Despite Uganda’s Worthy Efforts for Refugees From South Sudan, Challenges Still Abound

Article Highlights

  • • Uganda hosts one of the 10 largest refugee populations in any country worldwide, and the nation is known for its friendly refugee policies.
  • • The country's Refugees Act offers freedom of movement, the possibility of land allocation and ownership, and the right to seek employment.
Zerida Sebit, a South Sudanese refugee, prepares to make lunch for her children (pictured right) outside her home in Rhino Camp, a refugee settlement in northern Uganda. Sebit applied last year for a one-time grant from Associazione Centro Aiuti Volontari, an Italian nonprofit, but her application was rejected in January. She'd hoped that the money from the loan would help her make baskets to sell. Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda

Ugandan refugee policies are among the world's most progressive, and nonprofits give one-time grants and loans that supplement food provisions from international agencies and the vocational training that the government offers. Nevertheless, economic opportunities for refugees are still very limited, and many in this fast-growing population are unable to receive grants.

ARUA, UGANDA —Joive Ajiku is hopeful that her recent application for a grant of 1.5 million Ugandan shillings ($413) will come through soon.

“It will help me to set up my small business of selling clothes,” she says.

Ajiku, a refugee from South Sudan who came to Arua, a northern district in Uganda, in November 2016, says she’s had no stable source of income since she arrived. Before she came here, she ran her own business, selling cereals and other food items in her home country.

Ajiku, 34, lives at Rhino Camp, one of the district’s four settlement camps for South Sudanese refugees. She has been receiving monthly food rations from World Vision Uganda, one of the partners of the settlement, which is run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

But for Ajiku, limited access to capital means she is unable to adequately care for her six children and send them to school.

To aid refugees like Ajiku, nonprofits in the area give one-time grants and loans that supplement the food provisions from international agencies and the vocational training the government offers to help refugees become self-sufficient.

Uganda, which shares a border with South Sudan, is currently home to more thana million South Sudanese refugees. As of May 2017, the Arua District had welcomed 174,396 refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom come from South Sudan, says Jena Toma, deputy refugee desk officer for the district.

For years, experts have cited Uganda’s refugee policies among the most progressive in the world. Freedom of movement, land allocation and ownership and the right to seek employment are legislated by the country’s Refugees Act.

According to UNHCR, this year an estimated 12,400 refugees across the country will receive a form of business or entrepreneurship support. Despite this projection and Uganda’s 74 percent refugee labor force participation rate – in contrast to the global average of 38 percent – some experts say economic opportunities for refugees are still very limited.

In Rhino Camp, refugees are given plots of land and monthly food rations. To help the refugees make a living, they’re allowed to farm on these plots, says Juma Sek Sek, vice chairman of the traders’ union at the camp. But refugees say Arua District is semiarid and rocky, making it unsuitable for small-scale farming, a common job among them.

As of May 2017, the Arua District had welcomed 174,396 refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom come from South Sudan.

“If we were able to plant vegetables and cereals, life would be bearable,” says Emmanuel Jamba, who lives at the camp.

Local nonprofits also provide refugees with grants, says Sek Sek. As of this year, Associazione Centro Aiuti Volontari, an Italian nonprofit with an office in Arua, is giving grants of 1.5 million shillings ($413) to refugees to help them start small businesses, he says.

“The [nonrepayable] loan is given to select refugees with a convincing business acumen, who it is believed will make use of the loan and lift their economic standing,” he says.

Hope Ofiriha and Catholic Relief Services are among the other organizations that give the refugees grants and microloans or that foster community-based saving and lending plans.

Experts say this type of assistance can improve the economies in host-country communities. A 2016 study from the World Food Programme shows that when refugees in Uganda spend cash that they’ve earned from their businesses or received through aid agencies on goods and services within the host communities, income spillovers are created, boosting the local economies.

But with Uganda’s fast-growing population of refugees, Sek Sek says, many are not able to receive grants.

“The competition is high,” he says.

Associazione Centro Aiuti Volontari staff members say they received more than 790 grant applications from South Sudanese refugees living in Rhino Camp in 2017, 400 of which were approved and will be issued over the course of 2018.

Joice Yongi, who has been living at the camp since November 2016, says she applied for a grant from the nonprofit in December 2017, despite the competition, and was approved early this year.

“I will start a business selling used clothes, and this will sustain our family,” she says.

Toma says free skills training could also help refugees, especially those who cannot afford to go to school, to start small businesses.

“We are introducing vocational skills like tailoring, dressmaking, art and crafts, hairdressing, so the refugees are able to fend for themselves,” she says.

The government’s plan to provide training began last year at Rhino Camp. The length of each session varies, depending on the number of participants and type of training. Courses in driving and automobile repair can take up to six months. 

Editor’s note: Juma Sek Sek, vice chairman of the traders’ union at Rhino Camp, translated some interviews from Barito English.