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Mobility and COVID-19: A case study of Uganda

By Kalyango Ronald Sebba.

Uganda registered its first case of COVID 19 on 22 March 2020. With events evolving fast, the socio-economic impacts were not immediately clear, and the government framed the pandemic in terms of health rather than socio-economic factors,

something that was to guide subsequent policy. This article takes a different angle, and focuses instead on the socio-economic impacts of the disease – in particular poverty, unemployment, food insecurity and livelihoods – and the ways in which these interact with mobility. In doing so, it considers the impact of COVID-19 on different groups of migrants in Uganda, who move in different ways and for different motivations: refugees, labour migrants, flood-displaced, truck drivers, and international migrants stranded abroad. Information was obtained through a desk review of existing data, media reports, observations and conversations from the vantage point of Kampala.


On 25 March, the government issued a statement closing the country to new asylum seekers in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Uganda is currently host to nearly 1.5 million refugees and asylum seekers, mostly originating from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, Somalia and Rwanda. Border closures have limited new arrivals – although Uganda did open its borders to 1,500 refugees fleeing recent violence in eastern DRC.[1] They have also made it increasingly difficult for some refugees residing within Uganda to engage in back and forth visits to their home countries – in order to check up on relatives and assets – through what had previously been relatively porous borders. In addition, national travel restrictions have restricted refugee movements between settlements. This has had a significant impact on livelihoods, since refugees are no longer able to move to the next village or town to find work, sell their produce or purchase supplies. The closure of schools and the mobility restrictions of many teachers has also affected education among refugees.

Uganda has been applauded for having a favourable legal and policy framework, as contained in the Refugee Act of 2006 and Refugee Regulations of 2010, and in the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) launched in 2017 with a focus on achieving refugee self-reliance and resilience. However, in the current context, there are questions about the extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the gains made by refugees to achieve self-reliance as well as measures to be adopted to reinvigorate the implementation of the CRRF. The economic fallout of COVID-19 has put additional pressure on already scarce humanitarian and development resources. Facing a funding shortfall of US$ 137 million, the World Food Programme announced a 30 per cent reduction in food relief to refugees in April 2020.[2] Likewise, the UNHCR representative in Uganda explained that a US$ 244 million shortfall in funding for other sectors means that it has had to “re-prioritise activities based on meagre resources with education, health and psychosocial support at the moment taking the greatest hit.”[3]

Labour migrants

Lockdown measures have forcibly immobilised the working population, and resulted in widespread loss of jobs as businesses come under growing financial pressure. According to the Economic Policy Research Center (EPRC), 76 per cent of surveyed businesses had reduced the size of the workforce due to COVID-19 by May 2020.[4] The same report suggested the greatest burden would fall on micro- and small-businesses, placing a significant burden on the informal sectors, such as transport, shop keepers, hair dressers, market vendors. This has had a significant impact on labour migrants who move to urban areas in search of work, in particular casual or temporary workers who have limited job security. For example, restrictions on movement have placed significant pressure on jobs within the informal public transport services, in particular minibus taxis, boda bodas (motorcycle taxis) and tuk tuks (carts for hire). Informal street vending – a key activity for many young migrants – has also come under pressure due to the risks it poses for COIVID-19 transmissions. Many street markets in Kampala have been closed,[5] with significant impacts on the livelihoods of women and young people that cannot afford a designated market stall and therefore rely on informal markets.[6] Moreover, new hygiene measures – such as compulsory hand-washing facilities, temperature monitors and social distancing for customers and staff – have increased the cost of doing business for the informal sectors, further undermining their profitability. In this context, those working in the informal sector have resorted to consuming their meagre capital in order to survive the stay home measures. Others have demanded state food distributions and an ease in lockdown to enable people to go back to work.

While many migrants working in the informal sector have experienced significant challenges in the wake of COVID-19, there have been examples of innovation and creativity. As movements became restricted, creative traders in the food markets resorted to sales by mobile phones and the internet to link them to buyers. Boda bodas and pick-up trucks also played a crucial role in linking buyers and sellers. However, for the most part, the business outlook remains grim. While several economic stimulus measures have been proposed by development partners such as the EU, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, it remains to be seen how these will benefit small and medium enterprises and, in particular, the informal sector. Moreover, limited access to credit for small businesses will negatively impact their survival once lockdown measures ease, as they will have limited access to the capital needed to revamp operations.

Cross-border truckers

Located within the Great Lakes and greater Horn of Africa regions, Uganda has become a busy transit point for people, goods and services crossing into the country through over 53 official points of entry. However, borders have come to be seen as a first line of defence against COVID-19 and, as the pandemic has progressed, borders have become increasingly locked down. One migrant group that is exempted from this lockdown are truckers (for the most part, coming from Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Eritrea and South Sudan) carrying cargo. While entire populations were placed under strict lock down measures, truck drivers were among the very few people allowed to move across the region. With no railway line linking the ports of Mombasa and Dar es Salaam, truckers play an important role in linking Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, DRC and South Sudan to ports. Established trucking corridors have become key drivers of the regional economy, and a central part of life in the cities and towns along the way.[7] In addition to carrying goods, truck drivers are important customers in the places where they stop over.

