A farming ban imposed on Rwandan refugees in southwestern Uganda is raising concerns for their food security, while proposed cash transfers could boost both food prices and theft, warn aid workers and local officials, who are urging the government to rescind the directive.
"The situation with the Rwandan refugees remains unclear. They were stopped from cultivation so as to encourage them to voluntarily return home but the number of those who left is low," Festo Wafuta, the senior Ugandan official in the Nakivale camp, told IRIN. "As yet we do not have a clear solution from the government about the Rwandans; right now most of them are relying on food distributed by WFP [UN World Food Programme]."
The Rwandan refugees were last year given until August to voluntarily repatriate but only 5,000 left, while the remaining 16,000 went to live with nationals near the settlements but returned to the camps once the repatriation period ended.
"The food situation only got out of hand late last year when we had riots here at Nakivale; those who rioted were mostly the new refugees who had not cultivated their land; we hope the food distributions will continue until April when [WFP] cash transfers are expected to begin," Wafuta said.
He said government officials had recommended WFP continue supporting the refugees by distributing full rations to them.
"Without the food distributions, we run the risk of extreme hunger among some of the refugees, increased cases of robbery as well as increased hunting in the nearby national park," Wafuta said. "If this directive were rescinded, then life for the Rwandan refugees would greatly improve."
“Not a holiday camp”
Government Minister for Disaster Preparedness, Relief and Refugees, Tarsis Kabwegyere, said the ban on cultivation would not be lifted soon, adding that “if the refugees insist, we shall chase them or they can contact UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] so that they are relocated elsewhere.
“This is the government position. UNHCR knows about it and they should arrange with the refugees and take them to another country. This is not a holiday camp. These people were told that the conditions [in Rwanda] were conducive for them to go back home,” Kabwegyere told IRIN by telephone.
According to UNHCR, the refugee status of many Rwandans in Uganda may be lifted by the end of 2011, but only after various conditions have been met.
Stanlake Samkange, WFP country director for Uganda, said plans were under way to start a cash transfer system in April to help Rwandan refugees improve their livelihoods.
However, local officials in Nakivale said with a cash transfer food prices could rise dramatically as vendors will know the refugees have money.
Wafuta said: "This could also trigger an increase in incidents of robbery and house breakages as people look for the money the refugees will have received.
“We are also concerned about the refugees who sell the food they have produced; our efforts to regulate this have not achieved much. This has resulted in some refugees selling all their produce and in cases where the head of the house indulges in alcohol, the result could be hunger for the children and may also contribute to an increase in sexual and gender-based violence."
"We can't go back"
Most of the Rwandan refugees are ethnic Hutus. They said they feared returning home because of "hostility", insecurity and persecution by their neighbours and government officials who consider them to have been involved in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
Glodetta Uwilingiye, 36, mother of five in the Kyaka II settlement, formerly from Byumba region in Rwanda, said: "I can't go back because there is no just law in Rwanda; my husband died in 2002. Who will guarantee my security if I return home yet my neighbours are suspicious of me?"
Since the farming ban was issued, she said, life had become harder and she was having problems keeping two of her children in school.
"I make about 1,000 [Uganda] shillings [$0.50] whenever I go out to do petty jobs for Ugandans or the Congolese refugees. This is not enough to buy food and pens and books for my children; they have had to stay home recently as I try to make more money," Uwilingiye said.
David Mugenyi, commandant of the Kyaka II settlement, said Rwandan refugees considered extremely vulnerable, such as widows, single parents, the disabled and child-headed households, were being considered for assistance as the government reviews the non-cultivation directive.
"We are human and we know that some of these refugees are living in difficult conditions, so we assist whenever we can," he said.
In the capital, Kampala, UNHCR said the government had agreed to revisit the decision barring Rwandan refugees from cultivating the land.
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