Assessing the Impact of Internet Shutdowns on Refugees and Host Communities in Uganda

Published Date
September 15, 2022

As of 2021, there were approximately 26.6 million refugees globally, with 5 million refugees in sub–Saharan Africa and approximately 1.5 million refugees living in Uganda. Access to the internet for refugees and host communities offer a range of opportunities, such as access to education and communication channels, as well as the ability to conduct business online.

Despite the growing reliance on digital tools and platforms, refugees and host communities have increasingly felt the impacts of internet shutdowns as it hinders the ability to engage socially, politically, and economically in an increasingly digital world. A study by the African Internet Rights Alliance reveals that “68 internet shutdowns in 29 African countries were documented between 2016 and 2021.” A report by Access Now further indicates that 12 countries in Africa experienced internet shutdowns at least 19 times in 2021. In Uganda, the first internet shutdown was reported in 2006, followed by internet shutdowns during presidential elections in 2011, 2016, and 2021

Although several internet shutdowns have taken place in Uganda, there is limited documented evidence on the specific impacts of internet shutdowns on refugees and host communities. To address these gaps, my project as an Open Internet for Democracy Leader focused on exploring the social and economic impacts of internet shutdowns on refugees and host communities in Uganda and how these challenges were exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. The project also examined laws and policies regulating internet access and shutdowns in Uganda, as well as coping strategies adopted by refugees and host communities in responding to internet shutdowns.

At the start of my project, I conducted desktop research, focus group discussions, and key informant interviews to better understand how internet shutdowns and other internet access issues impact refugees and host communities throughout Uganda. I held a total of four focus group discussions in the Kiryandongo and Kyangwali refugee settlements, which brought together a total of 32 participants. I also conducted 12 key informant interviews with individuals from civil society and refugee organizations, as well as stakeholders that support technology access within refugee settlements. 

The focus group discussions and key informant interviews revealed that internet shutdowns hindered online learning, communication, access to information, civic participation, and access to entertainment for both refugee and host communities. These repercussions were also felt particularly by women living in the settlements. Internet shutdowns also affected service delivery by humanitarian organizations that faced limited ways to communicate between organizations and restricted access to online fundraising opportunities. The conversations also revealed economic impacts of internet shutdowns on refugees and host communities including limiting access to business opportunities, markets for goods and services, and mobile money services. 

“I used [the internet] to search for information on COVID-19 [and other diseases], including how it spread [and prevention measures]. [During the internet shutdown], I could not know who died of COVID-19 from my family back home in Burundi from WhatsApp groups that I was part of.”

  – A refugee living in the Kiryandongo settlement

In addition to internet shutdowns, additional challenges such as digital illiteracy and high internet costs hindered the ability for meaningful online participation among refugees and host communities. These challenges also contributed to refugees facing barriers in circumventing internet shutdowns. For instance, stakeholders highlighted that effects of internet shutdowns were further exacerbated by the new 12% tax levy on data, which further prevented refugees and host communities who live below the poverty line from accessing and using the internet even after the internet shutdown ended. Moreover, a lack of knowledge on tools such as virtual private networks (VPNs) that can help stakeholders circumvent internet shutdowns impacted the ability to quickly recover from these digital disruptions. While some refugees and host communities adopted VPNs, many resorted to utilizing radios as the primary source of information, especially when it related to COVID-19 prevention. 

Finally, my research identified that many refugees and host community members were not aware of legislation or normative frameworks that seek to address the issue of internet shutdowns at the national, regional, or international level. Throughout my conversations with refugees and host community members, approximately 75% of the refugees and host community members I interacted with were not aware of laws and policies governing internet shutdowns, while others noted that the frameworks in place do not adequately tackle and address internet shutdowns.

