Congolese ‘Refugees’ and ‘Freedom of Movement’ in the Kampala Urban Space

Published: 1 May 2015

This blog, originally published on 16 April 2015, has been authored by David Kigozi, Great Lakes Programme Officer at the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI). It appears here in full.

“My heart is crying that during the prime of life when I and my family should be enjoying life; eating well, dressing well, living well… this is the time we are refugees, wasting our lives and it hurts so much. No job, no money, difficult life …seven years…” – Congolese refugee in Kampala.[1]

Despite the fact that both legal framework and practice in Uganda push refugees to live in camps,[2] a significant number choose to live in urban areas. They do so despite the fact that, in general, living in urban areas means foregoing any type of formal assistance. This blog piece examines one particular subset of that group – Congolese refugees in Kampala – exploring their reasons for making the decision not to live in camps, and the positives and negatives that it brings with it. Ultimately, it argues that refugees should be accorded freedom of movement in line with international standards and should be assisted to make the choices that best support their own possibilities for survival and integration.

Refugee Policy in Uganda

As of January 2015, UNHCR estimated that Uganda hosted 456,480 officially registered refugees, the biggest groups being Congolese (49%) and South Sudanese (31%).[3] Registered refugees are spread out in about ten refugee sites in north and western Uganda in addition to Kampala and other towns. Currently, about 84% of the refugees live in camps, but both the government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) acknowledge that funding for refugee camps is low. From December 2013, fighting in South Sudan triggered a new influx of refugees to Uganda and there were significant numbers of Congolese refugees arriving in 2014 largely as a result of fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) between government forces and the M23 rebel group. This dual influx has increased pressure on resources, further undermining the quality and quantity of services and assistance in camps and, with no solutions in sight, it is likely these refugees will remain in Uganda for the foreseeable future.

Article 30 of Uganda’s Refugees Act 2006 states that “a recognised refugee is entitled to freedom of movement” but it then goes on to say that this will be “subject to reasonable restrictions”. In practice this means that refugees are free to move outside the camp but need official permission if they are going some significant distance away, for instance, to the next town. In particular, the law provides that the government may designate land for refugee settlements and that refugees who wish to live outside of these areas must apply for permission to do so.[4] So whilst officially, Uganda’s refugee legal and policy framework limits freedom of movement for refugees, in practice there is little effort made to enforce these restrictions and refugees find ways to navigate around the system and move with relative freedom.

Although officials in the refugee sector in Uganda use the word “settlement”, emphasising that settlements are where refugees are given shelter, a plot of land for cultivation and are apparently free to move around and take control of their livelihoods, the reality is that these settlements remain closed environments, often in remote locations with limitations on land. It is interesting to note that UNHCR’s newly launched Policy on Alternatives to Camps does not recognise this distinction. There is an increasing acceptance that refugee camps reinforce the marginalisation and exclusion of refugees and asylum seekers, particularly those in protracted situations, often in environments that are extremely basic, relatively insecure, and marked by extreme deprivation. UNHCR’s policy on alternatives to camps recognises that the “defining characteristic of a camp… is typically some degree of limitation on the rights and freedoms of refugees and their ability to make meaningful choices about their lives.” It states that pursuing alternatives to camps means working to remove such restrictions so that refugees have the possibility of living with greater dignity, independence and normality, as members of the community, either from the beginning of displacement or as soon as possible thereafter.

Congolese Refugees in Kampala

A number of Congolese refugees and asylum seekers have taken the decision to avoid or leave the camps and instead live in various urban areas in Uganda, including Kampala. Most are struggling to survive in a difficult environment following that decision, as in Uganda exercising their right to freedom of movement typically means foregoing any type of humanitarian assistance. Most of them are registered refugees and a significant number came from refugee camps in other parts of Uganda.

