Wednesday, 12 October 2022

Kyaka II - a look into the Ugandan refugee settlements system

Do you know the difference between a refugee settlement and a refugee camp? - a smiling Finn Church Aid staff member asks me as we walk through Finn Church Aid vocational skills training centre inside the Kyaka II refugee settlement, in Western Uganda. First of all - he continues without expecting my response - within a refugee settlement, the refugee, whom we prefer to call “person of concern”, can move freely.

Young shepherds with Ankole cows in Kyaka II 

Before going to Uganda, I had a vague idea that a refugee settlement was different from a refugee camp, but I could not clearly distinguish between the two. In most academic journals on migration, the terms camps and settlements are used interchangeably. For instance, the Rhino-camp in Northern Uganda is defined by UNHCR as a settlement, but, at the same time, it is listed as a camp in the UNHCR statistical overview (Schmidt, 2003). Five parameters can be used to distinguish a refugee settlement from a refugee camp (Ferraro et al., 2020; Idris, 2017; Schmidt, 2003). The first parameter, as the Finn Church Aid staff member explained to me, is freedom of movement: unlike a refugee settlement, in a refugee camp the area in which daily activities take place is limited and restricted. A second parameter can be found in the way refugees receive assistance: in refugee camps, assistance is mainly provided in the form of relief handouts and food distribution, while in settlements refugees have the possibility to be involved in different income generating activities like agriculture, tailoring, carpentry, hairdressing, construction. In Kyaka II, as well as in Rhino camp, my sending organization, Mondo, offers digital skills training in the vocational skills training centres managed by its partner, Finn Church Aid in Kyaka II and Norwegian Refugee Council in Rhino Camp. At the Finn Church Aid vocational skills training centre in Kyaka II, where I spent some time during my monitoring visit, refugees and the host community can freely access various training, such as hairdressing, motorbike repair, agriculture, catering and tailoring. In addition, a daycare service is available to participants of the training, particularly young mothers. A third parameter is based on the consistency of the solution offered to the refugee. A refugee camp is a temporary facility, (...) not established to provide permanent solutions (What Is a Refugee Camp? Definition and Statistics | USA for UNHCR, n.d.). The refugee settlement, on the other hand, tends to be a durable solution, allowing the refugee economic integration into the local communities. The last two parameters are: mode of governance, within a settlement the refugee has the possibility to actively participate in the political life; population size and density, the more the settlement is overcrowded, the more it is generally seen to take on the character of a camp. 

Children playing in Kyaka II

Gathering the quantitative and qualitative data needed to assess the long-term impact of the Mondo digital skills training on refugees and their host community was not easy. Although we had a list with the name, surname and telephone number of people who had completed the training a few months ago, and although we had recalled them about our visit in advance, many of the people to be interviewed or to whom the questionnaires were to be submitted were no longer available. Some had moved out of the refugee settlement, others could not be reached by phone. Asking them to meet us at the vocational skills training centre and conduct the data collection from there was never an option because the Kyaka refugee settlement covers 81.5 km² (Kyaka II Fact Sheet, 2014) and transportation within the settlement is difficult due to the bumpy roads, transportation cost and unpredictable weather. Also, while we were collecting the data, many people were at work, at school or could not leave the house for other personal reasons. Carrying out data collection by telephone-led interviews was done as much as possible but the connection is not always stable and not everyone has a mobile phone to pick up our calls. The solution we found was to conduct the interviews door-to-door by going around the 26 villages of the Kyaka II refugee settlement. Supported by village leaders, trainers and other facilitators we eventually managed to trace most of the people on the list.

Courtyard of a house in Kyaka II

Visiting these villages, where most of the houses are built with mud and wood, listening to refugees' stories and observing their everyday life is a very intense experience. Although there is a tendency in the contemporary debate to consider refugee settlements a better alternative to refugee camps (Schmidt, 2003), listening to the situations refugees face on a daily basis in the settlement confirms to me that many of the challenges present in the refugee settlements, such as insufficient food or money distribution, overcrowded spaces, few job and educational opportunities, lack of electricity, are typical characteristics of a traditional camp.

Refugee's house in Kyaka II

After an interview, as I walked around the village, I saw some children playing in the sand. I approached them to see what game they were playing but as soon as they noticed me they ran and hid behind a wall laughing. I couldn't figure out what game it was until the children got used to my presence and went back to playing. Try to guess the game before you play the video!

