Group in a field in Uganda

Guest post: Rural to urban migration of refugees in Uganda

Rod Waddington Storm Coming, Dodoth Tribe NE Uganda

Kalyango Ronald Sebba

Lecturer, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda.

Note: This blog provides a preliminary snapshot of research being done as part of a project being carried out by the Rift Valley Institute for the REF on migration to urban areas in Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia. Further outputs on the research will be forthcoming shortly.

Uganda is currently host to over 1,277,476 refugees and asylum-seekers. Majority of the refugees are from South Sudan, DR Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Kenya. Others have arrived from Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Historically, government policy is to host refugees in rural settlements with only a few recognised as urban refugees. While government policy towards refugees is to place them in rural settlements, many are finding their way into Uganda’s towns. Income differentials between rural and urban areas have been cited as one of the major drivers of such movements. Urban centres provide refugees with an alternative to agriculture as a source of livelihood and possibilities for livelihood diversification. In Uganda an urban centre is defined as areas gazetted as urban centres. As such by March 2016, there were 259 urban centres in Uganda including one Capital City, 33 Municipalities, 163 Town Councils and 62 Town Boards. The urban population has been increasing overtime from about 1.7 million in 1991 to nearly 7.4 million in 2014 (UBOS, 2014). The increase of the population is partly as consequence of increase in the number of gazetted urban centres, expansion of the geographical areas, natural growth as well as rural to urban migration. As of 30 September 2016, the total number of individuals who have been registered individually in the Urban stood at 84,875 where 57,575 are refugees and 27,300 are asylum seekers (UNHCR, 2017). Notable here is that majority of the refugees in urban centres live as self-settled and spread out in towns across the country.

A combination of factors explains why refugees move out of rural settlements to urban areas. There is a gradual shift out of agriculture as a main means of livelihood for refugees. Placement of refugees in rural settlements often assumed that refugees were of rural background that could sustain themselves through agriculture. While refugees are expected to grow their own food and achieve food self-sufficiency within two years of being granted asylum, for many this is not possible. With the increase in the number of refugees as well as the local population, land available for refugees is shrinking. For instance, with over 200,000 refugees arriving from South Sudan and settled in Bidi Bidi refugee settlement, land available for agriculture has not increased in size. It is no longer possible for a refugee family to sustain themselves through agriculture on a plot of land measuring less than 0.25 decimals.

Refugee settlements have not escaped the vagaries of a drought that has affected much of the country. A long drought such as in south Western Uganda (taking place from December 2016 to date) made agriculture untenable as a means of livelihood. Coupled with limited economic opportunities in the settlements, refugees, especially the young people, were forced to seek opportunities in urban areas.

Movement out of the settlements is facilitated by the government of Uganda policy, which promotes free movement of refugees. Refugees are registered in the rural areas and are provided with Refugee IDs as well as a Conventional Travel Document for those who wish to travel outside the country. While a movement permit is a requirement before leaving the settlement, this is rarely enforced. Even where refugees relocate to urban centres, they do not lose their entitlements in the rural settlements. This has encouraged family splitting with some moving to the urban areas with hope of sending remittances to those who stay behind. Such a practice is common among Somali refugees in Nakivale refugee settlement with links to the Somali community in Kampala and Mbarara whilst Sudanese refugees in Adjumani take advantage of their close ties to those living in Gulu, Arua and Kampala among others.

Employment opportunities in urban centres also attract refugees from rural settlements. The free entry and exit characteristic of employment in the informal sector has attracted refugees with entrepreneurial skills. Somali refugees are known to run several businesses in Kampala such as petrol stations, forex bureaus, hotels and mobile money kiosks. Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees are engaged in the restaurant and accommodation businesses such as in Gulu while Congolese are mainly involved in the fabrics.

Migration to urban centres is facilitated by social networks formed along country of origin and ethnic identities. Social networks reduce uncertainties associated with migration. Through such networks refugees receive information on employment opportunities, a place to sleep as well as information on availability of basic services such as health and education. Social networks greatly reduce the cost of movement from rural settlements to urban areas.

Harmonious living between refuges and host populations in urban centres is another key factor in facilitating migration. This for instance has encouraged the growth of ‘refugee enclaves’ by nationality in urban centres. For instance Kanyagoga village in Bardege division in the Gulu district is known to host Sudan refugees while Makindye division in Kampala is known to host both Congolese and Sudan refugees and Kisenyi area in central Kampala is known to host Somali refugees.

Existing road networks and affordable transport costs facilitates the inter-linkage between rural settlements and urban centres. In addition, migration is made possible by a large mobile phone network. This has not only provided ease of communication and sharing of information but also banking and money transfers via the mobile money network. Mobile money services provided by local companies such as MTN, Airtel and Africel are well represented in the rural settlements and their platforms used for sending remittances to family members left behind.

Lastly, expectations of improved wellbeing in urban areas have facilitated outmigration from the rural settlements especially for the young people. Refugees perceived urban centres as centres for well being given their numerous facilities and opportunities.

Uganda’s policy towards refugees is regarded as generous but its sustainability remains in question. For instance the Uganda National Development Plan (NDP II 2015/16 – 2019/20) includes refugees in national development planning and structures through a Government strategy called the Settlement Transformative Agenda (STA). While such policies aim at the self-sufficiency of refugees in rural settlements, there remains a gap in planning for the increasing number of refugees moving to the different urban centres in Uganda.

Editor’s Note: From time to time we host guest contributions to our blog series. These blogs are intended to provide a diversity of perspectives and voices on issues relevant to our programme of research. Views expressed by guest bloggers are their own and do not represent the views of the Research and Evidence Facility or the EU Trust Fund for Africa.

Image source: Rod Waddington

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