Panafrican News Agency

Tension building between South Sudanese refugees, host communities in northern Uganda

Kampala, Uganda (PANA) - Tension between South Sudanese refugees and Ugandan communities around natural resources, livelihoods and land is slowly building up and could result into a broader conflict in northern Uganda, a refugee consortium has warned in a report.

The International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) said in a new report on Friday that frequent frictions have sparked violent incidents which if not properly addressed could escalate into broader conflict in northern Uganda.

Between December 2018 and May 2019, IRRI said its staff spoke with more than 470 refugees and members of host communities in Arua, Adjumani and Lamwo, all major refugee hosting districts in northern Uganda.

Ugandan citizens living close to refugee settlements 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, IRRI said.

However, years of sharing crucial natural resources with the refugees has resulted into frequent conflict over land, firewood, building poles for building houses and locally available grass for thatched cottages.

The other possible issues of contention include water and livelihood activities.

Despite important efforts to increase supply, competition over inadequate water remains a serious challenge in some settlements and has sparked fights.

"Only a substantial increase in access to water will fundamentally alter these dynamics," said IRRI in the report.

Frustration about destruction of crops by stray animals, owned by both refugees and hosts, and the way it is being handled could result in more problems, and should be addressed by international NGOs distributing animals in livelihood projects, IRRI said.

The most contentious issue involving international NGOs, however, was access to jobs.

According to an IRRI community survey, both communities, but in particular the host community, accused them of not sufficiently considering their people for low-skilled jobs.

While many also recognise that not all skills are in sufficient supply around the settlements, failure to take on sufficient community members has already triggered incidents, and exacerbates frustrations around inadequate compensation for land.

"Many of the issues outlined are not dramatic at the moment, but could nonetheless escalate into violence," IRRI said.

In several settlements, incidents between a few individuals about crime or simple fights between schoolboys have at times escalated into larger clashes between refugee and host communities, to the extent that they paralysed life in the settlements and required the intervention of Ugandan security actors.

This is also the case among refugee communities. While most refugee communities live peacefully together, inter-community tensions existed in many settlements and have at times escalated into violence.

A cocktail of frustration, unemployment, post-traumatic stress and alcohol abuse have the potential to escalate quarrels about access to services or fights between individuals.

Tensions are fuelled by ethnic stereotyping and ongoing conflict in their home country.

As a result, the Ugandan government and UN refugee agency (UNHCR) have, in some settlements, deliberately separated communities to avoid incidents, while in other settlements the same communities are mixed, despite a tendency of individuals to reside among their own community.

Community dialogues and sensitisation by local leaders and NGOs have gone a long way in alleviating some of these problems.

IRRI research confirmed that several combatants involved in the South Sudanese conflict are responsible for some of the tensions generated within the camps.

It also shows information was obtained of the South Sudanese combatants attempting to recruit refugees as combatants.

However, evidence on the exact recruitment was not obtained and it remained difficult to establish the full scope of this practice, and to what extent it has persisted since the signing of a peace agreement in 2018.

Members of the warring parties in South Sudan at times visit the refugee settlements, to reunite with their families but also to target political opponents.

Despite the porous nature of the border, the Ugandan government can do more to track such cross-border movements, exclude combatants from protection and prevent abuses, IRRI said.

-0- PANA AO/MA 30Aug2019