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OPINION: Migration and COVID-19 in Uganda: The challenges of urban refugees

by Yamila Castro & Florence Lozet | Cities Alliance
Monday, 20 April 2020 07:30 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The challenges faced by crowded refugee communities are exacerbated by the lack of protective gear, misinformation and increased prices

Florence Lozet is an urban analyst & migration expert, and Yamila Castro is communications lead at Cities Alliance.

"How will refugees get their food?” asks rhetorically Sikita Natalino, on a recent chat over the phone. The 31-year-old refugee lives in the town of Arua, Uganda since 2016, when she left her native South Sudan displaced by the civil war. “Usually, the poorest of them commute to the city to work, then go back to the settlements where their families live, and they can get their food rations. But, because of the ban on car movements this is not possible anymore, there is no way of going there. There is a lack of food”, she explains.

On 22 March, Uganda confirmed its first case of Covid-19. So far 55 cases have been found in the country. To contain the spread of the virus, President Yoweri Museveni ordered the closure of schools and all places allowing for public gatherings, including bars, non-food markets and shopping malls. Public transport and use of vehicles have also been banned and a night-time curfew put in place. The social distancing rule, initially the usual 1,5 meters, has now become 4 meters for those with symptoms, which in settlements and refugee camps is nearly impossible to follow.

These measures have severely impacted the refugees and host communities in the country, particularly in cities like Arua, where services and infrastructure are already stretched due to a major influx of refugees in recent years. According to the UN Refugee Agency close to 1,5 million refugees live in Uganda, more than 60% come from South Sudan and 29% from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Nearly 187,000 of them live currently in Arua district, while they are 80,000 in the capital, Kampala.

“Most of the people think that COVID-19 is a myth”

Located in Uganda’s West Nile region, 12 km away from the DRC border and 50 km from the South Sudanese, Arua’s strategic location has made the city a destination for migrants seeking access to social services, livelihoods, and support. But in the context of a pandemic, the city has clearly no means to take care of the self-settled refugees that make up for estimated 24% of its total population. “The porous gates to DRC and South Sudan have made Arua vulnerable” says Mayor Isa Kato.

“All the school age pupils are at home making it very difficult to maintain them in these abrupt circumstances. Health care and transport are an issue as private vehicles are not allowed to operate. Women have delivered babies on the road, while wanting to access maternity facilities. Yet, most of the people here think Covid-19 is a myth. This has needed a massive awareness mobilisation through talk shows, which is also very expensive” explains Mr Kato.

"There is a lot of misinformation among the refugee community. Everyone relies on rumours. There are no masks, no gel and no respect of the social distance" adds Sikita Natalino.

 “Street vendors cannot sell anymore”

The local economy, mostly informal, depends greatly on the markets. With the Covid-19 restrictions people are struggling both to maintain their livelihoods and to feed themselves, as prices are rising.

"It is very difficult to deal with the inflation of market prices. Only the formal market vendors are authorized to sell their products. Street vendors cannot sell anymore as they don’t have the special authorization and must stay home. This results in less available products and street vendors surviving on a daily basis" says Sikita Natalino.

The local authorities lack accurate data regarding the refugees. They are not included in the national census making it very difficult for the city to plan and provide properly for all its residents. As a result, there has been an increasing pressure on public services including health and education. With the Covid-19 outbreak the food insecurity worsens the situation.

“Since there is no data on how many refugees are in the city, and where they are, there is no plan for food distribution by the organizations” says Ms Natalino, who is also a community representative. The situation is also impacting the elderly, the HIV positive, the pregnant women and other vulnerable populations who don’t get adequate care because their presence in the city is unknown.

Cities Alliance, with support from the Swiss Development Cooperation, is working in Arua to support local authorities managing migration and integration of refugees. The project includes the collection of accurate data on the migrant population, which will allow the city to improve planning and budgeting, and help communities become more resilient.

“We need to have planned migration”, says Mayor Kato. “We need a deliberate effort to ensure that urban refugees are captured in our programmes.”