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  • Timothy Nkooyooyo

Refugee Actions Impede Land Rights for host communities in the West Nile Region.

Uganda's commitment to refugee protection traces back to 1987 when the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was ratified by her. The country's history of hosting refugees dates back to the 1940s when Polish refugees found shelter in Nyabyeya and Koja in Masindi and Mukono respectively. However, a significant surge occurred in 1955 when around 78,000 refugees from southern DRC, Sudan, and Kenya sought refuge within Uganda's borders. By 2017, World Vision Uganda estimated the refugee and asylum-seeker population to be 1,064,043 with a notable portion of approximately 21% originating from the DRC alone. This figure has since risen with refugees from the DRC now constituting 31.3% of the total refugee population in Uganda, equivalent to 508,495 individuals. The overall number of refugees in Uganda has increased to 1,584,489 as of January 2024, solidifying Uganda's position as the African country with the highest refugee population and ranking fourth globally.

The West Nile region, situated in the northwest of Uganda and bordering South Sudan to the north and the DRC to the east, has been significantly impacted by political instability in neighboring countries. This instability has led to an influx of refugees primarily from the DRC and South Sudan into the region. In 2017, an estimated 649,066 refugees had settled in West Nile and by January 2024, this number had increased by 1.2%, with an additional 125,497 refugees settling in the region since 2017. This influx has contributed to land conflicts in the area, exacerbated by factors such as customary inheritance practices, cultural norms, limited access to resources and information, and male dominance in governance structures.

The issue of land encroachment by refugees was exemplified by locals during the Community Awareness Raising on Women Land Rights that ESAFF Uganda conducted in Eroko and Andelazu villages of Logiri sub county in Arua district. Mr. Apeka Kennedy, a resident of Logiri Subcounty, recounted the loss of his land to a refugee from the DRC amidst the turmoil caused by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency in Arua district. "When the LRA insurgency struck Arua district, I relocated my family to my in-laws' place in Lira for two years until conditions improved. Upon returning to our land, I found a refugee from the DRC had erected a house and commenced farming activities on my property. Despite my efforts to reclaim the land, I was unsuccessful," lamented Mr. Apeka.

Similarly, Mr. Oroma Richard shared a poignant account of how his compassionate act of hosting a refugee from the DRC led to the loss of part of his land. Recounting the incident, he stated, "In 2018, a stranded refugee family from the DRC sought refuge, and as a Christian, I welcomed them to stay on my land temporarily while they sought a more permanent solution. However, after a year, I discovered that they had sold the portion of land I had offered them to another party."

Mr. Andrua Noah, the LC1 chairperson of Eroko village, highlighted the concerning trend of refugees encroaching on forest reserves, gradually multiplying and causing conflicts over land ownership. "I've witnessed numerous cases of refugees from the DRC gradually seizing land belonging to Ugandan citizens, yet law enforcement remains passive. We urgently require assistance in addressing this escalating situation," implored the LC1 chairperson.

ESAFF Uganda's engagement has been pivotal in mitigating the tensions between refugees and host communities in the West Nile region, particularly regarding land rights. Through initiatives like the "PVP FAIR for ALL project," conducted in collaboration with Oxfam, ESAFF Uganda actively facilitates Area Land Committees (ALCs) to engage conflicting parties, employing Alternative Dispute Resolution Mechanisms. Through negotiation and dialogue facilitated by ESAFF Uganda, conflicting parties are brought together to find mutually agreeable solutions, fostering unity and reconciliation within the West Nile region. This approach has proven instrumental in easing tensions over land and promoting peaceful coexistence. As a result, ESAFF Uganda’s efforts not only address immediate land disputes but also contribute to building long-term social cohesion and stability in the region.



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