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Can Uganda’s Breakthrough Refugee-Hosting Model Be Sustained?

Can Uganda’s Breakthrough Refugee-Hosting Model Be Sustained?

Coggio_Uganda SSudandeseRefugees Palorinya

South Sudanese refugees in Palorinya refugee camp, Uganda (Photo: Tessa Coggio).

Although the movement of asylum seekers and refugees to the industrialized world captures much attention, the reality is that 85 percent are hosted in developing countries—which are taking on a growing share of the world’s humanitarian burden.

Uganda, with an annual per capita income of U.S. $666, is home to more refugees than any other country in Africa and has the third-largest refugee population of any nation, after Turkey and Pakistan. More than 1 million of its estimated 1.5 million refugees have arrived within the past two years, with hundreds more arriving daily. With few resources to offer to so many displaced people, Uganda represents a case study for generous refugee-hosting policies in otherwise challenging conditions.

The refugee population in Uganda is a product of its tumultuous neighborhood—with civil war in South Sudan and ethnic conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) forcing the flight of hundreds of thousands in recent years. But it is also the result of policies that are often touted as some of the most generous in the world.  Praised by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, the “Uganda model” permits refugees to work, cultivate land, and move around freely—rights rarely granted to that extent in other countries of first asylum, where the arrivals are typically viewed as competition for jobs and scarce resources. Refugees also have access to government-provided health care and primary education. 

Still, Uganda’s refugee response is far from perfect, and many pressure points on the system risk giving way to deep fractures, as this article explores. Though the policy landscape itself is uncommonly generous, conditions for many refugees remain grim, marked by inadequate resources, poor water and sanitation conditions, and a shortage of food amid cuts to humanitarian nutrition programs and shortfalls in international donor support. The international community and other refugee-hosting countries are watching closely to see if Uganda’s unparalleled refugee-hosting model can hold itself together.

Figure 1. Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Uganda, by Country of Origin, 2018

Source: UN High Commissioner for Refugees, “Uganda Comprehensive Refugee Response Portal,” last updated July 31, 2018. Available online.

A History of Displacement

For many Ugandans, displacement is a painful memory of a recent past. The tyrannical rule of President Idi Amin from 1971 to 1979 left hundreds of thousands of people internally displaced or forced into exile. More recently, warlord Josef Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) wreaked havoc on northern Uganda in the early 2000s. By the peak of the conflict in 2005, an estimated 1.8 million people had been internally displaced. The Refugees Act, passed in 2006, acknowledges that these episodes of internal displacement informed and inspired current welcoming policies towards refugees. “Today, it is them, tomorrow, it could be any one of us,” Ugandan Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda said in a message in June 2018 commemorating World Refugee Day.

A Spirit of Openness

Many Ugandans are deeply proud of their country’s unique stance toward refugees. “They are our brothers and sisters” is an oft-cited justification for why a country that has so little can still give so much.

Refugees as Economic Contributors

Beyond exhibiting a strong norm of solidarity towards its displaced neighbors, the Ugandan government argues that empowering refugees with the right to employment, enterprise, and free movement encourages economic interactions between them and their host communities. Settlements in even the most remote parts of northwest Uganda host vibrant markets where refugees can sell what they manage to grow on their small, government-provided plots of land. A 2016 study by the U.S. Agency for International Development found that the marginal benefit of providing land to refugee households results in an additional annual contribution to the local economy of up to $205. With access to sufficient start-up funds and supplies, they can also capitalize on valuable skills in nonagricultural activities. For instance, tailors from the DRC are highly sought after in Uganda thanks to their skilled use of kitenge, a traditional Congolese cloth.

In Kampala, Somalis have garnered a reputation for industriousness; despite lacking the humanitarian support provided in government-designated refugee settlements, these urban refugees have successfully opened and grown businesses in Uganda’s booming capital. The economic freedom Uganda affords refugees has rubbed off on traditionally more restrictive host nations in East Africa as well. The Kenyan government, long known for enforcing strict encampment policies that isolate refugees from local economies, opened Kalobeyei in 2015, an experimental settlement based on the Uganda model of creating self-reliance by fostering economic linkages between refugee and host-community households. 

