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One of the World’s Most Welcoming Asylum Countries Is (Wait for It) Uganda

Refugees from conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo leave the Nyakabande transit camp in Uganda CC-BY-20

Refugees from the conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo leave the Nyakabande transit camp in Uganda. CC 2.0.

The 6,000 delegates from the 135 countries that participated in the first World Humanitarian Summit, held in Istanbul last month, could not have been more full of good intentions. The summit was an opportunity to highlight the remarkable work done by certain countries, including in the area of receiving and integrating refugees, which is often ignored in the international mass media. Uganda was one of the stars of the summit for its achievements when it comes to hosting refugees.

Before the summit in Turkey, at a regional preliminary meeting in Kampala, Ugandan Prime Minister Apolo Nsibambi told participants that it is unacceptable that Africa—independent from the colonial European powers for more than 50 years—continues to be the largest generator of refugees and internally displaced people. He also argued that the failure to protect and provide aid effectively, as well as find timely solutions to the problems that created this displacement issue, pose a major threat to Africa's development and serious consequences for peace and stability.

Uganda, whose neighbours have suffered various bouts of instability and war, has admitted roughly 700,000 refugees (from South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, and Congo) in the year 2016.

Uganda's refugee policy has been an important regional sanctuary. The Nakivale refugee camp, created in 1958 to shelter Tutsi refugees fleeing the Hutu revolution in their country, is a six-hour drive from Kampala, Uganda's capital. It stretches over 184 square kilometers (71 square miles) and covers a lake, hills, many rivers, and rich farmland, according to the NGO Caritas Goma:

Le modèle de l’Ouganda est presque unique en ce qu’il accorde aux réfugiés. Selon les observateurs, ce qui rend l’Ouganda unique, c’est la prise en charge immédiate des réfugiés et l’aide qui leur est apportée. En Ouganda, les réfugiés ont la possibilité de contribuer à l’économie locale.

The Ugandan model is practically unique in what it provides to refugees. According to observers, what makes Uganda unique is the immediate support and aid given to refugees. In Uganda, refugees have the opportunity to contribute to the local economy.

Will Jones, who works as a researcher at the Centre for Refugee Studies at Oxford University, visited the camp three years ago. Writing on the Forced Migration Review webpage, he says the camp isn't what most people would expect:

Il ne s’agit pas du ghetto surpeuplé généralement représenté dans les médias. Nakivale est une confédération de villages autosuffisante grâce à ses activités de culture agricole et d’élevage, qui produisent même un surplus exporté hors de ses limites. Bien que le camp de Nakivale se trouve au milieu de nulle part, il n’est en aucun cas isolé des activités culturelles, sociales et économiques: on y trouve des marchés, plusieurs cinémas et d’innombrables smartphones, qui signalent que la population tire avantage de l’antenne de téléphonie mobile érigée au centre du camp.

This is not the choked ghetto usually evoked by media representations. Nakivale is a confederation of villages and contains enough farming and animal husbandry to feed itself and still produce surplus to export further afield. And though Nakivale is in the middle of nowhere, it is anything but isolated from cultural, social, and economic activity; there are markets, several cinemas, and plenty of smartphones in evidence taking advantage of the new mobile phone mast erected in the centre of the settlement.

In a blog post in early February 2016, Alice Albright, the chief executive officer at the Global Partnership for Education, points out that Uganda has even factored in refugees in its development plan:

Malgré ces difficultés, le gouvernement ougandais reconnaît que le coût de la protection et de l’aide aux 250 réfugiés qui arrivent chaque jour dans le pays est minime comparé à celui de l'inaction. Conscient que le déplacement de populations constitue un problème de développement à long terme, le pays a intégré la question des réfugiés dans son Plan national de développement. Les écoles des camps de réfugiés sont administrées par le Ministère de l’Éducation.

Despite these difficulties, the Ugandan government recognises that the cost of providing protection and assistance to the 250 refugees who arrive into the country each day is dwarfed by the cost of inaction. Because Uganda understands that displacement is a long-term development issue, it has included refugee issues in its National Development Plan. Schools in refugee settlements are administered by the Ministry of Education.

