Beneath the surface of Uganda's 'exemplary' refugee settlement, tensions simmer | Land Portal

By: Tom Gardner
Date: November 15th 2016
Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation

LAKE NAKIVALE, Uganda (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Nyirahubinka Maria, a Congolese refugee and mother of two, lives in "New Congo", the oldest and largest of 86 small villages scattered over the plains and low rising hills that surround Lake Nakivale in southwest Uganda.

Three years ago, she and her family were offered the opportunity to resettle in the United States, the dream of many of Uganda's roughly 800,000 refugees - but they turned it down.

Uganda, they say, has been both generous and welcoming: Maria runs a small shop that sells fabrics and drinks, while her husband has a bar in the town of Kisoro, nearly 200 km (125 miles) to the west of Nakivale, Uganda's third largest refugee settlement.

Between them, they can afford to send their children to private school in the nearby town of Mbarara.

"I have no desire to leave," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Maria and her family are model beneficiaries of Uganda's unique system of management of refugees and asylum-seekers, a policy praised by organizations including the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) and the World Bank.

But beneath the surface of life in Nakivale, tensions simmer between Ugandan communities and the growing numbers of incomers.


New arrivals to Uganda are allocated a plot of land, are allowed to work and run businesses and can move freely around the country.

This contrasts with policies in neighboring countries like Kenya, in particular, which impose tight restrictions on work and movement, confining most refugees to isolated camps.

In the villages of Nakivale, refugees like Ndoli Jean Damascan, a Rwandan who left his country in 1994 in the wake of the genocide, live alongside Ugandan nationals, trading with them and working beside them.

Damascan has joined forces with a Ugandan business partner and together they run an electrics shop.

The churches and health centers in Nakivale are also frequented by a mix of Ugandans and refugees while host communities are entitled to 30 percent of social services, including resources such as water, provided by the Ugandan government and aid agencies in the settlements.

The division of assets helps to keep relationships between the groups peaceful, say officials.

"Refugees are Ugandans in all but name," said Kristin Riis Halvorsen, the UNHCR's regional officer in Mbarare.

"Uganda's refugee policy is exemplary."


But resentment and perceived injustice linger just below the surface of this "model" setup.

For those like Maria and her family, who want to stay on indefinitely in Uganda, the lack of a long-term solution hangs over them.

Under the terms of the 2006 Refugees Act, refugees cannot own the land they cultivate, or the homes they live in – even if they have lived in the country for years.

And under Uganda's constitution, citizenship is out of reach for all those with a parent or even grandparent who was a refugee.

"To date, there have been no cases of refugees who have been naturalized," said Chris Dolan of the Refugee Law Project, a legal aid charity based in Kampala.

This leaves those with homes, businesses and deep roots in the country's settlements vulnerable to eviction if their refugee status should lapse, he said.

"The perception that refugees are just here temporarily means there is no security," said Robert Hakiza Ngirwa, a Congolese refugee who has lived in Kampala for eight years and now runs a charity for his fellow urban refugees.

The lack of prospects for citizenship feeds uncertainty between refugees and host communities, despite the generally accommodating attitudes to newcomers observed by the UNHCR and others.

According to a paper by the Refugee Law Project in 2003, Nakivale was afflicted even then by a "land crisis", the result of conflict between nationals and refugees over lands allocated to newcomers to which locals claimed title or rights of use.

In 2013, more than 60,000 so-called "encroachers", Ugandan nationals who settled on land earmarked for refugees, were forcibly evicted from the Kyangwali refugee settlement in central-western Uganda to make way for Congolese new arrivals.

Today, as the numbers of refugees coming to Nakivale swell, the competition for land has intensified.

"Although many refugees are well integrated, when you actually have to prove your nationality it can be problematic," said Lucy Hovil of the International Refugee Rights Initiative.

"When there are disputes over land or grazing rights, for example, refugees can quickly become scapegoats."


Although forced repatriation is in breach of both Ugandan and international law, it is still feared by many refugees.

"The government could just wake up one day and decide they don't want refugees any more," said Ngirwa.

In the past, the Ugandan government – which owns all the land it grants to refugees – has reclaimed plots occupied by Rwandans in Nakivale against their will, campaigners said. Many had lived in the settlement for more than two decades.

While the Ugandan government states that all refugees who want land are eligible to receive it, a report by Human Rights Watch found that in 2010, some 1,700 Rwandans were forcibly returned to Rwanda by the government.


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