Understanding Refugee – Host Relations in Post -Conflict Societies in Uganda: Adjumani District

by Denis Barnabas Otim

of the Refugee Law Project, School of Law Makerere University

URL / Link for More Information: http://www.refugeelawproject.org/

This writing is a product of lived experience of working with refugees in the West Nile district of Adjumani. Given its historical significance in hosting refugees since 1960s, Adjumani as a district hosts more refugees than its nationals. Uganda as a country plays key role in responding to global migration crisis under the international laws and obligations. It should be noted that the international refugee law and human rights law provides a sophisticated and yet a balanced system which allows people in need to escape war and persecution to access protection in a third country. Some of these obligations can be traced right from the 1951 Convention of Refugees at the international levels, the 1969 Organisation of African Union Convention, and at the national level the domestification of the Uganda Refugee Act of 2006, and the Refugee Regulations of 2010.

Uganda as a country has in place a good refugee response plan with a clear objective to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers have access to territorial asylum, fair and just asylum procedures as well as the full enjoyment of their rights as set forth in international and domestic laws. However, there is one thing that clearly needs to be understood, and that is the relationship between forced migrants and their host, something which is critical to dictating the state of peacefulness and co-existence. History has also shown that there is a strong ethnic tie and relationship between some tribes in South Sudan and Uganda. One of the re-known ethnic groups living across the boundary between Uganda and South Sudan is the Madi and Kakwa, making it easy for them to communicate and integrate across boundaries. However, there are other migrant tribes from South Sudan such as the Nuer, Dinka and Murule in Adjumani who all have to relate and live peacefully with the host communities, making it imperative to understand how they live in the third country of flight.

My knowledge of working with refugees and host communities in post conflict northern Uganda indicates that understanding community perception and attitudes towards refugees requires a good examination of the social and cultural sphere of their daily lives. Though not conclusive, I have been able to note that in some situations, community perception towards refugees corresponds to the host community’s capacity to integrate refugees, including the potential and capacity to absorb the shocks that comes with hosting refugees. Also, in communities where asylum seekers and refugees violated local societal norms and values, the social relationship between the host and refugees turns unconstructive.

However, some refugees-host community relationship were reciprocal in nature. A number of elders have expressed that during the 1970s, a number of Ugandans sought asylum in Sudan and that explains why this part of Uganda is reciprocating by offering hospitability to Sudanese refugees…. “The other time it was us, this time it is the Sudanese, we have no problem hosting them, laments an elder”. In addition, trade relations across the border continue to stimulate the cordial relationship between the South Sudanese and the host districts. South Sudan is a potential market for Uganda’s goods and a locus where Ugandans and Sudanese meet to transact business. In fact, business transactions between Ugandans and South Sudan nationals has deepened social reintegration and facilitated dialogue to resolve outstanding disagreements between hosts and refugees, though this varies accordingly. For example in December, 2019 some refugees were at risk based on an allegation that they had killed a Ugandan national in Nyumanzi refugee settlement in Adjumani district. A report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on the 13th December, 2019 stated that four people were reportedly dead, including two refugees and two Ugandans while twelve others sustained injuries as a result of the incident.  This complicated the refugee – host relationship.

Noticeable is that the interaction between diverse cultures and languages shapes social relations and integration between refugees and host communities. Culture plays a key role in the social integration between different social groups. In communities where there has been some form of social integration on the basis of anguage and inter-marriage, the relation between host communities and refugees is cordial. However, it should also be noted that social interactions and patterns of communication are built and informed by culture in this space. In some cases, some South Sudanese tribes are so unique and live in isolated spaces, thus limiting their interactions with others and the host population.

By nature, the dynamics of uncontrolled cross-border movements by the South Sudanese refugees also raises questions of identity, nationality, international relations, citizens’ relationships and boundary disputes. These issues motivate discontent, and inform individual’s perception towards asylum seekers and refugees. It was noticeable that there is a broad understanding of identity that is contextually informed. Across borders, identity issues strongly influence social interactions and integration, as some practices discriminate against certain identities. Though this is not prevalent in Uganda, it is alleged to be a common practice in South Sudan. A number of Ugandans have decried their South Sudanese counterparts as being so attached to identity and a sense of belonging more especially from their home country, a state alleged to be hostile to non-South Sudanese citizens.

Given the weak institutions of the interim Government, particularly institutions of police, justice, law and order, lawlessness pervades South Sudan leading to violent acts, especially acts that target Ugandans in South Sudan. The aggressive relations of South Sudanese may lead to situations that breed identity-based hatred and conflict. Additionally, there is possibility that identity-related conflict will manifest between Ugandan nationals and South Sudanese unless social cohesion is strengthened. At the moment there is need to focus attention on addressing some of the issues that affects the relationships between refugees and host communities in Uganda. Some of these issues include fights over natural resources – firewood, grasses for thatching shelter, and water, land, stray animals and crimes.