Henry Wasswa, Onen Walter Solomon and Sinikka Tarvainen
Displayed with permission from dpa German Press Agency

While other African countries cram refugees into miserable camps, Uganda offers them land, freedom of movement and the right to work. The presence of nearly a million refugees has not sparked xenophobia, but this tolerant approach is beginning to show signs of strain.

Nakivale, Uganda (dpa) – In the Nakivale refugee settlement in south-western Uganda, people who have fled violence in neighbouring countries live in neat mud houses, surrounded by plots filled with green maize stalks.

Children play in tidy yards, while a few men are busy laying a mud brick foundation for a new house in the settlement, the second-largest of 10 similar settlements in Uganda, which hosts 113,000 refugees on 185 square kilometres.

Joseph O, who does not want his surname published, came to Nakivale after fleeing a civil war in the then united Sudan in 2003. He was given a plot on which he now has a house, and runs a roadside snack kiosk to support his wife and six children.

Uganda gives refugees “good security and freedom of movement,” the 45-year-old says.

Few refugees enjoy such conditions in Africa, a continent that hosts 26 per cent of the world’s more than 65 million refugees. By contrast, they are often crammed into overcrowded camps that have insufficient facilities.

Kenya for example wants to dissolve its Dadaab camp out of concern that some of its more than 300,000 residents have links to Somali terrorists, while in Malawi, the authorities have put pressure on Mozambicans fleeing fighting to go back home.

Uganda, by contrast, has no permanent camps for one of Africa’s largest refugee populations – 920,000 in a country with a total population of 39 million.

About 800,000 of the refugees have so far been given land in unfenced settlements created for them. Another 80,000 live in urban centres or local communities, according to officials. Refugees may work and employ other people.

“Uganda has a policy that restores dignity to refugees,” says Teresa Ongaro, a representative for the UN refugee agency UNHCR in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

The largest group – 530,000 – comes from South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011 and was plunged into a civil conflict that has displaced 3 million people since December 2013. Others come from countries including Somalia, Burundi, Congo, Kenya and Rwanda.

Incoming refugees are given health checks, immunized and provided with identity cards, according to officials. They may also be trained in farming and business skills, says Patrick Rwabwogo from the Finnish Refugee Council, which runs such programmes in Nakivale.

“When refugees are given opportunities, they do not become too much of a burden and become productive,” says David Kazungu, commissioner for refugees at the Ugandan Ministry of Disaster Preparedness and Refugees.

In the Kisenyi suburb of the capital Kampala, Somali refugees wearing long robes run supermarkets, fruit stalls and foreign exchange kiosks. When prayer calls echo over the sprawling shantytown, Somalis rush to mosques alongside Ugandan believers.

“This is a good country, which allows us to live like any other people,” Deeqa Muhammed says behind her shop counter.

The 39-year-old fled fighting between armed groups in Somalia in 2012. She complains about problems paying her rent and her children’s school fees, but is satisfied with the treatment given to her in Uganda, where “you do not get harassed by anyone.”

While South Africa and Zambia saw xenophobic riots last and this year, no such events have been reported in Uganda – a fact some observers attribute to local memory of how Sudan hosted large numbers of Ugandan refugees persecuted by Milton Obote’s dictatorship in the 1980s.

The coexistence is, however, beginning to show signs of strain. Nakivale residents say settlement officials have asked them not to speak about problems such as lack of funds for businesses and insufficient medical care.

Settlement officials, meanwhile, declined to comment on reports that there had been clashes over farmland with surrounding communities, and that one person had been killed.

Kazungu admits that lack of land is becoming a problem, with the government now limiting the size of plots given to refugees to 50 x 50 metres.

The land given to refugees so far is valued at more than 50 million dollars, the official said – a hefty sum in the country where nearly 20 per cent of the population are classified as poor by the World Bank.

Uganda’s refugee programme is funded heavily by the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, which spends about 200 million dollars on it annually.

But with more than 300,000 South Sudanese refugees having flooded in this year, the UN agency announced in August that it was cutting food rations to tens of thousands who had arrived before July 2015.

The influx is still continuing, and “we have to prepare for the worst,” says Charles Yaxley from UNHCR in Kampala.

The growing financial difficulties are emboldening critics, who have already accused refugees of pushing up rents and Somalis of posing a security threat because of their possible links with the terrorist group al-Shabaab.

“This country already has millions of people in need, and yet the government is adding another burden of refugees,” says Ken Lukyamuzi from the small opposition Conservative Party.