In an article recently published on the website, titled “Spatial and Geopolitical Dimensions of Hosting Refugees—The Agricultural Colonies of Sudanese Exiles in Uganda,” Professor Luc Cambrézy, a geographer and the research director at the Institute of Research Development discovered how Uganda's refugee response differed from common practices elsewhere:

Contrairement au schéma classique qui consiste à endiguer les mouvements de réfugiés en regroupant ces derniers dans des camps, le gouvernement ougandais a fait le choix d’ouvrir des colonies agricoles pour les victimes de la guerre civile au Soudan. Après une analyse de cette expérience dans les deux principales zones d’accueil (Rhino Camp et district d’Adjumani), il apparaît que l’objectif recherché par le gouvernement est avant tout une opération d’aménagement et de développement du territoire avec l’appui et les moyens de l’aide humanitaire internationale.

Contrary to the commonly applied solution of controlling refugee movements by concentrating refugees in camps, the Ugandan government opted for the establishment of “rural settlements” for the population fleeing civil war in Sudan. Following a detailed analysis of this experience in two refugee hosting areas, Rhino Camp and Adjumani district, it appears clearly that the government’s primary objective was a vast land planning and development operation using the means provided by international humanitarian aid.

In another article published in June 2014 on, Professor Alexander Betts, the director of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, along with his team (including researcher Will Jones, quoted above) detailed research on refugees’ livelihood:

Alors, que font les réfugiés pour vivre ? Ils cultivent, bien sûr, et pas seulement dans les localités rurales. Près de la moitié des réfugiés congolais, rwandais et sud-soudanais interrogés par les chercheurs cultivent leurs propres parcelles. D’autres sont ouvriers agricoles. Seuls les Somaliens n’ont montré que très peu d’intérêt, voire aucun, pour l’agriculture.

So what do they do to survive? They farm, certainly, in and around the rural settlements. Around half the Congolese, Rwandan, and South Sudanese refugees whom researchers interviewed said they had plots of their own, and others worked as farm labourers. Only the Somalis showed little or no interest in farming.

Not Just Subsistence Farming

Ugandan crop buyers come regularly to the settlements, and take truckloads of produce from Kyangwali to the market town of Hoima. The researchers spoke to a trader in Hoima who said he bought around 500 tons of maize and beans from the refugee farmers last year—some 60 percent of his stock. He sold the maize on to other parts of Uganda, but also further afield, to Tanzania and South Sudan.

Now the farmers in Kyangwali are trying to cut out the middlemen and sell their crops directly on the market, through a cooperative with more than 500 members, including some Ugandan farmers from local villages. Kyangwali Progressive Farmers is registered as a limited company, and has started getting contracts to supply produce directly to manufacturers.

In the village of Rwamwanja, a savings-and-loans project called “Solo Effort” has emerged to help refugees and nationals raise livestock and create other types of businesses. Initiated two years ago, it now has 139 members. In this video, a woman named Rebecca explains how she managed to lift herself out of poverty, thanks to the project.

There are still difficulties, however, when it comes to implementing Uganda's policy of receiving and integrating refugees. The website, for example, highlights some of the local population's “distrust” of newcomers to the country:

Mais le camp de Nakivale se trouve à proximité des villages ougandais où des paysans pratiquent des cultures de substance. En voyant le gouvernement qui enlève leurs terres pour faire de la place aux réfugiés, les premiers ne sont pas contents de l’aide apportée aux seconds. D’où, une certaine méfiance à l’égard des réfugiés. Le gouvernement soutient que ces terres avaient été prévues pour les demandeurs d’asile. Dans un pays qui a l’une des populations les plus jeunes et les plus dynamiques dans le monde, l’accès la terre est un défi auquel doivent faire face les politiques de réfugiés en Ouganda. Mais pour l’instant, le gouvernement et les populations locales sont déterminés à prendre soin de ceux qui sont dans le besoin et de la meilleure façon possible.

The Nakivale camp is close to Ugandan villages where farmers grow staple crops. Seeing the government take away their land to make room for refugees, the former are not happy with the support given to the latter. Hence, there's a certain distrust of the refugees. The government argues that this land had been specifically set aside for asylum seekers. In a country that has one of the youngest and fastest growing populations in the world, access to land is a challenge that refugee policy in Uganda must face. But for now, the government and locals are determined to take care of those in need and in the best way possible.


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