UNHCR calls for greater attention to the needs of refugee youth in Uganda

Refugees aged between 15 and 25 years are disproportionately disadvantaged in the absence of meaningful education and life skills development opportunities


The UNHCR Representative in Uganda, Joel Boutroue has called on partners to prioritize labour-intensive initiatives to create employment for youth in refugee settlements and adjacent host communities. He characterized failure to attend to the needs of refugee youth as a time bomb, noting that recourse to anti-social behaviour is in large measure the product of lack of opportunities to engage in productive activity.

Commenting on the violence that rocked Tika Zone in Rhino Camp last week, Boutroue continued to commend the swift action taken by local authorities and the police to contain the situation. He condemned the criminal acts by refugees that led to loss of life among fellow refugees, and cautioned against oversimplifying what in essence are complex causes of violence.

“We must disabuse ourselves of simplistic generalizations that attribute such tensions solely to ethnic strife,” the UNHCR Representative said. “It is important to recognize that contributing factors also include the trauma that prompted refugees to seek safety in Uganda, the uncertainty of life in exile, and the resulting sense of hopelessness for a generation whose future has been squandered by conflict.”

This week local authorities and humanitarian partners cooperated to relocate 899 refugee households (4,971 individuals) of Nuer ethnicity voluntarily from Tika Zone to Omugo Zone in Rhino Camp. Meanwhile refugees of Dinka ethnicity returned to their homes in Tika Zone. Many had taken refuge in Olujubo Primary School, in churches and among local communities in nearby areas.

Over three days, local authorities and humanitarian partners coordinated efforts to ensure safe passage of the refugees, demarcate plots, provide hot meals and water, and construct communal latrines. During the first two days, those relocated were mostly women and children. On the third day close to half were youth and men who came out of hiding.

The relocation followed a decision by the Office of the Prime Minister and UNHCR to separate Dinka and Nuer communities as a pre-emptive measure, based on the assessment that tensions between youth on both sides could spiral out of control if left unattended. Unfortunately, in the circumstances, separating the two communities was the only immediate measure to stop further loss of life. This however does not diminish the importance of reconciliation.

UNHCR’s Head of Sub Office in Arua, Bik Lum commended the host communities, Ugandan nationals, who saved the day by quickly offering land for the refugees to settle. “Local leaders are actively engaged in the effort to maintain peace,” she said. “Ugandan nationals took in many of the refugees who went into hiding at the peak of the crisis. It is this spirit of generosity that distinguishes Uganda from many refugee-hosting countries.”

Citing discussions held to communicate the decision of Government and to plan the relocation, Lum added that she was encouraged by the cooperation of refugee leaders. “Together with OPM officials, we emphasised the importance of peaceful coexistence among all ethnic groups. Refugee leaders are emphatic that the Dinka and Nuer communities have lived together peacefully in Uganda without any problems and that last week’s events were a tragic anomaly,” she said. Partners continue to engage refugee and host community leaders in affected areas to promote peaceful coexistence as well as non-violent ways of addressing differences.

Offering a refugee protection perspective, UNHCR Senior Protection Officer in Arua, Peter Muriuki unpacked some of the underlying causes of tensions among youth. “The youth segment of the refuge population has critical protection needs,” he said. “The future holds little for them at a stage in their lives when they should be branching out in readiness for manhood. Despair and idleness encourage deviance and anti-social behaviour including alcohol and substance abuse.”

Muriuki highlighted positive engagement through vocational training as well as integration in employment and income earning activities as factors which could provide a counterbalance for the enduring psychological effects of violence experienced before and during flight, as well as the deep sense of loss and growing despondency that accompanies life in exile.

The Senior Protection Officer noted that for people who have been socialized in a military context, emptiness or despondency literally become triggers for the kind of explosive tensions witnessed in Rhino Camp last week. He called for investment in education, transferable skills and employment opportunities as a means to nurturing youth to aspire to greatness, and become responsible productive upright members of society both in asylum and in due course when they are able to return home.

“Refugee youth need livelihood opportunities that go beyond the traditional agro-based initiatives, such as mobile money transfer, tech platforms and e-learning skills,” he said. “It is the way to ensure dignified asylum, promote social cohesion, and improve protection for both refugees and the communities that host them.”

South Sudanese nationals constitute about three-quarters of the refugee population in Uganda. The majority arrived during the past two years. Aged, between 15 and 25 years, youth are disproportionately disadvantaged in the absence of meaningful education and life skills development opportunities.


For more information, please contact:

Teresa Ongaro, Senior Spokesperson, [email protected], +256 771 908 404


RELATED STORY: UNHCR condemns violence that left four refugees dead in Rhino Camp, Uganda