While there are overall good relations, tensions between South Sudanese refugees and Ugandan communities around natural resources, livelihoods and land should not be ignored, a new report by International Refugee Rights Initiative highlights. Frictions have sparked violent incidents, and if not properly addressed could escalate into broader conflict in northern Uganda.
Between December 2018 and May 2019, International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) spoke with more than 470 refugees and members of host communities in Arua, Adjumani and Lamwo, all major refugee hosting districts. Ugandan citizens living close to refugee settlement have given land to host refugees in northern Uganda, motivated by their own experiences of displacement and cultural similarities. But they had expected more development benefits in return for their generosity, fuelling frustration.
Refugees especially highlighted competition over natural resources, in particular firewood for cooking and grass for thatching roofs, claiming that the host community restricted their access and at times attacked them. Host communities, in turn, complain that refugees did not seek their consent and that environmental degradation is spiralling out of control. While there is increased awareness among the government and international partners about protecting the environment, more investments in tree planting, fuel alternatives and dialogues are urgently needed.
Other tensions between refugees and host community members have arisen over arrangements about agricultural land, access to water and destruction by stray animals. At times, such tensions have escalated into violent incidents, but there are also many examples of local leaders who have averted violence through dialogues and good practices. Those efforts should be supported and replicated.
The host community also accused international NGOs of not sufficiently considering their people for jobs, exacerbating frustrations around inadequate compensation for land. Refugees have been frustrated about new procedures for food distribution. Efforts have been undertaken to address this, but more transparency and outreach to communities are needed.
In several settlements, incidents between a few individuals from refugee or host communities, about crime, access to services or simple fights between schoolboys, have at times escalated into larger clashes between two communities. While most refugee communities live peacefully together, a cocktail of frustration, unemployment, post-traumatic stress and alcohol abuse have the potential to degenerate, fuelled by ethnic stereotyping and ongoing conflict in South Sudan.
An additional issue of concern is the presence of individuals involved in this conflict, who have at times attempted to recruit refugees as combatants, targeted political opponents or simply visited their families in the settlement. It remains difficult to establish the full scope of this practice, but the Ugandan government can do more to track such cross-border movements and prevent abuses.
The report recommends early action to break the chain from individual incidents to broader mobilisation, which the research found to be at the heart of most serious incidents. Community leaders, local organisations and the police must be capacitated to monitor these issues and nip them in the bud. The Ugandan government and its partners should also address structural issues around land and natural resources.
In a context where ongoing insecurity in South Sudan is preventing large-scale refugee returns in the near future, environmental degradation is worsening, and financial responsibility-sharing remains insufficient, urgent action is needed.