Uganda hosts more than 500,000 refugees, making it the third-largest host country in Africa (after Ethiopia and Kenya). Its refugees come from a wide variety of unsettled neighboring countries, including Somalia, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Given the volatile region in which it sits, it has an almost unbroken history of taking in refugees since the late 1950s.

Uganda is a fascinating case study that sheds light on what is possible when refugees are given basic freedoms. In contrast to other Africa nations, Uganda has taken a radically different approach to its refugees: it allows them the right to work and a significant degree of freedom of movement. In rural open settlements, it gives refugees plots of land to cultivate for subsistence and for commercial agriculture; in cities, it permits them to start businesses and seek employment.

Researchers at the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford have identified six variables that determine differences:

  1. Regulation
  2. Nationality
  3. Education
  4. Occupation
  5. Gender
  6. Networks

But for these things to happen in Uganda — and around the world — will require a radical shift in how we think about and respond to refugees. Host countries need to recognize refugees as potential contributors to their national development and offer opportunities for them to participate economically. This means international organizations will have to look beyond providing traditional humanitarian aid and prioritize jobs, education and economic empowerment for refugees.

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