The Hidden Population

Young refugees
Young refugees watch over their family’s belongings outside the reception centre at the Imvepi refugee camp in Arua, Uganda (June 2017). Photo: UNMISS

Presenting the challenges of urban refugees and how they have attempted to improve their lives and realise their aspirations.

Many refugees in Uganda do not have the necessary identity documents to guarantee their protection, employment and so on, because most of them moved to urban cities on their own. They experience discrimination, poverty and difficulty in attaining sustainable livelihoods. Many South Sudanese and Congolese refugees have been in Uganda or years, yet still have not achieved full refugee status. Arua and the West Nile sub-region at large are in the unique position of having a number of tribes that share common heritage and ancestry across the borders of Uganda, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Most of the South Sudanese from Yei, Morobo and Kajo-Keji in the Western Equatoria region and Congolese from the north-eastern part of Ituri province (Imgbokolo and Abia) not only share the same language, but also have relatives across the border in Uganda.

Therefore, in situations of conflict in South Sudan and the DRC, these family members quickly identify with each other and provide easy access to these refugees to enter Uganda. This is commonly seen among the Lugbara, Madi and Kakwa tribes who are predominant in the region. Using qualitative research methods (semi-structured interviews and ethnographic observations), this article presents the challenges of urban refugees and how they have attempted to improve their lives and realise their aspirations. The article concludes by proposing options to support urban refugees.

A school near the Boroli settlement in Uganda for refugees from South Sudan (December 2016). Photo: Roberto Maldeno



According to Article 1A (2) of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, “a refugee is a person who has fled his or her country as a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events are unable or, owing to such fear is unwilling to return to it.”1 The African Union (AU) refugee instrument maintains the abovementioned definition, but adds that “the term ‘refugee’… shall also apply to every person who owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country of origin or nationality is compelled to leave his place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in any other place outside his country of his origin or nationality”.2


Uganda is a landlocked country located in East Africa and the Great Lakes region. It is bordered to the east by Kenya, to the north by South Sudan, to the west by the DRC, to the south-west by Rwanda and to the south by Tanzania. The population is estimated to be 34.6 million people, according to a Uganda Bureau of Statistics report.3 Farming is the main economic activity. The country is also home to 56 tribes, who all speak different languages and have different cultural practices. Uganda’s refugee policy is one of the world’s most progressive, promoting refugee integration rather than confinement and with direct aid resources to the host as well as the refugee population, according to the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM).

Refugees and asylum-seekers in Uganda (January 2020). Graphic: load/73905

According to historians, the 1955 Control of Refugees from the Sudan Ordinance (the Ordinance) was enacted when refugees began fleeing southern Sudan into Uganda, before their country achieved its independence. The Ordinance was followed by the post-independence Control of Alien Refugees Act (CARA) in 1960, which represented a restrictive approach to addressing forced displacement that was “based on control rather than protection”, and therefore granted the authorities “wide discretionary power”.4 When tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees entered Uganda in the early 1960s, they were increasingly confined to designated camps – a policy that was primarily aimed at “neutralising their political intentions” and sought to prioritise “economic development and self-sufficiency rather than political citizenship”.5

In 1976, Uganda ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, but with several reservations, and in 1987 it ratified the 1969 Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Convention on Refugees. Some of the provisions in the CARA, such as the tight restrictions on refugees’ freedom of movement, contradicted Uganda’s obligations under these conventions. In practice, however, the CARA was not fully implemented: the government applied it “mostly to situations of mass influx”, but implemented “practices in respect of individual refugees that were at least partly informed by Uganda’s regional and international obligations”.6 The growing number of Sudanese refugees fleeing the escalating violence in southern Sudan were also confined to camps in northern Uganda. This influx was temporarily halted by the Addis Ababa Peace Agreement that was signed in 1972 between the southern Sudanese rebels, consisting of several independent commands united under General Joseph Lagu, and the Sudanese government. This agreement eventually gave the south regional autonomy and ended the hostilities. The agreement ended the 17-year conflict and also led to the return of Sudanese refugees to Sudan.7

The trajectory of displacement was reversed in Uganda following the seizure of power by Idi Amin in 1971. It led Ugandans to flee into southern Sudan – many to escape reprisals from the ruling government for their association with the prior regime. A similar pattern was repeated after Amin’s ousting. By the mid-1980s, 7% of Uganda’s population was displaced, with some 200 000 Ugandan refugees in southern Sudan and thousands more internally displaced.8

