Voice of America (Washington, DC)

20 June 2014

Africa: Refugees Boost Local Economy

Professor Alexander Betts says prior to the study, not much was known about the economic lives of refugees.

"There's been very little academic research or policy work focused on the economic activities of refugees. Generally the approaches that have been taken have been more sociological in orientation and have come from the position of really seeing refugees as humanitarian subjects."

Betts, author of the report and professor of refugee and forced migration studies at Oxford University, said, "There have been some studies looking at refugee livelihoods and to some extent looking at the impact of refugees on host states. But what they've generally failed to do is see refugees as part of economic systems and to understand the process of exchange, production, consumption, the financial market. Look more holistically at their economic activities."

He said that his interest in refugee economic contributions began in Europe.

"What struck me most is that there were people with skills, talents and aspirations - in many cases very entrepreneurial - who in many countries around the world are deprived of the right to work. They have a lot to offer, but they're not given that opportunity. So I've always, in seeing those talents, wanted to think about what refugees could offer. What they could contribute - rather than being seen as necessarily dependent on international humanitarian assistance," he said.

The research was done in Uganda, which has given asylum, to about 350,000 refugees from the DRC, Somalia, and South Sudan.

Betts said, "Uganda offers a relatively unique context. Around the world generally host countries deny refugees the right to work. They deny them freedom of movement and the refugee camp is the normal response. Uganda's taken a different path. While its refugee policies are by no means perfect, it's adopted a policy called the self-reliance strategy. And that's meant refugees are given the right to work and they have a degree of freedom of movement."

The study focused on about 1,600 refugees in Uganda.

"We looked at both an urban context - the capital Kampala - but also two long-standing refugee settlements called Nakivale and Kyangwali. Those two settlements at the time we began the research had the largest number of refugees of all the settlements in Uganda," he said.

Professor Betts said that refugees have often been seen as a drain on the host country. But that's not the case in Uganda.

"We found that actually many refugees don't just contribute from buying and selling goods or being even employees of Ugandan hosts. But actually in some cases what was really surprising was they create jobs in many cases in Kampala. The people who are entrepreneurial are employing Ugandan nationals."

And there was a lot of diverse entrepreneurship.

"There's often an assumption that refugees, even in the best case where they're given access to land, will engage in agricultural or farming activities. But we found hugely innovative and creative income generating activities, including cinemas, transportation companies, even a guy in the Nakivale settlement, who sets up a computer games parlor where he gets recycled game consoles, old televisions and charges a nominal fee for refugee use to come and play computer games," he said.

However, the Oxford professor said this is not typical of many refugee populations, adding what's happening in Uganda is rare.

"In Africa, the context I know best, there are really only a couple of countries that have pioneered giving refugees the chance to work and a degree of freedom of movement. Uganda's one, Zambia is another -- to some extent South Africa. But they're relatively exceptional cases because in other contexts, like Kenya and Tanzania, refugees are denied the right to work, which limits their economic activities," said Betts.

Kenya has launched a crackdown on refugees as a result of terrorist attacks. The focus is usually on Somali refugees with the idea that some may be supporters of the Somali militant group al-Shabab. Kenyan troops have waged offensives against al-Shabab.

Betts said, "What's important to recognize is that even where there are political constraints there is opportunity to transform how we talk about refugees -- to recognize that they're not an inevitable burden. They can also be a benefit. They can contribute."

Betts said refugees by their very nature must adapt to their new surroundings. He recommends that humanitarian agencies and NGOs do more to support the entrepreneurial spirit. This can be done through education, microcredit and advice on starting new businesses.

He added that, historically, the humanitarian response to refugees has been emergency and long-term assistance that has often led to dependency.

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