Lived Vulnerabilities under Constraints: An Empirical Account of how Refugees Experience Uganda’s Protection System

Research report on the experiences of migrants seeking protection in Uganda - by Sophie Nakueira

This research report presents the research results of the second phase of the VULNER project in Uganda. The objective was to capture refugees’ experiences of their vulnerabilities, in view of juxtaposing them with the bureaucratic practices of vulnerability assessment, as developed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other international aid agencies.

The following research questions are addressed: What are the refugees’ main life challenges and experiences of vulnerabilities in Uganda? How are these experiences shaped by the existing humanitarian aid architecture and existing refugee policies? How do refugees mobilise existing bureaucratic categories of vulnerability, or resist these categories, in their efforts to overcome hardship?

To answer these questions, 311 interviews were conducted with refugees and asylum seekers in the Nakivale refugee camp in Uganda. The participants were from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, and Rwanda. Interlocutors were drawn from the bureaucratic categories of vulnerability that were identified in the previous report, such as elderly women and men, LGBTQIA+, SGBV men and women, people with disabilities (PWDs). The objective was to collect data to evaluate the concrete effects of the specific protection mechanisms in place for those who belong to these ‘vulnerable’ groups. Interlocutors also included other groups which claim to be particularly ‘vulnerable’ (such as ethnic minorities or people with albinism), although they fall outside the UNHCR vulnerability categories. Observations were made of the interactions between refugees and Uganda authorities and aid workers, for example, during the refugee status determination interviews, outreach programs, and at various points where refugees seek services relevant to their everyday life.

The findings reveal the shortcomings in the whole-of-society approach to protection, when addressing the needs of the most vulnerable refugees. The aid response is fragmented. Many aid agencies work in silos and do not follow up with their counterparts, to ensure that the specific protection needs of the most vulnerable refugees, which they identified, are also mitigated by other agencies when carrying out their respective protection mandates. Moreover, they have a reactive approach to vulnerabilities, which fails to prevent them from arising: The focus on the most vulnerable refugees leads agencies to miss warning signs, which could have prevented further vulnerabilisation if they had been addressed on time. For example, the focus on preventing malnutrition amongst pregnant mothers, elderly persons, and children under 5 years of age, whilst commendable, obscures other people at risk of severe malnutrition due to inadequate food supplies or lack of means of livelihood.

The findings also show that resource constraints contribute to shaping the shortcomings of the humanitarian response to vulnerabilities and the lack of understanding of the selection criteria for various programs fuels distrust and allegations of corruption. First, the vulnerability criteria that give access to specific assistance and programmes (e.g resettlement) target a small fraction out of a large population with similar protection needs. As a result, interventions take very long and benefit only a few - leaving out many refugees. Second, the funding of temporary programmes leads to ever-changing target populations, as programmes end and are replaced by new ones, which often focus on different vulnerable groups and nationalities. This makes it difficult for refugees to understand the logics behind vulnerability selection criteria.

Lastly, control systems that were introduced to mitigate fraud and monitor refugee population, such as biometric verification, inadvertently produce new forms of vulnerabilities. It prevents those who cannot afford to travel back to the settlement for frequent verification exercises, from seeking economic opportunities outside the settlement. This in turn promotes encampment and dependence on insufficient aid.

Overall, the findings show that because the protection system is designed to address the needs of the most vulnerable refugees, without being sufficiently funded to guarantee the basic needs of all refugees, a ‘vulnerability competition’ arises. First, many refugees resort to performing their vulnerabilities to gain access to humanitarian assistance, whereas some of the most vulnerable may lack the capacity or may not want to engage in such performance. Second, some refugees develop coping strategies that sometimes exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. For example, some refugees engage in prostitution and theft to make a living or drug and alcohol abuse to cope with everyday life stressors. Third, some of the refugees whose protection needs are not addressed resist the existing vulnerability categories, and they gather with others that have similar needs to lobby for the recognition of their experiences of suffering (e.g by founding their own organisations).

The proliferation of refugee-led organisations, whose membership is based on shared experiences of vulnerability, also offer much needed support albeit within limited means. Some come up with their own programs, which seek to build resilience among their members and help them in overcoming their hardships, by changing the vulnerability mindset (for instance, by transcending a victimhood attitude which does not help the refugees in overcoming everyday challenges). Others formed organisations that capitalise on their specific vulnerabilities to advocate for resettlement.

Download the full report here.

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