The Effects of COVID-19 Lockdown on Urban Refugees in Kampala

How does the lockdown following the COVID-19 pandemic affect urban refugees living in Uganda’s capital, Kampala? I spoke with 31 refugees about their situation and asked how the lockdown affected them and what the main issues they saw and experienced. All interviewees highlighted problems with insufficient income, which had had far-reaching consequences for them. In addition to limited livelihoods and food, they mentioned problematic access to medical care and psychosocial counseling as well as accommodation.  


The Corona virus is not the first pandemic to strike the world, but its effects are certainly wide-ranging. Between December 2019 and September 2020, about 28 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported in various countries all over the world, including more than 900,000 deaths and over 19 million recoveries. As of 12 September 2020, 4,377 cases with 49 deaths and 1,998 recoveries have been registered in Uganda.

While many of the powerful countries are in a state of confusion because of COVID-19, the situation is particularly difficult in sub-Saharan countries where poverty and wars have been chronic since time memorial. These wars have generated hundreds of thousand refugees. Uganda alone hosts more than 1.4 million refugees and asylum-seekers. Most of them stay in refugee camps/settlements but more than 80,000 live in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda.

Many governments developed mechanisms to protect citizens, and lockdowns became a fairly common tool globally – and so it has in Uganda. This of course has effects for urban refugees in Kampala. But what problems were most pressing for the people? To find out how the corona related lockdown affected refugees in Kampala, I contacted and spoke with 31 refugees (18 women and 13 men), whom I have known from previous research since 2017. The interviewees originated from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi and have been living in Uganda for several years ranging between 12 and 15 years.

All interviewees made clear that insufficient income had far-reaching consequences with problems revolving around livelihoods and food, medical care, and psychosocial counseling, as well as accommodation.


The lockdown contributes to limited livelihoods and food

Urban refugees in Kampala whose daily income was casual labor (e.g., selling homemade items or food on the streets, providing small-scale services, etc.) and hawking (i.e.: moving along the streets selling different commodities) are facing many issues at the moment. The COVID-19 lockdown does not allow for movements, which are necessary for such casual labor, however. Other refugees who had found employment, for example, in hotels and bars can no longer go to work; many even lost their jobs entirely. While life was difficult for many refugees even prior to the pandemic and lockdown, they now experience additional problems to maintain livelihoods and most fundamentally, to get sufficient food on the table for them and their families.

These issues and worries were voiced most clearly by a Congolese female refugee who has been living in Nakulabye in Kampala city for 8 years. She said:

I live on moving every day to get where I can get someone who will allow me to wash their cloths and give me little money that I will buy food for my children. And that has been my daily work that I do to get food. But now I cannot get anyone who will give me that work because everyone is at home. They have decided to wash for themselves because they are not busy and have no money to pay me.” (interview on 13 June 2020)

A Rwandese female refugee living in Bakuli in Lubaga division said that for 10 years she had lived in Uganda her daily work was moving along the streets selling necklaces. Since the time the lockdown started in March 2020, she was not able to pursue this work as she cannot access the materials necessary, and her children are showing the signs of malnutrition due to hunger. She highlighted, “Getting what to eat is a very big problem and my children’s hair has turned yellowish because of lack of food” (interview on 13 June 2020).

In the efforts to support people who live on a daily earning in Kampala, the government of Uganda launched a campaign of distributing food in the city – to all people, regardless of their background as refugees or not. This is an important step forward and in fact helps some to survive but food is not distributed in all parts of the city and the services thus do not reach everyone. I spoke with a Congolese male who has lived in Uganda for 12 years residing in Makindye division who also noted the limitations. He explained, “For me the area where I live the people who were distributing food did not come to our area. Nationals and refugees we did not receive” (interview on 12 June 2020). Another refugee woman I spoke with is a Rwandese by nationality and has been in Uganda for 11 years. She said that in Nakulabye where she lives, the food was fairly distributed to everyone, including refugees. However, she noted that the food was not enough as “they were giving 6kgs of maize flour and 3kgs of beans but it is not enough even the nationals are complaining”(interview on 13 June 2020).

These limitations thus contribute to great worries and they are in fact life threatening to some


Worries about accommodation

Accommodation is one of the biggest source of refugees’ distress in Kampala city. They often experience problems in findings affordable accommodations. Because of COVID-19 lockdown and the subsequent limitations in income generation, urban refugees worry about being unable to pay for house bill and perhaps lose their homes. These bills accumulate for three months now and the landlords are demanding the tenants to pay irrespective of the presidential guidelines to the landlords in Kampala to be patient because the tenants are not working.

