted buyers from as far as Kampala.

These may be contained to the local host area or may relate to broader security complications for the region. Resettlement countries have also invoked security concerns, in particular as relates to terrorism and countering violent extremism.

Access to cultivable land helps provide a means of self-sustainability within the settlement and potentially fosters two way produce trade between refugees and locals. The World Food Program provides food or cash aid to the refugees in Uganda as in other refugee-hosting nations.

Between the provision of agricultural land, relief aid and freedom of movement, there exist plenty of opportunities for refugees to interact economically with host-country businesses and households around the settlements. Our study reveals that refugees do not survive on aid alone; often they have income generating activities that allow them to interact with the host country economy in ways that would not be possible under conventional aid regimes that distribute food to refugees in settlements.

 Local businesses potentially benefit from refugees’ demand for their produce and the availability of refugee labor. Within the settlements, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees collaborates with the local government to provide both public service facilities (clinics, boreholes etc.) and plots of land for homesteading at the time of registration. In some settlements refugees are allocated agricultural plots on which they can grow crops.

Uganda’s refugee policy is exceptionally generous. Every refugee family receives land for living in the settlement and additional 50x50sq. for small-scale backyard farming. The most astonishing fact is that this land is communally held, which means that it is not owned by the Government but by locals in host communities. While in many cases, negotiations with land lords takes place before a new settlement opens, some offer their land to accommodate refugees.

Story Produced during the Inter University Media Challenge

By Bridget Nasasira

Uganda Christian University

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