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Economic self-reliance key to keeping Uganda’s door open to refugees

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Added 16th October 2019 11:58 AM

I have visited both settlements in the past year and felt, through my conversations, the appreciation to their hosts for making them feel safe, secure and welcome in Uganda – without a doubt the country with the most generous and progressive refugee policy in the world.

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Tony Thompson

I have visited both settlements in the past year and felt, through my conversations, the appreciation to their hosts for making them feel safe, secure and welcome in Uganda – without a doubt the country with the most generous and progressive refugee policy in the world.

By Tony Thompson

Nearly 70,000 refugees, mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, live in Rwamwanja refugee settlement, in Kamwenge district, southwestern Uganda. About three times more live in Bidi Bidi, in Yumbe district, one of the largest refugee settlements in the world.

I have visited both settlements in the past year and felt, through my conversations, the appreciation to their hosts for making them feel safe, secure and welcome in Uganda – without a doubt the country with the most generous and progressive refugee policy in the world.

In Rwamwanja, most of the refugees wanted to have good toilets and schools that were near and accessible to their children, particularly girls, to avoid traveling long distances to attend school. The tall and dense shrubs around the settlements were of deep concern to most parents worried about the safety of their children, particularly girls. 

In Bidi Bidi, the major concern was the economic welfare of most refugee families. The high number of unemployed youths, while recognised as a huge risk to social coexistence, represented an untapped opportunity. The traditional approaches of vocational and technical skilling were inadequate and out of touch with local market demands, at least in the short term.

How many mechanics, tailors, hair dressers, carpenters or brick makers would be needed in a settlement or district, and how many of them would be able to earn a decent living from their craft? Importantly, was the host community financially capable of generating enough demand to keep them in business?

These are important questions, and while we don’t have all the answers, we are committed to working with the Government and other partners to find lasting and practical solutions.  One of the ways we do that is through undertaking analysis; and our recent report, “Informing the Refugee Policy Response in Uganda” provides new data that we expect will inform the national response and transform the planning, budgeting and implementation of programmes that target refugees and their hosts.

The report, a collaboration with the Uganda Bureau of Statistics and the Office of the Prime Minister, is based on the 2018 Uganda Refugee and Host Communities Household Survey (URHS), shows that while refugees enjoy the same access to essential services as their hosts, in some cases, these rates are slightly higher due to the compelling humanitarian response.

About 95 percent of refugees and 66 percent of hosts have access to improved water; access to electricity stands at around 50 percent for both populations. Sixty-five percent of refugees have enrolled their children into primary schools at a similar rate to that of hosts (68 percent) although completion rates and secondary enrollment rates are low for both populations.

Access to improved sanitation remains low overall. Also, over 80 percent of refugees and hosts visited a healthcare provider when sick. Refugees report being geographically closer to health centers: 75 percent of refugees report traveling three kilometers to reach a healthcare center but only 65 percent of hosts report the same experience. This is explained by the provision of healthcare services for refugees by NGOs within (or very close to) their settlements.

Refugees also contribute to the local economy, and there are encouraging signs of social integration. They purchase goods and services in the local markets, and around 54 percent sell part of their crop. The participation of refugees in agriculture is linked to their access to land – one of the fundamental rights guaranteed to refugees in Uganda. Other benefits include freedom of movement and association, and rights to secure employment, to engage in income-generating activities and to access public services, including education and health.

Nonetheless, weather shocks and low access to agricultural inputs constrain the productivity of those engaged in agriculture. About half of the refugee population in the country (48 percent) endure poverty, considerably higher than the poverty incidence for the host population at 17 percent. Moreover, around 54 percent of refugees depend on humanitarian support as their main source of income, compared to less than 2 percent for hosts. Their inability to generate income is constrained by low levels of human capital, and very few (under 8 percent) have received skills or jobs training.

In the past one year, the World Bank has quadrupled its support to Uganda’s national refugee response with a commitment of $500 million provided under International Development Association to improve education and skills, health, water and sanitation for both refugees and hosts and preventing environmental degradation in refugee-hosting districts. These funds are disbursed centrally to Government through line ministries and coordinated by the Office of the Prime Minister.

This support, while considerable, is not enough to meet all the needs of refugees and hosts, or to sustain the asylum space. Improving the self-reliance of refugees is the key that will keep Uganda’s door open to refugees.

Focus should be on raising the productivity of refugees by providing them quality inputs and extension services for those engaged in agriculture and creating opportunities in non-agricultural sectors such as services. Refugees are a young, untapped source of labor, with lots of potential. Programs that stimulate varied skills initiatives and encourage labor demand in hosting areas can significantly improve their wellbeing, and at the same time develop these regions economically.

By going beyond basic social services, Uganda can profit from parity between refugees and their hosts while continuing to provide a safe, secure and welcoming home away from home.

The writer is the Country Manager of the World Bank

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