Students at school at the Nakivale refugee settlement in Uganda. Flickr/Stephen Luke. Some rights reserved
The Syrian refugee crisis is one of the most imperative challenges facing the international community. According to the latest reports, more than three million Syrian people have left the country to escape brutal civil war. They have sought refuge in neighbouring states, including Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. And it is also widely reported that the incessant influxes of refugees are overwhelming the capacities of the receiving countries. Many media sources now highlight concerns regarding the significant burdens that these refugees might place on their hosting countries.
Indeed the burden of hosting refugees, especially in developing countries, has been well documented. Given the scale of the Syrian refugee inflow, it is of course understandable that the international community focuses on the potential ‘damages’ that the receiving countries may suffer from hosting refugees.
On the other hand, the current discursive scope of the Syrian refugee situation seems somewhat one-dimensional. Although they are less recognised, there are advocates who claim that refugees do make positive contributions to their host communities and countries. Some examples from our research in Uganda add empirical evidence to this positive view towards hosting refugees.
Economic benefits created by refugees in Uganda
In 2013, the Humanitarian Innovation Project, based at the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, conducted a comprehensive study on economic activities of refugees living in Uganda.
Uganda is known as a relatively generous country to refugees. The Ugandan government has respected refugees’ right to work and has allowed a considerable degree of freedom of movement. Many refugees are taking advantage of these auspicious conditions. According to our survey, the vast majority of these refugees are engaging in their own business to make a living, rather than depending on international aid. During our research, we came across a number of refugees who make concrete contributions to the Ugandan economy through their livelihood activities.
Mustafa, an Ethiopian refugee restaurant owner, is one of them. He has been running a restaurant in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, since 2008. While his restaurant serves traditional Ethiopian cuisine, his employees are predominantly Ugandan people. As he explained to us:
"Currently, there are 12 employees at my restaurant. Only four of them are Ethiopians and they are all cooking staff since they know how to cook our traditional cuisine well. The rest are all Ugandans. They work as kitchen assistants, waitresses and cleaners. They have been working with us for many years."
Besides some cooking ingredients which Mustafa imports from Ethiopia, all other items are purchased from Ugandan traders or companies. Every day, he goes to local markets to buy fresh vegetables and meat. Soft drinks and beer sold at his restaurant are all delivered by local beverage companies. In addition, since the restaurant is formally registered with the city council, he pays various fees to the government, thereby increasing the revenues of the municipality. Every month, he pays 800 USD to the Ugandan landlord as rent of the restaurant.
In rural refugee settlements in Uganda, refugee entrepreneurs are also benefitting the host communities. In Ugandan villages neighbouring the Kyangwali and Nakivale refugee settlements, a considerable number of refugees work as skilled farmers for local commercial farms. Several refugees also provide specific services to local people, which are not available in these remote areas. For instance, inside both settlements, some refugees are running mechanic workshops, and local villagers visit their workshops to have them fix broken bicycles, radios and mobile phones. Before the refugee mechanics opened their workshops, these locals had to travel a few hours to larger commercial centres to find these service providers.
The importance of setting up an enabling environment
Highlighting only negative sides of hosting refugees is misleading. As refugees in Uganda have demonstrated, refugees can generate benefits for their host communities and nations. One important caveat, however, is that their contributions largely depend on their living conditions in exile; ensuring their socio-economic rights is particularly essential. If refugees’ rights to work and move freely are not respected in a country of asylum, the economic contributions they can make will be largely undermined.
Let us return to the Syrian refugee case. At this moment, unfortunately, we see no end to the Syrian crisis in sight. This means, in turn, that these displaced Syrian people might have to make a living in exile for some time. Before reducing them to the label of ‘burden’, we must remember that the Syrian refugees were not refugees in their home town. Like many of us, they had their own professions, had been sustaining their families, and had been contributing to their country’s economy. They do have skills, talents, and capacities.
The important task for the international refugee regime is to sensitise the awareness of the refugee-receiving government and communities and to help them to set up an enabling environment to best foster refugees’ economic and human resources.
The Humanitarian Innovation Project’s new project report on Refugee Economies: Rethinking Popular Assumptions, launched on World Refugee Day 20 June, looks into refugees' economic contributions to their host Uganda. The report includes a number of human stories and statistics to illustrate how the refugees have economically benefited their host communities and country.