In spite of the government’s initially slow response to address truckers’ safety, the issue soon came to light at the border areas of Malaba (within Kenya) and Mutukula (within Tanzania). Disagreements about testing between the governments of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, delays in getting test results, and questions about self-isolation and quarantining became a central concern. This was compounded by the perception that Ugandan truck drivers were responsible for the spread of COVID-19 in Kenya, resulting in growing widespread stigmatisation and harassment. Matters reached a crisis point in May, when Kenyan truck drivers staged a three-day protest and blocked the road towards Malaba border post.

The trucker issue has tested the provisions of the East African One Border Post Act of 2016.  The East African treaty (Article 104) makes provisions for the free movement of persons and labour. Article 52 states that a member state my take temporary measures in the interests of public safety, yet no agreement was made on the nature of measures to be undertaken. As a result, it was difficult to come to a consensus on measures at the border in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, and this delayed the delivery of cargoes.

Other affected groups: internally displaced persons, those stranded abroad and those at risk of gender-based violence

A number of areas in Uganda have been affected by flooding during lockdown. At least 500 families were displaced in Busia District (eastern Uganda) in April and May, and in south-western Uganda, flood waters displaced people living in Kasese district close to the rivers of Nyamwamba, Mubuku, and Nyamugasan in May. However, under COVID-19 lockdown measures, internally displaced populations are out of reach of immediate social safety measures. Besides destroying homes, crops and infrastructure, floods have disrupted the livelihoods activities of affected populations. While individuals might ordinarily resort to migration out of the affected areas and seek job opportunities in other districts, the COVID-19 lockdown measures have limited their ability to move out of a precarious situation.

While many people have found themselves stranded within Uganda, others have become stranded abroad. Estimates by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs suggest that airspace closures left over 2,400 Ugandans stranded in 66 countries. These figures do not include Ugandans who have been unable or unwilling to access their embassy. The government has put in place measures for the return of Ugandans; however not all people will be in a position to meet the long (and often costly) list of conditions. At the time of writing, these included: identification documents; proof of negative COVID-19 test result; details of the circumstances under which they became stranded abroad; ability to cover the costs of 14 days in a mandatory quarantine facility; and ability to meet travel costs to Uganda. Only those with the requisite resources will be in a position to return to Uganda.

Finally, some groups within society are more vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19 than others, particularly when it comes to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Uganda has seen an increase in domestic violence since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a recent report, the Ugandan police force has recorded more than 3,000 cases of domestic violence and six deaths in the space of one month.[8] The report further asserts that women across the social spectrum and throughout the country have experienced domestic violence. Other reports have highlighted the increase of SGBV among refugees.[9] This is the result of a combination of factors that have been exacerbated under lockdown, including loss of livelihoods; reduced access to food, health and social services; increased burden of care work; and growing difficulties in trying to meet household needs.

Key priorities for government and donors

While the Ugandan government should prioritise stopping the spread of COVID-19, it should also take note of the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic on the entire population and devise measures to mitigate the negative effects of the pandemic, such as:

Scaling up social protection: To help poor and vulnerable people cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, the government and donors should invest in jobs, health and education interventions. Social protection measures such as cash transfers and public works programmes will also help households to cope, without having to sell critical assets, take children out of school, or engage in risky behaviours. This could include a significant scaling up of the National Social Protection Policy that is integrated into the second National Development Plan (NDPII).

Stimulating the informal sectors: Given the considerable impact of lockdown measures on the informal economy, government and donors should ensure that economic stimulus projects extend to the informal sector, upon which many migrants and refugees rely.

Developing common movement protocols: Governments should be supported to adopt common policies within the East African region on the movement of people and goods, as well as the development of common health standards to ease movements and reduce tensions at the borders.

[1] https://www.unhcr.org/uk/news/press/2020/7/5efca8d64/uganda-provides-safe-haven-drc-refugees-amid-covid-19-lockdown.html

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/apr/14/food-rations-to-14-million-refugees-cut-in-uganda-due-to-funding-shortfall-coronavirus-world-food-programme;

[3] The East African, 2020. ‘Funding shortfalls hit Uganda’s humanitarian agencies’. The East African, June 20-26.

[4] The Economic Policy Research Center, 2020. ‘How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted Ugandan businesses? Results from a business climate survey.’

[5]Amukirori B, Okoth C, Kweiga P, Waiswa J Anyoli E and Kyalitesa S.  (March 2020). Coronavirus: KCCA closes street markets. The New Vision, 20 March 2020.

[6] Kalyango Ronald, 2018. ‘Mobility and Crisis in Gulu.’ Rift Valley Institute and the Research and Evidence Facility.

[7] Research and Evidence Facility, 2020. ‘The Lure of the City Synthesis report on rural to urban migration in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.’

[8] https://www.cedovip.org/index.php/news-events/latest-news/172-a-crisis-within-a-crisis-urgent-call-to-invest-in-systemic-interventions-to-address-domestic-violence-during-and-after-the-covid-19-pandemic;

[9] Interview Mr Joel Boutrou UNHCR representative to Uganda by the East African Newspaper, June 20-26.

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