In the weeks following my visit to Kyaka II, I decided to contact a colleague of mine to have more information about the refugee settlement system in Uganda. 

O. is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Kyaka II was the first refugee settlement he lived in once he arrived in Uganda. O. and I did the data collection together in Kyaka II. While I conducted the interviews in French and English, O. conducted the interviews in Swahili and Kinyarwanda, the two most spoken languages within the settlement, although more than 10 different languages can be found. 

Asylum seekers in Uganda can receive the status of refugee depending on whether they are subject to prima facie refugee status - which means that they receive refugee status on the basis of their nationality (Alison, 2018);  or non prima facie refugees - they receive refugee status after a determination process conducted by the Refugee Eligibility Committee, an inter-ministerial body that makes decisions on asylum claim (Kalyango & Huff, 2021). South Sudanese refugees and the majority of Congolese refugees are granted prima facie refugee status, specifically those who enter Uganda through officially recognized entry points (OPM and UNHCR Joint Statement: Uganda Maintains Its Open-Door Policy for Refugees, 2019; UNHCR Representation in Uganda, 2022).

I left the DRC for political reasons - O. told me - I arrived in Uganda in 2017 with one of my brothers. When we arrived in Kyaka, we started the asylum seeker registration. Then, we had a short interview with OPM (Office of the Prime Minister) and we were recognized with refugee status after three months. 

When you receive refugee status from the OPM, you are allocated a plot. It can be 20x20m or 50x50m. For the initial period you are also covered with construction materials so you can build your own house. If you don't build anything on the piece of land allocated to you, they give it to someone else.

As a refugee in the settlement, you can receive monthly food assistance in-kind or through cash transfers. In-kind food assistance means that you can receive beans, cooking oil, salt and maize flour. Many families prefer in-kind food assistance because the cash transfer is just 13.000 ugx (3.50 euro) per family member and is not enough. However, many people find other means of livelihood, such as farming or construction, and they can earn between 5000 or 10.000 ugx (between 1.30 euro and 2.50 euro) for a full day's work.

When I greeted O. I thank him for the time he has given me. He greeted me without saying anything, raising his eyebrows and chin upwards. Then he gets into his car and drives away. In 1976, the anthropologist Edward T. Hall proposed that cultures can be divided into two categories according to their verbal and nonverbal communication - high and low context. In low-context cultures, the communication is direct and the message is explicit, all the necessary information to understand the message are clearly exchanged. In high-context cultures, the communication is less-direct and it focuses more on underlying context, meaning, and tone. The information is usually implied rather than explicit and an understanding of the cultural context is deeply necessary to understand the message.

O.'s greeting is an example of high-context communication. As my friend Tony explained once to me, this movement of the head and eyes, widely used in Uganda, can mean several things: I noticed you, I thank you, I greet you, I'm fine, I understand. And you cannot grasp its meaning if you have not experienced the context. 

From my photos collection "Jesus in Pop Culture"

  • Alison, R. (2018). Refugee status determination: A study of the process in Uganda. Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).
  • Ferraro, F., Verkuil, L., & Chapman, J. (2020). FORMAL SETTLEMENT VS EMERGENCY CAMP - Different refugee residence approaches in Uganda and South Sudan (p. 50). Scalabrini Institute for Human Mobility in Africa (SIHMA).
  • Idris, I. (2017). Effectiveness of various refugee settlement approaches (K4D Helpdesk Report No. 223; p. 17). Institute of Development Studies (IDS).
  • Kalyango, R., & Huff, K. (2021). Refugees in the city: Status determination, resettlement and the changing nature of forced migration in Uganda. International Social Work.
  • Kyaka II Fact Sheet. (2014). UNHCR.
  • OPM and UNHCR joint statement: Uganda maintains its open-door policy for refugees. (2019). OPM, UNHCR.
  • Schmidt, A. (2003). FMO Thematic Guide: Camps versus settlements. Forced Migration Online.
  • UNHCR Representation in Uganda. (2022). Uganda Refugee Response Plan (RRP) 2022-2023 -Protection Dashboard.
  • What is a Refugee Camp? Definition and Statistics | USA for UNHCR. (n.d.).


  1. Wow!!!
    I really enjoy to get this information although I'm in kyaka ii refugee settlement but previously I knew not yet the difference between a refugee settlement and a refugee camp however, through this content I got to know so I thank a lot the author for this amazing and interesting sharing