Blog post by Noah Ssempijja (Manager Refugee Financial Inclusion Uganda, Opportunity International)[i]


Home to over 1.4 million refugees, Uganda has been regularly celebrated for its progressive refugee policy that (in law at least) ensures recognized refugees have access to different forms of employment, education and health services and land for housing and small-scale farming. A good deal of this international praise has focused on the issue of local integration, with national refugee policy permitting refugees to integrate and settle within local communities. In turn, Uganda and the issue of local integration has received a considerable amount of academic attention in recent years, particularly around refugee settlements, such as the Nakivale.  


Nevertheless, the literature in this area is less certain on whether these state-based policies can yet be deemed an outright success in terms of the long-term settlement of refugees within communities and whether they can ever translate into the durable solution of local integration. Based on a recently completed Masters research, this blog looks at the integrated approaches to refugee hosting in Uganda, via a localized lens. It suggests that perhaps the national policy framework, while not perfect, does open up the opportunity – and create sufficient political space – for locally-led initiatives to thrive and in doing so assist refugees in settling semi-permanently to permanently within local communities.  


The integrated approach to refugee hosting in Uganda


The integrated approach to receiving and hosting refugees in Uganda implies that all projects, activities and interventions implemented by the government of Uganda, UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations targeting protection and livelihoods around the Nakivale Refugee Settlement, are inclusive of both refugees and nationals.  


Implicit within this approach is the idea that refugees should be able to generate income as well as contribute to the growth of the host state economy. Contrary to a more traditional humanitarian response approach that prioritizes providing basic survival or humanitarian needs for refugees, the intention of an integrated approach is to enable refugees to build a new life for themselves in their host country.  


Thus, in theory at least, services included within an integrated approach are meant to facilitate refugees’ access to employment opportunities, health and education services, as well as agricultural support activities. Generally, these integrated services are aimed at creating refugee resilience and facilitate integration into the local communities.  


Does an integrated approach work in practice?


Is the integrated approach working? A recent review in 2020 which assessed the impact of Uganda’s integrated refugee management approach, observed increasing poverty levels, high refugee dependence on aid support and food insecurity among refugees in Uganda. The research discovered that 62% of refugees that had stayed in Uganda for less than 2 years are still dependent on aid support, while 7 out of 10 refugee households are food insecure.  


While refugees are provided with a piece of land to farm, this land is small, measuring 30X30 meters, and frequently infertile. In addition, refugees only have user rights to land – meaning they cannot sell it or use it as collateral for credit. Crucially, not all refugees in Uganda are farmers. Indeed, by virtual of their cultural backgrounds, many are often opposed to agriculture.  For example, a large number of Somali refugees in the Nakivale Settlement consider agriculture a culturally foreign concept and instead informally sell or rent the small pieces of land given to them and invest the money in establishing small businesses.  


At the same time, refugees in the settlement and within Uganda more broadly, often face barriers to seek employment. UNHCR estimates only 29% of refugees engage in employment activities – as compared to their host counterparts at 69%. High levels of refugee unemployment are attributed to language problems, discrimination in the labor market, lack of relevant and legal documents to be considered for employment, as well as a general lack of access / information to available employment opportunities.  


These and many other factors have impaired the ability of refugees to settle or integrate within local communities in Uganda.  


2020 – 2025 Jobs and Livelihoods Integrated Response Plan


In recognizing some of these barriers, the government of Uganda has recently developed the 2020 – 2025 Jobs and Livelihoods Integrated Response Plan (the Response Plan), which is aimed at addressing common blockages to achieving self-reliance, resilience and integration for refugees in Uganda. For example, the response plan recognizes articles 17-19 and 24 of the 1951 Refugee Convention as well as the international and regional human rights instruments, including in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and ILO Recommendation 205 – all of which place an emphasis on the right to work for refugees.  


While it is premature, there have been some positive signs in relation to the Response Plan. Certainly, its commendable that the Response Plan pays particular attention to specifics around the inclusion of youth and minors, as well as highlighting the need for the use of digital technology to deliver refugee programmes.  


