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Shrinking land opens new challenge facing South Sudanese refugees

As the South Sudanese refugee population in Uganda surges, each day comes with a fresh crisis that tests their hosts’ generosity, UN agencies and other charitable organisations providing the basic resources to keep the asylum seekers going.

Long praised as a model country for its refugee policy that allows asylum seekers access to land, work and to operate business, Uganda is now clearly feeling the strain after the number of South Sudan refugee crossed the one million mark last month.

It now emerges that the Uganda government has no plans to acquire more land for thousands of refugees that continue to pour into the country daily, fleeing the violence in South Sudan.

“The long and short of it is that we don’t have new land [to give out]. The number of gazetted settlements is not increasing but the refugees are,” says David Kazungu, Commissioner for Refugees in the Ministry of Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, under the Office of the Prime Minister.

As the burden of hosting the world’s second largest refugee population of 1.35 million takes its toll, Uganda government has progressively reduced the land size it allocated the refugees to support cultivation of crops to supplement the food rations.

Before the violence in South Sudan started in December 2013, refugees in Uganda had the luxury of 100m² of land allocated to them, but after the world’s youngest nation got consumed in a conflict that has bordered on genocide, the plot sizes also shrank to 50m².

As of October 2016, the land size had shrunk to 20m².

“It is not a rigid policy; it depends on other factors like availability of land. Land is limited, but our policy is to accommodate everybody,” said Agriculture Minister Vincent Ssempijja.

Sam Newton Andruga, a refugee at Agojo settlement in Adjumani, District said he can barely feed his family. “My land is 20 by 20 metres. I use it to grow only okra. I have six children and a wife. It’s not enough,” he told The EastAfrican.

The 37-year-old says back home in Pageri, Eastern Equatoria state, he owns two square kilometres of land, which he inherited from his grandfather. He worked on his land and got enough to feed his family, and sell, for income.

However, in Agojo, Mr Andruga says having to survive on vegetables from a tiny plot of land and waiting for dry ration of cereal (maize or sorghum) that sometimes drops from 12kg to 5kg a month, is one of the lowest points of living as a refugee.

“I prefer to be at work in my farm in my country. The food given here is not enough. In June, we were given 5kg of cereal. They [UNHCR] told us the food wasn’t enough,” Mr Andruga says.

Climate change

With no funding to increase food rations, and perhaps acquire more farm land for new refugee arrivals, the UN Refugee Agency looks to Uganda government’s continued generosity, but for how long?

The UNHCR says that as of September 1, only 24 per cent of the $674.45 million requested for the South Sudan response is funded, leaving a gap of 76 per cent.

In June, President Yoweri Museveni and the UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres hosted the Refuge Solidarity Summit in Kampala to raise $2 billion, but managed only $358 million.

Refugees population of top five settlements.

Refugees population of top five settlements. UNHCR DATA

Because of this, Kampala says the UNHCR and the international community cannot look to the generosity of Uganda government’s refugee policy forever.

“UNHCR should start thinking outside the box,” Mr Kazungu told The EastAfrican. “They need to come up with different mechanisms to cope. How do they settle refugees in Europe and elsewhere? We can’t keep everyone on land. We don’t have enough land to give out.”

One of the coping mechanisms perhaps came from a UNHCR sister agency. On August 30, the Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation Jose Graziano da Silva visited two South Sudanese refugee settlements — Agojo and Mungula I in Adjumani District, where FAO is providing agricultural support.

Locally adapted seeds

The FAO chief distributed more locally adapted and diversified seeds that mature quickly, with high nutrient foods; this could yet prove to be the solution to the reducing land size available for refugees.

FAO has in recent years implemented more than $3 million worth of projects to support South Sudan refugees in Uganda by giving out such locally adapted seeds, kits for livestock treatment, poultry production and micro irrigation.

During his visit, for instance, Mr da Silva launched a $6,000 micro-irrigation scheme to help the refugees and the host communities adapt to and stave off challenges of adverse weather and climate change.

The FAO chief says the 10,000-litre tank that stores water for the irrigation scheme, is a boost for refugees farming needs and to deal with climate change but also mindful to use much less water to produce food, change and improve the lives of the refugees, and solve the problem of always waiting for food rations.

“Just giving food is not sustainable, to distribute is not enough. When the refugees arrive, that is okay, but over the long period seed distribution is key,” he said.

One refugee who has benefited from these interventions is Rumano Michael Taban, a father of three. Taban arrived in Uganda in 2013, when the land size allocated to refugees was still bigger.

Refugees population by district. UNHCR DATA

Refugees population by district. UNHCR DATA

Even then, Taban was aware that the plots given to refugees were barely enough for their household feeding needs, and left nothing for sale to raise income.

“We formed Oluaru [togetherness] farmers group in 2013 with members of the host community. For us as refugees, working with host community gave us more land. Then last year, FAO came in and said due to weather unpredictability, we start this irrigation demonstration farm to help improve our farming,” he says.

Using FAO support services, at one point Taban and his group harvested and sold five tonnes of maize.

The 30-member group also grows cassava for food security, but also being located in Mungula I settlement, which is the hub of vegetable production in Adjumani District, the group grows tomatoes, green pepper, onions and cow peas for sale.

According to Uganda’s refugee policy, when a project is brought into a community, the refugees should benefit 70 per cent and the community 30 per cent.

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