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Refugees are enterprising and tech-savvy, research finds

Rwandese refugees living in the Nakivale refugee camp in Uganda ride a bicycle in 2009.
Rwandese refugees living in the Nakivale refugee camp in Uganda ride a bicycle in 2009.
WALTER ASTRADA/AFP/Getty Images

What comes to mind when you think of a refugee camp? Maybe heat — and flies. Rows of tents as far as you can see. People who are hungry and desolate, waiting for their lives to begin again.

Bustling markets buzzing with trade is probably not what you imagine. But that’s exactly what researchers from Oxford found when they spent months surveying refugee camps in Uganda.

Nakivale, one of the three camps, is the oldest and largest refugee settlement camp in Uganda. Over 64,000 people from more than 10 countries fill the 70-square-mile camp. More arrive every day. Most are Congolese, people who’ve been trudging for weeks through the unforgiving forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Oxford report provides an important counterargument to many of the myths around refugees, highlighting just one example of the resilience and ingenuity of their communities in the face of immense hardship.

There’s a buzzing economy within refugee settlement camps

Based in rural southern Uganda, Nakivale is actually split into three distinct sections — Juru, Rubondo, and Base Camp. In each, markets have sprung up selling food, clothes, jewelry, and more. On the main street of Base Camp, the researchers found stalls stocked with electronics, beauty supplies, and vegetables — from tomatoes to cabbages to beans.

These markets in Base Camp are largely run by Somali refugees, who also run the camp’s restaurants and bars. Meanwhile, Congolese, Rwandan, and Burundian refugees tend to grow crops within the camps.

When Somali stallholders buy this produce, a market emerges. The farming refugees take their earnings and spend them at the Somali markets, buying products that are hard to find elsewhere in the camps.

Refugees interact with the outside world on a daily basis

The flow of goods between camps is constant. Some entrepreneurial Somalis within Nakivale have even set up a mini bus service, running to another camp in Kampala (the Ugandan capital).

The quality of the produce grown by refugees often attracts Ugandans, who travel long distances to shop at the camps. As the study notes: "Each day, a significant number of Ugandans visit refugee settlements from neighbouring villages and cities such as Hoima, Mbarara, and Kampala to purchase products and services."

For 15 percent of refugees in Nakivale and 45 percent in Kyangwali, Ugandans are their biggest customers.

By speaking with the refugees, the researchers formed a nuanced view of their daily lives. "During these exchanges, the image of isolated and inward-looking refugees engaged solely in ‘subsistence farming’ gives way to a more networked reality," the paper notes. "One in which refugee farmers are linked to national and even sub-regional supply chains of agricultural production."

Trade network for refugee-raised corn.
Oxford Refugee Studies Center

Indeed, in the Kampala camp, 2 percent of refugees surveyed even traded goods internationally. Refugee-grown corn, renowned for its high quality, travels as far as Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda.

Refugees are creative and enterprising

The principle of comparative advantage is at play within refugee communities. Arriving in Nakivale, many Somalis will quickly rent their allotted farm plots to other refugees and use the money as seed capital to start small businesses.

In rural areas, Somalis tend to sell clothes, textiles and accessories. In more urban areas, they gravitate toward becoming restaurateurs or shop owners. On the other hand, most Congolese, Rwandan, and Sudanese refugees in rural areas farm their own plots of land. Eleven percent of Sudanese start breweries; 10 percent of urban Congolese become tailors.

These entrepreneurial refugees are tech-savvy, with 89 percent of those in urban settings and 46 percent in rural settlements using mobile phones in their businesses.

In Nakivale's Base Camp, there is high demand for tuna from the Somali population, who like fish but not the types caught in nearby Lake Nakivale. One refugee shop owner has met this demand by sourcing tuna originally produced in Thailand.

"From Dubai," the researchers explain, "the cans are imported via Somali-run trade networks into Kenya, across the Kenyan-Uganda border from Mombasa into Kampala, and finally from Kampala to this small mud-and-daub shop in rural Southern Uganda."

Elsewhere in Nakivale, Congolese refugees have launched a popular 12-seat cinema. For a small fee, people can watch anything from recent football matches to Hollywood films, dubbed into French, Swahili, and English. The theater manager even engages in marketing, blasting audio of the day’s screenings from a loudspeaker above to cinema entrance to grab the attention of passersby.

Other refugees own private-hire taxi businesses, foreign currency exchanges, flour mills, computer-game parlors, and even pharmacies.

Refugees want to be self-sufficient and give back to the local economy

The researchers found refugees are aware of how unreliable humanitarian assistance is. While there is often an early flood of support when a conflict makes news, donations tend to dry up as foreigners lose interest in protracted humanitarian crises. In the face of this, refugees "do not simply wait passively for assistance."

In Uganda, refugees are strong economic actors: 60 percent are self-employed and another 39 percent are employed by others. Only 1 percent are not employed in some form of work.

"The notion that all refugees receive humanitarian aid is far from reality in Uganda," the paper explains. "In Kampala … survey data shows that 78% of urban refugee households manage to survive despite receiving no support of any form from UNHCR or other refugee-supporting agencies."

Oxford Refugee Studies Center

Many refugees desire aid in the form of education and medical assistance. But what most of the refugees surveyed in Uganda wanted, even more than humanitarian aid, was the opportunity to be resettled and start their new lives.