Counting Urban Refugees During Covid-19

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18​ May 2020​, by Florence Lozet, Urban Analyst, Cities Alliance & Evan Easton-Calabria, Researcher, Oxford Refugee Studies Centre,


Like most countries around the world, Uganda has not been immune to Covid-19 or the ensuing effects of the​ lockdown. While there have only been 79 number of confirmed cases in the country (and very little testing) the challenges of day-to-day survival are growing. In addition to closing places for public assemblies, including schools, the government has banned public transport, non-food markets, and closed shopping malls and non-food stores.

The situation of Arua Municipality in Western Uganda highlights some of the issues of lockdown most affecting refugees. Arua Municipality, located in Uganda's West Nile region, is approximately 12 km from the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and 50 km from the border with South Sudan. Since the conflict in South Sudan intensified, Arua District now hosts a quarter of the over one million South Sudanese refugees in the country, spread out across camps, urban, and peri-urban areas.[1]


Lack of Data on Urban Refug​ees

Arua Municipality estimates that self-settled urban refugees make up 24%[2] of its total population. Despite this large figure, refugees are not included in the national census and there have been challenges in documenting them at the municipal level. This is true for secondary cities across Uganda (and even the capital Kampala has only estimates of its true number of urban refugees). This lack of data makes it very difficult for cities to adequately plan and provide for all their residents, and results in increasing pressure on public services including health and education. And, in times of emergency like this, it becomes even harder to understand the level of support needed and where those in need actually reside.

One of the biggest challenges refugees are facing in lockdown is access to food. Usually, the poorest commute to the city to work, then go back to the settlements where their families reside and where they can get their food rations. Others depend on a monthly trip back to the settlement they are registered at to pick up their food rations. However, because of the ban on car movements this is no longer possible and there is no way to travel to the settlements. Although residing in urban areas while remaining registered in camps is not technically permitted, this is the reality of many refugees' lives. Not collecting data on urban refugee is avoiding this reality, putting refugees in difficult and risky situations when pursuing livelihood strategies.

Access to food has also been restricted as only recognized market vendors can now sell their products in Arua, meaning informal businesses and street vendors have been forced to stop selling. This reduction in market vendors has led to an overall decrease of food supply and resulted in an inflation of food market prices impacting Arua's entire population. In addition it has devastated the livelihoods of many refugees and members of the host communities who usually survive day-to-day through selling in the informal sector.

“We want to protect the population from COVID19 but it seems at the same time that there are many restrictions on the market, causing hunger and panic among people" Mayor Kato, Arua Municipality

While this situation is difficult for everyone, it is particularly challenging for refugees as the government do not offer them food rations (although at least in Kampala this stance appears to have changed). Even if rations were available, it is unlikely they would be eligible to receive them as they are not officially registered as living in Arua. As one refugee shared, even in exceptional circumstances such as these, “Since there is no data on how many refugees are in the city, there is no special consideration for the refugees in terms of food provision by the organizations." No official back-up plan for urban refugee food distribution exists as the local authorities lacks capacity as well as the data to identify their numbers and location.


Gaps in Urban Refugee Po​​​licy

This challenge is twinned by another: the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and other international organisations rarely provide material assistance such as food or shelter in urban areas. In most cases, providing for urban areas are not part of their mandate. In Arua, almost all international organisations are based in the municipality but operate solely in the camps. Urban refugees are expected to become self-reliant and survive on their own. Yet it is unclear how this is meant to happen during a lockdown when freedom of movement and the informal street vending that most rely on is restricted.

This leaves urban refugees caught in between already stretched government and humanitarian systems of support – and effectively ineligible for either.

In Arua, the World Food Programme (WFP) has agreed to change its policy and allow urban refugees to fill in forms allowing friends or family in the settlements to pick up food rations and have it delivered to them. This change is crucial for it to fulfil its commitment to reducing food insecurity, and other international organisations not currently operating in urban areas should consider similar changes to meet urban refugees' needs. It also reflects the reality of refugees' lives, which often do not centre solely within camps or in cities, but instead are more intertwined.

Yet such institutional flexibility does not address the larger issue of urban refugees often being unseen and unaccounted for. Notably, this is an issue which Covid-19 and responses to it exacerbate rather than cause. However, if urban refugees were accounted for, the municipalities they reside in could receive more resources from the central government to support their populations, including refugees. The amount of emergency support provided, like food rations, could reflect the actual number of those in need. Stronger healthcare systems designed for the real number of inhabitants of municipalities, rather than just the number of citizens in them, could be created. In turn the health and wellbeing of both urban refugees and Ugandans could be increased. The pandemic highlights the need for the inclusion of urban refugees in censuses and government planning, and should be a call for INGOs to address the extreme vulnerability of those urban refugees so often deemed 'self-reliant'.


The Work of Cities All​iance

Cities Alliance is currently active in Arua with two projects funded by the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC): “Responses to crisis migration in Uganda and Ethiopia: researching the role of local actors in secondary cities" & “Strengthening mechanisms for receiving, managing and integrating involuntary migrants with the Arua Municipal Council". The first one is a research project led by Oxford University Refugee Studies Centre on the role of local authorities in managing migration in Arua. The second one, led by AVSI aims to strengthen the structural and institutional mechanisms for reception, management and integration of involuntary migrants in Arua Municipal Council including data collection on the Municipality's population; promoting dialogue and build capacity among all stakeholders; and partnering with financial institutions to help migrants and host communities become more self-reliant and improve their livelihoods.


[1] UNHCR (2018),

[2] Impact Initiative (2018). Agora Assessment, Arua Profile. Geneva​​

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