While it is difficult to know with accuracy the size of the wider Congolese community in Kampala, according to UNHCR the number of officially recognised Congolese refugees stands at around 28,634, which is approximately 45% of the registered refugee community in the city.[5] Research[6] conducted by IRRI in 2013 with Congolese migrants, asylum seekers and refugees living in Kampala, showed that out of a sample of 196 Congolese migrants, 146 were refugees and 12 were asylum seekers, representing 86.1% of the population. Regardless of their status, 89% indicated that flight from armed conflict was the most important reason for them coming to the city. Almost all the Congolese interviewed, regarded themselves as refugees, whether or not they had official recognition. However, while the majority of Congolese identified themselves as refugees, some wished to avoid being labelled as such or being defined in that way. Indeed living in the city was, for some, a way of avoiding or at least being able to be flexible with the refugee label that attaches strongly in a refugee camp.

Recognised as refugees or not, these Congolese received no governmental assistance and extremely limited assistance from NGOs. This is despite the fact that the UNHCR policy on refugee protection and solutions in urban areas makes commitments to “refugee rights, state responsibility, partnership, needs assessment, equity, community orientation, interaction with refugees and, importantly, self-reliance.”

Why Do They Come to Kampala?

Many Congolese come directly from towns such as Goma, Bukavu and Uvira in eastern DRC, which may partly explain why they prefer to live in Kampala or other urban areas, being town dwellers originally. However, some came to Kampala from rural areas in the DRC and are attracted to the city by the potential opportunities or simply because they feel more comfortable. Other Congolese refugees in Kampala came from refugee camps including Nakivale, Rwamwanja and Kyangwali, and have been living in the city for years, proactively making choices regarding their movement and location of residence despite government regulation.

Although the most important reason for Congolese migration to Kampala is flight from insecurity and war, this is inevitably mixed up with other factors. In some cases, war may have been the primary reason for leaving Congo, but the decision to come to Kampala specifically may be driven by other factors such as the search for education, employment, business and trade opportunities. Some hoped to use Kampala as a possible transit point to another country, in some cases by successfully applying for resettlement outside of the region as a “durable solution”: “My only aspiration is to go further and further up to even the edge of earth and to where I will enjoy peace, my rights and equality with nationals. That is where I wish to go to.” [7] Although resettlement emerged as a significant pull factor for those interviewed, only a tiny percentage of resettlement applications are successful. Other Congolese refugees and migrants are in Kampala because of a lack of opportunities to pursue productive lives in other areas. A few migrated to Kampala for marriage or other family reasons. Some were running away not only from political persecution in DRC, but family issues, land wrangles etc. A significant number also came to Kampala for medical treatment. However, the research made clear that there is a high degree of intentionality in the migration choices of the Congolese.

Positives and Negatives of Living in Kampala

Most Congolese refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in Kampala live alongside poorer Ugandan communities in areas characterised by overcrowded housing, poor sanitation, poor access to water, low quality schools and inadequate health services. Areas with significant numbers of Congolese are all in close proximity to the city centre in areas where they can walk or travel at low cost to the Office of the Prime Minister (which deals with refugee status determination), UNHCR, NGOs, markets, schools and other services they may need.

Yet life remains extremely precarious. During the research, interviewees talked about some of the problems they face. For example, language was mentioned as a significant barrier for Congolese refugees in accessing services and getting almost anything, including employment. In addition, they are easily identified as foreigners, and issues of xenophobia and discrimination often emerge. While the UNHCR urban refugee policy talks about encouraging refugees and their local hosts to interact in a positive manner, there was little evidence of this on the ground. The fact that some of the Congolese are either explicitly or implicitly trying to avoid the refugee label makes the role of UNHCR more complex, as their intervention is normally limited to refugees and not other migrants. In other words, as some Congolese seek to avoid UNHCR’s mandate, this reduces the potential role for UNHCR.

For Congolese refugees living in Kampala who have professional skills, ensuring equal recognition and validation of their academic and professional certificates had been found to be, at best, highly problematic and expensive and the same applied with regards to continuing education. Therefore, policies to address this issue need to be put in place or implemented more effectively.

