Uganda has been a global leader in implementing an integrated approach to refugee management in which refugees enjoy essentially the same rights and access to jobs and services as locals. This approach has benefited both refugees and host communities: the former have land and (limited) livelihood opportunities, the latter benefit from improved services for all and the positive effects of refugees on the local and wider economy. But both still face significant challenges: refugees struggle to become self-reliant, while host communities have to cope with increased competition for resources and services. Rising refugee numbers coupled with funding shortfalls are exacerbating host community refugee tensions, and raise questions about the sustainability of Uganda’s approach.
In recent years, the number of people in situations of forced displacement has reached new highs: 70.8 million at the end of 2018 (UNHCR, 2019b: 1). More and more of these are situations
of protracted displacement, lasting over five years. The majority of the world’s refugees are found in developing countries, placing strain on often already overburdened services. This has led to a
shift in approach to protracted refugee crises from a humanitarian response to a development-oriented one, which meets the long-term needs of refugees and host communities. The shift is reflected, for example, in recent international commitments made at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, and in the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants.
Uganda has a long history of hosting refugees. As of end 2019 it was hosting 1.38 million refugees, with the largest share from South Sudan, followed by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Most refugees are concentrated in the north and south-west of the country.
Uganda has, particularly since 1998, had a very liberal refugee policy. Refugees have the right to work, enjoy the freedom of movement, can own property and set up a business, and have access to social services such as health and education. They essentially enjoy the same rights and services as Ugandans: the one difference is that they cannot acquire Ugandan citizenship. Successive policies and strategies have shifted refugee management in Uganda from a humanitarian approach to a development one, aimed at fostering sustainable livelihoods for refugees and host communities and thereby contributing to national growth, ensuring access to services for all, and encouraging social cohesion and peaceful coexistence. A key element of the strategy to promote sustainable livelihoods for refugees is the allocation of plots of land for residential and agricultural purposes, with the aim of enabling them to become self-reliant.
This review identified several studies conducted over the past three years by key international development agencies (including the World Bank, UNDP2, WFP3) which assess the impact of Uganda’s integrated refugee management approach. There was also other grey literature as well as academic papers. The evidence base is thus quite strong, albeit with scope for more in-depth research on specific aspects (e.g. access to specific services, impact on women and other groups). A number of common themes emerge:
Poverty – poverty levels among refugee populations are high (ranging from 48% to 60% depending on the study), and higher than those among host communities (between 17% and
30% in the same studies).
Aid dependence – levels of aid dependency among refugees are high, though this is less (37%) among more established refugees (in Uganda for five years or more) than among recent arrivals
(less than two years in Uganda) (62%) (World Bank, 2019: 64).
Food security – both refugees and host communities experience food insecurity, but this is higher among refugees (7 out of 10 refugee households compared to 5 out of 10 host households) (World Bank, 2019: 40). Food insecurity is also greater among established refugees (in Uganda for many years and hence getting less food aid) than among recent arrivals. This policy has recently changed and all refugees now receive the same levels of assistance in the form of food or cash as of Sept-2018.
Vulnerability – demographic characteristics of refugee populations make them more vulnerable to poverty and food insecurity: some 56% of refugees are under the age of 15 and 25% less than five years of age; dependency ratios among refugee households are high (1.7 dependent members for every non-dependent member, compared to 1.2 among host households) (World Bank, 2019: 27).
Land policy – allocation of land is the cornerstone of Uganda’s strategy to promote self-reliance among refugees: cultivation of land is expected to meet the refugees’ food needs and generate
income. Refugees use the land for cultivation and rearing animals, but face a number of problems:
a) plot sizes have reduced as refugee numbers have increased, and current allocations are insufficient to meet food needs. Plot sizes vary by location but the overall average size is 30 x 30 metres or 0.22 acres (UNDP, 2018: 4);
b) soil quality can be poor: in general, refugees tend to have less productive land than host communities;
c) refugees are largely allocated land in settlements, which can be in remote rural locations, making income generation difficult;
d) refugees only have user rights to land – they cannot sell it or use it as collateral for credit;
e) not all refugees are farmers – and the policy is unsuitable for those in urban locations.
One study concluded, ‘expectations that refugees can achieve agricultural subsistence do not match reality’ (Ruaudel & Morrison-Metois, 2017a: 22).
