Refugees’ Engagement with Host Economies in Uganda

Naohiko Omata

Forced Migration Review 58, June 2018, pp. 19-21


This article discusses research on refugees’ economic lives and their interaction with host communities across four sites in Uganda: established refugee settlements in Kyangwali and Nakivale; the relatively new settlement in Rwamwanja; and the capital city of Kampala. Key findings include:

  • In Kyangwali and Nakivale settlements, there are diverse economic activities (dominated by commercial agriculture since refugees have been given land to cultivate), which are embedded within national and regional commerce. Refugees play an active role in the import and export of goods (e.g. export of agricultural produce, and import of goods from Ugandan wholesalers) and the settlements have become active trade hubs in their remote, rural locations.
  • In Rwamwanja, economic activity is still embryonic and less connected with national and regional economies. However, refugees’ business activities are being gradually linked with surrounding economies and appear to play a role in revitalizing host communities, demonstrating the dynamic process through which a ‘refugee-induced economy’ emerges following an influx of refugees, even in an underdeveloped region.
  • In Kampala, Congolese and Somali refugees have sought their own economic space in the wider host economy, not necessarily in conflict with nationals.

In each site, there is economic interdependence between refugees and host communities rather than a zero-sum game of economic rivalry, and refugees play an important role in wider commercial sectors in Uganda. The author recommends situating interventions to enhance economic opportunities for refugee and host populations within the context of wider economic systems and structures. The author calls for interventions that either build on existing markets/businesses or help refugees to more effectively engage with those markets. Moreover external actors need to help create an enabling environment (rights, conditions) to allow refugees to be “market creators” (i.e. to identify and employ unique livelihood assets) while avoiding intensifying competition with host populations.