Nevertheless, even from a cursory examination, concerns around historical problems and implementation start to appear. First, the Response Plan resembles – at least in part – already existing response plans for refugees. As such, it does not clearly define the learning derived from the existing programs from which it builds. Second, the Response Plan is built on an expected budget estimated at USD 169,032,075. Given the prevailing global financial circumstances – with most donors cutting their funding budgets – it remains unclear how the plan will meet its financial needs going forward. Lastly, the additional economic strains caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic makes the prospect of funding materializing for this plan more unlikely. Indeed, the Response Plan does not clearly outline its fundraising strategies as well as accountability plans – which are usually key for donor engagement and retention.  


The Role of Locally Led Initiatives: A Way Forward?


Based on a recently conducted Masters research project that investigated the impact of integrated services on refugee integration in Uganda, this section sets out how a refocusing to the local level by the state and UN agencies may prove beneficial in removing some of the blockages and barriers currently faced by refugees in Uganda when attempting to access services and markets. 


Through a series of interviews, participants (a mixture of refuges and nationals) shared their experiences, perceptions and views about the integrated services implemented for refugees and nationals in and around the Nakivale Settlement. As noted above, there is a wide range of services such as education and health care services, water and sanitation as well as security and recreational services that at least in national law and policy refugees should have access to, yet at the point of implementation, blockages regularly occur.  


In contrast, on the ground, refugees and nationals have been establishing locally-led initiatives that appear to be strengthening economic and social well-being, by either removing blockages to state provided services or even developing entirely new service provisions. These include initiatives such as savings groups and communal gardening activities. For example, the Jobs and Livelihoods Integrated Response Plan could leverage local level interventions to promote meaningful participation and benefit all refugees and nationals in and around the settlement.  


Thus at times, the fact that the government has created an environment to allow refugees and nationals to interact freely – at least partially explains the basis for the development of locally-led initiatives. Yet, failures at service delivery have also pushed refugees and nationals to work out innovative new approaches. Thus, locally led initiatives are also developing new services. For example, where good quality schools are out of the reach of some refugees and nationals, nationals and refugees have worked together and put in place systems to get services to reach them.  


Furthermore, refugees noted that by accessing the same social services as nationals, attending cultural events, marriages between refugees and nationals all assisted in gaining forms of welcome into local communities – in return, they learnt the local languages and the cultural values of their hosts.  

“We came together with nationals and established a village saving and loan association, we lend and borrow loans to and from one another, we celebrate Christmas and new year’s together, and attend each other’s cultural functions such as burials, weddings and have learnt the local languages spoken by the nationals” Interview with male refugee respondent


These different initiatives suggest that refugees and host communities are participating in a “two way” integration process by jointly accessing the services, removing access barriers and creating new services. As such, these localized approaches to integration services appear to be improving social, economic and cultural relationships between the refugees and the nationals.  


Nevertheless, despite a mutual feeling of ‘community’, many refugees interviewed still felt a lot more is still needed to be done at the national and local level to remove barriers and improve access to services for both refugees and nationals. For example, refugees sighted the need to be granted full citizenship in Uganda so that they can fully participate in the national’s political and economic activities as well as being relieved of the label “refugee”. Indeed, the idea of refugees attaining full citizenship was discovered as the missing long-term strategy to foster local integration with refugees having a preference of becoming full Ugandan citizens to returning back to their home countries or seeking third country resettlement. In turn, uncertainty remains as to whether the integrated approaches to refugee response in Uganda are in essence just short and medium-term responses to refugee needs and displacement, or whether they can create opportunities for long term and durable solutions.


Is local integration possible?


An underlying question that arises from these findings and one that I have been working on through my studies, is how and indeed if we should measure local integration via refugees’ level of social and economic participation into the host community activities. It is worth noting that, while the concept of local integration (as a durable solution to refugee displacement) is undoubtedly complex and even a contested term, the strategies implemented to achieve integration need to be critically analyzed to ascertain the level at which they translate into a form of co-habitation in the long-term that can be understood as a long-term durable solution for refugees in Uganda.  This is the topic of my presentation at the upcoming PROTECT midterm Conference organized by ACMS, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa scheduled for Friday 27th August 2021.    



[i] Thanks to members of the Protect team at ACMS for comments on earlier drafts.    


The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.