10350466776_23b2e3e368_zI’m back in Uganda, this time with funding from One World Media, researching a story about refugee businesses.

Here’s the premise: 86% of the world’s refugees are in developing countries. Uganda, a relatively stable nation in a rocky region is now home to over half a million people seeking refuge from South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It now hosts the third largest refugee population in Africa.

But what makes Uganda intriguing is its unusually open door policy: all refugees are granted freedom of movement and the right to work; in rural areas they get allocated their own plot of land. So while most countries try to contain refugees in designated zones set apart from cities and towns, and to stop them from competing with locals for jobs, in Uganda refugees can (and do) become traders, workers, employers, entrepreneurs.

Indeed, an Oxford University research project in the country in 2014 found that 60% of refugees were self-employed, 39% employed – and only 1% not working at all. 

With global funding for humanitarian crises in dire straits, more displaced people than ever before, and the average stay in a refugee camp now 17 years, a policy that enables self-sufficiency and reduces the need for aid is a no-brainer. The UN body for refugees, Many, including the UNHCR — which is also trying to encourage governments to consider alternatives to camps — think Uganda could be a model for other refugee-hosting nations.

But as always, there’s more to the story.

First, the Oxford University research was limited to two settlements plus Kampala, and not necessarily representative of refugee life in the north of the country. Second, despite all the praise, some say the country’s self-reliance strategy expects refugees to make a living yet doesn’t acknowledge the difficult circumstances in which they live. And third, numbers have increased rapidly in recent months. 100,000 newcomers were registered in 2015, and this year looks set to beat that figure — so how does more pressure on resources affect the ability to do business? Stay tuned….

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