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Persevering with Patience: How COVID-19 has exacerbated food and financial insecurity for refugees

Refugees are suffering multiple shocks. Some may be getting support (e.g. through GiveDirectly) but many won’t be. We need to listen to their voices and, in the midst of so much uncertainty in the world, we empathise with their situation. They should not be overlooked and we need to consider how to better help in times of shocks.

“I am surrounded by only problems”: Refugee experiences of multiple shocks from April to June 2020 in Kiryandongo, Uganda.

At IDinsight, we are privileged to speak with South Sudanese refugees in the Kiryandongo refugee settlement, Uganda. In recent times, we have been humbled to hear about the multiple shocks they are facing, on top of already difficult and uncertain lives. The COVID-19 crisis and lockdown policies have created major economic challenges for this refugee community, as well as other communities across Uganda and Africa. For refugees, the challenges are compounded by the stretched funding flowing into the UN and humanitarian organisations, which leaves less for each settlement and, in turn, for each household.

We would like to share some of what we have heard from refugee households, in rapid form, before we engage in deep qualitative analysis. We particularly want to share this with humanitarian organisations and their supporters, in the hope that it can be used to understand and improve the response to the shocks faced by refugees. Below, through a character called Patience, we present a composite ‘median’ of the many narratives we have heard from participants in our study to offer an idea of challenges faced by the residents of Kiryandongo.

IDinsight enumerator, Stephen Sokiri, talks with a refugee living in Kiryandongo refugee settlement.

Patience is a South Sudanese refugee who lives in Kiryandongo refugee settlement, Uganda. She is the head of her household. Her husband died in South Sudan before she came to Uganda in 2014, fleeing the civil war that broke out following independence. She supports five young children in a small, mudbrick house in the settlement, with her sister and sister’s children living nearby.

Patience receives a monthly ration from the World Food Programme; some households opt to receive their ration in food, but Patience chooses to receive an equivalent amount of cash. The ration rarely lasts the whole month. To supplement, she grows some vegetables on the small plot of land that she received when she came to Kiryandongo and earns casual wages from digging in her neighbour’s garden. Her sister runs a micro-business in one of the markets inside the settlement, selling snacks to other refugees, which provides some additional income.

When Patience has enough money, she is able to pay school fees and send her children to a government primary school near the settlement. When she cannot pay, her children are “chased from school.” When they attend, her children receive education as well as free meals. When money and food are scarce, she might send her older children to her sister’s house to eat; when her sister is struggling, Patience will feed her sister’s children in return.

Prior to March 2020, this is what typical life looked like for many refugees in Kiryandongo, a refugee settlement with 10,000 households and over 14 ethnic groups, mostly from South Sudan. Uganda hosts over 1.4 million refugees and has some of the most progressive refugee policies in the world; refugees are able to move freely within Uganda and can legally work. But being able to work and finding work are two different things, especially in a country that has high unemployment rates.

Providing for the household is not easy. To provide for basic survival, refugees receive monthly food or cash aid from the World Food Programme. Many refugees, upon arrival, also receive a small plot of land from the Government of Uganda. Tenure on this land can be tenuous, but for those who have access to land, it assists with food security. Some refugees set up small businesses selling food or second-hand clothing, or seek casual wage employment on others’ farms, though in IDinsight’s baseline survey we found 44% of working-age refugees were engaged in wage labour. Refugees in Kiryandongo have also experienced major trauma, having lived through waves of conflict and violence in South Sudan, and the subsequent challenges of re-settling in Uganda. In general, people get on with things and “struggle like that,” trying to provide for households that have, on average, nine members.

Although she is struggling for daily survival, Patience believes her future might get better. She hears that GiveDirectly is planning to provide large cash transfers to all refugee households in the settlement.

GiveDirectly has been working in the Kiryandongo refugee settlement since 2018. They will be providing 10,000 refugee households and 5000 host community households from the surrounding district with ~USD1000 unconditional cash transfers. GiveDirectly has begun distributing cash transfers; the full set will be phased in overtime. Ideally, people will be able to use this large transfer for a transformative activity, like augmenting a business or investing in education. While people are reluctant to plan too much for their transfer before they have cash-in-hand, they have started to tell us about some of their ideas: to rent land to grow more food for themselves and to sell at the market, to improve their homes, to pay school fees, or to start a business.

But while planning for what she will do with her cash transfer, Patience hears about a new illness called COVID-19. She wonders about this illness that means she “cannot touch her own body”, but washes her hands with the water she collects and does not touch her face. She encourages her children to do the same.

But then one day, things change dramatically. Her children are sent home from school and will no longer receive a free school meal. The market in the settlement is ‘decongested’ and there is no space for her sister to sell snacks in the newly distanced stalls. Her neighbour refuses to employ her because he is scared of interacting with more people than is absolutely necessary.

Patience is very worried. Where is she going to get money? How is she going to feed her children?

Uganda entered a COVID-19 lockdown on 31 March 2020. Public transport and movement by private cars were prohibited; schools closed; only essential stores could remain open, and markets had to enforce a four-metre gap between stalls. After the lockdown, half of the refugee respondents in our study reported the loss of formal employment or increased difficulties finding casual work, and four of our 23 respondents stopped their small businesses altogether. Many of the refugees we spoke to also discussed the challenges of receiving remittances from South Sudan. Previously, remittances were often physically transported across the border on buses, but with border closures and a freeze on all movement, this is no longer possible. Fortunately, those receiving remittances from wealthier countries (e.g. the United Kingdom or USA), which usually come by mobile money, are having fewer challenges receiving such support.

