Work and livelihood experiences of young refugees during the COVID19 pandemic in Uganda

By Dr. Robert Turyamureeba

Working and living with young refugees is an opportunity especially during the COVID19 pandemic when we all not only need each other’s comfort but also sharing of crucial information and experiences – as the world races to produce the vaccine and deal with the economic consequences of shutdowns.  I am writing this not only as a post-doctoral researcher with the RYVU project (www.ryvu.org) but also as a Ugandan who, under the pandemic restrictions, constantly interacts virtually with young refugees and shares experiences on a variety of topics, particularly “work and livelihood experiences”.

Uganda has not only the largest refugee population in Africa but also the second youngest population on the continent which makes it vulnerable given that youth unemployment generally stands at about 83%. While the government of Uganda made attempts to distribute food to the urban poor in greater Kampala, it did not distribute any food to refugees in urban areas or the up-country settlements. Moreover, the capacity of the World Food Program (WFP) seems to be reducing to due limited funding; the usual international efforts and resources seem to be instead focusing on the search for the vaccine to end the pandemic.  While this is understandable, the young refugees argue that this is the period when they most needed the guardianship of WFP and more could have been done to solicit for international support for their cause. In the opinion of young refugees, the WFP could at best have maintained the usual food rations in lieu of announcing a 30% relief reduction to refugee programs in Uganda.    

The COVID19 pandemic forced the Uganda’s President to declare a lockdown in March 2020, which required everyone to stay at home even without assurance of where the next meal will come from – especially for the unemployed young refugees both in demarcated refugee settlements and urban centres. Reportedly, the morning scenery in the refugee settlements usually shows young refugees loitering around the community centres, football fields and youth centres in search of survival. Those with small businesses operate largely on an informal basis – as they are not registered and cannot benefit from any potential government subsidies or economic relief related to the current pandemic. Moreover, until May 2020, most small businesses which do not sell food products were closed during the pandemic forcing the owners to instead eat the meagre capital and savings due dwindling WFP’s food rations.

The pandemic has purportedly increased boredom, idleness, poverty, unemployment, and hunger – causing social tensions and family violence and breakups which further affect the livelihoods of the young refugees.  Such unemployed parents and youth in the period of scarcity and increasing prices of basic commodities have allegedly led to increased worries and desperation. The vulnerable refugee families especially in Nakivale refugee settlement used to get relief items including food from the Church or Mosque attendant well-wishers, which is no longer the case because the worship centres are closed. Similarly, the young people are urged to keep physical distance and discouraged from the usual gatherings at youth centres and yet it’s where they used to get useful information pertaining to job connections and opportunities. It’s where the young people used to hold important discussions that affect their lives, charge their phones and access public Wi-Fi – this is currently not possible because of the pandemic restrictions implying that the youth are unable to access crucial information that would enhance their livelihood opportunities.

In a nutshell, the current situation is characterized by hunger, uncertainty and constant fear of being infected by COVID19 amidst limited medical care. This calls for adoption of new livelihood strategies on the part of young refugees and close watch and concerted efforts by humanitarian organizations, local leaders and the host government – to avoid any potential massive loss of lives.

*Robert Turyamureeba is a post-doctoral researcher with the RYVU project at Mbarara University of Science and Technology

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