Refugee groups fill gaps in COVID-19 response, and they need support

‘The starting point is to assemble a coalition of groups willing to take this approach seriously.’

Young African Refugees for Integral Development delivering food and other items in Kampala, Uganda. (Patrick Makombe/YARID)

Refugee-led organisations have long played important but neglected roles in providing protection and assistance to other refugees and host communities. Now they find themselves on the front line of the COVID-19 response in camps and cities around the world as other organisations withdraw.

Refugees distribute food and non-food items, provide information, serve as community health workers, take part in tracking and monitoring, and influence behavioural norms. As formal humanitarian governance struggles to respond to the direct and indirect consequences of the coronavirus in both camps and urban areas, their work is more vital than ever.

There are literally hundreds of such organisations, many of which provide services that are highly valued by the communities, and some operate at an impressive scale.

However, they have rarely received international humanitarian funding and are almost never recognised as implementing partners by the UN system. Many such organisations may lack capacity, yet they often have a comparative advantage in terms of community-level trust, social networks, and adaptability – all crucial in the context of a pandemic.

“There are literally hundreds of such organisations, many of which provide services that are highly valued by the communities, and some operate at an impressive scale.”

In Uganda, home to around 1.4 million refugees, lockdown has been in place since 30 March. Many of the most acute challenges are in urban areas. Some refugees report being less afraid of the virus than of its secondary consequences for access to food, medicine, and basic services.

The government initially announced on national television that refugees would not receive food aid, yet has slowly expanded its distribution programme after facing criticism. In Kampala, many refugees live hand to mouth and are unable to work due to the lockdown. Even with food aid, more support is needed. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has recognised that refugees need urgent support, but it is struggling to meet food and medical needs because of practical and funding constraints. 

In Kampala, the Office of the Prime Minister has exercised strong control over providing assistance to refugees, making it harder for some to help.

One refugee-led organisation requested support for its members from a well-known Ugandan society and received a regretfully negative response: “[Our] club was planning to put together some targeted support for disadvantaged communities until the President/Government of Uganda came up with very strong directives to make sure that any kind of support is channelled through the Office of the Prime Minister... As a club, our hands are therefore tied for now.”

Meanwhile, in Arua, a bustling town in the West Nile now surrounded by three refugee camps, urban refugees also face severe food shortages. The restrictions on movement have not only affected their livelihoods but their ability to go back to the refugee camps they are registered at to receive the monthly food rations they depend on.

A refugee-led organisation, the South Sudanese United Refugees Association (SSURA), met with the World Food Programme to highlight this issue and press for a change in policy. While it is officially against its policy to feed refugees settled in urban areas, WFP has since demonstrated crucial flexibility and is allowing family members and friends to pick up food on behalf of those stuck in Arua and send it to them. 

It is clear from conversations with refugees in other urban areas that institutional changes like this are needed throughout the humanitarian system in the face of this unprecedented lockdown.

Meanwhile, refugee-led organisations are trying to fill gaps.

The Community Development Centre, a refugee-led organisation operating in camps in the West Nile, has adapted an existing information campaign called Hagiga Wahid (meaning ‘One Truth’ in Arabic) to dispel rumours about COVID-19 and provide official health information via text messaging. As the project already had hundreds of subscribers across several camps, it was able to quickly and effectively provide information in ways that formal humanitarian institutions have struggled to do.

Young African Refugees for Integral Development (YARID), an award-winning community-based organisation, has distributed baskets of flour, soap, beans, sugar, and cooking oil to vulnerable refugees in Kampala, identifying recipients through community networks and reaching over 200 households so far. 

While organisations such as these are still facing challenges in recognition, there are growing voices of support.

The Open Society Foundations is among the first funders to mobilise resources in support of refugee-led organisations in the context of COVID-19. Oxfam Turkey has long been an advocate of refugee-led and other civil society organisations’ involvement in refugee policy decision-making, including in the Global Compact for Refugees. And bilateral donors such as Canada Global Affairs and the UK’s DFID are at least willing to consider funding refugee-led organisations. At the global level, UNHCR also seems more receptive than ever to the idea of working with refugee-led organisations, having supported their presence at major events such as the Global Refugee Forum in December 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic sheds light on concrete mechanisms still lacking in localising refugee assistance, namely identification, capacity-building, finance, and accountability. 

How can the most effective and legitimate organisations be identified? How can capacity be built, especially remotely, given that support and mentorship also takes investment? How can money be disbursed quickly and transparently in relatively small pots of funding to organisations that may not meet regular accounting, auditing, or compliance standards? What kinds of monitoring and oversight are needed, and what compromises can be made while still meeting donor requirements? 

“The current crisis may lead to lasting models of participatory and inclusive refugee assistance – and in turn more sustainable and localised humanitarian governance.”

The starting point is to assemble a coalition of groups willing to take this approach seriously – one that includes refugee-led organisations, donor governments, foundations, NGOs, and international organisations.

Its focus should be on building best practices and piloting new delivery mechanisms to get resources into the hands of frontline providers. Existing frameworks and coalitions advocating for a localisation of humanitarian aid, such as the Charter4Change Initiative, offer models for advocacy and awareness-raising on existing asymmetries in the humanitarian system.

The current crisis may lead to lasting models of participatory and inclusive refugee assistance – and in turn more sustainable and localised humanitarian governance. In order for this to occur, a coalition on refugee-led aid needs to be formed and to make clear commitments that move beyond merely paying lip service to refugee agency. 

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