Revisiting the Refugee–Host Relationship in Nakivale Refugee Settlement: A Dialogue with the Oxford Refugee Studies Centre

Ingunn Bjørkhaug
Fafo Institute for Labour and Social Research, Oslo, Norway

Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

Revisiting the Refugee–Host Relationship in Nakivale Refugee Settlement: A Dialogue with the Oxford Refugee Studies Centre


Uganda has long promoted refugee self-reliance as a sustainable livelihood strategy with progressive land-allocation and free-movement-for-work policies. Framed as a dialogue with Oxford University Refugee Studies Centre (“the Centre”), this article explores sustainable solutions that benefit refugees as well as the host populations that receive them. It explores the self-reliance opportunities that depend on the transnational, national, and local markets in which refugees participate. It acknowledges the Centre’s substantial work and welcomes its focus on economic outcomes. For Nakivale Refugee Settlement in Uganda, however, the discussion of “refugee economies” may not be complete without problematizing the effects on the host populations living alongside the refugees.

Based on qualitative data collected at Nakivale in 2013 (concurrent with the Centre’s fieldwork), the article discusses the Centre’s market-based approach to refugee economies by emphasizing four essential considerations:

  • Land distribution in Nakivale is not sustainable.
  • Corruption strongly influences the refugee and host populations living in Nakivale.
  • The impact on the local host population is not homogeneous.
  • Among refugees, the Somali–Congolese relationship is exploitative, not amicable.

This article discusses how Uganda’s refugee policies create economic profit for some but poverty for others. As a result, its welcoming open door is on the verge of collapse. The recommendations address alternative refugee-protection approaches that aim to lower the pressure on land allocation, enable a self-sustainable approach that protects the host population, and provide refugees with some degree of self-reliance. This discussion does not discount the Centre’s finding that entrepreneurship is an important part of such solutions. Instead, it addresses the challenges of using entrepreneurship as a durable solution — as long as Uganda’s dominant policy is self-reliance based on the distribution of food and land and the refugees’ limited cultivation of that land. To address some of the obstacles for durable solutions in a way that protects both the refugees and the host population, this article makes four recommendations for policy and practice. With assistance from the international community, the Ugandan government should:

  • Prioritize the welfare of its citizens who live in Nakivale in the national land-allocation strategy.
  • Enact clear and consistent legislation regarding autochthonous land ownership and use of eviction policies, and design economic reforms to eliminate systemic corruption.
  • Include non-agricultural income-generating activities in the self-reliance policy, and finance entrepreneurs through governmental or international funding.
  • Allow refugees to move away from the settlement without loss of refugee status or access to assistance.


Author Names

Ingunn Bjørkhaug

Date of Publication September 2, 2020
DOI 10.1177/2331502420948465


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