SEATTLE, Washington — Self-reliance is the expectation for Uganda’s urban refugees who decide to live outside designated settlements. Under normal circumstances, refugees residing in cities can get by without regular humanitarian assistance through social networks and the informal economic sector. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted income-generating activities and blocked social-safety networks for refugees living in Ugandan cities, causing food insecurity and rising poverty levels. Refugee-Led Organizations (RLO) are on the frontline in Uganda’s urban areas working to help neglected refugees amid COVID-19.
A Champion of Refugee Rights
Humanitarian experts have praised Uganda for its generous and inclusionary policies hosting refugees. As the largest refugee-hosting nation in Africa, Uganda has welcomed nearly 1.4 million people into its borders. Most of the country’s refugees originate from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi and Somalia, fleeing conflict, violence, persecution and crippling poverty. The government has adopted a “Self-Reliance Strategy” by giving refugees freedom of movement, the right to work and access to education and healthcare. These inclusionary policies have provided refugees with access to the same rights and opportunities as Ugandan citizens, empowering them to become financially independent and improve their quality of life.
Urban Refugees Amid COVID-19
As the global refugee crisis becomes increasingly prominent, more than 50% of the world’s refugees are opting out of living in the white tents of far-off refugee camps and are instead settling in urban areas. Uganda’s national policy requires refugees to live in designated settlements to receive assistance, material aid and protection. However, more than 80,000 refugees have chosen to settle in Kampala, the nation’s capital and largest city, seeking economic independence, safety and community networks.
As a result, urban refugees are excluded from standard humanitarian assistance and are expected to survive independently. Under normal circumstances, Uganda’s urban refugees are able to get by through the informal economic sector, social-safety nets and remittances from family and friends abroad. However, the global health emergency and economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have devastated Uganda’s urban refugee population and left them largely excluded from official assistance.
Stuck in Limbo
Although the Ugandan government’s COVID-19 response plan seeks to include refugees, those residing in urban areas have been largely neglected. Because urban refugees are not included in the national refugee assistance system, they have been left out of the standard material support designated for those living in settlements. Moreover, because refugees residing in cities are not Ugandan citizens, they cannot access food distribution without a national identity card. As such, urban refugees are stuck in limbo, shut out of both refugee and national assistance plans.
Urban refugee populations in Uganda are especially at high risk of contracting COVID-19. This is largely due to their unsanitary and overcrowded living conditions, making it challenging to follow public health measures. Additionally, refugees face psychological challenges, such as social isolation from the stigmas related to their status. Often perceived as outsiders, refugees are discriminated against and blamed for spreading the virus.
Urban refugees rely on informal business and cross-border trade to make ends meet. However, the pandemic’s restrictions have curbed economic mobility and forced many businesses to shut down. Furthermore, remittances from family members abroad have decreased as the United States, Europe and Australia face their own economic challenges. According to a World Food Program report, nearly half of a sampled refugee population in the city of Kampala lost more than three-quarters of their household income.
Social networks create community and assist with the many health, economic and social challenges urban refugees face. Lockdown restrictions have also disrupted women’s social networks, faith-based and host-community groups, breaking apart social safety nets and leaving many urban refugees vulnerable to economic devastation.
With government assistance unlikely, refugee-led organizations (RLOs) are essential in creating a voice for and meeting the needs of Uganda’s urban refugee population. Although often overlooked, RLOs are well-trusted and have direct access to community members. For example, a refugee-led organization in Kampala, called Young African Refugees for Integral Development (YARID), has provided fundamental assistance to urban refugees during this unprecedented time.
Through the utilization of community networks, YARID has distributed nutritious food and other essentials to more than 200 refugee households in Kampala. Refugee-led organizations like YARID have been pivotal in reaching neglected urban refugee populations. However, a lack of funding threatens RLOs’ humanitarian potential. A World Bank analysis urged development actors to collaborate with RLOs in the construction and implementation of inclusive COVID-19 response plans, as well as the allocation of social-safety nets to cover basic needs and provide life-saving assistance to Uganda’s most vulnerable urban populations.