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

Men cycle down a road towards the Ethiopian quarter of Nakivale settlement, Uganda. Tom Gardner/Thomson Reuters Foundation

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

By Tom Gardner

LAKE NAKIVALE, Uganda, Nov 15 (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 organisations 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 neighbouring 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.

Ndoli Jean Damascen, a Rwandan refugee, and his Ugandan business partner in New Congo, Nakivale. Tom Gardner/Thomson Reuters Foundation

The churches and health centres 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 naturalised," 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.

A bicycle repair shop in New Congo, Nakivale, Uganda. Tom Gardner/Thomson Reuters Foundation

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.

A sign for a mobile phone and electronics store in New Congo, Nakivale, Uganda. Tom Gardner/Thomson Reuters Foundation

David Apollo Kazungu, commissioner for refugees in the Office of the Prime Minister, said no Rwandan refugees had been forcibly returned to their country.

But he acknowledged that the government had reclaimed land that had been given to Rwandan refugees many years ago.

Buyenimana Zayasi, a Rwandan who arrived in Nakivale in 2001 after being expelled from Tanzania said that land originally granted to him by Uganda's government was taken off him in 2010.

Now he rents land from a Ugandan national.

"I can be evicted before the end of the season if he wants his land back," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"I am scared all the time that the government will take me back to Rwanda by force."


In 2014, the Tanzanian government granted citizenship to 162,000 Burundian refugees - a historic step that other governments in the region have yet to take.

Hovil argues that the Ugandan government should follow Tanzania's lead and naturalise refugees who have been in the country for 20 years or more – the residency period that qualifies other foreigners for citizenship.

"Making the offer of naturalisation to refugees in Uganda would be absolutely game-changing," she said.

But while the prospect of citizenship could improve matters, the majority of refugees dream of resettlement in rich countries like the United States, Canada or Britain.

Uganda's refugee population is now the third largest in Africa, with settlements in the north of the country dealing with a sharp influx of South Sudanese since fighting in Uganda's northern neighbour escalated over the summer.

The population of Nakivale has increased by 20 percent this year, according to the UNHCR, with a steady stream of newcomers from Burundi adding to pressure on limited resources.

Food rations were recently cut to all those who arrived in the country before 2015, and plots of land granted to new arrivals are now at least half the size they once were.

Viette Nisabwe, a young Burundian woman who arrived in March and now runs a small café, looked out at the heavy rain splattering the main road of New Bujumbura, a hastily constructed neighbourhood for new arrivals from Burundi.

"With God's miracle, I will go to another country," she said. "But it is very unlikely."

Additional reporting by Evelyn Lirri in Kampala.

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