Out-migration, return, and resettlement in Karamoja, Uganda: The case of Kobulin, Bokora county


I. Executive Summary

The "Livelihoods and Human Security in Karamoja" project documents and analyzes the current links among human security, insecurity, disarmament, and livelihoods in Karamoja, northeastern Uganda. The project focuses on how people experience, participate in and respond to these factors, with an emphasis on the Bokora, Matheniko and Tepeth populations. The project uses gender and generational perspectives to produce a more accurate and nuanced analysis.

As part of a larger project entitled "Livelihoods and Human Security in Karamoja," this briefing paper presents findings on causal factors and broad patterns in out-migration among the Bokora population. The paper also seeks to provide context for the specific case study of the population picked up on the streets of Kampala and sent to a reception site at Kobulin in Bokora County of Moroto District. (1) Using a gender and generational analysis, the briefing paper presents data on the main factors underlying out-migration, the mechanics of this process, people's experiences in the cities, the return to Kobulin, and the population's current situation and hopes for the future. (2)

Out-migration from Bokora is caused by factors at multiple levels. The actual process of departure for individuals and households is spurred by a succession and compounding of these factors. The main underlying causes of migration are insecurity and widespread loss of livestock. Livestock holdings underpin nearly all traditional coping mechanisms of Karamojong communities, and the loss of livestock profoundly affects the food security and human security of households and manyattas. Periods of insecurity and fluctuations in animal herds have been a pattern of life in Karamojong for several decades, but the steady downward trend in these processes (i.e., insecurity and on-going loss of animals) became particularly pronounced for the Bokora following the break-down of tribal relations and increased attacks in the mid 1970s through 1980s and, more recently, the wide-scale disarmament in 2001/2002 and 2006/2007. The lack of subsequent adequate protection by the state, particularly in 2001/2002, left the Bokora communities exposed to repeated attacks, widespread asset stripping, and the increased adoption of distress coping mechanisms in order to survive.

At the level of individuals and families, most adults and children leave Bokora for a combination of reasons, including increased insecurity (which is often a contributing or causal factor in the other destabilizing processes), loss of livestock, a series of poor harvests, death of breadwinners or key family members, poverty, and the weakening or collapse of social safety nets. When these shocks occur simultaneously or in succession, individuals or households find that they are unable to meet their survival needs. Another factor affecting rates of out-migration from Bokora is a snowball effect, whereby one person follows the next who follows the next, resulting in the out-migration of a network of people who share familial, village, or clan connections. This snowball effect continues, in large part, because people living in Bokora perceive their situation at home to be worse than conditions experienced by those who have departed for Kampala and elsewhere.

The majority of people interviewed reported a steady decline in their livelihood situation and or health status prior to experiencing a final trigger event that resulted in out-migration. Trigger events include loss of assets through raids, violent death of family members, the death of a main breadwinner, escalating physical or sexual abuse within the household(particularly mentioned by girls who left on their own), and the inheritance of widows by negligent or abusive brother-in-laws. The high number of female headed-households in the Kobulin population slated for resettlement, estimated at over 90%, is illustrative of the important links among widowhood, traditional remarriage, neglect and abuse, and out-migration of women and their children.

In regard to out-migration, the main distress coping mechanism is the departure of young people, in particular girls and young women, in large numbers to work for employers with whom there is no prior connection or relationship. This is the adaptation of a well-established system of exchange of labor in particular seasons or periods of hardship. This system of exchange has traditionally been through 'stock associates': individuals and families with whom close social and economic ties were developed over years or even generations. According to key informants, this system of exchange existed throughout northeastern Uganda and into Kenya and Sudan. The current distress adaptation involves the departure of youth to people who are unknown to them and at times without the support or knowledge of their families. As in the case of Kobulin, there appears to be an expanding number of people and families leaving Karamoja not for casual agricultural labor, but to urban areas, urban lifestyles and urban livelihood options.

Most adults and children leave Bokora on public transportation that must be paid for. This means that people who leave for Kampala or elsewhere are often those who are, in some ways, at an advantage over other members of their communities, whether due to cash savings, availability of other assets, or family connections.

The data suggest that there are two groups of migrants from Bokora at present. The first are predominately young people who out-migrate for casual or seasonal labor and return to their communities throughout the year or to assist with cultivation in the rainy season. The second are those who appear on the streets of Kampala and other major cities, where they engage in a range of livelihood strategies that include begging (usually through the use of children), sweeping mills in exchange for collecting fallen grain, childcare for children of relatives living in the city, unloading lorries, stocking stores, collecting and selling metal found in garbage dumps and engaging in other odd jobs.

Begging is a highly visible livelihood strategy and one that attracts much attention due to the role and likely exploitation of children. Interviews with children and women, however, showed that begging was usually only one part of a more complex livelihood strategy. Most Karamojong children who engaged in begging did not do this as their full-time occupation or only source of livelihood. There are some children, particularly those who have been abandoned by their families or 'guardians' after arrival in the city, who do survive primarily off begging, as well as collecting and selling scrap metal and rubbish and eating garbage. Notably, numbers of Karamojong children picked up on Kampala's streets and taken to regional rehabilitation center has increased dramatically since 2002. Karamojong children differ from other street children in Kampala in a number of significant ways.

Nearly all the children we interviewed at Kobulin left for an urban area with an immediate or extended family member. Those few children at Kobulin who left on their own had suffered neglect or abuse within their households. In the majority of the cases of the children at Kobulin, adults, most often their own family members, had orchestrated the children's movements into the cities, and in some cases had abandoned the children in these locations.

Bokora women and children experienced exploitation in a variety of areas while living in Kampala. Girls on the streets were at risk of sexual abuse as men reportedly propositioned these girls for sex and in some cases raped those who refused them. Children reported being tricked and forced into the vehicles of Kampala City Council officers and/or police officers, beaten, and then taken to a regional rehabilitation center. Some children reported being detained against their will by Kampala City Council officers until family members or 'guardians' paid for their release. They also alleged being beaten in the rehabilitation/detention center. Furthermore, none of the women or children with whom we spoke said that their return to Kobulin was voluntary; most said that they were forced to return and would have been kept in detention if they refused to go to Karamoja.

The proposed Nakiriomet (Lomoroitoit) resettlement site is in an area that is historically contested by the Teso and Bokora. Key informants in the area as well as external sources suggest that local Bokora politicians may have selected this area as a resettlement site as a means to stake a firmer claim to the land. A proposed alternative resettlement site is located in a known transit route for armed raiders; again it was suggested that local politicians chose this site in order to dissuade the movement of raiders through the area. The current proposal of creating settlements or manyattas composed of non-related and predominantly female-headed households (90% of the households at Nakiriomet) is unprecedented in the region and is unlikely to be sustainable.


(1) The final report by the Tufts team will provide more detail and nuance on the differences among groups, and will use this comparative analysis to further the discussion on causal factors of social disintegration, the effects of insecurity, and out-migration.

(2) In the context of this briefing paper, 'out-migration' refers to the temporary or permanent departure from Karamoja of individuals or families. There has been a long history of migration from Karamoja, and in particular from Bokora, for seasonal work or in times of hardship. These out-migrations are usually driven by economic factors, but out-migration may also occur due to social issues (such as problems within a household or community) or for security reasons. The discussion of out-migration in this paper takes all three of these elements into account.