Support from Global Players

Uganda’s unique response to the massive arrivals of refugees has not gone unnoticed by the international community. Due to its already robust humanitarian response, Uganda was chosen as a pilot country to launch the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF). Enshrined in the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, the CRRF’s objectives are four-fold: (1) ease pressure on the host country, (2) enhance refugee self-reliance, (3) expand access to third-country solutions, and (4) support conditions in countries of origin.

To jump start the implementation of this ambitious framework and elicit international support, the Ugandan government and UNHCR hosted a Solidarity Summit on Refugees in June 2017. Though an impressive number of high-profile attendees flew in for the summit, expected funding for the framework did not follow. In total, the Solidarity Summit succeeded in raising $350 million of a requested $2 billion in pledges. Despite Europe’s call for contributions from nontraditional donors, China pledged just $500,000 and the largest private-sector contribution amounted to $1 million from an African telecommunications company. Meanwhile, the European Union and its Member States still accounted for a combined 82 percent of pledges. As of October 2018, this funding gap continues to threaten the sustainability of Uganda’s refugee-hosting model, with 58 percent of UNHCR’s 2018 hoped-for budget for Uganda remaining unfunded.

Pressures on the Uganda Model

Uganda requires more than moral support to sustain its refugee response. Despite GDP growth rates hovering around 6 percent annually in recent years, Uganda remains a strikingly poor nation, ranking 163rd out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index. The 2016 National Household Survey found that 60 percent of Uganda’s labor force is active in the informal sector and reported only a 40.7 percent labor force participation rate for youth. With birth rates around six births per woman, according to the World Bank, Uganda’s economy is struggling to grow and formalize fast enough to accommodate these demographic changes.  

Much of Uganda’s chronic poverty is concentrated in its refugee-hosting districts in the north, where substandard infrastructure and low investment isolates these populations from industrial and economic growth elsewhere in the country (see Figure 2). In the north, where subsistence farming is widespread, unpredictable patterns of flooding and drought continuously challenge livelihoods dependent on a successful harvest.

Figure 2. Refugee-Hosting Districts in Uganda


Source: Author’s rendering.

To make matters more difficult, in places where resources are already stretched thin, friction between refugees and host-community nationals has emerged over land usage, access to employment and government services, and environmental degradation. For the time being, conflict levels have remained quite low considering the breadth of possible trigger points. A 2017 study conducted when daily refugee arrivals were at their peak found that 65 percent of host-community members and 64 percent of refugees perceived the host community as having a “generally positive” attitude toward the newcomers. Yet in districts where South Sudanese arrivals more than doubled the population in just two years, the refugees’ long-term presence risks wearing down host communities’ resources and initial support.

Figure 3. Number of South Sudanese Refugees in Uganda, 2014-18*


Note: The 2018 data are through July.
Source: UNHCR, “Operations Portal Refugee Situations: South Sudan,” last updated July 31, 2018. Available online.

The sheer volume of new arrivals also strains government service delivery. In 2016, Uganda total expenditures on the refugee response amounted to the equivalent of 46 percent of the national education budget or 62 percent of government health expenditures. Desperate to accommodate nearly 1 million new refugees in 2016 and 2017, the Ugandan government began diluting its generous land allocation policy. Thanks to permanent government ownership over refugee plots, officials began reclaiming land allocated to long-established refugees. Accustomed to utilizing the land for subsistence farming and limited agricultural sales, these refugees were stripped of their means of securing food sources and generating income, without the reallocation process providing any alternatives.

Crafting a Sustainable Approach

With its resources overstretched, some of Uganda’s trademark welcoming policies are at risk of failing despite a number of initiatives and frameworks tasked with mitigating long-term challenges. A notable example is the government’s Settlement Transformative Agenda (STA), launched in 2016 to foster sustainable livelihoods for refugees and host communities alike. The most unique feature of the STA is its integration into Uganda’s broader development agenda, the second National Development Plan (NDP2). The plan incorporates Uganda’s ambition to become a middle-income country by 2040 and recognizes that refugees, who make up roughly 3 percent of the population, are essential contributors to this goal. Advocates are therefore hard at work to ensure that refugees feature even more prominently in NDP3, which is set to launch in 2020.