So Patience moves through the settlement, during the hours she is allowed to and charges her phone at a shop with a generator. She then finds a place with a mobile network signal and asks her relatives in South Sudan for help. But the lockdown means they cannot send money from their village to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and then south-west to Kiryandongo.

After some lean weeks for Patience’s family, the monthly cash distribution from the World Food Programme finally takes place. But Patience is shocked when she learns that she will now receive just UGX22,000 per person per month, UGX9,000 less per person than she previously received. In April 2020, the World Food Programme had to decrease its support to refugees by 30% because of a significant funding shortfall.

With little other choice, Patience goes to Molokony market, inside the settlement, to buy what she can, planning to make her meagre allowance stretch further through careful purchases. But yet another shock awaits her at the market: vendors are “overcharging”. Patience has less money, but food costs more: maybe 20% more, maybe 40% more. She sighs, “these changes are too much.” Our data shows that food prices in Kiryandongo have been increasing. While prices are not always stable or seen as fair, this is different. Patience says these increases are “not like those before. Before, prices could increase sometimes — like the salt can increase by 100 UGX. But now it has increased by 800 UGX”.

These changes are likely due to supply chain disruptions due to COVID-19, seasonal fluctuations, and recent locust plagues, and add another huge challenge to the shocks already faced by the Kiryandongo community.

No matter the cause, now some households simply do not have enough food. Where people used to speak of a tight and bland diet, now people speak of “hunger” and “survival”, often with regards to their own family, sometimes referring to others. Patience’s neighbor tries to help, saying, “I have food but those people are very very dangerously hungry… they have no money, the food has been reduced, [and] prices are up…..Sometimes I share with them my food. Because you cannot watch your neighbours’ children dying of hunger and just look, it is not good”.

With so much to cope with, Patience starts to feel desperate. All she can think of is her family’s hunger, and she wonders how they will survive. Her sister’s family is in a similarly dire situation, though they share what little they have. Patience says that when she looks at the “hungry, teary faces” of her children, it is “painful” and she wants to “cry all at once.” Patience’s every waking hour is filled with worry and fear.

COVID-19, the associated lockdown, and rising prices in the market have added pressure to the regular struggle of everyday life. At the same time, the normal buffers of school meals, World Food Programme distributions, and family near and far have been interrupted. Each of these changes on their own constitutes a shock. Together, the cumulative effect is immense. At a time when people need more aid and opportunities from multiple sources, they are often receiving less. There are many consequences of this but the most immediate are hunger and the psychological trauma of dealing with the situation.

A female refugee told us “because of the number of people at home here, this made me not to settle because I have to move up and down looking for what to eat for the family”. And another’s desperation was reflected in the statement “the hunger is too much for me sometimes”.

The stress of trying to feed families, on top of a high baseline of trauma, engenders strong emotions and psychological burden. People are having trouble coping, and share emotions such as fear, worry and anger. One refugee told us, “I am not able to handle all the challenges”, going on to say that “we are going to die of hunger….that is what I worry about”. Another shared that “I am angry because, with this position they could have added for us the food, the ration should be added or the cash, but they have deducted it.”

In Kiryandongo refugee settlement, some refugees and host community households have already received part or all of their GiveDirectly cash, and many more will receive cash over the next year. For the participants in our study who have already received their transfer, many are using it to compensate for reduced WFP aid and higher prices. Eight of the 22 respondents we asked specifically mentioned that they had to use the transfer for food due to the lockdown — sometimes at the cost of long-term investment spending such as starting or extending a business, or paying school fees. One female refugee told us that:

“The coronavirus spoiled all my plans. Before, I had planned to use the money in the kitchen and garden, then to some extent to pay [school] fees, if something remains. But the coronavirus that came made me change the plans and buy food since we were told not to move”.

GiveDirectly also only has funds to assist refugees in Kiryandongo. This means that thousands of other refugees in Uganda do not have access to this life-saving support, let alone the opportunity to pull themselves out of poverty and build a life of dignity in the long term.

After so much suffering and worry, Patience finally has some relief: her cash transfer from GiveDirectly arrives. Finally, she can go to the market and purchase enough beans and maize for her family. Finally, she is not constantly overcome by worry and stress. But what about her hopes of investing her GiveDirectly transfer, of increasing her farming business, of making more income and supporting her children through school? Her family will survive the current crisis, but they may have lost their opportunity to thrive and build a better life for themselves in the long term.

IDinsight will continue speaking with refugees and host community members over the coming months to explore the challenges they face, the positive and negative coping strategies they use, and their plans for and uses of their cash transfers. We plan to continue sharing their voices with you, both through such blog posts and through more in-depth analytical pieces, in the hope that these voices may influence decision-makers to improve the lives of refugees in Kiryandongo, and the many other communities like it.

The authors would like to thank IDinsight’s primary data collectors Stephen Sokiri and Christian Daniel Opio, GiveDirectly, and all the participants in the study, for making this blog post possible.