Land tenure security key for refugees, hosts

Jonathan Ochom

What you need to know:

  • This approach is largely influenced by the need to ease administration, service delivery and coordinate financial support.
  • Uganda’s policy on refugees is touted as one of the “most progressive in the world” as it entitles refugees and asylum seekers to fundamental human rights and freedoms like movement, work, and social services.

Since the 1940s, Uganda has hosted several refugees from across the world including Poland, South Sudan, Congo, Burundi, Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, Sierra-Leone, Senegal, Mozambique, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. The refugees are settled in gazetted areas like Kiryandongo, Acholi Pii, Rhino Camp and Nakivale settlements, among others.

This approach is largely influenced by the need to ease administration, service delivery and coordinate financial support. Uganda’s policy on refugees is touted as one of the “most progressive in the world” as it entitles refugees and asylum seekers to fundamental human rights and freedoms like movement, work, and social services. This perhaps explains why there is an enormous influx of refugees to Uganda which by January was estimated at 1,582,892.

Under the settlement approach, refugees are integrated in places near host communities which enables them to access resources like land, markets, among others. The emergence of land conflicts between refugees and host communities can be partly attributed to this approach because as the number of refugees increases, so does competition for resources like land.

The significance of land rights as a tool for economic empowerment for both refugees and host communities is undebatable. The common rights associated with the land include: the right to access, use, earn, manage, transfer or dispose, and peaceful enjoyment.

The interplay of the various rights oftentimes breeds conflicts and brings to the fore tenure security concerns. Theoretically, land tenure security concerns the perception by a person or a group that the rights they possess on land are held definitely, without any external meddling and with the ability to gain from that land due to their investment or a transfer to another person.

Three key issues emerge here: breadth, duration, and assurance. Breadth deals with the number of rights one holds: the higher the rights, the higher the economic benefits. Duration connotes the period one enjoys the rights on the land, with higher time spans fetching comparatively higher economic gains. Finally, assurance is about the enforceability of the rights held regardless of the duration and breadth.

In the context of refugees, land tenure security challenges are linked with land acquisition for settlements, allocation of land for refugees, ability of refugees to access additional land for personal use and restrictions on land holding for foreigners. For example, in some cases, refugees have been allocated land which locals claim ownership or use rights hence creating tensions including xenophobia and hostility between refugees and host communities.

Additionally, while the motivation for land allocations is to enhance the refugees’ self-sufficiency, the size of the plots allocated is inadequate. Even then, the arability of some of the land has been questionable. This has led some refugees to seek more land from the neighbouring communities through renting or free access from friendly locals. While this is a good move, some issues arise.

In the rural context, most of this land is undocumented customary land and the arrangements are oftentimes verbal which is in itself problematic as it may be hard to resolve conflicts if they emerge. Furthermore, the settlement approach is only feasible where land is abundant. With Uganda’s ever-growing population, pursuit of industrialisation, uncontrolled urbanisation, among other land issues, this approach might become untenable and any continued push can only ruin relations between refugees and host communities.

After decades of Uganda’s celebrated refugee policy, it is important to interrogate some of the challenges encountered and land tenure security is undeniably one of them. The land sector in Uganda is synonymous with conflict and intrinsically, it is critical to treat interventions on land, especially in fragile contexts with more sensitivity. As we commemorate World Refugee Day, land tenure security for refugees and host communities is an area that requires further scrutiny. This will not only achieve the objective for which this approach was conceived but also minimise or avert potential conflicts over land.

Happy World Refugee Day!

The author is the executive director, LANDnet.

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