Published on Development for Peace

(Im)mobility and social networks: the impact of COVID-19 on critical coping mechanisms for urban refugees

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Refugee child photo by Young African Refugees for Integral Development (YARID) Refugee child photo by Young African Refugees for Integral Development (YARID)

Even in the absence of a pandemic, refugees who are forced to move due to conflict, persecution, environmental disasters and poverty - or a combination of these factors - face innumerable challenges. Robert Hakiza was among numerous refugees that fled the prolonged conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) 12 years ago. He fled to Uganda and has since made Kampala home with his family. Uganda hosts 1.4 million refugees, 80,000 of whom are self-settled urban refugees that live in Kampala.

Acutely aware of challenges affecting urban refugees, Hakiza co-founded the Young African Refugees for Integral Development (YARID) in 2007, an organization that provides language classes and vocational training, among other services, to refugees in Kampala. Hakiza has also since become a founding member of the Global Refugee-led Network, representing Sub-Saharan Africa. 

Robert’s experience is telling. Although people often think of displacement as a purely disempowering act that results in the loss of one’s agency, in fact, the capacity to use mobility and social networks, in particular, to find safety and a livelihood is an enactment of extraordinary agency and unimaginable determination. 

The impact of COVID-19 on mobility and social networks across Africa 

The same measures that have largely been used to contain the spread of the pandemic – border closures, lockdowns, physical distancing, restricted onward mobility and access to social networks – have undermined the very coping mechanisms that refugees usually rely on to overcome challenges. These measures to contain COVID-19 have halted the movement of people, goods and money (including domestic and international remittances) and subsequently eroded their adaptive mechanisms. Under ‘normal’ circumstances, adaptation of refugees to health, economic and social stresses and shocks is dependent on social networks. These social networks include immediate and extended relations that are found in faith-based groups, women’s groups and various other networks, including with host communities. Disruption of social networks has increased refugee socio-economic vulnerabilities 

People, goods and money immobilized 

Remittances have largely been made immobile – notably in-kind remittances. Diaspora communities in the Global North (as well as in major host countries like Uganda, South Africa and Kenya), largely affected by lockdowns, are experiencing job losses and illness. These containment measures are severely affecting the flow of the much-needed remittances to receiving countries across Africa, for instance, the remittances that sustain more than 40% of Somalis, are rapidly diminishing.  

Apart from remittances, informal cross-border trade that has long been a feature of mobility across Africa, has been restrained. In Southern Africa, cross-border trade accounts for 30-40% of intraregional trade between Zimbabwe and South Africa. Cross-border trade has been used by border communities to secure food and livelihoods. Closure of the Beitbridge border post, which is one of the busiest border-posts on the continent, has severely impacted the multi-cited livelihood strategies of mostly female informal traders; female traders constitute up to 68% of all traders.      

The response of YARID to COVID-19: No decisions about refugees, without refugees 

Across Africa, response packages have largely, on paper and in rhetoric, sought to include refugees, but in practice has inadvertently excluded them. For instance, access to relief packages is several African countries is stringent and often requires national identification. As a result, urban refugees are faced with deepening precarity and little to no official assistance. YARID however, stepped in to provide refugees with much-needed food and nonfood items such as flour, soap, beans, sugar, and cooking oil. Since the lockdown began on March 30, 2020, YARID has reached more than 200 households identified through community networks. While such refugee-led organizations are successfully trying to mediate the challenges faced by refugees, lack of funding remains a serious impediment. 

Way Forward

Robert and YARID’s experience are illustrative – governments, development actors, civil society organizations and the humanitarian community cannot afford to exclude refugees from plans. Further, they cannot afford to exclude refugees as critical contributors in implementing responses to COVID-19. 

Drawing from a Rapid Social Analysis drafted by the Social Development Global Practice (Africa), the following are some recommendations that should be considered, especially by governments and other development actors:

Have you witnessed how COVID-19 has impacted urban refugees in other countries? Do you know of good examples where governments have adequately included urban refugees in response packages? 


Helidah Refiloe Ogude

Social Development Specialist

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