“We are all from Kyaka”

In Uganda, refugees have lived peacefully alongside the local people for decades now. But farmland is slowly becoming scarce. Like many other developing countries and the international community as a whole, Uganda is facing the question of how to create long-term prospects for its refugee population.
A refugee in Kyangwali. Edward Echwalu/Reuters A refugee in Kyangwali.

The Jeep rattles at a crawl along the dusty red dirt road that winds its way through the hills of south-western Uganda. Our guide from the non-governmental Refugee Law Project suddenly turns to us: “We’re in Kyaka now. Pay attention: the stone houses with corrugated tin roofs belong to the people who are from here. The mud huts with thatched roofs belong to the refugees.” Without noticing it, we have crossed the border into the Kyaka II refugee settlement.

Refugees have a lot of opportunities in Uganda, but they are not allowed to build permanent structures. They are specifically prevented from constructing permanent roofs or cultivating perennial crops like matoke, a type of plantain. This policy is intended to ensure that refugees can be quickly repatriated if the security situation in their home countries improves.

Kyaka II is one of three large refugee settlements in south-western Uganda. Since the Rwandan genocide sparked war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 1994, mostly people from Congo have come to find shelter and a new livelihood here. Kyaka is now home to about a tenth of Uganda’s 170,000 refugees. Because of the ongoing conflicts along the border in eastern Congo, many of these people have lived in Kyaka for years. Quite a few of them are second-generation refugees.

The situation of the Congolese refugees is representative of the experiences of many displaced people worldwide: even after years, they have no hope of returning home. The common image of the refugee who is able to return home after a few months is misleading: nowadays refugees spend an average of 17 years in their host countries.

Typically, this host country is a neighbouring developing country that has a hard enough time taking care of its own people. Host countries receive support from multilateral institutions like the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and international charity organisations whose financial strength depends on rich countries’ willingness to donate, which fluctuates along with the media’s interest. Aid organisations’ mandates are often limited to immediate emergency relief, however, and do not include long-term development assistance.

Attitudes are changing at the UNHCR: instead of only providing refugees with short-term relief, the agency is now doing more to help them establish a livelihood and integrate into their host communities. No additional or separate facilities or infrastructure shall be built for refugees in developing countries.

Uganda is one of the few host countries worldwide that has had policies in place for years to integrate refugees into society. For that reason, Kyaka bears little resemblance to the well-known images of improvised tent cities. The settlement comprises 28 villages that often border directly on communities of local people. Clinics and schools serve Ugandans as well as Congolese. “The more frequently these two groups interact, the less likely they are to clash,” explains an employee from the Refugee Law Project.

Ugandan and Congolese children have long gone to school together. Without the Congolese, it would hardly be worthwhile to operate a primary school in this faraway region. Many children still have to travel up to five kilometres on foot to get to school.

Since 1997, all children have been able to attend primary school for free in Uganda, a policy that has benefited refugee families as well as native Ugandans. Refugees do have a harder time paying for notebooks, pencils and school uniforms than Ugandans. However, the school’s head teacher is willing to turn a blind eye when it comes to the children’s clothes. She reports that going to school together helps the children overcome prejudices and reservations. When the children themselves are asked who their friends are, they give a clear reply: “We are all from Kyaka. Of course we are friends with each other and play together.”

The fact that Ugandans and refugees live so close together is the result of the country’s targeted refugee policy. Decades ago, the Ugandan government recognised that resettled refugees could cultivate large areas of unused land, reports a representative from the responsible ministry.

The region around Kyangwali, another large refugee settlement in western Uganda, did indeed quickly become “the nation’s breadbasket”. Even today, every refugee is given a piece of land – about 50 by 100 meters – upon arrival. Each household also receives a basic supply of tools, seeds and food to help them get started out.

According to research conducted by the Oxford Humanitarian Innovation Proj­ect, 10 to 30 % of refugee households in Kyangwali have found new sources of income that have made them at least somewhat less dependent on state aid. They sell agricultural products, operate small businesses or earn a little money by driving motorcycle taxis. Refugees are allowed to move freely within Uganda and can also hold jobs. However, as mentioned above, they are not allowed to build any permanent structures. As a result, they also do not make any larger investments, which could be the key to true economic independence.

In fact, even in Kyangwali, which is considered particularly successful, all of the settlement refugees still receive food assistance. About half of them need the entire ration. Only about five percent could get by without such help.

The refugees’ dependence on external support makes it difficult for them to exercise the freedom of movement that the law intended to provide. It is risky for them to leave the settlements permanently because they can only receive services from the Ugandan government and the UNHCR if they remain.


Competition for land

Over the years, friendships and business relationships have formed between the different groups. A UNHCR staff member says that both refugees and the local people benefit: “Many refugees are young. They want to make a difference, and that implies additional growth opportunities for the Ugandan economy.”

Harmony should not be taken for granted however. Robert has lived in Kyangwali for over 17 years and is one of the representatives who bring the interests of the refugees before the settlement administration. He reports that there used to be enough land and at least the people who came from farms were largely able to feed themselves.

In the meantime, however, the population has grown dramatically. Following a wave of violence in the DRC in mid-2013, the number of people living in Kyangwali almost doubled, rising from 21,000 to 37,000. That has led to tensions. Wher­ever productive farmland has become scarce, local people and refugees accuse each other of not respecting boundary markers. Social peace quickly becomes fragile as competition for essential resources grows.

Like Uganda, many other developing countries, as well as the international community as a whole, are facing the question of how to deal with refugees in the long term. The core issue is whether refugees should have a long-term perspective in the host country. It is uncertain that there is the political will and that local communities will accept the long-term presence of refugee groups.

There is an obvious dilemma. Deeper economic and social integration in the host country is incompatible with plans to ultimately make refugees return home one day. Successful integration in Uganda could set an important example for other host countries. In the meantime, the outlook for refugees in Uganda is uncertain however.

Merle Kreibaum is a research associate in the economics department at Göttingen University.

Steffen Lohmann is also a research associate at Göttingen University.

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