Uganda: One day in the life of an asylum seeker
14 November 2008

An area in Kampala where many asylum seekers and refugees live. (Angela Hellmuth/JRS)
On a good day he earns between USD 0,50-1.
Kampala, 14 November 2008 – Festus*, a Rwandan man, who sought asylum in Kampla 10 months ago, considers himself lucky because he has found ways to survive in the Ugandan capital.

His day starts at 5am. After a quick prayer he sets off to Owino market, one of the busiest local markets in Kampala, hoping to find odd jobs which, on some days, help him earn some cash. 

Regardless of his poor health he often loads and unloads food items from trucks arriving early in the morning from the north of the country. The work is competitive because many people look for it which explains why Festus has to be there so early. 

On a good day he earns between USh1000-2000 (USD0,50-1). If on a bad day he does not succeed in convincing the commodity owners to offer him a job – which he attributes to his limited knowledge of the local language - he barely earns USh500 (USD0,25). 

Eating is a blessing

At around 8am Festus dashes back home to tidy up. By 10am he heads to either Interaid - the UN refugee agency’s (UNHCR) implementing partner in the field of counselling, accommodation, transport and medical assistance for refugees and asylum seekers - or the Ugandan government’s Office of the Prime Minister (OPM). There he spends nearly the whole day waiting for an interview or moving from one office to another following up his documents. Sometimes he looks for medical services or attends English language lessons.

Whether he has lunch during the day depends on whether or not he has earned some money in the morning. Being able to eat once or twice a day is a blessing. Tired and exhausted, he starts the long way back home in the evening at 6 or 7pm. Festus lives  about 9 km away outside Kampala in a place which offers cheaper accommodation than in town. Since he lives so far away he has little opportunities to visit fellow refugees or spend time out with friends. Only on Sundays, when he has some free time, he can meet others. Festus’ long day draws to an end at about 10 pm when he goes to bed.

Just one example of many

This is just one experience of an asylum seeker among many others in Kampala. A typical day always varies from person to person. Many asylum seekers have no accommodation at all and after a long day’s struggle they linger in the night pubs, in the city suburbs or sleep for two or three nights outside the veranda of the old Kampala Police station before they are chased away by the police officials who do not permit anybody to stay or sleep in their premises.

Large families in particular find it hard to cope once JRS has stopped supporting them and they have failed to build a life in Kampala. Since they are still without refugee status they can not be taken to the refugee settlements in western Uganda where they would receive support from UNHCR and the government. 

During the period of support, JRS usually encourages asylum seekers to find ways to become self-reliable. JRS also considers single cases of desperate families and advocates on their behalf to enable them to be transferred to a refugee settlement before they are officially recognised as refugees. 

While the majority of refugees struggle to survive until they are relocated to a settlement, others integrate well in Kampala and decide to stay.

*not his real name