In line with Uganda’s international obligations – including the United Nations (UN) Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa – the country enacted the more specific and detailed Refugee Act in 2006, which is one of the friendliest refugee instruments in the region. One of the outstanding features of this Refugee Act is that it specifies the rights of refugee children and women (Articles 32 and 33).9

As of 31 January 2020, 1 394 678 refugees and asylum-seekers were in Uganda10 – of whom 867 45311 are from South Sudan, 402 521 from the DRC, 46 707 from Burundi and 77 99712 from other countries. Uganda has the highest refugee/asylum-seeker population in Africa.13 Currently, the country has 14 refugee settlements across the country: Adjumani, Bidibidi, Imvepi, Kampala, Kiryandongo, Kyaka II, Kyangwali, Lobule, Nakivale, Oruchinga, Palabek, Palorinya, Rhino and Rwamwanaja. Six of these 14 settlements (accommodating approximately 723 550 refugees) are in the West Nile region of northern Uganda14 – an area that suffers from high levels of pre-existing vulnerability and underdevelopment. The presence of the refugees has placed additional strain on the existing social amenities, causing tensions between host communities and refugees as well as the OPM, which is responsible for negotiating land to establish settlements.15

Refugees in Uganda

Refugee Settlements in Uganda

In Uganda, refugees are settled besides host communities on land reserved exclusively to host refugees. The land is acquired from the host communities by the government through negotiations between the OPM and the host community leaders. Once an agreement is reached, the state then owns and manages the land for the refugees. A refugee settlement looks like a typical African village. The number of refugees varies from five to 10 individuals per homestead; sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between a refugee homestead and host community homestead. The settlements have long-term or permanent structures such as schools, churches, water sources and health centres to enable refugees to live a regular life. These social amenities are shared with the host community and when refugees return to their countries, the hosts own them. This Ugandan refugee settlement policy is favourable to both refugees and host communities, because the refugees are settled in identified expansive communities like local villages and interact with the nationals every day. The refugee settlements are understood as long-term structures that offer the possibility for a degree of self-sufficiency, as opposed to camps.16 The settlement policy is a major facilitator for social integration, and sufficient land may foster self-reliance.17

The host community is a group of local people who have agreed to give space to refugees to live alongside or with them in their village, despite having different values, norms and practices. In the Rhino refugee settlement, the host community is made up of Ugandans living with refugees.

Urban Refugees in the Arua District

The Arua district in Uganda has 178 481 refugees and a host community population of 891 700.18 Since the Ugandan refugee model allows for freedom of movement of refugees, some have chosen to reside in urban areas rather than settlements, while others commute between settlements and urban areas. As these refugees move around, there are no official statistics from the OPM or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on how many refugees reside in urban areas. As a result, there are no interventions targeting these urban refugees. Refugees in urban areas face the double challenge of a lack of clear identity and the stereotypes that come with different cultural practices, which can lead to conflict between refugees and urban host communities.

Map of the Arua District19

Uganda’s Urban Refugees

Uganda does not have any specific policy on urban refugees. However, to implement a better refugee programme, in 1999 the UNHCR implemented a self-reliance strategy (SRS) for refugees. This SRS was part of a global approach that had been promoted by the UNHCR since the early 1980s, and was known as the refugee aid and development (RAD)20 approach. The core idea was to transform refugees from being a “burden” or mere “beneficiaries” of humanitarian aid into agents of development. The SRS was intended to complement the Ugandan Poverty Eradication Action Plan, designed to eradicate mass poverty in Uganda by 2017.21

According to Hovil, in theory, the SRS sought to integrate the services provided to refugees into existing public service structures and make refugee settlements self-reliant by allocating land to refugees and allowing them free access to government health and education services.22 The SRS was intended to empower refugees and nationals in the area – to the extent that they would be able to support themselves, and to establish mechanisms that would ensure integration of services for the refugees with those of the nationals.

