Challenging The Representation Of Contemporary Migrants: Population Influx And Resource Inequality In Uganda

December 2019 marked the end of an adverse year for Uganda, with climate change and a looming 2021 election creating tension across different regions. Yet, perhaps more worrying is the emerging issue of increasing population numbers. This demographic shift calls into question whether certain areas will soon transcend the carrying capacity of their fragile ecosystems. Neighbouring conflicts in East Africa have created a large refugee wave moving into poorer parts of Uganda, namely the underdeveloped North and Western districts. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) projected that 1.73 million refugees may have now entered Uganda. They speculated that as many as 1,074,000 have been coming from South Sudan alone (with an additional 539,000 Congolese and 42,000 Burundian). This leaves Uganda behind only Turkey and Pakistan as nations who have absorbed an overwhelming majority of the recent global flows of displaced persons.

Unprepared for such a burden

For those living in Uganda these incoming numbers are not evenly distributed. Notably, they end up being spatially concentrated in specific regions, often rural areas, which are inadequately prepared to absorb more people. Uganda has made huge strides in recent years tackling national poverty issues by addressing rural livelihoods. Specifically, they have been creating policies which have allowed subsistence households (farming for food to eat) to shift into smallholder operations (selling produce to the market). Here, agriculture has gone from fulfilling individual needs to generating local, regional and national wealth. Not only does this strengthen the resilience of its rural populations, who are on the frontline of climate change risk, but it also feeds into Uganda’s 2030 ambitions to become a middle-income country by stimulating economic growth. Nonetheless, resource demand and a large increase in population is challenging these socio-economic advancements.

In this way, a large influx greatly stresses the lives of the poorest in Uganda. Many of whom are still living precariously near, or below, the absolute poverty threshold ($1.30 per day). Notably, this increases the demand in key policy areas and puts a strain on local resources such as energy, food and settlement. According to the UNHCR this recent and continued movement of persons demands a strategy to “support national systems to achieve integrated social service delivery.” However, this diverts resources away from Uganda’s poverty alleviation projects.

Additionally, George Owoyesigire, an officer at the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, cites that this population increase has significant challenges for protected areas as people seek firewood, medicinal plants and come into more frequent contact with game-animals. Weighing up protecting these areas whilst ensuring that the needs of surrounding populations are met is a complex area of policy reform. It remains to be seen if this balance can be maintained by raising levels of community involvement in regional environmental schemes. Perhaps grass-roots initiatives can limit continued encroachment by local people to gain resources; but such issues are further complicated by asylum seekers and migrants in these rural areas.

A new understanding of pan-African population movement

I argue that this calls for further attention to be focussed on how population movements affect host nations. The intense focus on migration movements themselves can often remove from view the impact on people who must make concessions as hosts to these migrants.

This focus doesn’t take away from the plight of displaced persons but recognises the need to understand how conflict-induced migration, as is the case with Sudan, can create vulnerability beyond those initially affected by crisis. This approach also foregrounds the fact that just 2.5% of Africans live outside of Africa, and therefore responding to migration on the continent is a burden that is faced by other African nations, rather than the Western world. Marie MacAuliffe, head of the Migration Policy Research Division at the World Economic Forum, notes that “Africa is often depicted in the media as a continent of mass exodus.” In reality this is not the case. Despite fears of international migration in Europe it is clear from my research that many misunderstandings still dominate media representations of the so-called ‘migrant crisis’. Addressing these assumptions will be key to mitigating conflict-induced migration impacts in the future.