The Refugee and Host Population Empowerment framework (ReHoPE), drafted by the United Nations and World Bank, represents the greatest attempt by the international community to craft a more sustainable refugee-hosting strategy for Uganda. The ReHoPE approach seeks to transition from emergency measures to a development-minded refugee response that builds resilient and self-reliant communities by proactively incorporating host populations. Its trademark “30-70 Principle” dictates that 30 percent of all refugee interventions target host-community needs, with many humanitarian organizations, including UNHCR, aiming for a more equitable 50-50 split when resources allow. To ensure harmonization across a broad range of stakeholders, UNHCR and the Ugandan government coordinate the country’s refugee response through several interagency working groups organized into technical sectors such as “Energy and Environment” and “Livelihoods.”

The Humanitarian-Development Nexus

The STA, ReHoPE, and in a broader context the NDP all embody the global paradigm shift outlined in the UN Sustainable Development Goals to move from humanitarian emergency responses to long-term development. With human displacement becoming an increasingly protracted phenomenon, a successful humanitarian response hinges on properly equipping refugees to be self-reliant contributors to the economy on both a local and national level. This change is also motivated by circumstance; as arrivals to Uganda slow compared to the peak of the South Sudan crisis, humanitarian actors are actively shifting their focus from the pressing mandate of saving and protecting lives to fostering sustainable livelihoods.

This shift, however, poses new challenges. Months of in-kind aid provided for new refugees by the humanitarian community in the form of food, water, and health and hygiene supplies have degraded established markets in refugee-hosting districts. In Kyaka II, a refugee settlement founded in 1983, roughly 30,000 long-term inhabitants had grown accustomed to paying for utilities such as water. This changed in early 2018, when the camp began receiving up to 900 Congolese refugees per week. The population quickly ballooned to 55,000 and triggered an emergency response by humanitarian organizations. This included the distribution of free water, which inadvertently collapsed the local water market. The decision injected unpredictability into an already volatile system by raising questions over what will happen to Kyaka II’s market structure when the distribution of free water inevitably ceases.

In Palorinya, one of Uganda’s largest and most underserved settlements, South Sudanese refugees and their host-community neighbors face a significant obstacle to successfully managing their own livelihoods. The settlement’s three sprawling zones are situated more than 20 kilometers away from markets, vocational training centers, and hospitals; poor-quality roads make the journey all the more arduous to complete. The limited transportation options to reach the nearest town are offered at prohibitive prices, leaving countless would-be entrepreneurs, farmers, and students stranded in the settlement, their economic opportunities wasted.

Utilities and infrastructure are not the only structural challenges to humanitarian development in Uganda’s refugee settlements. Across all refugee-hosting districts, the distribution of seeds by the World Food Program (WFP)—intended to promote agricultural livelihoods in refugee settlements—has undercut prices for local distributors. Donated goods, such as sanitary products, are often diverted and sold at a fraction of the market price, thereby disincentivizing private companies from undertaking or continuing commercial engagements in these districts.

The Promise of Cash for Livelihoods

UN agencies and their implementing partners recognize the need to counter such market-based disruptions. As such, cash or voucher-based assistance, which accounts for 10 percent of humanitarian interventions worldwide, is becoming an increasingly attractive alternative to traditional in-kind aid in Uganda. Recognizing this change, a number of UN agencies and humanitarian organizations formed an interagency working group in 2018 dedicated specifically to coordinating cash-based interventions in Uganda’s refugee-hosting districts.

The results of a pilot program recently implemented in Kyaka II demonstrate the importance refugees place on being able to access livelihood inputs such as livestock, farming tools, or credit. As part of the pilot, refugees received a large one-time cash transfer equivalent to an average household’s annual WFP ration. The effects of this distribution were promising; after accounting for immediate needs such as food, clothing, and paying off debts, beneficiaries were able to invest about three-quarters of their grant on average into long-term livelihood inputs. This included purchasing supplies for their business or paying for education and vocational training. Long-established refugees who had lost their farming plots under land reallocation benefited greatly from the cash injection. Equipped with new capital to seek livelihood alternatives, the number of nonagricultural businesses skyrocketed by 128 percent in the settlement. Despite such encouraging results, large cash transfers still face considerable hurdles—not least of which is winning over international donors wary of multipurpose or unconditional cash grants. Furthermore, the sustainability of cash assistance will be limited when opportunities to invest in income-generating activities are lacking. Counteracting this will require the private sector to proactively invest in remote refugee-hosting districts to connect farmers and craftsmen to value chains as well as offer vocational training and employment.

