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Migration, New Identities and Uganda’s Refugee Hosting Crisis

Itah Patience Mbethki, Makerere Institute of Social Research

Migration has marked Uganda as a country of destination and transit as well as of origin. Responding to political violence, economic problems, and humanitarian crises both within its borders and neighbouring countries, migrants and refugees have travelled to, through, and out of Uganda in large numbers over the years. Uganda has the highest refugee hosting status in Africa, with about 1,421,133 refugees. This adds to the economic pressure accelerated by a looming unemployment problem. Uganda’s population of nearly 48 million creates a demographic challenge to Uganda’s government which is exacerbated by the large number of refugees. While Covid-19 brought the migration numbers down, between 2020 and 2021 over 5000 refugees still crossed into Uganda while over 8,666 Ugandans left the country in search of employment. This doesn’t include those fleeing ethno-tribal and political conflicts and economic hopelessness by crossing the border into Kenya, Congo, Tanzania and Rwanda.

During the last two decades in particular, South– North migration has intensified in Uganda as a response to globalization processes and the lack of economic opportunities. Taking these factors into account, this essay argues that Uganda’s cyclic migration is a result of its refugee hosting crisis and its political and socio-economic inequalities. It investigates the consequences of migration on regional relations and challenges the claim that Uganda has replaced the Maghreb in the migration narrative.

Cyclic Migration and the Refugee Crisis in Uganda

Uganda’s migration patterns can be explained in relation to its refugee obligations and migration policies. Uganda’s migration is historically characterised by intensive inflows of migrants prompted by demographic, economic, and political factors, as well as by the fact that it is bordered by warring nations. These have acted in combination to produce various forms of migration such as nomads, labour migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons. In all these cases, there is clandestine movement across long, porous frontiers, with undocumented migrations perhaps the most common configuration. This has created massive in-flows, to the degree that Uganda has become the new in-flight link to the rest of the world, taking over from the Maghreb region. 

As several papers in this collection demonstrate, the legalities of migration in Africa demand a close analysis: how migrants leave a country of origin is not in itself proof of their legal status in another. Migration itineraries shift over time, in response notably to tightened controls and changing policies in transit countries. Uganda has flexible flight policies, lax visa processes and open visa requirements which mean that citizens of more than one half of African countries can easily get a visa upon arrival. This makes it easy to use Uganda as a destination transit point. With regional integration and a number of trade and economic treaty agreements and the mandate to respond to humanitarian needs, Uganda remains vulnerable to mass entries as well as massive exits into other countries.

I argue that while the out-flight in the Maghreb is risky, and borders on the suicidal due to processes of human labor trafficking and smuggling (see Nabil Ferdaoussi’s essay in this collection)14 other forms of migratory irregularities shouldn’t be ignored. While Maghreb migrants are lost at sea, Ugandan migrants to the Middle East and even to the Americas tend to be lost within the countries to which they migrate. There, they become victims of domestic violence, human trafficking and a booming trade in human organs. Africans not only die in transit but even in their destinations. Do the statistics match the bodies of mutilated victims that leave to work only to end up dead and harvested? While the sea harvests the Northern Africans, traders in the Middle East harvest Ugandans.

Uganda, as one of the biggest feeders of migrant labor to the Middle East, is therefore a significant area to study how migratory processes impact migrants lives. Studies continue to argue that migration should not be seen as only a South-toNorth phenomenon but also a South-to-South process where it occurs within and between several countries. In Uganda’s case, there is equal measure of South-to-North and Southto-South migration, accelerated by political and socio-economic inequalities that make Ugandans migrate to its neighbouring countries in search of better social services and work opportunities. For example, Atukunda (names anonymized), a teacher from Uganda, says she was forced to migrate to Kigali where the pay is better. She is only one of hundreds of teachers that moved to Rwanda between 2009-2013, responding to a sector unemployment crisis in the country. The same applies to doctors, nurses and scientists who move to other countries in search of better opportunities.

There are two phenomena to explain this. Firstly, the open and porous nature of Uganda’s borderlines and its migration policies make it easy to move across to other countries and continents. Porous borders are not unique to Uganda, but the borderline security enforcement in Uganda’s case is weakened by corruption, inconsistency and a laxity in the enforcement and legal due processes. This affects the way immigration in Uganda handles in-flow and outflow of human traffic. Furthermore, the government lacks a streamlined structured administrative process responsible for immigration in the country. As one scholar notes, countries like Uganda which have diverse Ministries and Agencies responsible for different aspects of migration make coordination and collaboration a challenge, arguing that a unified and integrated department is better placed to ensure national security. Uganda’s border management compromises its cross regional and international migration, perhaps making its own inadequate policies to blame for its migration problem.


This translates into border conflicts, and diplomatic tensions, especially if there are no clearly defined terms of relations, trade and exchanges, as with Rwanda-Uganda relations since 2019. One particularly important case is the South Sudan military conflict, which left many trading Ugandans stranded and in need of evacuating, and then facing struggles to survive back in Uganda. Esther, a trader who was rescued when the upheaval in South Sudan occurred, is one of many examples of frustrated Ugandans. She was a restaurateur for the construction personnel in South Sudan. With her return to Uganda, she was unable to find a job and even market for her merchandise. Because she didn’t want to spend her savings, she trusted a pyramid scheme to make a quick interest and profit, but in less than a year she had lost it all when the scheme crashed. She plans to move to South Africa, to escape the frustration of a failed life in Sudan. This shows how migration creates crises that extend to other countries.

