Residents, who offered land for the establishment of Palabek Gem refugee settlement centre in Lamwo district to host South Sudanese refugees, have raised concerns over delays by Office of the Prime Minister, (OPM) to formalise the process.
The refugees, who settled on the contested land in April last year when the camp was established, have started using it even before land agreements are formalised, creating fear among locals that they could lose their land.
According to the agreement, the land was to be used as a settlement camp as long as the South Sudanese are still refugees in the country. It would then be handed over to the community once they are peacefully returned to their country.
Lamwo District has three settlement camps that include Palabek Ogili, Palabek Gem and Palabek Kal. The general size of land offered for the establishment of refugee camps is 50 square kilometres.
The land owners argue that ever since they offered their land last year, they have not had any official Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with OPM and district leaders, indicating they have offered their land for settling the refugees. Records from the Lamwo District planner indicate a total of 47 land owners had by December last year offered their land for the refugee settlement camp which was established in April 2017.
Mr Johnson Obita, 60, one of the land owners who offered his land told Daily Monitor in an interview that to-date, OPM has not engaged him in any formal land agreement.
Mr Obita noted that he offered the land after a committee was formed through the engagement of OPM and sub-county officials who convinced them that they would in return benefit from social services such as schools, health facilities and good road networks once the refugee settlement centre is established.
He said OPM has not also given him an exact figure of land size he offered, although it was surveyed.
“We gave out the land voluntarily, but a year has passed without any formal land agreement signed, there are no documents to prove I gave out my land to OPM. We have only had verbal agreements but the land is now being utilised by the refugees, I am scared of losing this land in future,” he said.
He noted that on several occasions, through their land committee, which brings land owners together, they have demanded for the formal land agreement to be finalised between the land owners and OPM, but the matter has dragged on unresolved.
“The land agreement document acts as security and commitment from OPM in case of anything. But at the moment, if anything happens to me, there is no record to show that I offered my land to government to host refugees,” Mr Obita said.
Ms Christine Angwech, a resident of Ajaogala Village in Palabek Gem Sub-county, who also gave part of her family land for the refugee settlement, shares a similar plight.
A-mother of seven children said the delays in having a formal agreement indicates that there is already a problem between land owners and government.
“I was not coerced to give out my land for the settlement but at the moment I am instead begging to have an agreement signed to confirm that I have given my land and the conditions attached to it,” she said.
However, Mr David Wangwe, the refugee settlement commandant in Lamwo District, told Daily Monitor in an interview that OPM has not had formal land agreements with the land owners.
Mr Wangwe said OPM was able to enter a formal MoU with land owners in Palabek Kal and Palabek Ogili settlement centres where refugee settlement camps were established since residents willingly gave out their land.
“We are aware of the delays in finalising land agreement with the land owners. This has been due to some issues such as resistance from land owners and continuous influx of refugees. OPM hopes to finalise the land agreement signing once we have settled the issues,” he said.
According to Mr Wangwe, the land agreement entails details of the size of land, particulars of the land owner, and details of land usage but excludes monetary compensation for the land.
The Lamwo District chairperson, Mr Thomas Ogwok, blamed both the land owners and OPM officials for entering into agreements on issuing out land minus involving his office.
“OPM stopped involving my office in negotiating for the land in December last year. I was kept unaware that a formal land agreement had not been signed between the land owners and OPM. This is a bad move on the side of OPM and it could lead to contention,” Mr Ogwok said.
He said his office will summon OPM officials and land owners to settle the matter and avoid possible tension rising among the local communities and refugees.