Land rights for refugees in Uganda seems safe but more is needed to sustain peace in Sub-Saharan Africa

Sunday, 23rd July 2017

With over 2,800 refugees arriving in Northern Uganda every day, the government is taking steps forward to improving their land rights.

As people around the world go to bed for a good night sleep, brutal conflicts in Southern Sudan drive people on a perilous journey to Uganda. By dawn, hundreds of families flood the gates of refugee camps in Northern Uganda, some travelling as for as 347 kilometres in search of stability.  At arrival, the newcomers are often malnourished, exhausted and very thirsty. United Nations Human Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates an average of over 2,800 refugees arrive in Northern Uganda every day. The war and famine in South Sudan put 5 million people at risk of extreme hunger and death, thus many flee the harsh conditions.

Land for refugees: a progressive policy

Because of Uganda’s liberal refugee policies, the migrants are not clamped down by barbed wire fences, instead the country has reserved them with a warm welcome, providing refugees with a place to live, cultivate and to work. At a time when many nations are banging the doors on refugees, Uganda is open to accepting more refugees. Besides, the Ugandan government ushers permanent resettlement plots to refugees and encourage them to engage agriculture and small businesses.

ILC often recognise such broadminded and revolutionary land reforms as it works with civil society and intergovernmental organisations to protect and strengthen the land rights of poor women and men; facing hardship, exclusion, eviction and sometimes rustles wars.

Often, displaced persons are extremely vulnerable and face certain difficulties in getting a home, land and property rights. Thus, the open door policy is highly supported by sympathisers and mainstream media around the world.  Writing for the Guardian, Larry Elliot states: “Unlike many western countries, Uganda has not demonised the new arrivals. The government has given the refugees land and seeds in the belief that they will be better off making a new life for themselves than doing nothing in a camp.”

An estimated 950 000 refugees from Southern Sudan live in Uganda. If living a life of agriculture is not good enough for them as Julian Hattem from the Washington Post notes, “they can move freely around the country, travelling to towns or to the bustling capital of Kampala, which 95,000 refugees call their home.”

Upkeep of regional peace could be better than working in the aftermath of conflicts

While disruptive and innovative development efforts such as securing land and property rights for refugees are good and often saluted, the risk of failure is huge if there is no long-term plan. In a joint open letter addressed to the 2017 Uganda Solidarity Summit on Refugees, Arthur Larok, Country Director, Action Aid Uganda, and 12 other Civil Society leaders called the attention of global and national leaders on the long-term land related problems the influx of refugees could cause, specifically in host communities. They urged the government to position its foreign policy towards preserving regional peace.

Their statement to the Summit was clear:

“…The refugee crisis in the Great Lakes Region is real and any response to restore dignity and livelihoods for over 1,200,000 registered refugees flocking into Uganda through various humanitarian agencies should be applauded. However, any long-term redress of this crisis lies not in humanitarian gestures and charity but in addressing the political roots of the problem. The current refugee crisis, massive displacements and significant pressure being placed on host communities is a result of a failure of politics in the region…”

To become an example for countries facing crisis, the civil society leaders concluded that focus should be on supporting individual and collective efforts to restore the rule of law and democracy (in war-torn nations).

Lessons from works with internally displaced persons and documenting customary laws could play a big role

Looking into the future, ILC member, Land and Equity Movement Uganda (LEMU), documented issues around internally displaced persons during the Lord's Resistance Army in Eastern Uganda in 2010. Insights from the study reveal how women and other vulnerable groups "offered" land inside internally displaced persons camps and describes the struggles they faced to go back to their customary homelands, in addition to the different problems they faced with host communities.

In Noth-Western Uganda, around Western Nile, LEMU also documents customary laws for three tribes, the Alur, Aringa, and Lugbara. Refugees who find themselves in these areas could have a better understanding of these customary laws to protect themselves.