Aerial view of BidiBidi refugee settlement
By: Kakembo Ali
Uganda has experienced an influx of people in recent years coming from neighboring countries escaping conflict and famine, doubling the East African country’s refugee population to an estimated 1.4 million refugees: the third largest in the world..
Violent conflicts in South Sudan from 2013 to 2016 forced close to a million South Sudanese to flee to Uganda, building up the country’s largest refugee settlement called Bidibidi that is located in Yumbe District in the northwestern West Nile region. According to UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 86 percent of these refugees are women and children, with children making up more than 60 percent of all refugees.
Despite some negative stereotypes about refugees, this refugee presence has positively impacted northwestern Uganda’s socioeconomic development and the delivery of social services to the host community,including water and sanitation, waste management, health care and education through the Ugandan government and humanitarian actors.
Landlords give hope to refugee farmers in BidiBidi settlement
The Bidibidi settlement is composed primarily of underutilized “hunting grounds” :low, rolling hills and mostly rocky soil. Bidibidi is divided into five zones, which are subdivided into clusters and further split into individual villages surrounded by the Ugandan host community villages.
In the settlement, refugees live next to Ugandans, fetch water together and send their children to the same schools, which has improved their coexistence irrespective of their different origins and cultures.
Under the country’s generous refugee policy, refugees are entitled to work, move freely and access the same social services as Ugandan citizens, an effort to ensure they live sustainably and contribute to the Ugandan economy.
In Bidibidi, refugee households are also given a 30-meter-squared plot of land by the Ugandan government under the Office of the Prime Minister to cultivate and build a home. Still, many refugees complained that this was not enough for supporting agricultural activities. To fill this gap, some Ugandans who own private land have also chosen to give part of it to the refugees and share the profits.
One such landlord is the 81-year-old Atuma Brian who said his generosity toward the refugees came from his past experiences of being a refugee himself.
“I gave out my land with the aim of developing this area, but even before that, I was once I refugee in South Sudan in 1985, and the locals there treated me well,” Atuma said.
Though Atuma Brian was unsure of the exact size of his land, he said that it sits on three villages and a good number of refugees are cultivating on the land.
Near Atuma’s home was a garden managed by42-year-old Ismail Taban, a refugee from South Sudan who was preparing a piece of land for the planting season.
This one is really my best colleague who welcomes all the refugees,” Taban said.“If you have an intention that you want to work for yourself, then he will give you a portion so that you can cultivate, and this makes me feel at home.
People like Atumawho have chosen to give land to the refugees have instilled hope for their refugee neighbors to gain a sustainable livelihood.Taban, who plans to plant cassava and simsim,hopes to sell his produce after harvesting to buy a goat.
“If I sell these things, I will buy a goat if I will be going back to South Sudan.Maybe I will go with that goat such that it will help me when I will be buying food,” Taban said.
BidiBidi refugees not a burden but benefit to the host community in Yumbe
Yumbe town is the central business center neighboring BidiBidi refugee settlement where many humanitarian organizations have their offices.Several long-term residents of Yumbe District testified that the coming of the South Sudanese refugees had helped develop the economic and social services of the area through the increased population and humanitarian funding.
“Before the arrival of our brothers from South Sudan, the population was small, and before their coming the business here was low,” said Kawawa Rashid Annison, a senior citizen and businessman in Yumbe.“Someone would build a house but [it] wouldn’t be rented.Even prominent businessmen and women decided to build in Arua and Koboko, but because of the refugees, new structures have been constructed.”
Annison said that the community’s reception of the refugees was so positive because the Ugandans had memories of being received positively by the South Sudanese people when they were refugees themselves.
“Our relationship here has been so good.If you check in 1979 and 80’s, we also went to South Sudan.Because we were also hosted by them, we feel they are back home, so we receive our brothers and sisters because you never know one time we may also go back to them, and we went to them twice as West Nilers,”Annison said.
This peaceful coexistence of the two communities was also appreciated by several youth from the host community, who confirmed that business was booming and life was better alongside the refugees.
Before refugees came here we were not developed.Now we have customers and we have a lot of business; we also have many friends who are from outside,” said 25-year-old Habiba Innocent, a mobile money business attendant and lifelong resident of Yumbe.
Before 2016, mobile connectivity in most of the West Nile region including Yumbe was a challenge to the host community, but after the refugees came, humanitarian organizations such as UNHCR required phone service to contact the refugees,and enable these asylum seekers to be able to contact their relatives internationally. Mobile phone network operators including MTN and Airtel thus extended their services to the area.
“Aid agencies also needed mobile money transfer to provide funds to refugees and to keep the business running, so UNHCR together with our partners; we approached some of the cellphone companies to initiate their business and this benefited also the local community” said Duniya Aslam Khan, a UNHCR Uganda Communications Officer..
The mobile money operator Innocent said the refugee presence and humanitarian aid has further built up education facilities.
“We had few schools in Yumbe; even in my village Kei we had one secondary school, but we now have three because of refugees, and we like them,” she said.
Mengo Primary School, located in zone three in Bidibidi refugee settlement, is shared by refugee students and children from the host community..Isaac Masikini an 18-year-old primary seven refugee student, said he got along well with his Ugandan counterparts.
“I came here because of the war in South Sudan,where I lost everyone in that war,” Masikini said“I find life in BidiBidi okay.Things are now going on well here and I am studying to be a member of Parliament in South Sudan.We now coordinate with national students and we understand each other.”
However, he said the school still deals with some challenges such as overpopulation,.where four students must sit on a desk designated for three students.
A teacher at Mengo Primary School Yasin Kamasaid that humanitarian aid for the growing student body had helped the school improve its facilities.
“[Beforehand] the population in this school was very low; we had less than 300 students. When refugees came in around 2016, the population started increasing and right now we have more than 1500 students.In terms of structures, we have now have a good number of classrooms,” Yasin Kama said.
Ugandans and refugees have often conflicted due to pressure on shared resources. But in recent years in BidiBidi,humanitarian organizations have provided funding and infrastructure to bring clean water, hospitals, schools and business development to the area that are now shared by both communities, leading to a peaceful and productive coexistence.