Scandal and Setback

Moving innovative livelihood interventions beyond the pilot stage will require considerable funding, something that has been more difficult to secure since the February 2018 revelations of refugee fund misappropriation and fraud. Allegations that refugee numbers had been inflated and that funds raised during the 2017 Solidarity Summit were unaccounted for implicated both UNHCR and government officials. The scandal compelled some of Uganda’s largest donors, including the United States and the European Union, to threaten withdrawal of support and prompted UNHCR to replace its top country representative.

To combat corruption and settle discrepancies over refugee numbers, a biometric verification program was implemented beginning in March 2018, leveraging international organizations' food distribution systems. Renewal of ration cards in settlements across Uganda was contingent on registering into the biometric system. The fingerprints and iris scans of nearly 1.1 million refugees were recorded before the operation concluded in late October.

Problems still abound, however, as a June 2018 progress report on the verification exercise revealed that one settlement hosting South Sudanese refugees had overestimated its numbers by a staggering 58 percent. While others have posted more modest overestimations of 10 percent or less, misinformation, whether intentional or accidental, could have harmful effects on Uganda’s fundraising capacities and disincentivize private-sector investment in refugee-hosting districts. Additionally, the scandal has practical, negative implications on humanitarian organizations that may be relying on misleading figures to plan future interventions.

The verification exercise remains ongoing; as of October 2018, 75 percent of the estimated refugees in Uganda had been verified. While the investigations of intentional fraud continue, a joint statement by the Ugandan government and UNHCR to donors and partner organizations contend that “the sheer speed and scale of the [South Sudanese] influx” made the situation at the border untenable, exposing natural flaws in the original registration system. Though both parties were “conscious that [refugee] figures might be problematic,” they stressed that “the priority at the time was to save lives.” The statement offers the free movement of refugees within Uganda and a limited number of undocumented returns to countries of origin as benign explanations for the misleading figures.

Europe’s Vested Interest

The Ugandan government and UNHCR are not alone in worrying about fallout from the scandal. The European Union is motivated to ensure that Uganda’s refugee-hosting model succeeds. If the livelihoods-based approach proves sustainable, the model could set a powerful precedent for successful intra-African migration. The EU Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), which combats root causes of migration such as poor governance and lack of economic opportunity, is making strides on the sustainability front. All 44 million euros earmarked for Uganda under the EUTF for 2016 to 2020 are committed to fostering greater economic and employment opportunities and strengthening refugee livelihoods.

Yet the EU commitment to helping Uganda successfully host its refugees is undermined by European migration-management priorities elsewhere on the continent. Politically strategic funding allocated to migrant-transit countries such as Niger, Mali, and Libya dwarf the contribution to Uganda, and EU leaders now have their eye key Arab League countries to partner with on migration management. A significant portion of the funds to these countries are dedicated to improving border management and governance. 

The Road Ahead

The refugee situation in Uganda remains precarious. Political concerns over who will succeed 74-year-old President Yoweri Museveni following his 32-year reign foreshadow the possibility of political turmoil. Meanwhile, a panicked response to the most recent Ebola outbreak amongst displaced populations in eastern DRC could justify the closure of borders currently crossed by an estimated 5,000 individuals per day, including fishermen, traders, and refugees. Citing limited resources, parliamentarians in June pushed for legislation to restrict the number of refugees accepted into Uganda.

Can Uganda’s progressive refugee-hosting model withstand these pressures? The answer will hinge on a number of factors: the availability of robust livelihoods assistance for refugees and host communities, incentives for private-sector investment, long-term donor commitments to close fundraising gaps, and the enduring support of the Ugandan public, who continue to see refugees as an opportunity for growth. The $869 million requested for the 2018 Refugee Response Plan is more than a contribution to refugees; it is an investment in the overall development of Uganda.


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