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The Reality Behind Uganda’s Refugee Model

Uganda has been hailed as a world leader in dealing with refugees. African Great Lakes expert David Kigozi argues that praise for progressive policies must be tempered with the harsher reality that many refugees actually experience in the country.

Written by David Kigozi Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Uganda south sudan refugees1
Refugees listen at a transit center for South Sudanese in the remote northwestern district of Adjumani, near the border with South Sudan, in Uganda.AP/Stephen Wandera

Uganda is now home to more than 1 million refugees and asylum seekers, and its treatment of them has seen the country widely hailed as a model for others to learn from. While there is no denying that Uganda has been a leader among refugee host nations, it also seems to have become fashionable to paint an exclusively positive picture.

Praise for Uganda centers on its relatively progressive refugee policy, dubbed the Self-Reliance Strategy (SRS), under which it has given its refugees the right to work, access to land and a significant degree of freedom of movement.

Much of the positive coverage stems from the recent book “Refugee Economies” by Alexander Betts, Louise Bloom, Josiah Kaplan and Naohiko Omata (Oxford University Press). Building on research from a widely-read 2014 paper of the same name by the same authors, the book focuses on the economies of refugees in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, and in the Nakivale and Kyangwali refugee settlements in southwestern Uganda.

While these publications are based on substantial research and sound methods, some of their conclusions have been superseded by events, while others are based on extrapolation from specific areas of the country and refugee populations that are not necessarily representative. A detailed look at some of the book’s findings reveals an incomplete picture which risks conveying the impression that refugees in Uganda are better off than they actually are.

Currently, refugees in the southern Nakivale and Kyangwali settlements represent less than one-fifth of all recognized refugees in Uganda. Therefore, the extrapolation of the study’s findings to Uganda as a whole may give a false impression because it underplays contrary conditions for the remaining refugee population. There is a fine line between promoting a positive image and underestimating the levels of hardship that many face.

The use of specific data to make statements about the broader Ugandan context which, unfortunately, cannot be sustained, could create the mistaken impression that life for refugees in Uganda is economically easy, which is far from the case for the majority.

There are now more than 1 million refugees and asylum seekers in Uganda, the majority of whom (over 800,000) are South Sudanese living in settlements in northern Uganda. This means that Nakivale and Kyangwali – which have more diverse ethnic groups including Somalis, Rwandese, Burundians and Congolese – have become proportionally less representative of refugees’ lives in Uganda.

Of the 1,064,043 refugees and asylum seekers in Uganda listed by the U.N. in February 2017, 68 percent are from South Sudan, 21 percent the Democratic Republic of Congo, four percent Burundi, four percent Somalia, two percent Rwanda and two percent from other countries.

The refugees are distributed between northern settlements in Yumbe (25 percent), Adjumani (20 percent), Arua (9 percent) and Moyo (7 percent), and southern and central and western sites Nakivale (12 percent), Kampala (8 percent), Rwamwanja (6 percent), Kiryandongo (5 percent), Kyangwali (4 percent), Kyaka II (2 percent), Oruchinga (1 percent) and Kisoro (0.02 percent). These figures do not include the self-settled “refugees” who are not under UNHCR’s protection mandate.

It is significant that most refugees in Nakivale and Kyangwali settlements have been there for a considerable time and so, inevitably, their ability to support themselves is greater but the majority of refugees in Uganda are new arrivals. The suggestion has also been made that these two settlements demonstrate dense economic interactions between refugee communities of different nationalities.

Looking to northern Uganda, which has received the largest influx of South Sudanese refugees following the conflict there, it is clear that similar economic activity is not present nor is there similar diversity of nationalities. Recent research conducted by the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) in Adjumani District, northern Uganda, found refugee settlements hosting almost exclusively South Sudanese.

We found only 85 refugees from other nationalities out of a total of 93,135, as of December 2014, and recent arrivals have followed the same pattern. According to a U.N. Refugee Agency report in February 2017, 58,809 of 63,977 new arrivals were South Sudanese.

Much has been made of trade networks found to be present in Nakivale and Kyangwali, but which are almost non-existent in a number of other refugee camps in Uganda. In Adjumani District, there is little or no agricultural production and therefore no regular presence of Ugandan traders.

A recent IRRI research visit to Rwamwanja, a refugee settlement in the same region as Nakivale, found trade and economic activities in Rwamwanja are dominated by the host population and not by refugees.

Given the fact that Uganda’s refugee policy has gained its international credibility based on refugees’ ability to access land, it is crucial to investigate whether past patterns are being maintained.

“Refugee Economies” shows that land access at Nakivale has enabled refugee communities there to trade surplus crops. But the production figures, even for a single settlement, can look less impressive when averaged across each household.

Although the total volume of agricultural business in the settlements could be significant for many refugees, who often sell a small surplus and reserve an amount as seed for the next season, the production per household is often just slightly above subsistence levels.

Furthermore, many refugees sell their agricultural produce cheaply to middlemen and buy manufactured goods more expensively due to the fact that many settlements are far from towns and the traders always factor transport costs into the prices of products.

Excessive concentration on the economic performance of a limited number of Somalis in certain settlements risks obscuring the fact that the majority of refugees in Uganda live at subsistence level. And they are only distantly and indirectly connected to international trade in terms of selling their small surplus produce to middlemen.

In Adjumani District, for example, it is rare to find a settlement-based refugee who has something to sell. The only exceptions are often those who trade their food rations at times. The majority have little or no means to purchase anything that is not a basic necessity. In Nyumanzi refugee settlement, there are still only a few shops owned by refugees, established from small loans from NGOs, alongside shops owned by Ugandans. During a visit to Nyumanzi in March 2015 we found refugee shop owners were still struggling to pay back the loans a year later.

Another pillar of Uganda’s reputation is built on freedom of movement for refugees. While it is true that refugees in Uganda can travel almost anywhere in the country, they are still technically required to secure permission from the camp commandant, although this is not strictly enforced. However, in many cases rent-seeking officials have been found to exact a price.

IRRI was recently informed of a situation in a settlement in the southwest where a landowner who wanted to hire refugees for seasonal work was told that a camp official was demanding $3 per refugee to grant permission for them to leave the settlement.

There is no doubt that removing the need for movement permits, accompanied by the right to choose where to live, work and do business, would enhance the economic life of the majority of refugees in Uganda. Therefore, while it is well known that Uganda has the best practice in the region, the reality of how this freedom of movement is applied on the ground should not be overlooked.

While rightly promoting the image that refugees are seeking solutions to their own economic challenges, recent coverage of Uganda risks editing out important details and developments that are part of the fuller picture.

The unusual openness and care that the government of Uganda has accorded refugees is commendable and indisputable. However, the good refugee environment in the country should not be allowed to stagnate. It should be built upon to ensure it is truly a model for refugee management not only in Africa but the world over.

Extrapolating the situation in these three settlements to the whole of the country risks having the opposite effect to that intended by Uganda’s boosters. Instead, it can be used as an excuse for inaction.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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