Freedom of movement is one of the most essential rights for refugees to engage in economic activities. Although the right to move freely is enshrined in Article 26 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, as widely reported, a number of refugee-hosting countries restrict refugees’ mobility and often force refugees to stay inside the designated camps or settlements. In Uganda where I recently conducted the fieldwork, in contrary, refugees’ right to move freely is well respected by the host government. Refugees in the country utilised their mobility for their livelihoods; some moved to access livelihood opportunities while others moved in response to livelihood challenges.

A certain number of refugees in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, were taking advantage of sub-regional mobility for their economic activities. With their well-established trade networks, there were several Somali transportation companies covering most of East Africa and some Somali refugees were working as drivers for these companies. I also came across several refugees who were involved in trading between Uganda and their country of origin. For example, one of the Congolese refugee interviewees was purchasing plastic items such as jerry cans and water tanks in Kampala and exporting them to retail sellers in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). During the interview, this Congolese trader suggested that he recently visited DRC a couple of times for his business.

Many refugees capitalised on freedom of movement within the host country. During the fieldwork, I interviewed refugees who were moving back and forth between Kampala and refugee settlements. Often these refugees were registered in the specific settlement and some of their family members were still living there. But, mainly for pursuit of economic opportunities, some of their household members, usually young male, came to the capital and returned to the settlement with earned money once in a few months.

Mobility was often employed by some refugees as an inevitable response to livelihood challenges. For instance, a considerable number of refugee vendors were making a long journey to border towns and villages between Uganda and their country of origin to sell their goods. I came across some Congolese refugee women who were buying accessories in the capital and selling them in villages between DRC and Uganda. The primary reason for their long travel was to avoid competition with local traders in Kampala. This mobile strategy provided refugee vendors with access to new markets outside the capital but also reduced their profits due to transportation costs between Kampala and the border villages.

Refugee merchants without a formal business license constantly moved around different markets in Kampala to avoid being arrested by the officials from the local municipality. In Kampala, everyone is required to obtain a license from the city council to engage in commercial activities. However, many failed to do so due to the inability to pay the high registration cost (there were also numerous Ugandan traders who could not afford buying a license). If those without a license were found by the local municipality, their merchandises would be confiscated by the government officials. This was why non-registered refugee traders continuously ‘wandered’ around different markets in the capital, which was significantly decreasing the efficiency of their businesses.

While freedom of movement was an essential component for livelihoods of refugees in Uganda, it is important to understand the reasons for their mobility. Refugees who were engaged in cross-border trading certainly capitalised on freedom of movement for their business; but some refugees inevitably had to move to cope with their livelihood problems. In the last two examples above, refugees didn’t necessarily want to move as it decreased the efficiency and profitability of their subsistence. Mobility was undoubtedly important for the economic activities of refugees in Uganda but their reasons to move were not always the same.


                                                                                                                                                                         Naohiko Omata



Leave a Reply.