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Uganda bets on refugees to grow economy

February 17, 2016
topic:Refugees and Asylum
tags:#Uganda, #refugees
by:Bob Koigi
At a time when the world is grappling with tackling the refugee question, Uganda is embracing refugees from neighboring countries to grow its economy and create jobs, in a classic example of turning a threat into an opportunity.

Uganda is home to 428,000 refugees according to the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees. The refugees have fled political strife and ethnic conflicts from neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Somalia.

The Ugandan government aware of the potential of these refugees has a long-standing policy of assimilating them and giving them incentives that encourage them to work. While the refugees are not allowed to own permanent houses or plant certain crops like the signature Ugandan banana plantain, locally known as matoke, the country has opened up its space to the refugees to embrace any economic activity that can make them self-sufficient. For starters refugees are given land, about 50 by 100 meters, once they arrive, together with agricultural inputs and food to help them get started.

78 per cent of these refugees in Kampala do not receive any aid from the UNHCR or any other donor group. Even in the camps over 17 per cent of the refugee households do not express interest in receiving the aid. To those who do, they don’t rely exclusively on it and are always looking for ways to be self-sustaining.

The refugee population has therefore spawned a thriving economy from farming, trading in jewelry and fabrics, owning restaurants, selling electronics, cinemas and transport in a well-connected trading network. While some of these refugees trade with each other or within Uganda, others have become more vanguard and entrepreneurial, crossing borders to buy and sell their wares in neighbouring Kenya and Uganda.

Two camps with the largest population in Uganda, Nakivale and Kyangwali are at the heart of this economic revolution.

Nakivale located in rural southern Uganda is the largest and the oldest and is home to 60,000 refugees majority who have braved rough terrains to escape civil strife in Democratic Republic of Congo. The 70 square mile camp has transformed stories of despair and pain to tales of optimism and resilience with the refugee run businesses offering jobs to even Ugandans. Here refugees from different countries have their own specialty. While the Somalia refugees run the bars, restaurants and markets, the Rwandese, Burundian and Congolese specialize in farming. Somalia refugees buy the food from the other refugees while the refugees from the other countries use the money from the farming proceeds to buy from the Somalia refugee shops.

In Kyangwali camp that borders Democratic Republic of Congo over 20,000 refugees have found home and hope here. Farming oils the wheels of economic growth. Traders from as far as Kenya pack their trucks ready to buy produce from refugees in this area. The refugee farmers keen on cutting middle men and reaping more profits have formed themselves into a cooperative that has over 500 members and dubbed Kywangwali Progressive Farmers. It has entered into many contracts with manufacturers to supply to them directly.

The economic revolution created by refugees in Uganda has been well captured by a report released by the Oxford Humanitarian Innovation Proj­ect in 2014 that paints a picture of the economic benefits of embracing refugees to the host nation. The report, dubbed Refugee Economies. Rethinking Popular Assumptions, interviewed about 1600 refugees. According to the report, Ugandan case has dispelled age-old myths that refugees are an eyesore and if economically empowered, would take away the jobs of the locals. In fact, the report notes, the refugees have not only created jobs for themselves but for Ugandans.

“Over 20 percent of the refugees we spoke to in Kampala were entrepreneurs employing other people, and of those that employed other people, 40 percent of their employees were Ugandan nationals. If we give them freedom and opportunities, refugees can make a positive contribution. If we restrict their ability to contribute, then we are likely to create a notion that they are a drain socially, politically, and economically,” Alexander Betts, the lead author of the report told the media during the launch of the report.

The Ugandan model now offers vital lessons to the international community that is battling with unprecedented levels of refugees that currently stands at more than 50 per cent. From Syria, to the Central African Republic, the crises is here to stay and experts call for a paradigm shift if the global community is to effectively manage these crises. “To label a people as dependent and helpless is defeatist and misses the bigger picture. The refugee crisis is here to stay and the traditional approaches of warehousing them into camps has proven counterproductive. We need to change tact and Uganda has offered us vital lessons,” said Dr. Justus Ber a conflict resolution expert from the University of Nairobi Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
The Ugandan government aware of the potential of these refugees has a long standing policy of assimilating them and giving them incentives that encourage them to work.
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