E.g., 12/06/2023
E.g., 12/06/2023
Educating Refugees in Countries of First Asylum: The Case of Uganda

Educating Refugees in Countries of First Asylum: The Case of Uganda

Refugees often see the education of their children as a principal way of ensuring a better future for their family, regardless of whether that future holds a return to the home country, local integration in the country of first asylum, or resettlement to a third country. Just as importantly, education often plays a critical role in creating stability in the lives of refugee children.

However, the current model of international assistance in countries of first asylum—that is, the first nation in which people find refuge outside their homeland—focuses on meeting immediate and important basic needs. In the process, long-term goals and stability can fall by the wayside. This short-term perspective persists despite the fact that many refugee situations are protracted, with refugees living in exile for more than five years with no immediate prospect of finding a durable solution.

Refugees are therefore increasingly seeking alternative ways to educate their children. The case of Uganda illustrates the diverse settings in which refugees seek access to education, both within and outside of the assistance structure created by international organizations and governments.

International organizations and host-country governments themselves are also beginning to tackle this gap between education needs and access. Once again, Uganda provides an important case study. The government's collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on a Self-Reliance Strategy (SRS) is particularly illustrative of new efforts to address the education problem, and will be examined in detail here.

Scrutinizing the Ugandan approach, with its different educational settings in mind, may point the way to new refugee education strategies worldwide. The Ugandan strategy reveals both strengths and weaknesses when analyzed in light of three central refugee requirements: personal security, means of livelihood for the family, and integration with stable national populations.

Background: Refugees and Education in Uganda

Uganda has a long history as both a sender and receiver of refugees, and its location in the Great Lakes region of Africa places it at the center of one of the largest refugee-generating areas in the world today. As of December 2002, UNHCR reported a total of 197,082 refugees living in Uganda, primarily from Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Rwanda. This number represents only the refugees who are registered with UNHCR and who live (almost exclusively) in official refugee settlement areas. In addition to this number, conservative estimates place the number of unregistered self-settled refugees at 50,000. Beyond this, an estimated 10,000 people are registered as self-sufficient refugees in the capital city, Kampala, with an estimated 5-10,000 others living without assistance or protection. In Uganda, as elsewhere around the world, UNHCR is the international body mandated with the provision of education for refugees, and it oversees the set-up and delivery of emergency education in camps and settlements. In this context, education of refugees in Uganda takes place in four distinct settings.

First, children are taught in UNHCR-sponsored schools in refugee settlements. These schools are set up to meet the particular needs of refugee populations. While policy makers often consider the local context of education—in this case Universal Primary Education initiatives in Uganda—the schools follow international guidelines for education established by UNHCR. These guidelines focus on expanding access and enrollment at primary levels.

Second, the many refugees who live outside of formal assisted settlements often try to quietly enroll their children in the national school system, where they might pass for Ugandan. Such efforts are both a cause and a by-product of the often-fluid boundaries of camps and settlements, which refugees cross to work or to explore other livelihood options, returning when food and other resources are scarce.

Third, refugees themselves create schools for their children in situations where access to education is unavailable, particularly in urban areas. These self-help strategies engage refugee adults as teachers and often function according to the curriculum and in the language of the home country.

Fourth, UNHCR and the host government of Uganda are piloting programs to integrate refugees into the national education system in an effort to promote economic development that will benefit both refugees and their hosts. This initiative is taking place under the Self-Reliance Strategy (SRS), which was developed jointly by UNHCR and the Government of Uganda in 1999 as an attempt to bridge the gap between relief and development.

The Tie Between Setting and Stability

One of the primary purposes of education in a refugee situation is the creation of stability for children coming from situations of conflict and displacement. UNHCR identifies education as a human right, a tool of protection, and as essential to meeting psychosocial needs and in promoting self-reliance and social and economic development.

The level of stability created through education in Uganda, however, depends on the setting in which children access it. In order for education to serve its purpose in creating stability for children, certain structural conditions need to be established. They include the absence of security threats and the presence of a means for a sustainable livelihood for the family. These conditions cannot be met in many of the settings in which children access UNHCR-sponsored education in Uganda. This situation results from existing government policy that allows for the location of refugee settlements in regions of the country that are in close proximity to conflict-ridden borders, in areas of internal strife, and in places with unfertile or overworked land.

When refugees seek alternatives to this UNHCR-sponsored education, they are attempting to meet the structural conditions for their and their children's stability. In accessing the national education system and in creating their own schools, refugees are searching for areas in which Ugandan nationals themselves find freedom from security threats and means for sustainable livelihoods.

