Refugees In Uganda Strive For Entrepreneurship To Break From Aid [Pt 2]

Written by Erica Shelley

In part one, writer Erica Shelley introduced Young African Refugees for Integral Development (YARID) founder and Congolese refugee Robert Hakiza and spoke to programs participants who are in search of long-term aid.

“The majority of refugees here are in a refugee protracted situation. This means that they have been in limbo for so many years. The average time people have spent here is between three and five years. That is no longer a temporary situation. It’s no longer an emergency,” Hakiza said.

Although some refugees have lived outside of their home country for years, they are not receiving support that truly helps them build a new life in the host country.

“When you look at the support that refugees are getting, it’s like they’re still being considered as people in an emergency situation. You can’t make a life on food donations —  when will a person become self-sustainable? We have refugees who came here when they were five, now they are 25. We have refugees who have spent more than 20 years here! Some of them don’t even have an idea about their country. These people cannot survive on sporadic aid. We need to empower them so that they can become self-sustainable.”

Moving On From an Emergency

Refugees are not a passive population; they consistently prove themselves to be eager to become self-sustaining. According to the Humanitarian Innovation Project’s study, refugees in Uganda generate employment, start businesses, and are important economic actors. Women like Jacques’ mother, who buys necklaces from Ugandan vendors and sells them to various customers, help keep the urban economy moving.

“The urban refugees are all trying to survive on their own. Congolese sell bitenge, their brightly colored traditional cloth, and necklaces. Many Ethiopians are involved in running restaurants and lodges, guesthouses. Rwandans are more involved in selling clothes and shoes, while Somalis run many shops in the city,” Hakiza noted.

Rather than support these efforts, the current model of aid leaves potential entrepreneurs on their own. One of the major changes to be made is improving refugees’ access to microfinance, a significant roadblock since most refugees lack the assets to secure a loan. According to Hakiza, there are currently no organizations offering start-up capital to refugees. Organizations like YARID can provide English courses and training in different skills, but the problem is how a refugee can apply these skills to make a living.

Jacques, for example, is a bright young man who is on time every week for my English class. He has taken baking courses, English classes, social media and computer literacy classes, guitar lessons, and business training. But the looming question for Jacques and many other refugees is how those skills can be harnessed and put to use. According to Hakiza, some refugees they train actually lose their skills because there is not a chance for them to apply them.

The Government and UNHCR

The fact that change is needed quickly becomes obvious to anyone working with refugees in Kampala. The next question, of course, is who is responsible to enact such change?
Hakiza points to two bodies that should take responsibility: the Ugandan government and UNHCR.

“UNHCR is the UN branch for refugees. Refugees need to be part of the decisions that affect their lives! Refugees are capable of coming up with good ideas. The UNHCR can say that they have spent so many millions on livelihood, but on the ground how many people had their lives actually change? You won’t find them,” Hakiza said firmly.

On the other hand, the Ugandan government’s responsibility to refugees is to actually implement the policies that already exist. The Ugandan Refugee Act is hailed as a model for other African countries, guaranteeing refugees the freedom of movement and the right to work. Unfortunately, while the laws are progressive, many local authorities remain ignorant when it comes to refugee issues. As a result, many refugees fall between the cracks in communication between different branches of government.

With its existing model policies and ballooning population of refugees, changes made in Uganda could set a precedent for aid given to refugees elsewhere in the world. In a world of shifting politics and national boundaries, an effective precedent is needed.

“Recent displacement from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, and Somalia has increased the number of refugees in the world to 15.4 million. Significantly, some 10.2 million of these people are in protracted refugee situations. In other words, they have been in limbo for at least five years, with an average length of stay in exile of nearly 20 years,” Alexander Betts, Director of the Humanitarian Innovation Project, stated in the preface to “Refugee Economies.”

The young Congolese men who gather at the YARID refugee centre, across the street from the football pitch, truly are the face of a global problem. Hakiza and other refugees like him could be just the resources needed for a solution.