Although the Government of Uganda (GoU) encourages refugees to move into designated refugee settlements, some refugees often “self-settle” or integrate informally into local communities, while others move to urban centres.23 While the UNHCR and the GoU feed the refugees in settlements, urban refugees are left to fend for themselves.24 The government policy is that refugees must go to designated refugee settlements. Those who self-settle or merge into the host community do it on their own, without any official assistance. Those who choose to reside in urban areas are required to prove that they have the means of survival to do so, such as employment or an adequate and reliable source of income.25 However, this requirement is prone to manipulation, as refugees can declare pseudo sources of income to be allowed to live in towns. Nonetheless, on this basis, the UNHCR assumes that those who opt for urban settlement have the means – which, unfortunately, is not always the case. Dryden26 asserts that the living conditions of urban refugees “are overcrowded and squalid; and while usually they are not poorer or better off than the citizens in whose midst they live, they persist without legal status, without support networks, and often as victims of xenophobia”. In towns, refugees are intermingled with the host communities, often in rented houses. Some refugees who are well off have managed to purchase land and have built houses to live side-by-side with the host communities. Refugees face many problems, including those associated with limited access to social services such as medical care, education, shelter and transport.

Refugees who choose to reside in urban areas are required to prove that they have the means of survival to do so, such as employment or an adequate and reliable source of income. Photo: Stephen Luke

Why Refugees Move to Urban Areas

The migration of refugees from camps and rural areas to cities and towns in search of opportunities is a phenomenon that is gradually gaining the attention of the authorities. In underdeveloped countries, refugee camps are mostly located in remote areas, partly for security reasons. While this trend is steadily changing, host governments are not encouraging refugees to flock to urban centres.

Although refugees recognise that they can only access the World Food Programme (WFP) and UNHCR’s humanitarian food aid if they are registered refugees residing in settlements, some still shun the settlements and opt for urban areas. This decision is usually attributable to five primary reasons. First, refugees are motivated by the availability of healthcare and education opportunities for their children in urban centres. Access to banking services are also non-existent in the refugee settlements compared to urban areas. Second, refugees are attracted to more readily available and efficient communication services, such as access to telephone services. Internet availability across all networks is also accessible in urban centres, but is problematic in the settlements. Third, refugees opt for urban life because of the lure of employment opportunities, which are perceived to be more readily accessible in towns. Fourth, some refugees lived a lavish lifestyle in their countries of origin with all the social amenities of city life, so the settlements seem too remote for them and they opt to move to urban centres to try and reclaim a familiar lifestyle. Finally, refugees, especially those vulnerable to political persecution from their home regimes, believe that they will be safer and less exposed if they lived anonymously in town than if they lived as registered refugees in a settlement.27

As a result, Arua, which is the main urban centre in West Nile, with many socio-economic opportunities, has attracted thousands of refugees. The challenge with this scenario, as noted by the Refugee Law Project (RLP),28 is that xenophobia is much more likely to be experienced in towns than in rural refugee settlements, where almost everyone is a fellow refugee. Moreover, in towns, refugees become the scapegoats for most social problems. For example, the author observed that in many neighbourhoods, refugee children are often blamed by community members for any misunderstandings and tensions among children. Macchiavello29 also states that urban employers are biased against refugees on grounds of their perceived or actual inability to communicate fluently with clients in English and other local dialects; for example, Lugbari. They are also concerned about legal issues around their refugee status and work permits. The RLP30 observes that most refugees have skills, but their employment chances and potential are limited by such biases or handicaps.

Challenges of Urban Refugees

There is a lack of official statistics on self-settled urban refugees, and this has led to the refugee population having difficulties in accessing social amenities. For example, the annual budget of the district is done using indicative planning figures (IPF) obtained from the Ministry of Finance, which does not consider self-settled urban refugees as part of the population. Also, many refugees are turned back from healthcare centres because they are not entitled to access these facilities. Those who access private services are charged higher rates than the nationals, even in government hospitals. The lack of statistics also leads to uncertainty about which entity is responsible for urban refugees.

In the settlements, many refugees have access to small pieces of land for subsistence farming. Photo: EU/ECHO/Martin Karimi

There is no access to land in towns to cultivate food. In the settlements, many refugees have access to small pieces of land, but this is not the case for urban refugees, as there is no available land in the towns even for subsistence farming, which would support their livelihood. Some refugee women undertake crafts like knitting clothes and mats to subsidise their livelihood. Some nationals are also reluctant to eat in refugee-owned restaurants because of the stereotypes that exist – for example, refugees are said to be dirty, and the South Sudanese are believed to consume strange food.

In addition, refugees have no access to financial institutions to access credit, because of the requirements needed for accessing loans. Most institutions want collateral security (assets such as land, vehicles and so on), which is not something that refugees can produce. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that refugees are not able to get formal employment, because they do not have the required work permits. Public service in Uganda also requires one to be a national. As a result, most refugees end up in informal, underpaid jobs unless there is a deliberate effort by refugee-led organisations to create opportunities for those who have qualifications.