A female refugee who lives in old Kampala said that her landlord has been on her door demanding her to pay her house bill which had accumulated to two months. With an anxious voice she said,

When I told him that I am unable to pay but I will look for the money the landlord told me that if I don’t pay he would confiscate all what I have inside the house and chase me away. He said that in front of my children.” (interview on 16 June 2020)

The problem is well known among aid agencies, and the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) is providing support to urban refugees in Kampala, including for rent. So far, this has not reached all refugees, but the process is still ongoing. Two of the refugees I spoke with had been granted access to the support, which helped them. A man noted that his family received money on his phone and the message sent said that the money was for house rent and non-food support (interview on 12 June 2020). A woman furthermore explained how she was financially supported by UNHCR for house rent and non-food support and by WFP for food. She was relieved when she received the money, noting

“It has never happened like this but now I am happy for the support. I am going to pay part of my house rent and get some food for my four children and have hope now of going on with life for another while.” 

However, she also voiced concerns, not knowing how long the support will help her. She said “My worry is in case this support is over what will I do again” (interview on 12 June 2020).


Varying access to Medical support and psychosocial support

The pandemic not only presents health-related risks, but the lockdown can also contribute to these risks. One example that I learned from several refugees I spoke with was that the limitations of movements affect those in need of medical support. Sick refugees are exposed to tremendous difficulties to reach medical facilities as their movements are restricted and because they can hardly find transportation. Those who manage to reach the facilities face further limitations there.

One refugee woman from DRC who fled to Uganda in 2008 made this experience. She explained to me that she had stomachache and needed to see a physician. Living in Kasubi, one of the suburbs of Kampala city, the trip to the medical center was problematic for her. She said that once she reached the center:

“Doctors just gave me a prescription and told me to go and buy for myself. That day I had no money and children had no food at home. I was helped by a good Samaritan who paid UGX 36,000 for my medication in a drug shop.” (Interview on 16 June 2020)

Another female refugee from DRC who had spent 8 years in Kampala city had a son whose leg was swollen and was in much pain. She was not so lucky of getting medical support. She said that she also managed to go to a hospital but she failed to get money for medical tests. She narrated, “The last time I went there during COVID-19 lockdown, the doctor told me that I should stay at home and pray. He did not give my son a single tablet to kill the pain” (interview on 15 June 2020).

Such limitations also affect access to psychosocial support. Offices that provide psychosocial support services are closed. Many of the refugees are used to going to church for prayers as self-care to process their emotional pain but churches are also closed and the sorrow of some people keeps increasing. A woman told me that it helps her to still go to church although it is closed; the walk alone but also being close to the church would make her feel better. She said, “When I feel that my head is almost bursting because of distress I walk almost a kilometer to our church and kneel down in front of the church door and pray” (interview on 14 June 2020).

Another refugee woman from Rwanda who has live in Kampala city for 12 years explained that she tried to gain support through a helpline of UNHCR. Refugees can call a number without charges and find someone who would listen to their distress. The woman said

One week back I had difficulty in sleep for more than a week. I tried to help myself but failed. I remembered that UNHCR had given us a toll free number to call them in case we have issues. After trying many times to call them someone picked my call and told me to be patient. One week has elapsed now am still waiting for the call in vain.” (Interview on 12 June 2020)

It is unclear whether the helpline is overloaded, but the need for this option is particularly evident in the current times of the pandemic.


Concluding remarks

As my brief reflections has shown: the effects of COVID-19 on urban refugees in Kampala city are grave. Although the government as well as aid agencies initiated different measures to support people in need (refugees and nationals), needs currently exceed the offers. While the lockdown certainly constitutes one measure to keep people safe, I showed how it intensified worries and risks among some people particularly refugees whose income generating activities are mainly selling some items on the streets and casual labor.

What the future holds for both refugees and nationals in relation to COVID 19 in Kampala city is uncertain. Lack of seriousness combined with hardship among the city dwellers refugees and nationals indicate that the spread of COVID 19 in Kampala city will increase. Despite the availability of hand washing facilities in every corner of Kampala city, call for social distancing and the wearing of masks as preventive measures, some places are still congested such as Kikuubo, Owino Market and Bus/tax parks. Majority of people in Kampala city do not put on masks and those who try to put them on, wear them inappropriately at the chin. This lifestyle is putting the city dwellers at a high risk of contracting Covid 19. Unless more strict measures are put in place, the spread of Covid 19 will increase and cause a lot of losses.


This blog post is part of the series Consequences of COVID-19 for Forced Migration and Refugees on the FluchtforschungsBlog.


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