Nakivale Refugee Settlement and Its Settlers
Project info

Uganda’s refugee policy is praised worldwide as it is different from other hosting countries: refugees can stay in settlements or they can decide to move to a city. In both cases, they can seek employment anywhere. Yet, only in the first scenario they receive humanitarian assistance and a piece of land to farm.

Nakivale refugee settlement, approximately 200 km away from the capital city of Kampala, is one of the oldest settlements in the country. It currently hosts 119,587 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Somalia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Eritrea (and others). Although many refugees in the area have been living there for several years, recent conflicts in nearby countries are increasing the number of arrivals per day.

In May 2019, as part of our PhD research project on refugee youth integration in the Ugandan labour market, my colleague, our research team and I stayed in Nakivale for a week to collect data. During this time, we collaborated with several leaders within the settlement. One of them was Adonis Mushongole Muganuzi, the founder of YAREN – the Young African Refugees Entrepreneurs Network - an organisation whose purpose is to give skills to refugees, focusing on leadership, entrepreneurship and behavioural change.

When asked about aid and land in the settlement, the settlers have little doubt: aid is often not enough, land is frequently far or un-productive, and the closest training centre - funded by the UNHCR and other governmental agencies - is 1 hour away by foot from the settlement. That is why several small businesses are opened inside the settlement, such as KeeBar, an Ethiopian restaurant and only coffee place within the settlement, or the Barwado hotel, a Somali hotel that re-uses the UNHCR tents as walls.

While in the settlement, we also realised that there are many small grassroots organisations that focus on promoting entrepreneurship and empowerment between refugees. Even if they are all part of the same network, they remain independent and sometimes small.

For example, Opportunigee and Promise Hub. These are self-organized empowerment and social entrepreneurship hubs formed by young scholars. Their main purpose is to generate digitally-enabled businesses that create jobs on a local scale and impact on a global scale. These hubs want to link Nakivale’s entrepreneurs to the international market. They provide them with tools and resources to use the Internet and to connect with companies such as DHL.

So, why so many small grassroots organisations and why they promote entrepreneurship so much? The first answer is lack of jobs inside the settlement. Although Nakivale has been described as a full economy, survey data we collected plus extensive qualitative interviews seem to contradict this view.

Another important reason is that Nakivale is quite isolated from nearest towns, and transportation costs are high. Plus, lack of connections with the national labour market and information on how it works, limit refugees from looking jobs outside the settlement, even if the policy allows them to do so and even if village leaders, such as the Local Chairperson (LC1) of Mbarara, are willing to assist them

We left the settlement with many questions but one certainty: governmental agencies and international organisations that are in charge of the refugee response in Uganda should go to these settlements, sit with these leaders and organisations and listen to their suggestions. They know what is happening inside the settlements and what could be done to improve them.

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