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Contested Refuge: The political economy and conflict dynamics in Uganda's Bidi Bidi refugee Settlement

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Executive Summary

In mid-2016, the conflict in South Sudan spread into the southern region of Equatoria, which borders Uganda. Officials registered 600,000 South Sudanese refugees crossing the border into northern Uganda between July 2016 and April 2017. Bidibidi settlement, in Uganda’s Yumbe district, was opened in August 2016 to accommodate some of this refugee flow. By December 2016 the settlement was closed to new arrivals as the largest refugee settlement in the world.

The refugee population of Bidibidi is predominantly from the Equatoria region, particularly southern Central Equatoria of what is now Yei state, as well as Eastern Equatoria. Like other South Sudanese refugee sites in Uganda, women inhabitants outnumber men. The host community is the Aringa, the indigenous population of Yumbe district. Aringa politicians lobbied for the refugee hosting site, seeking development and aid resources they associate with other areas of Uganda’s West Nile sub-region that host refugees.

Uganda’s refugee policy is one of the world’s most progressive, promoting refugee integration rather than confinement, and direct aid resources to the host as well as the refugee population. The report examines the political economy of aid and finds that refugee hosting is neither a clear net positive or net negative for the host community. Rather, aid is contested between different groups. In particular, aid assistance is contested over food assistance, development resources, and the winners and losers of the local economy. In all three of these sectors, the assistance to refugees provides both a mutual benefit to the host community but also potential fault lines.

Within this political economy context, then, the report examines specifically the dynamics along particular conflict fault lines. Conflict between the refugees and the host community is primarily centred on access to firewood and natural resources, lingering grievances from the host community about land allocation, and direct contestation over aid resources. However, the main source of tension between refugees and host community is indirect, stemming from local politics and the host community’s expressed frustrations with Ugandan authorities following decades of political marginalisation and mistrust. The host community, therefore, explicitly views the refugee population as a means of attracting aid and leverage for its relations with the central government.

The conflict dynamics within the host community are then examined further. Conflicts are primarily over desires from the host community elders for “appreciation” and claims of “unmet promises” in exchange for giving the land. The influx of refugees and aid resources have also created disputes over land boundaries and ownership. Conflicts within and among the refugee population are primarily interpersonal. When conflicts takes ethnic lines, these are primarily over issues of scarce resources, with the exception of when ethnicised political rifts from South Sudan spill over into the settlements. The only notable case of this is attacks on a small population of ethnic Dinka in the settlement. There is an also an issue of idle youth and gangs in the settlement.

The report then examines the means of bridging divides and resolving conflicts, first between the refugee and host communities, and then internally within the refugee population. The key means of resolving hostrefugee disputes are dialogues, primarily conducted between Ugandan local councils and elected refugee leadership. The report lists some practical areas for improving host-refugee relations by focusing on shared interests, strengthening existing interactions, providing legal training, addressing host-authorities relations as a separate conflict driver, narrowing expectations for refugee-host dialogues, and empowering women in conflict mitigation mechanisms.

The report then looks at the dispute resolution mechanisms inside Bidibidi, which exists on two levels: 1) formal liaison between the refugee leadership and Ugandan law enforcement; and 2) informal alternative dispute mechanisms, often involving ethnic or communal leadership or elders. The report recommends placing greater focus on supporting these alternative ethnic or communal mechanisms, training refugee leadership and refugees on Ugandan legal context, and, again, empowering women.