Understanding the Dynamics of Refugee Impact on Employment: Evidence from Northern Uganda

Joseph Musasizi, Dharma Arunachalam, and Helen Forbes-Mewett

International Migration Review (2024)



This paper explores the impact of refugees on local employment opportunities in Northern Uganda. Uganda hosts more than 1.5 million refugees, with around 1 million from South Sudan.

Research was conducted in 2019 in the Adjumani district, in the West Nile region of Northern Uganda. Information was collected from semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions with host community members, government officials, and refugee agencies. A total of 50 interviews and 4 focus group discussions with 5-8 participants each were conducted with host community members.

Main findings:

  • The arrival of refugees led to new employment and self-employment opportunities. The presence of refugees attracted local and international relief organizations and government refugee programs, creating job opportunities that employed a significant number of hosts, usually skilled workers from urban areas. Additionally, population growth due to the arrival of refugees led to more employment and self-employment in the construction and hospitality sectors. Many host community members also worked as agriculture laborers for refugee households.
  • There were concerns among the host community that the cost of living was increasing, which they associated with the inflow of refugees.
  • Participants perceived a general increase in wages for skilled and unskilled jobs. However, construction workers reported high competition for jobs, reduced wages, and long working hours due to refugees. The uniqueness of the construction sector was attributed to the large number of semi-skilled host youths seeking work in the sector.
  • Despite having the right to work and operate businesses in Uganda, refugees in rural areas, especially the Dinka who are pastoralists, did not seek employment in agriculture. They were more likely to engage in livestock rearing than compete for limited jobs in the farming sector. Only a small group of refugees, mainly the Kuku and Madi tribes who were farmers South Sudan, sought employment in the agricultural sector. Refugees with urban backgrounds preferred to live in urban areas, where they compete with hosts for employment or self-employment opportunities within the settlement and nearby towns.
  • Policies that were perceived to favor refugees caused discontent among hosts who believed they deserved equal opportunities. For example, under the REHOPE program, development agencies earmark 70 percent of their assistance and jobs for refugees and 30 percent for hosts. Discontent was greater when refugees perceived hosts as being wealthier. Additionally, many hosts felt left out in favor of refugees and, to some extent, Ugandans from other places.

The presence of refugees can generate new job opportunities, especially in the humanitarian sector, for skilled host community members. Refugees’ presence mainly increased competition with unskilled locals in sectors that align with refugees’ livelihood backgrounds. The competition for jobs varies across sectors, with sectors more closely related to refugees’ previous livelihoods experiencing the highest competition. Refugees are more likely to seek employment in sectors they were involved in while in their country of origin. The authors conclude that, understanding the dynamics of refugee impact on employment requires considering refugees’ diverse backgrounds and the local policies that shape their participation in the labor market.