Refugees: Political Actors or Passive Recipients?

Published: 25 Apr 2018


As the world witnesses a drastic increase in the numbers of refugees and forced migrants, governments, humanitarian actors and development partners alike continue to debate the humanitarian, social, economic and security implications of this growth in international displacement.

The global response to forced migration remains centred around three durable solutions: repatriation to country of origin, local integration in the country of asylum and resettlement to a third country – a solution that benefits approximately one percent of refugees globally. These solutions continue to guide the work of stakeholders working on behalf of refugees, even as growing migration trends challenge the compatibility of this very framework.

By 2011, the global refugee population was estimated at 10.4 million people. According to the UNHCR Global Trends Report, the global refugee population reached an estimated 22.5 million in mid-2017 of which 55 percent come for Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan. While approximately 84 percent of the refugees worldwide are being hosted in the global south – with Turkey hosting the highest population of refugees, followed by Lebanon, Uganda and Kenya. Uganda currently hosts an estimated 1.4 million refugees and asylum seekers, making it the country hosting the largest refugee population in Africa.

The majority of Uganda’s refugees are from South Sudan, followed by refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In Uganda, refugees in settlements and urban communities are confronted with the daily challenges of meeting the socio-economic needs of themselves and their families. As a result of these more apparent humanitarian and livelihood-related concerns, the potential for refugees to serve as political agents who can shape solutions to their displacement is largely overlooked by humanitarian and development stakeholders, and is, at times, directly prohibited in Uganda, where national legislation does not allow refugees to “engage in any political activities… whether at local or national level.” Beyond the debates around refugees’ political engagement, however, the fact remains that prior to their flight refugees were citizens with political entitlements, and when in exile they maintain links with their country of origin while also becoming a part of the political fabric of their host country.

To better inform this reality, the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) in partnership with the International Institute of Democracy and Electoral (International IDEA) has published a study Political Participation of Refugees: the Case of South Sudanese and Congolese Refugees in Uganda. The study examines perspectives of a number of South Sudanese and Congolese refugees on their civic engagement in Uganda. It does this by exploring their formal and informal political activities and the ways in which they are able to participate in peace-building and democracy-building in South Sudan and DRC.

The study is a part of a longer report titled Political Participation of Refugees: Bridging the Gaps, which was published by International IDEA earlier this month. The report seeks to shed light on questions around refugees’ political participation through a comparative analysis of eight different country case studies focusing on refugees from Afghanistan, DRC, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria.

In Uganda, the conventional means of political inclusion, through formal participation in local and national elections, access to political parties or the right to assembly, are not extended to refugees and asylum seekers. Refugees are only allowed to engage in social associations and civil society organisations as long as they are not politically motivated.

Among the formal mechanisms for political participation, the case study explores issues of access to citizenship in Uganda, perspectives on electoral rights for refugees and electoral rights for refugee communities, for instance through out-of-country voting mechanisms. In addition, it sheds light on the opportunities and limitations of informal mechanisms for political participation, such as the Refugee Welfare Committees (RWCs) for settlement-based refugees in the settlements as well as refugee-led civil society organisations.

The report presents a set of policy recommendations on the political inclusion of refugees addressed to relevant institutions in Uganda, South Sudan and DRC. To read the Uganda case study, click here. For the consolidated eight country comparative analysis, click here.



Programmes: Resolving Displacement, Rights in Exile
Regions: Great Lakes Region, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan
Type: IRRI Blog, Library