Most refugees end up in informal, underpaid jobs unless there is a deliberate effort by refugee-led organisations to create opportunities for those who have qualifications. Photo: Stephen Luke

Education for urban refugees is also complicated in the city, unlike in the settlements where education is offered for free. Some urban refugees enrol their children in private schools, and are charged double that of nationals. However, there are also many refugee children who are not in school, because they cannot access any services. Consequently, many urban refugees live a vulnerable life, surviving on charity from churches and kind individuals.

Once a refugee is registered and settled in a certain settlement, they need permission from the authorities to move to another settlement – a difficult process, given the bureaucracy involved. Thus, refugees do not normally change settlements. The UN Refugee Convention of 1951 calls for the free movement of refugees and the freedom to settle in any part of the country of asylum. Urban refugees are thus only encouraged to register with the relevant authorities and are left to fend for themselves. Many urban dwellers are not willing to rent out houses to refugees, especially to the Dinka from South Sudan, who are perceived to be rude, careless and dirty.

The livelihood situation is exacerbated by food ration cuts, resulting in a 30% reduction per capita in food aid in many African countries, including Uganda.31 This is due to the failure of donor countries to respond sufficiently to UNHCR and WFP appeals for donations. Many developing countries, including Uganda, are already incapable of feeding their nationals satisfactorily, and the inflow of refugees worsens this situation. Although Uganda is ranked among the top 10 refugee-hosting countries worldwide, the country’s capacity to provide security and other essential needs to urban refugees is questionable.32

Refugees from South Sudan at the Imvepi refugee camp in Arua district, northern Uganda, receive food rations (24 June 2017). UN Photo/Amanda Voisard

Moving Forward

There needs to be official recognition by the OPM, UNHCR and the Arua district local government of the presence of urban refugees. This can be done through a baseline study to ascertain the number of urban refugees, which will help to incorporate these figures into the annual district financial planning.

Livelihood support is a key factor for the refugees. With the recent restrictions due to COVID-19, refugees are finding it hard to access food. Even people with disabilities are unable to access food from the settlement every month. The OPM, UNHCR and local government need to find a way to support urban refugees to access food in towns. Once there are statistics available, the WFP can request a location from the district to undertake food distribution for urban refugees.

Just as the refugee welfare committees work closely with local councils in the settlements, it would be important for refugees to have associations and leaders in urban areas, who can work closely with local government to address the challenges of urban refugees.

Humanitarian organisations should also support urban refugees’ well-being, although this will require a shift in programming goals away from the dominant “self-reliance” frame. Funds that support education, healthcare and so on can be allocated to the district to support the existing infrastructure, which is now overloaded due to the increased population because of refugees. This funding can be used to build the capacity of these facilities to be able to handle the increased population. The current approach of assistance and supporting sustainable “solutions” for the socio-economic difficulties refugees face is not working, due to an over-reliance on the market – particularly the informal sector – as the main source of opportunity and socio-economic prosperity. In general, refugees do not have access to credit facilities. The market, especially formal sector jobs, does not offer anything for refugees, and informal employment options are often precarious, underpaid and exploitative of refugees, because legally they cannot sue their employers as they do not have work permits.

It is clear that in Uganda, there is a policy gap as far as refugees are concerned. There is no clear policy on how urban refugees can be integrated into host communities, and the Refugee Act of 2006 does not mention urban refugees. Therefore, there is a need for Uganda to create a policy that addresses issues affecting refugees in urban areas. In addition, host communities must be educated about the refugee communities in their midst. Policies and programmes that address the needs of urban refugees and educate host members about the refugees’ plight will only benefit these communities at large, by reducing tensions and facilitating integration.