Following the conclusion of the research, I hosted a virtual dialogue on August 5, 2022, to present initial findings and gather additional perspectives from key stakeholder groups. The dialogue was organized in coordination with the Rural Aid Foundation, and Executive Director of Women of Uganda Network, Peace Oliver Amuge. Approximately 25 stakeholders including representatives from humanitarian and civil society organizations, local district government branches, academia, refugees, and internet service provider companies participated in the event. During the event, participants provided inputs on recommendations to expand internet access for refugees and host communities across Uganda, with an emphasis on pushing back against internet shutdowns. Key recommendations include:

Raising Awareness on the Negative Impacts of Internet Shutdowns

  • Raise awareness on the impact of internet shutdowns on refugees and host communities
    • Establish a national movement or coalition comprised of a diverse range of stakeholders including civil society, academia, internet service providers, humanitarian organizations, to raise awareness on how internet shutdowns and disruptions impact refugees and host communities. 
      • Throughout awareness raising activities, the coalition can also build understanding among refugees and host communities on how digital rights manifest in international normative frameworks, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This will help enable refugees and host communities to understand their digital rights. The coalition could also seek to engage directly with policymakers and internet service providers to encourage the protection of human rights online.
  • Improve understanding of existing laws and policies and advocate for reforms 
    • Civil society organizations and human rights defenders can implement programs that improve understanding of the current laws and policies governing the digital space that impact refugees and host communities. This will help enable local communities to hold governments accountable in the event of an internet shutdown. One concrete example includes civil society organizations and human rights defenders summarizing these laws and policies and disseminating the content on and offline across various stakeholder groups, including refugees and host communities.  
    • Developing a clear understanding of the existing laws and policies can also support human rights defenders in identifying potential gaps and opportunities to reform existing legislation, which can serve as a foundation for future advocacy initiatives. Future advocacy initiatives should be multi-stakeholder in nature, taking into account perspectives and concerns across a wide range of stakeholder groups, including civil society, local business communities, independent media, and academia, among others. Advocacy initiatives could also be driven and organized by the multistakeholder coalition mentioned in the previous recommendation. 


Advancing Digital Literacy of Refugees and Host Community Members 

  • Establish and implement digital literacy programs in refugee and host community settings
    • To address the challenge of digital illiteracy which hinders access to digital tools and platforms for social, political, and economic engagement, civil society organizations and humanitarian agencies should establish and implement digital literacy programs such as computer training in hard-to-reach refugee settlements. Notable examples that could be expanded upon include projects implemented by Windle International Uganda and the Rural Aid Foundation.
    • Civil society organizations and humanitarian agencies working with refugees can also help address the gender digital divide by designing and implementing digital literacy and digital rights programs for women, such as digital literacy training, women led digital rights projects, and women internet access centers in refugee settlements.
    • Finally, civil society organizations and humanitarian agencies can train refugees and host communities on digital security to mitigate risks they may face online, such as data breaches and online violence (particularly against women).


Advocating for Affordable Internet Access

  • Advocate for the reduction of data and internet connectivity costs for refugees and host communities
    • The national coalition (mentioned in the first recommendation) could also explore organizing discussions with internet service providers such as Airtel and MTN to provide free data services or subsidized data costs for refugees.


Internet shutdowns pose negative social and economic effects on refugees and host communities. Protecting refugees and host communities from internet shutdowns is a fundamental aspect in the protection of digital rights. Diverse stakeholders including civil society organizations, academia, human rights defenders, humanitarian agencies, policy makers, internet service providers and government must work together to ensure that the online space is inclusive and accessible for all.

As my experience as an Open Internet for Democracy Leader is coming to an end, I am privileged that the Program opened a range of opportunities for me to engage in digital rights policy dialogues including being invited as a speaker for the first time at the 2022 RightsCon and the Internet Governance Forum. The Program also provided a platform to meet and connect with other digital rights advocates across the globe and equipped me with knowledge on digital rights advocacy. I have used this new knowledge to help shape my organization's first strategic plan by emphasizing digital rights, internet freedom, and internet governance as key focus areas of our work. I believe the Program offered me an opportunity and a step forward as I seek to grow my career as a digital rights advocate. To read more about the Leaders Program or my fellow Leaders, please visit: