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Coronavirus Disease 2019

COVID-19 and Urban Refugees in Africa

Three factors contributing to urban refugees' coronavirus vulnerability.

Source: Ninno JackJr/Unsplash
Source: Ninno JackJr/Unsplash

Guest post by Dennis Kilama

COVID-19 has greatly impacted the life and livelihood of urban refugees, making them more vulnerable. The pandemic has influenced their psychological, socio-cultural, and economic well-being.

A study entitled “The socio-economic and psychosocial impact of COVID-19 pandemic on urban refugees in Uganda” was led by Paul Bukuluki from the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.

The purpose of the study was to examine the socio-cultural, economic, and psychosocial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on urban refugees in Uganda. The study focused on urban refugees in Kampala. Most of these refugees live in the poor neighborhoods of Kampala, Uganda. They mainly speak Swahili, Arabic, and French. Uganda is the largest refugee-hosting country in Africa and the third-largest in the world. The country hosts 1.35 million refugees mainly from neighboring countries in conflict (UNHCR, 2019)—of these, the majority are women and children.

The research used a qualitative methodology, involving the review of literature on the subject. The key finding was that in the process of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, urban refugees were bypassed and neglected. This left them more vulnerable than the other urban poor. Bukuluki and his team argue:

"There is, therefore, a threat of neglecting the socio-economic and psychosocial aspects of the pandemic on the vulnerable population, especially urban refugees."

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed urban refugees in Uganda, and particularly in Kampala to great vulnerability and risk. This is evidenced by three factors.

First is the psychosocial challenges the urban refugees face. Urban refugees are discriminated against and isolated.

"The fact that COVID-19 is perceived as 'imported'; coming from either foreigners or nationals that traveled abroad, makes the population and authorities suspicious of foreigners, including refugees … As a result, refugees are among those perceived as migrants, travelers, and potential carriers or transmitters of COVID-19.”

This isolation and discrimination only lead to stress, anxiety, and other psychosocial problems. The refugees are left to fend for themselves as the countries from which they come have struggled in responding to the pandemic. The refugees are viewed as transmitters of the disease.

Second is the socio-cultural challenges faced by urban refugees as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The refugees live in poor areas with poor water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities. This further exposes them to COVID-19, increasing the likelihood of contracting the virus. The living conditions make it hard to adhere to public health measures the government sets.

This is further worsened by the refugee policy in Uganda that requires refugees to reside in demarcated areas for material support. With this policy, the government in Uganda is unable to meet the material needs of urban areas, leaving the refugees at risk and more vulnerable. This means that those who are in urban areas are neglected and left to fend for themselves, as when food distributions were happening in the urban areas and refugees were not given food by the government because they did not have national identity cards. Furthermore, the information on COVID-19 is not available for the refugees in local languages that they understand. This leaves them at the risk of receiving misinformation from their peers and networks, gathering information that could be misleading.

The third challenge is the economic impact of the pandemic on urban refugees. The urban refugees rely mainly on remittance funds from abroad. This is from relatives and friends in the USA, Australia, and Europe. With the lockdown affecting the economies in these countries, the refugees in urban areas are sometimes left without income. Furthermore, the refugees that depend on the informal sector have their livelihood affected by the lockdown measures. Economic hardship has led to violence in the home, as the traditional gender role of the men is the breadwinner. In the pandemic, the men have failed to perform this role, provoking them to violence in the homes.

Therefore, there is a need for a review of the contingency plan for COVID-19 to include urban refugees. Bukuluki and his team argue that:

“a holistic response to this pandemic demands an appreciation of the psychosocial and socio-economic impact of COVID-19 on all vulnerable groups, including urban refugees.”

The response to the pandemic has impacted the vulnerable populations hardest—among these are urban refugees. Therefore, governments and civil society organizations must respond to the plight of refugees.

Dennis Kilama is a student in the M.A Humanitarian and Disaster leadership program at Wheaton College. He teaches at the Africa Renewal University (Kampala, Uganda) and serves as the senior pastor of Lugogo Baptist Church in Kampala, Uganda. He is involved with working with Refugees in Uganda.


Bukuluki, P., Mwenyango, H., Katongole, S. P., Sidhva, D., & Palattiyil, G. (2020). The socio-economic and psychosocial impact of Covid-19 pandemic on urban refugees in Uganda. Social Sciences & Humanities Open, 2(1), 100045.

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