KAMPALA, UGANDA – The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and Ugandan authorities are working to restore peace after clashes between locals and refugees in northern Uganda last week left about at least 10 refugees dead. The violence followed an argument between South Sudanese refugees and the host community at a shared water point. Rights activists say the fighting underscores scarce resources in Uganda, which hosts Africa’s largest population of refugees.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Uganda is calling for calm and an investigation into the violence that left the refugees dead.
The incident last Friday also left 19 refugees injured and 10 others missing.
Officials say it happened when a dispute near a shared water tap at the Tika village in the Rhino refugee settlement turned violent.
Joel Boutroue, the UNHCR representative in Uganda, says the violence was alarming.
“The disproportionate violent reaction by the host community, to what was a communal dispute, signals a threat to the delicate balance of peaceful coexistence in the rural villages where refugees live alongside their Ugandan hosts,” said Boutroue. “In an environment of scarcity of resources, tragic incidents such as that of last Friday are alarming.”
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The UNHCR also points out that 15 refugee houses were burned to the ground and another 26 looted and vandalized.
Musa Ecweru, Uganda’s state minister for refugees, told VOA the incident was regrettable and said investigations are under way.
According to Ecweru, refugees beat and killed a child from the host community, for reasons unknown. This triggered what he called the disproportionate reaction from local residents.
He said the incident shows weaknesses in the refugee support system that need to be addressed.
“The first one is psychosocial support to the refugees first, to really let the Dinkas and all these communities know that violence must not be all the time employed when there’s a kind of a misunderstanding,” said Ecweru. “They could have been annoyed by this child but beating the child to death was not something that was necessary.”
The UNHCR has deployed teams on the ground to support refugees traumatized by the attack.
Achieng Akena, executive director for the International Refugee Rights Initiative, notes that community resources are being stretched thin, especially now that Uganda is facing an economic crunch due to coronavirus restrictions which have made life very difficult for many people, especially refugees.
Akena says both the government and the UNHCR need to not only effectively implement peaceful community mechanisms, but stop being reactional.
“There need to be appropriate punishments done and appropriate prosecutions of the people who have been accused of having committed these offences,” said Akena. “The biggest challenge is if this goes unresponded to, or if the community feels that justice was not served, the next conflict will be even worse.”
Refugee rights activists note that as the world continues to focus on COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, it could mean increased tension between refugees and their host communities, if one side perceives the other to be competing for scarce resources.