I want to argue that this in some way explains the xenophobia and Afrophobia in South Africa, showing just how much migration affects relationships in Africa, where countries already exhausted from fighting for limited resources are then threatened by migrant labourers against whom they must compete. The victims of such violence often cannot return home, having fled political prosecution, and so they move on with migration to other parts of Africa or even Europe, America, and the Middle East. This is a cyclic trend in which thousands of Africans rotate in and of their countries. Consequently, Uganda has been a victim to the cyclic migratory patterns rife in many African countries, especially hosting refugees, asylum seekers and labourers from the Horn of Africa, South Sudan, Congo and central Africa Republic. Consequently, settlement formations become necessary within which migrants try to negotiate survival. Questions however are raised as to what happens to Ugandans who flee to other countries, migrating both out of necessity and compulsion and attempting to navigate new challenges born out of socio-cultural and political economic issues in the country.

Forging New Identities and Carving Second Futures

There is a story to every migrant that you find in the diaspora. For many, their dreams for better opportunities becomes nightmares – especially those in the Arab world. For others, their tenures end in the midst of their work, such as students who flunk out of university in Europe. A student I interviewed once told me of the shame of failing. A woman who I met in North America narrated a story of a broken heart and losing her K-2 visa when her marriage did not last: “upon my arrival, I couldn’t understand him anymore.” Another friend from college, depressed and lonely, committed suicide. These are stories that are told by educated, dream chasing migrants who realise too late that the promises don’t come and if they do, there is a long journey to walk to get them. If they survive, just how much do they need to adjust to adapt to their new homes? There is a validity to the questions of What to do?’ ‘How to act?’ and ‘Who to be?’ as responses arising out of occurrences affecting everyone in modern societies, prompting an identity crisis in each of us. Identity dilemmas are pervasive in the migrants’ daily lives because of their conflicting but often overlapping and intertwined identities. 

The need to fit into the new home and yet retain a defining identity to their origins reigns high in both the short term and permanent migrant. An Uber driver from the Congo explained it to me: “I came on a student visa, then found I could do some work part time, at first I fought to speak like an American, then realized that I didn’t have to be an American to live and work in America, so I reverted to my accent and found it better and easier.” Pushed a little more, he confessed that he had migrated to Uganda as a refugee and then applied through the system after doing his A-levels in a Ugandan school. He joins the many refugees that choose to begin normalcy in Uganda before they emigrate to other parts of the world as ordinary people. This is because the identity of refugee is a tag they are choosing to leave behind, because of its connotations. There is a need for a new identity. In the forging of a new person, there is a new question that arises: who am I? Neither here nor there, the cultural dilemma and corresponding attempt to forge a hybridity of identities for the migrant becomes not a question of time but of acceptance.

There is a continuous assessment of the impact of the identity crisis on the migrant, the lack of confidence and esteem due to cultural differences and ethno-racial separation seen as a result of acculturalisation while noting the suggestion that the process of acculturation is akin to the psychological models of moving towards, moving against and moving away from a stimulus. Investigations must be undertaken to show if this change will correspond to adaptation or simulation, rejection and deculturation. The process of acculturation requires two cultures to come into contact and both cultures may experience some change.  What if this doesn’t happen?

Whether it is a refugee or a non-refugee emigrant, the biggest concern for the migrant is the adjustment to the cultural shock that comes with moving from a country of origin to a new country. Whether through acculturalisation, deculturalisation or assimilation, there is always a new identity created, and this is often beyond hybridity; it is a reculturalisation. In migration situations where the emigrants form part of a minority group, the need to cluster into national communities is high. Take Waltham in Boston, estimated to have the highest number of Ugandans in the state of Massachusetts; it has a Uganda church, a Uganda market, Uganda games and even a Uganda day. The need to revert back home, without going home is an important example in seeing how emotional migration becomes in the debate on how they want to be identified. It is not about who do I want to be, but who I am, a Ugandan. Knowing that tribal and ethnic realities have been deconstructed, the only reality remains in origin identity: I travel to America with more food, traditional clothes and national flags, than I do with anything else. The need to have a future without out forgetting the past is important. Children are being born and there is need to hold on to identities of origin. While children take on new identities, parents, grandparents and other relatives remain tied to the old; the philosophical rendition of Okot P.Bitek’s idea that the pumpkin should not be uprooted from the old homestead. 

Conclusion Migration has been attributed to three factors meso, macro and micro translated into employment, short term and seasonal and education migration. But now, refugees account for almost 17% of all migration implying that it is a persisting global problem which is a reality in Uganda. Uganda will have to honour her hosting obligations, but how can Uganda ensure that alongside this hosting obligation, its citizens are catered for so that they too thrive with the support of the government? The European Union, African Union and the United Nations push for more accountability measures especially in areas of education, health, and structural adaptations that create discrepancies in income and employment opportunity between citizens and migrants.


Furthermore, the migrant, the migration and the destination as tripods created out of different crises and formulated within frameworks of change must be re-defined. The very idea of reculturalisation; the metaphorical innuendos in translating the untranslatable becomes a burden for the future, in identify creations of the migrant. The choice to live beyond the hypotheses of coloniality and the pitfalls of post-coloniality bring into the present the reality of decoloniality. Even when there is an attempt to separate migration from these historical events intra-continental migration is a reminder that colonialism brought partitioning, which separated tribes and ethnicities across borders, creating a natural fluidity of identity seekers.

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