“What can we do to end the suffering that we have faced for a long time in our country? We hear the sound of bombs, bombs have finished us all. We can see that Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya have developed because they are peaceful. What can we the Acholi people do to unite and bring peace?”

Women of Palabek sang and swayed under the shadow of a mango tree in the settlement that houses over 50,000 refugees spread across 500 households. From 16th to 19th April, the humanitarian policy and advocacy team travelled to Palabek refugee settlement with Simon Tuoloung, the refugee representative to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) mediated High-Level Revitalization Forum (HLRF) on South Sudan. In Palabek, like in many other refugee hosting areas in Uganda, resources are strained. Every day, the Local Council chairman reports, families use at least a truckload of firewood as fuel for preparing food. At this rate, the environmental outlook for Palabek in the next ten years is grim. Refugees compete with host communities over natural resources such as grass, land, wood for fuel, water sources and quarry stones. Refugees report that they are sometimes attacked by host communities when they go out to collect firewood and grass. ir hoes and axes confiscated.

While Uganda has been rightly commended for having an open refugee policy that enables people from all over the region and beyond to stay in a safe place where they can freely move and work, the question of viability of this approach- without increased resources and capacity- still hangs heavy. Tensions between refugees and host communities are but a reflection of deep seated questions on how long Uganda, which is also one of the poorest countries in the world, can keep its doors open to refugees. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, predicts that the number of South Sudanese displaced will reach the three million mark by the end of the year. Uganda is expected to take in quarter of a million more refugees. Yet, the South Sudanese refugee response only received 33 per cent of the funding needed in 2017. Without increased investment in the response, countries such as Uganda will crumble under the weight and economic strain of hosting refugees.

At Palabek, host communities live alongside refugees. This is unlike other refugee settlements where there are clear demarcations between spaces for hosts and that of refugees. There is no segregation based on ethnicity. However, most of the refugees in the settlement are of Acholi ethnicity, very similar in origin, language and culture with the host communities. There is growing fear among communities about the risk of loss of land to government. Communities cite promises made by the government when the land was allocated for the settlements that have not been fulfilled as one of the reasons for their discontent. The host communities though vulnerable to the same conditions that refugees face- including poverty and disease and a history of conflict (during the LRA insurgency that ravaged Northern Uganda for decades)- are still generous and positive. The backbone of the economy is agriculture and the hosts have shared their main source of livelihood, land, with the refugees.

Amid these challenges and tensions, refugees call upon warring parties to negotiate peace. Many of the refugees, especially women and youth groups, do not know much about what is going on. This resignation is partly borne out of the fact that they have little hope in the ongoing IGAD peace processes on potentially combustive issues such as what a transitional government would look like and who should participate in it. Yet, it is difficult for refugees to have conversations about the ongoing peace process because they are afraid such discussions may be construed as involving themselves in politics—which is prohibited in Uganda’s Refugee Act. But women sing. They sing about a time when there will be no bombs dropping in their compounds and they can return home. They use song as an important safe and culturally acceptable avenue through which they can express themselves.

Even when there is a general feeling of hopelessness about the peace process, we must continue to press regional leaders to support a peaceful resolution of the conflict and ensure that the calls of refugees reach the warring parties. That way, refugees will not only feel more hopeful, but they are also more likely to own outcomes and agreements arising out of the negotiations and demand implementation at all levels.