Characterizing Rwandan refugee settlements in his country, Tarsis Kabwegyere, the Ugandan Minister for Disaster Preparedness, Relief and Refugees said: “This is not a holiday camp.” The snide remark comes after the government of Uganda enacted a ban on farming for refugees, in an attempt to incite the remaining 16,000 – mostly Hutu – Rwandan refugees to voluntary repatriate to their country.
It is not atypical for host countries, like Uganda, to implement measures that they hope will encourage refugees living in and around their communities to leave. Uganda, like many host countries in the developing world, has a policy of “encampment” for refugees – the idea is to keep refugees within a clearly delimitated zone, so as to reduce the potential risk of friction with local communities, as well as decrease their reliance on often strained public services like health or education. Similarly, the UNHCR seeks to reduce the possibility of fostering protracted situations by limiting physical assistance (like food distribution and free health care) past a certain point. In Ghana, for example, assistance for Liberian refugees has been dwindling steadily since 2000 – today, only a very small fraction of the estimated 15,000 refugees in the country receive food aid. Nonetheless, globally, there has been a push – even in Uganda – to promote self-reliance among refugees, particularly as a means to decrease the burden of aid on agencies responsible for supporting refugees.
For refugees, particularly those spending years – sometimes even decades – in protracted situations, having the chance to be self-reliant is critically important. Given the opportunity, people will prefer to be economically independent, rather than rely on cash transfers, food distribution or other assistance mechanisms. In Chad for example, the UNHCR oversaw a food security program for some 20,000 refugees from the Central African Republic. The program included financial and practical support for refugee farmers, like providing tools, seeds and other farming implements, or assisting refugees in animal husbandry or food production techniques. Allowing refugees to take care of themselves not only means the restoration of dignity and independence for people who have often lost everything, but can also benefit the local economy and allow for productive interaction between locals and foreigners.
Politically, both Rwanda and Uganda have been seeking to encourage Rwandan nationals to return home; President Kagame of Rwanda has been working alongside UNHCR and other host governments to devise a strategy which will resolve the country’s refugee problem. Rwanda wants its approximately 60,000 citizens living in exile back, and the UNHCR and host countries would prefer not to support people whose country is at peace.
To take away people’s livelihoods by implementing a farming ban is a short-sighted policy which only contributes to fueling tensions between host communities and refugees. Furthermore, aid agencies like the World Food Program and UNHCR have limited and rather inflexible budgets, and it is difficult for them to quickly implement stop-gap measures when changes in policy – like this farming ban – take place.
While repatriation to the home country is the preferred and most logical solution in protracted refugee situations, it can be psychologically very challenging for some refugees. Some of the 16,000 Hutu refugees in Uganda fear persecution at home, and whether or not their fears are founded is of little relevance when repatriation is supposed to be voluntary. Implementing policies which restrict refugees’ ability to be self-sufficient is by no means the most efficient way of motivating them to return home.
What’s needed is increased access to information about conditions in the home country, as well as adequate support mechanisms to help refugees prepare and succeed in their repatriation. The Ugandan farming ban merely contributes to the deterioration of Rwandan refugees’ quality of life and strips them from their hard earned autonomy.