‘He Always Thinks He is Nothing’: The Psychosocial Impact of Discrimination on Adolescent refugees in Urban Uganda

Armed conflict causes massive displacement, erodes the social fabric of communities, and threatens the healthy development of a nation’s future – its youth. Although more than half of the world’s registered refugees under the age of eighteen currently reside in urban areas, research on the unique needs of and realities experienced by this population remain limited. In Uganda, as in many refugee-receiving countries, most regulated refugee protections and entitlements fail to extend beyond the confines of official settlements or camps. This dearth of support, in combination with few material resources, uncertain local connections, and little knowledge of the language, leaves refugee families vulnerable to the added burden of an unwelcome reception in cities.

Drawing on qualitative data from a study conducted in March and April 2013 with Congolese and Somali adolescents, caregivers, and service providers in refugee settlements in Kampala, this manuscript explores the pervasive nature of discrimination against urban refugees and its effects upon adolescent well-being. Findings suggest that discrimination not only negatively impacts acculturation as youth pursue social recognition in the classroom and among neighbourhood peers, but it also impedes help-seeking behaviour by caregivers and restricts their ability to ameliorate protection concerns, thereby lowering adolescents’ psychosocial well-being. Youth reported low self-worth, withdrawal from school, and an adverse turn toward street connections. Targeted and innovative strategies along with reformed policies that address the unique challenges facing urban refugees are paramount to ensuring that young people in this population experience greater protection, well-being, and future success.