Labour force participation and wages – Refugees are economically active, with one study finding they have an average of 3.5 livelihood activities/sources of income (Poole, 2019: 9). The
refugee labour force participation rate in Uganda averages 38%, compared to 74% for Ugandans (Vemuru et al, 2016: xi). There are also wide income gaps between refugees and hosts: in Kampala, nationals earn the equivalent of USD 250 per month, while refugees earn USD 175 per month (Vemuru et al, 2016: 37). Average household income is higher among established refugees than recent arrivals.
Alternative livelihoods (Vemuru et al, 2016: 36-39; Poole, 2019: 9-12) – Most refugees are hired for manual labour jobs, e.g. land cultivation, brickmaking. They are mainly in occupations
providing little income, social protection or job security. There are urban-rural differences, with those in urban areas having more opportunities to become self-reliant. In rural areas, economic activities for refugees revolve around agriculture and livestock, as well as trade. In urban areas, refugees trade in agricultural products (e.g. food items, basic farm inputs) and run a wide range of enterprises (e.g. shops, restaurants, transportation services), with some differentiation according to nationality.
Barriers – A number of barriers constrain the ability of refugees in both urban areas and settlements to seek employment: unfamiliarity with the language, legal issues, inadequate interviewing skills, discrimination and a lack of relevant documents. Access to skilled jobs is harder still (e.g. because of differences in academic qualifications). Refugees also face difficulties in accessing credit in Uganda.
Women and the labour market – Women’s participation in the formal sector is very low, averaging 9% for refugee women compared to 35% for Ugandan women employed in nonagricultural sectors, though self-employment among refugee women is higher at 28% (Vemuru et al, 2016: 38). There are gender differences in livelihoods: female-headed households are more likely than male-headed households to sell homemade products and cultivated food and carry out paid housework (but less likely to earn money from casual labour and selling bush products) (Poole, 2019: 11). Women face discrimination in accessing productive resources, land, credit, employment and self-employment opportunities, which increases female refugees’ exposure to risk (Ruaudel & Morrison-Metois, 2017a: 11).
Access to services – Services for refugees and host communities used to be run in parallel, with the former often being better funded than the latter. Integration of services (including health,
education and water and sanitation) was designed to end this inequality and promote peaceful coexistence. 30% of provided services are earmarked for the host community while the remaining 70% is intended for refugees. Refugee settlements have primary health facilities and integration has led to improved access for host communities. While primary education is provided free of charge to refugee children, they face challenges because of different curricula and language, leading to low enrolment and high dropout rates (only 43% of refugee children attend primary school (Vemuru et al, 2016: 33)). Access to secondary education is difficult for refugees because they cannot afford the fees. A much lower percentage of refugee children attend secondary compared to primary school.
Impact on host communities and wider economy (Vemuru et al, 2016: 40; Taylor et al, 2016: 20) – There is strong economic interdependence between refugees and host communities.
There is evidence of refugees in Uganda having significant positive effects on host communities in terms of job creation, increased demand and supply of goods (increased trade). These effects are felt both locally and in the wider Ugandan economy. The ‘income spillover’ (local income generated by refugee households) easily exceeds the cost of food aid for refugees (and is higher for aid given as cash rather than as food). Uganda’s policy of giving refugees access to land benefits refugees and adds significantly to their positive effect on income in and around the settlements.
Financial constraints for Uganda – Uganda is increasingly facing challenges dealing with its own poverty and under-development, let alone that of the million-plus refugees it is hosting: 27%
of Ugandans live below the national poverty line (Poole, 2019: 4). Issues such as climate change, lack of infrastructure and low levels of human capital are hampering growth and leading to rising poverty. Aid to Uganda by key donors has been cut (or switched from direct budget support to project-based aid), while population growth is not matched by tax revenue, all contributing to increased fiscal pressures.
Social cohesion – The literature paints a mixed picture with regard to social cohesion in refugee-hosting areas of Uganda. There is evidence of peaceful co-existence, including intermarriages between refugees and locals, and integration of services has improved relations. But refugees also face discrimination and hostility, particularly in urban settings. Moreover, the increasing numbers of people in protracted refugee situations in the country are placing strain on services and resources and leading to rising tension with host communities.
Cost-effectiveness – This review found no evidence of cost-effectiveness implications of integrated approaches to refugee management in Uganda. However, a review by Thompson (2017) addressed this question in the wider context of protracted refugee crises (i.e. beyond Uganda). It looked for evidence that moving from emergency humanitarian response to longer-term development focussed activities that promote refugee self-reliance and resilience reduces overall operational costs and saves money in the long run. It found no evidence ‘to either support or refute the hypothesis that, in the context of refugee crises, a shift from emergency humanitarian response to longer-term development-focused activities reduces operational
costs’ (Thompson, 2017: 2).