Physical insecurity is also a challenge in the Congolese refugee community and sexual and gender-based violence is rife. Women and girls are sometimes obliged to engage in “survival sex”, where they are highly exploited and susceptible to various risks.

Some of the advantages noted by Congolese refugees in Kampala were better communication options, skills’ development, and opportunities to practice trades such as tailoring, hairdressing, and selling jewellery and Congolese kitenge fabrics. There is also the opportunity to learn English and enhance their chances for further migration or employment. Those in business and higher education – a small minority – also see themselves as contributors to Uganda’s economy.

Those that had chosen to live in the city stated that despite these obvious disadvantages, they preferred living in these conditions to being forced to stay in camps, because they are in control of some critical areas of their lives. They expressed the desire to be self-reliant and not passive recipients of the limited assistance those in camps receive.

Refugees in Kampala expressed concern, however, about their vulnerability. Some worried that the government could suddenly begin to round up and deal with refugees outside camps as has happened in Kenya. Until Uganda’s policy and law are changed, this vulnerability is likely to continue.

Congolese refugees relish the freedom to choose where to go, where to live and what to do in order to take advantage of greater opportunities in life. As one Congolese refugee in Kampala, stated: “…I still need to study but I lack the means. I should also have a family, I am old enough now, at 28 years….All that necessitates having means,” [8] and that is not possible if confined to a camp. And this makes great sense particularly for protracted refugee situations in a context where all conventional durable solutions are almost closed.


Many of the problems associated with refugees in camps are inherent to the nature of camps: because they are in remote locations there is little economic activity; the isolation of the camps hinders integration. However, many of the problems in urban areas could be addressed by better assistance and integration policies. The economic deprivation suffered by refugees who get no assistance could be improved through assistance programs that target urban populations. Although such interventions might be costly, they will likely be less so than those in refugee camps where, unable to access other livelihoods, refugees often remain in need of humanitarian assistance indefinitely. Affirmation of refugees’ right to freedom of movement on an official level would make those in urban areas such as Kampala feel less vulnerable. Similarly, clearer policies on integration would assist refugees in making good choices. In the words of one Congolese refugee: “If the government … could have a clear stand on granting us citizenship, then we should be able to plan accordingly. It is then easier to plan for the future …”.[9]

Guaranteeing freedom of movement for refugees, including freedom to choose to stay in a camp or not, can be seen as a basic first step to bursting open other doors of opportunities for refugees. This will also be the beginning of a serious re-thinking of engagement with refugees in urban spaces. Implementation of UNHCR’s new policy on alternatives to camps is bound to be helpful in this regard.

Acknowledgement: The main data on which we have drawn in writing this blog was gathered by the International Refugee Rights Initiative (Uganda) and Refugee Law Project (Uganda) as part of a regional research project on “Mobility in the African Great Lakes Region” coordinated by the International Migration Institute, University of Oxford, with other partners at the University of Lubumbashi (Democratic Republic of Congo), and Moi University (Kenya). The project was funded by the MacArthur Foundation.

[1] Interview with Congolese man, Kampala, 4 October 2013.

[2] Although Ugandan policy often uses the term “settlement” rather than “camp”, the term “camp” is used throughout this blog, as the question is somewhat semantic and has little impact on refugees’ freedom of movement.

[3] UNHCR, “2015 UNHCR country operations profile – Uganda,” available at

[4] Marina Sharpe and Salima Namusobya, “Refugee Status Determination and the Rights of Recognized Refugees under Uganda’s Refugees Act 2006,” International Journal for Refugee Law, Vol. 24, No. 3, pp. 561-578.

[5] UNHCR Update, Uganda, December 2014, on file with IRRI.

[6] Joint research with International Migration Institute, Oxford University, 2013-14, on Mobility of Congolese in the Great Lakes region.

[7] Interview with Congolese man, Kampala, 28 October 2013

[8] Interview with Congolese man, Kampala, 13 November 2013

[9] Interview with Congolese man, Kampala, 28 October 2013

Programmes: Rights in Exile
Type: IRRI Blog