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Why refugee ration cuts in Uganda risk long-term social damage 

‘The worst effects of these ration cuts are yet to be seen.’

Isaac Ankora is pictured at the left side of the frame, looking into the distance towards the right. A dirt road surrounded by green foliage is in the background. Sophie Neiman/TNH
Isaac Ankora, a refugee from Bidi Bidi settlement in northwestern Uganda, is one of thousands of refugees that had their assistance completely cut last year during a World Food Programme prioritisation scheme.

Refugees in Uganda are turning to increasingly desperate measures to support themselves and their families following drastic reductions in humanitarian aid, yet our research suggests the worst effects of these cuts are yet to be seen as refugee social networks buckle under pressure to fill the gaps left by aid agencies.

Uganda’s open-border policies and refugee self-reliance model have earned international acclaim, but a surge in refugee numbers and major cuts in humanitarian funding are pushing the country’s response efforts to the brink.

Increasingly threadbare aid budgets mean many of the 1.5 million refugees in the country – one of the world’s largest refugee-hosting nations – are now receiving less than 40% of their basic survival rations, while others are getting less or nothing at all.

Our research in Uganda – which focuses on the role that local actors like refugee-led organisations, faith-based groups, and traditional leaders play in refugee settings – has confirmed the diverse effects of these cuts and explored the long-term impacts that are currently being overlooked.

As humanitarian funds are slashed, we have found that refugees in Uganda, as elsewhere in the world, are becoming more and more dependent on their local and transnational social networks for support.

This highlights the resilience and community spirit among refugees, yet it is also a fragile coping strategy. Overstretched social networks may collapse over time, creating ruptures that could have financial, social, and psychological consequences.

Humanitarian policy and practice often fail to recognise the fragility of assistance provided through refugees’ social networks, which means the true extent of their vulnerability is concealed, and the consequences of funding cuts are underestimated.

The dire situation in refugee settlements and the risk of long-term harm underscores the need for international donors to reassess the support they are providing, and it requires humanitarian agencies to reconsider how they are implementing these cuts.

Fear, anxiety, and faulty data 

The food ration reductions in Uganda have been introduced by the World Food Programme, whose bleak funding outlook has forced it to make similarly deep cuts to hungry people around the world. 

The cuts have been implemented through a strict prioritisation exercise. This needs-based approach involves placing refugees in different vulnerability groups that then entitles them to different amounts of aid. 

However, the categories that have been assigned to refugees – the majority of whom have escaped conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan – often do not align with their actual needs or level of vulnerability.

As was uncovered in a six-month investigation by The New Humanitarian last year, refugees have been divided into groups largely based on data collected from profiling surveys done by the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) and government workers.

The cuts and reprioritisation have sparked anxiety, fear, and uncertainty among refugees, and the Ugandan government has threatened to shut its doors to new refugees if more funding is not forthcoming.

Concerns were raised to reporters by response workers that the data collected may be outdated, failing to accurately represent current needs. Additionally, the survey did not consider recent increases in inflation and living expenses.

The cuts and reprioritisation have sparked anxiety, fear, and uncertainty among refugees, and the Ugandan government has threatened to shut its doors to new refugees if more funding is not forthcoming.

News agencies have reported an increase in negative coping strategies, including child marriage and prostitution among refugees, and a significant rise in suicide levels has been attributed to the lack of basic needs within refugee settlements.

When one of our research team members attended a funeral of a refugee who died of suicide, other attendees talked about how suicides were concentrated among refugees assumed to be self-reliant – those categorised as least vulnerable in needs analyses.

Long-term damage

The situation risks worsening in the months and years ahead. As assistance is cut, many refugees will be compelled to depend more heavily on their social networks. This can include kinship and diaspora groups, neighbours, friends, and religious networks.

However, the danger is that these bonds will be broken if refugees ask for too much. And as social networks deplete, refugees’ resilience and their long-term chances of achieving self-reliance, both economically and socially, will be diminished.

We have documented this happening in many cases. One refugee woman from Kampala, for example, described to us how her relative stopped responding to her family’s calls due to their persistent requests for support.

“She started to just disconnect herself because every time I call there is a problem,” the woman said. “You call and say ‘I’m sick’, you call, and it will be too much. So, she decided to disconnect herself from us.”

The severing of ties due to prolonged demands from friends and relatives in displacement situations has been observed in a number of humanitarian contexts, and it can have an psychological and emotional impact as well as a material one.

Women we spoke to in Kampala said that when they lost support from family members in South Sudan, their children would run over to neighbours asking for food or would simply take food from other children. This inevitably caused conflicts.

To prevent these conflicts, one woman told us that she decided to lock her children inside their home while running errands. She was aware of the risks, particularly of a fire, but her distrust of her neighbours made confinement the safer option over unsupervised outdoor play.

Trust and reciprocity are often the foundation of robust social networks, which are essential for both material and emotional support. However, this balance is fragile and can easily break if expected assistance isn’t reciprocated. 

Unable to return support, refugees stand to lose their social ties and withdraw from collective initiatives like communal saving groups. This not only cuts off material aid but also the psychological and emotional support derived from community and friendships.

The myth of self-reliance

Despite the risks described above, our research suggests that humanitarian actors often believe that refugees are self-reliant and will be able to depend on their social networks should cuts to assistance be made.

It is rarely considered that social networks exist within hierarchies – structured along gendered and intersectional lines – and that the assistance provided through them is fluid and prone to fracture, especially when overburdened as they are now in Uganda.

Humanitarian groups must therefore do more to consider the complex contextual factors and power dynamics inherent in social networks, and acknowledge that making refugees more dependent on them could undermine efforts towards self-sufficiency.

More broadly, donors must recognise that the cuts being made to humanitarian aid in Uganda will have far-reaching impacts beyond the immediate negative coping mechanisms that refugees are already resorting to. 

If things do not change quickly, Uganda’s celebrated model for refugee protection risks being jeopardised, and a humanitarian catastrophe for the refugees could be just around the corner.

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