  1. United Nations (1951) ‘Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees’, Article 1A (2), Available at: <> [Accessed 5 March 2020].
  2. African Union (1969) ‘Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa’, Available at: <> [Accessed 11 March 2020].
  3. Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) (2014) ‘National Population and Housing Census 2014’, pp. 10–19, Available at: <>[Accessed 3 March 2020].
  4. Mwalimu, Charles (2004) The Legal Framework on Admission and Resettlement of African Refugees with an Emphasis on Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Emory International Law Review, 18, pp. 455–491.
  5. Long, Katy (2012) Rwanda’s First Refugees: Tutsi Exile and International Response 1959–64. Journal of Eastern African Studies, 6 (2), pp. 211–229.
  6. Sharpe, Marina and Namusobya, Salima (2012) Refugee Status Determination and the Rights of Recognized Refugees under Uganda’s Refugees Act 2006. International Journal of Refugee Law,24 (3), p. 565.
  7. Sikainga, Ahmad Alawad and Spaulding, Jay L. et al. (2020) ‘Sudan’, Available at: <> [Accessed on 3 July 2020].
  8. Allen, Tim (1996) A Flight from Refuge: The Return of Refugees from Southern Sudan to Northwest Uganda in the Late 1980s. In Allen, Tim (ed.) In Search of Cool Ground: War, Flight and Homecoming in the Northeast Africa. London: James Currey, pp. 226–228.
  9. Government of Uganda (2003) ‘Supplement No. 8, 4 August 2006’, Available at: <> [Accessed 3 July 2020].
  10. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (2020a) ‘Uganda 1-31 January’, Available at: <> [Accessed 6 March 2020].
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. UNHCR (2020b) ‘Uganda Active Population by Settlement’, Available at: <> [Accessed 10 April 2020].
  15. Dawa, Irene (2018) ‘Conflict Dynamics in Bidibidi Refugee Settlement in Uganda’, Available at: <> [Accessed 12 April 2020].
  16. Zakaryan, Tigranna (2018) ‘“My Children should Stand Strong to Make Sure we Get our land Back”: Host Community Perspectives of Uganda’s Lamwo Refugee Settlement’,International Refugee Rights Initiative paper, Available at: < Lamwo-policy-paper-FINAL.pdf> [Accessed 12 March 2020].
  17. Office of the Prime Minister, Republic of Uganda (OPM) (2018) ‘The Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework’, Available at: <> [Accessed 7 March 2020].
  18. UNHCR (2019) ‘Refugees and Nationals by District’, Uganda Comprehensive Refugee Response Portal, Available at: <> [Accessed 11 March 2020].
  19. West Nile Web (2020) ‘Arua District’, Available at: <> [Accessed 17 March 2020].
  20. Government of Uganda and UNHCR (2004) ‘Self-Reliance Strategy (1999-2003) for Refugee Hosting Areas in Moyo, Arua and Adjumani Districts, Uganda: Report of the Mid-term Review,’ Available at: <> [Accessed 3 July 2020].
  21. Dryden-Peterson, Sarah and Hovil, Lucy (2003) Local Integration as a Durable Solution: Refugees, Host Populations and Education in Uganda. New Issues in Refugee Research Working Paper No. 93. Geneva: UNHCR, p. 18.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Omata, Naohiko and Kaplan, Josiah (2013) Refugee Livelihoods in Kampala, Nakivale and Kyangwali Refugee Settlements: Patterns of Engagement with the Private Sector. Working Paper Series No. 95. Oxford: Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford Department of International Development, University of Oxford.
  24. Jacobsen, Karen (2004) Just Enough for the City: Urban Refugees Make their Own Way. World Refugee Survey. Washington: US Committee for Refugees, p. 8.
  25. Meyer, Sara (2006) The ‘Refugee Aid and Development’ Approach in Uganda: Empowerment and Self-reliance of Refugees in Practice. Research Paper No. 131. Geneva: UNHCR.
  26. Dryden-Peterson, Sarah (2006) ‘I Find Myself as Someone Who is in the Forest’: Urban Refugees as Agents of Social Change in Kampala, Uganda. Journal of Refugee Studies, 19 (3), pp. 381–395.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Refugee Law Project (2005) ‘A Drop in the Ocean’: Assistance and Protection for Forced Migrants in Kampala. Refugee Law Project Working Paper No. 16. Refugee Survey Quarterly, 26 (2), pp. 57–68.
  29. Macchiavello, Michela (2003) Forced Migrants as an Under-utilized Asset: Refugee Skills, Livelihoods, and Achievements in Kampala, Uganda. New Issues in Refugee Research Working Paper No. 95. Geneva: UNHCR.
  30. Refugee Law Project (2005) op. cit.
  31. Reliefweb (2020) ‘Food Ration Cuts by WFP in Uganda Come at Worst Possible Time’, Available at: <> [Accessed 3 July 2020].
  32. UNHCR (2014) ‘The Top 20 Refugee Host Countries in the World’, Available at: <> [Accessed 3 May 2020].