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COVID-19 socioeconomic impact worsens for refugees in Uganda

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A Congolese refugee in Uganda. Photo: © EU/ECHO/Martin Karimi  under a Creative Commons license A Congolese refugee in Uganda. Photo: © EU/ECHO/Martin Karimi under a Creative Commons license

Uganda is Africa’s largest refugee hosting nation, where 1.45 million refugees mostly from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Somalia live. The country has a generous policy towards displaced persons: its 2006 Refugee Act guarantees refugees the right to work, freedom of movement and the right to live in settlements rather than in refugee camps.

The country’s progressive approach has enabled the inclusion of refugees in Uganda Refugee High Frequency Phone Surveys (URHFPS) by UNHCR, the World Bank, and the Uganda Bureau of Statistics. The URHFPS tracked the impacts of the pandemic on a roughly monthly basis across three rounds between October/November 2020 and February/March 2021. The survey results are presented in Monitoring Socio-economic Impacts of Covid-19 on Refugees in Uganda (Round 1, 2, and 3). URHFPS was conducted in parallel with the COVID-19 High Frequency Phone Survey of Ugandan population, which enables us to compare the impact of COVID-19 on households in both groups. 

It is clear from the final round of the phone surveys that refugees are faring substantially worse on key dimensions of welfare, and their recovery is slow compared with Ugandans in general . The post-COVID-19 recovery for refugees will be fragile, amidst a projected return to growth for Uganda in 2021. The evidence shows that refugees will require continued and strengthened support during and after the pandemic to escape the “poverty trap” that can have a lasting impact across several generations.

According to three rounds of the URHFPS, the poverty rate among refugees is projected to be around 50 percent, higher than the pre-COVID-19 level of 44 percent. Poverty rates are estimated not by collecting actual consumption data, but from around 10 simple questions added in the URHFPS questionnaire using a machine learning technique. Such an approach needed to be used because phone interviews cannot collect a long list of questions to collect full consumption data. 

Employment rates fell among refugee respondents from 43 percent in October/November 2020 to 32 percent in February/March 2021. This widened the gap further from the pre-lockdown employment rate of 56 percent. The opposite was observed for the national employment rate for Ugandans, which returned to the pre-COVID-19 level of 86 percent over the same period (Figure 1). 

Refugees in Uganda

For most refugee households, income levels have remained below the pre-March 2020 (Figure 2). Also, the pace of income recovery among refugees is significantly slower than that of non-refugees. Among income sources, income from family business recovered slowest in both refugee and non-refugee households compared to income from wage employment and family farming. 

Exposure to shocks was much higher among refugees. Every refugee household experienced at least one shock between March 2020 and October/November 2020. In comparison, 42 percent of Ugandan households did not experience any shock between March and June 2020.

While the most severe forms of food insecurity among refugees declined slightly in February 2021 compared to October/November 2020, refugees continued to face very high levels of food insecurity. About 64 percent of refugees are food insecure compared with 9 percent of Ugandans . Reducing food consumption remained the most frequently used coping strategy.

Notably, more than half of refugee respondents reported experiencing depression compared to only 5 percent of Ugandans . Depression had a substantial negative impact on the respondents’ lives. For more than half of refugee respondents who had at least one depression symptom, it made life extremely or very hard. 

Compared to Ugandans, the ability of refugee households to buy food, access sufficient drinking water, and access medicine and medical treatment were significantly lower. In February/March 2020 about 36 percent of refugee households did not have access to medicine when needed and were unable to access sufficient amounts of drinking water. In comparison, in February 2020 18 percent among Ugandans were not able to buy medicine when needed and only 2 percent of Ugandans faced scarcity in drinking water.

It will be necessary to deepen assistance to refugees and equally vulnerable members of the Ugandan host communities so that both communities are able to access economic opportunities as the country recovers from the crisis 

The key findings of these surveys and policy options are outlined in a joint policy brief which recommends:

  • Targeting business development support and private sector engagement
  • Addressing barriers to women’s economic empowerment
  • Addressing barriers to access to finance, including mobile money
  • Further supporting integrated service delivery to refugee and host communities and issues of social cohesion under the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework
  • Prioritizing mental health support in skills development
  • Focus on returning children to school once they re-open
  • Promoting COVID-19 prevention efforts and supporting refugee’s integration into vaccination roll-out.

An earlier World Bank report Informing the Refugee Policy Response in Uganda recommends measures that could boost shared prosperity for both refugees and Ugandans. These include:

  • Raising the productivity of agricultural activities through the provision of inputs and extension services 
  • Creating job opportunities in non-agricultural sectors
  • Increasing their chances of employment through training and skills programs 
  • Investing in access to basic social services, using social groups and associations to implement refugee programs such as mentoring, skills training, and providing extension services, which will ensure that refugees continue to feel safe and welcome in Uganda.


Photo: © EU/ECHO/Martin Karimi  under a Creative Commons license.


Aziz Atamanov

Senior Economist, Poverty Global Practice, World Bank

Peter Waita

Peter Waita - Sr. Registration Officer, UNHCR

Nobuo Yoshida

Lead Economist, Poverty and Equity Global Practice, World Bank

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