Slightly after 4pm on Wednesday afternoon, a community meeting at Nkoma town council hall in western Uganda begins with land as a key highlight on the agenda.
Nkoma is home to Rwamwanja refugee settlement in Kamwenge district, with 80,000 refugees – almost thrice the number of nationals. Today, the hosts are discussing the turn their lives has taken since the arrival of refugees seven years ago.
Evangeline Tinkasiimire, 67, speaks first, narrating how her life has changed since refugees from Democratic Republic of the Congo – started living near her home.
“I am hurt,” she says, striking a bleak tone. “At first, I had a cow I don’t have it now. I had a goat; I don’t have it today. My land was taken. My life has not changed for better…”
Tinkasiimire’s compatriots offer their own testimonies – all but a few are negative.
They have lived in this area for more than half a century. They lived with the first refugees in the 1960s who included now Rwandan president Paul Kagame. That time, numbers were few and when most refugees went back home in 1994 after capturing power in Kigali, locals used the government land freely.
In 2011, with M23 rebels fighting the DRC government, locals were asked to leave government land to accommodate fleeing refugees. Some resisted, but others gave in, in a show of solidarity.
As refugees’ numbers grew and stayed longer than anticipated, cracks into Uganda’s refugee policy emerged. Land, one of the key components in Uganda’s response where every refugee receives a small plot, has taken centre stage.
Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni said last year that “whereas Uganda’s liberal policy of providing land is praised, it is not sustainable as land can only be provided if available.”
Such environment has amplified calls to review the country’s refugee policy to match the high numbers of asylum seekers – now at 1.5m – and address the land question.
Sheila Anne Depio, a research analyst at think tank Economic Policy Research Centre, said: “Are you going to close the gates? No. Can Uganda afford? No. Is the money enough? No. Are the refugees coming in? Yes. It is a catch-22.”
She added: “We need a policy review and answer the question of refugees. When we made the policy, the number of refugees was less than 300,000. The number has grown to [unprecedented levels] in a short time.”
Relief and Disaster Preparedness minister Hilary Onek told a gathering in Kampala recently: “Our policy has been commended as the most progressive. But there is a need to integrate it into the national development plan and deal with some inconsistencies.”
“We are considering a policy change, where refugees who return to their country, should not be allowed back in the same status, since they are not unsafe in their countries. They are no longer refugees.”
Depio suggests another layer of analysis on land issue.
“Land should be given on a needs basis. There are landless hosts who are bitter. The animosity is ‘why are we taking care of refugees before the home people.”
At the local meeting, theft, insecurity, and witchcraft were raised – many claims are perceived. Community local council chairman Charles Tight said while his members reported theft of their property, they didn’t have evidence it was by refugees.
“We don’t know the suspects. We don’t really have evidence,” he said.
Analysts say government and aid agencies must find a durable solution to the challenge. Traditional solutions – voluntary repatriation, resettlement to third country, and local integration –recommended by UN may not offer an immediate answer.
Refugees’ countries of origin are still unstable. Resettlement is hard because many countries are not willing to take in refugees. Local integration would be a viable option but growing animosity threatens its basic value – host community credence – for its success.
“We need to look at what Uganda can offer based on our economy and that includes rethinking our policy,” said researcher Depio, whose recent study with Unicef on deprivations among refugees and host children found the latter became worse-off in the long run.
In some areas like Adjumani district, hosts have given up their land to accommodate refugees but they have expectations which are not being met.
“They [hosts] expect immediate benefits. Tuition and jobs for their children. The dynamics of the situation and hosts’ expectations don’t match,” Depio said. “We need to link humanitarian response to the development issue. If refugees are staying here for long, it is no longer a humanitarian but a development issue.”
“The NGOs are doing very well in immediate response. They don’t have money to empower hosts and refugees to be independent.”
Dismas Nkunda, a refugees’ issues expert, said: “When poverty and lack of essentials become the norm rather than the exception, then we expect the host community to react and feel that refugees are better provided for. Truth is that there should be concerted effort to make the host community have a symbiotic relationship with refugees - otherwise, this bias will continue for some time.”
For Uganda, it is a race against time to get it right. Duniya Aslam Khan, the UN refugee agency Uganda spokesperson, said: “[More] development funding must be brought in more rapidly to support the local communities in refugee-hosting districts.”
Julius Mucunguzi, Uganda Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) publicist, said “government has started a new $50m World Bank-supported initiative to restore degraded environment, build skilling facilities and ensure safe water for both hosts and refugees.
Another initiative, refugee and host population empowerment (Rehope), started in 2016 to address the long-term needs of refugees and host communities, including education facilities and water.
“We no longer struggle to get to health facilities like we used to. We are getting electricity on the influence of refugees,” said Francis Bakiyawekyi, a Rwamwanja resident for 62 years.
Ivan Kunihira, 45, said their community has seen market expansion with the arrival of refugees, enabling urbanization.
Last year Uganda said it needs at least $2bn annually between 2017 and 2020 for comprehensive response to humanitarian and development needs of hosts and refugees. In August 2018, only 12% ($52.5m) of financial needs for decent humanitarian response had been received – leaving a $362.7m funding gap from what had been pledged, says UNHCR.
World Food Programme has cut food rations by half due to severe funding shortages. The country’s self-reliance strategy has not solved funding challenges.
“The thinking of self-reliance based on agriculture, you are just confusing me,” said researcher Depio. “If we can’t transform agriculture to support lives of whoever is doing it, we need to be honest and support strongly alternative livelihoods out of agriculture.”