Refugee policies a victim of their own success?

For more than 40 years, Uganda has been considered a safe haven for people fleeing violence in their homelands. It currently hosts about 230 000 nationals from neighbouring states such as Sudan, Rwanda, Kenya, Somalia, Burundi and Ethiopia—one of the largest refugee populations on the continent.

Roberta Russo, an external relations officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who is based in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, describes the East African country’s refugee policy as “one of the best in Africa”.

“The government is not complaining about it. Repatriation is truly voluntary,” she says.

But even as Uganda earns accolades for its generosity, both government and its critics agree there are problems with the refugee scheme, which is why the country aims to pass a new refugee bill in the coming months.

Under the current policy, Uganda grants work permits to skilled refugees such as doctors and teachers, who end up living mainly in Kampala. It gives others the right to undertake casual work, such as construction—and also allows them to live in settlements, as opposed to tented camps, where they can build homes and grow food.

According to Christine Aporu, Minister of Refugees and Disaster Preparedness, refugees receive approximately three acres of land in areas that were earmarked for settlement by the Uganda Land Commission in the 1960s. A refugee eligibility committee and the UNHCR allocate the plots.

Refugees may also participate in community programmes for education, health, agriculture and the environment, alongside locals.

Zachary Lomo, director of the Kampala-based Refugee Law Project, says this willingness to accommodate citizens of war-ravaged countries dates back to a colonial past that saw Uganda’s British administrators take in refugees from Poland, Cyprus and the Baltic states during World War Two. The Refugee Law Project tries to protect and promote the rights of refugees.

But, as increasing numbers of refugees have taken the government up on its offer of land, tensions amongst landless Ugandans who live side by side with the refugees have grown.

“You find that the nationals say that…refugees should not be given more than one acre of land,” says Aporu. “A lot of sensitisation has to take place because we don’t want to abuse the human rights of the refugees.”

A report by the Refugee Law Project issued last month argues that reducing the amount of land given to refugees is not an option available to government, however.

According to the document, entitled We are All Stranded Here Together, field research conducted in the northern Arua and Moyo districts showed that plots of land in these areas were already too small to support growing families—and had become exhausted through overuse.

“Settlements still patently do not provide the conditions for economic survival, and refugees are consequently still heavily reliant on food aid,” says the report.

But, says Aporu, “It’s very difficult to give food hand-outs all the time.” In Lomo’s view, refugee settlements are nothing more than “impoverished villages”.

Nonetheless, the benefits that are on offer in Uganda may be discouraging certain refugees from returning home when conditions allow ‒ a problematic trend in a country which already faces considerable challenges in meeting the needs of its own citizens.

“Definitely some refugees have resisted going (back) because of the way they are treated here,” says Aporu.

“Even those who were chased away from Tanzania, they came via Uganda and have never gone back,” she adds, in reference to 5 000 Rwandans who entered Uganda five years ago, and have recently have been encouraged by visiting officials from their country to return home.

The UNHCR’s Russo says that in January, tribal leaders in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) discouraged citizens crossing the border into Uganda from registering as refugees there, because they feared the prospect of work permits and land rights would entice the Congolese into making Uganda their permanent home.

For the past three months, clashes between militants from several ethnic groups—mainly the Hema and the Lendu—have wracked the DRC’s north-eastern Ituri region, prompting the United Nations’ Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Jan Egeland, to describe the humanitarian crisis in this region as the world’s worst.

Hundreds are feared dead in the clashes, while tens of thousands of Congolese have been displaced. Many of these persons fled to Uganda.

A five-year civil war in the DRC was declared over in 2002. However, the situation in eastern Congo has remained unstable: ethnicity, and the competition to control resources in the region have pitted various communities against each other—and a UN peacekeeping force that is attempting to disarm local fighters.

Uganda’s new refugee bill, currently before parliament, seeks to address problems raised by the presence of refugees in the country. Amongst other matters, the bill focuses on the need to increase food production on refugee land—and for activities to cater for refugee children in settlements.

Of course, not all refugees remain in Uganda indefinitely. Aporu says government is in the process of repatriating 24 000 Rwandans who are returning voluntarily.

What activists such as Lomo seek to avoid, however, is a situation where refugees who leave Uganda pay a terrible price for not overstaying their welcome.

He cites the case of a Rwandan who went home to find that his house had been taken over by a major in the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a former rebel group dominated by minority Tutsis which took power in Rwanda after the country’s 1994 genocide. (Upwards of 800 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed during the genocide, which was carried out by Hutu militants in Rwanda.)

The man complained to officials, who helped him reclaim his property.

But after this, says Lomo, someone threw a grenade into the house while the man was away, killing his family. The identity of the perpetrator of the attack is still unknown.—IPS

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