These indicators of stability for refugee children echo the need to establish policies for refugee settlement and programs in Uganda—and elsewhere—that ensure security, grant access to means of livelihood, and integrate nationals and refugees through service delivery in areas such as education. All of these measures are suggested by the SRS. Tensions exist, however, because the SRS attempts to fuse local settlement policy, under which refugees must live in established refugee settlements, with an understanding of the need for self-reliance in a protracted refugee situation. The SRS is an effort to create the kind of stability that refugees seek when they access alternatives to UNHCR-sponsored schools but in the unfavorable settings where UNHCR-sponsored education is available. These tensions are discussed in detail below.

The SRS: Goals and Practices

The SRS began as a joint proposal by the UNHCR and the Government of Uganda "to integrate the services provided to the refugees into regular government structures and policies" in order to "optimize the use of resources for the good of both refugees and the host community." It seeks to provide refugees with the ability to "stand on their own and build their self-esteem" through gaining skills and knowledge both to take back to their home countries and to leave behind sustainable structures. Uniquely, the SRS also considers "what UNHCR and its partners can do for the host communities in a way that benefits the refugees."

The SRS was designed for implementation at a district government level, with the Office of the Prime Minister—the Government of Uganda office in charge of refugee issues—and UNHCR playing coordinating roles and "[ensuring] harmonization of policy." Despite a top-heavy approach in implementation to date, the consultation process to create the document involved a large number of stakeholders including district authorities, UNHCR staff, national government officials, NGOs, donors, and refugee and host community beneficiaries.

The SRS addresses some of the issues raised by families seeking alternative sites of education for their children. It focuses, for example, on creating conditions for sustainable livelihoods including possibilities for sustainable agricultural production and access to credit for income-generating activities and also on the official integration of refugee children into the national educational system.

The SRS: Challenges Ahead

Although the SRS provides a framework for addressing aspects of a protracted refugee situation, there are certain areas in which it falls short, in both its conceptualization and its implementation.

First, the regions in which the SRS is being implemented in Uganda are in the same conflict zones as other UNHCR-sponsored education. Therefore, the new approach cannot provide for personal security, for refugees or for nationals. Indeed, these are not the areas in which refugees themselves seek access to the national education system.

Second, the government continues to restrict refugee freedom of movement, with severe consequences for refugee families' livelihoods. The SRS attempts to propagate a free-market economy in which self-reliance can be achieved, but within the settlement structure, which is a command economy framework. In this situation, families are either forced to leave settlements irregularly in search of work and thereby to opt out of formal assistance structures, including education; or, if they remain in settlements, they are often forced to withdraw children from school in order to maximize production from the unfertile land that is available. Until livelihoods are stabilized, the benefits of attempts at stability through education, as expressed in the SRS, will continue to be unrealized.

Third, the SRS document focuses on the integration of service delivery between refugee and national systems rather than on issues of true integration of refugee and national populations. In the sphere of education, this approach means that the SRS monitors structural change: the degree to which refugees and nationals share educational facilities, the strengthening of school management, and the promotion of vocational training and education of girls. It does not, however, address or monitor issues of social integration. Dr. Silus Oluka of the School of Education at Makerere University in Kampala points out that the SRS makes no attempt to transform teaching and learning inside classrooms, even though these arenas can frequently be fraught with ethnic and religious tensions. In the absence of an environment that promotes positive interaction between refugees and nationals, possibilities of using the power of education to create stability in situations of displacement are lost.

Finally, the implementation of the SRS has not gone according to plan. The problems associated with this implementation have a number of origins, including the shortcomings outlined above. On the side of government, the new Refugee Bill, which would address freedom of movement among other issues, was expected to pass into law by 2001; however, it remains in Parliament. The funding situation has also posed difficulties: donors have been reluctant to include refugees in district development plans. Further, ongoing violence in the regions where the SRS has been focused has severely disrupted the lives of refugees. Those in Adjumani, for example, had become self-sufficient in terms of food production, but the upheavals of recent attacks and violence have caused them to become dependent on direct assistance once again.

On top of these concerns, many participants in the SRS have cited delays and misunderstandings resulting from administrative shortcomings and lack of communication. While many actors on both the refugee and national side are working to improve education, incomplete coordination among stakeholders has at times limited the possibilities for integration of educational services, let alone of communities, and for the creation of stability for refugee children.


Securing an education for their children is often one of few concrete ways in which refugees can prepare for the future while living in exile. Current systems of aid-delivery to refugees in camps and settlement structures often do not meet the needs of refugee children and their families, as evidenced in the alternatives for access to education that refugees seek worldwide.

Thus, the provision of education for refugee children and its role in the promotion of stability for them is in critical need of attention. Three central requirements for the creation of this stability—personal security, means of livelihood for the family, and integration with stable national populations—have begun to surface in policies for refugee education such as Uganda's multi-sectoral Self Reliance Strategy. While promising in theory, many stakeholders have so far expressed disappointment with the implementation of this strategy. Over time, the evidence should accumulate to show the extent to which the innovative approach in Uganda can meet these requirements in promoting stability for refugee children, and how such plans might be successfully used in other countries of first asylum.


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