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.”