Refugee livelihoods in Ugandan cities: mind the gap between policy and practice

Uganda has one of the most open-door refugee policies in the world. But improving the lives of urban refugees on the ground requires government and community organisations to work together to put these policies into practice.

A Congolese vendor sells handkerchiefs on the pavement in central Kampala. Congolese refugees dispersed throughout the city often lack the social and economic support networks necessary to find work or to start a business (Photo: William Monteith/IIED)

There is a new entry on the list of the top five refugee-hosting countries in the world. Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon remain in the top three, providing a temporary home to more than 4.5 million refugees from the Syrian conflict. Meanwhile, Pakistan continues to host to over a million refugees from Afghanistan, despite recent attempts to force their return

But a nation 5,000 kilometres from the Middle East has now joined the group.

Uganda – a country with approximately 60 per cent of the population of the United Kingdom and one per cent of the GDP (PDF) – now hosts over one million refugees and asylum seekers, doubling from 500,000 in 2015. 

Progressive – but under pressure

The country's 2006 Refugee Act, establishing refugees' rights to live, work, and start businesses in towns and cities has been hailed as 'exemplary' (PDF) and held up as a global 'model'

But this model is being put under increasing pressure by heavy influxes of refugees fleeing the civil war in South Sudan.

Struggles on the ground in Kampala

Last week, an international conference hosted by the Refugee Studies Centre (RSC) at Oxford University brought researchers together with experts from policy and practice to examine emerging evidence for tackling the challenges of forced displacement in Uganda and elsewhere.

I presented the initial findings of an IIED-funded project investigating the participation of displaced people in local markets in Kampala, for example though vending, trading and hawking. The research is led by the School of International Development at University of East Anglia and the Urban Action Lab at Makerere University in Uganda.

Mixed opportunities

Our early results suggest that while policies are in place to give refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDPs) the freedom to work in Uganda's towns and cities, some groups find it much harder to find work than others. 

The hub of the Somali community in Kampala is located in Kisenyi – or 'Little Mogadishu'– one kilometre from the central business district. Here, Somali refugees can take advantage of extensive business networks provided through family and community connections. 

In contrast, Congolese refugees dispersed throughout the city often lack the social and economic support networks necessary to find work or to start a business. 

We are arrested by the Kampala City Council Authority all the time [so] I walk with fear in town – there are places I would like to sell from but I cannot reach because of fear

And nearly two thirds of our Congolese participants reported experiences of discrimination on the basis of their nationality – from verbal insults to restricted access to health services and arrests by Ugandan security services.

As Pascal, a kitenge fabric vendor explained: "We have no particular place where we sell from, so at any time the Kampala City Council Authority can come and take all your business. We are arrested by the KCCA all the time [so] I walk with fear in town – there are places I would like to sell from but I cannot reach because of fear."

The forgotten case of IDPs

The celebration of Uganda's refugee policy has also deflected attention from the plight of IDPs in towns and cities. For example, many of Kampala's Acholi IDPs – displaced by civil war in the 1990s – reside in the Acholi Quarters. Located 10 kilometres from the central business district, the Quarters is a camp-turned-settlement with unreliable access to water, sanitation and electricity.

While a Somali refugee working as a cosmetics vendor in Kisenyi takes home an average USh 400,000 (£90) a month, an IDP in the Acholi Quarters earns around USh 105,000 (£24) from making paper beads; an amount that falls far short of the cost of basic housing, education and healthcare.

Community support 

Without state support, displaced populations turn to NGOs and community groups for assistance. 

For example, in 2007 a group of Congolese refugees founded Young African Refugees for Integral Development (YARID), an organisation providing skills and language training to urban refugees.

Local initiatives are also working to establish dialogue between refugees and municipal authorities, that are often unaware of the struggles of displaced populations. For example, the Refugee Law Project in Kampala has organised a series of community dialogues between refugees and the city council where refugees can share their experiences and frustrations of work in the city and request more flexible vending regulations.

Working together

For their part, municipal authorities often lack up-to-date information on the evolving needs of displaced populations. Better collaboration between national and municipal government and community groups is required in order to bring this information to light. Only by responding to the experiences and aspirations of people on the ground will Uganda's 'exemplary' refugee policy be realised in practice. 

We look forward to sharing the full results of the study over the next few months.

William Monteith (william.monteith@iied.org) is a researcher with IIED's Human Settlements research group.