Comment & analysis

World Refugee Week 2022: it’s time to prioritise mental health support in peacebuilding responses in Uganda

24 June 2022 Ramzy Magambo World Refugee Week 2022: it’s time to prioritise mental health support in peacebuilding responses in Uganda

In this blog, we explore four conflict trends in refugee-hosting areas throughout Uganda. We highlight how people need psychosocial and mental health support – not least to deal with the impacts of violent conflict.

Uganda is home to close to 1.6 million refugees and asylum-seekers, the highest number in Africa and third-highest in the world. Many people entering Uganda since 2016 have fled years of violent conflict, looming famine and economic collapse from neighbouring countries South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 81 per cent of all refugees in Uganda are women and children.

Kulindi Tito, Clinical Psychologist at our partner TPO Uganda told us that many refugees may have significant unaddressed trauma – either from experiencing violent conflict in the past or facing an uncertain future, or both. This can feed into tensions between refugee groups and between refugees and host communities.  

“If we don't act, these tensions could escalate into conflict,” he said. “The loss and stress experienced during humanitarian emergencies cause grief, fear, anxiety, guilt, shame, and hopelessness that overtax an individual’s capacity to cope. We see that the rate of mental health challenges related to extreme stress – such as post-traumatic stress disorder – are higher among refugees than in people who are not forcibly displaced. We know that mental health heavily influences our quality of life. So, it makes sense that mental health, just like physical health, needs taking care of. And one way is through finding a sense of community or belonging.”

The Ugandan government has tried to encourage belonging and championed refugees’ self-reliance by giving out land plots and granting them access to work. But the cracks in Uganda’s accommodating refugee policy are beginning to show. In West Nile, Northern and Western regions, services like security, health, education and water, sanitation and hygiene are under strain. Some of the refugee hosting areas are in the most vulnerable districts in Uganda. This has led to conflict over resources between host and refugee communities, as well as ethnic tensions. All this undermines the socio-economic benefits of hosting refugees – and makes life for people less peaceful.

To understand the context within which mental health support is important, we highlight four conflict drivers that Saferworld and partners like TPO are working to address: 

1. Land governance among hosts and refugees

As authorities continue to welcome refugees (including by offering land for settlement and integrating them through the Settlement Transformation Agenda), competition for land between host and refugee communities, and within refugee communities, is intensifying. With refugee numbers increasing – in some areas exceeding the host population – the demand for land is skyrocketing, and so is the price. This leads to more land violations, such as the illegal sale of land by non-authorised persons. The government allocates land to refugees for agricultural use; however, these plots are often in unproductive areas, limiting livelihood opportunities and encouraging competition with host communities for viable land and resources. Saferworld and partners support community groups to monitor and follow up on agreed action points with authorities. We engage relevant humanitarian organisations on advocacy and commitments with authorities. We are also equipping local government with knowledge on conflict and gender sensitivity in refugee responses.

2. Conflict over other natural resources

Competition over natural resources such as firewood, water and grass has created conflict between host communities and refugees. Firewood is particularly valuable; when refugees cut down trees, host communities see it as an attack on their livelihoods. Refugees entering host communities looking for grass to fix their roofs are at risk of being arrested and harassed by host communities. Refugee women report suffering sexual harassment and violence when they are harvesting grass or firewood to thatch houses or cook for their families. The water shortage has also created a lot of conflict between the refugees and host communities since most of the critical water points are found in refugee settlements, and some people from host communities have been denied access to them. Saferworld and partners are facilitating dialogues between the Office of the Prime Minister, UNHCR and local government on polarised situations in refugee settlements and host communities. We are bringing together representatives across conflict divides (for example, between and among refugees, between refugees and host communities, or including across refugee hosting districts) in a safe space to jointly explore opportunities for resolving their differences or potential conflict.

3. Access to social service delivery

Access to social services like health, education and water is a source of tension. Host populations first welcomed refugees with the prospect of sharing services, expecting to take them over once people returned to their homes. But recently there has been growing mistrust and intolerance towards refugees, often as a result of perceptions of preferential service provision, increased competition for water and social services (especially health care), concerns over local safety and security, and uncertainty over how long people might stay. These pressures are placing additional strain on post-conflict communities suffering from profound divisions and pre-existing tensions. Some in host communities (particularly young people) have raised concerns about being excluded from new job opportunities. Host communities claim they are restricted from doing business in some refugee settlement markets, while people who are refugees are free to engage in opportunities in host communities.

4. Official refugee policy

Embodied in the 2006 Refugees Act and 2010 Refugees Regulations, Uganda’s policy towards refugees is impressive: it opened the country’s doors to all asylum seekers whatever their nationality or ethnic affiliation; granted refugees relative freedom of movement and the right to seek employment; and allocated land to each family for their exclusive agricultural use. But the government policy of settling refugees in protected areas has stoked tensions. The policy was based on the assumption that most refugees could support themselves through farming, but population increase and higher land values have led to strained social relations between refugees and hosts.

Why include mental health in responses?

Refugee populations and host communities are under increasing physical and psychological pressure, yet there is currently a lack of psychosocial and mental health responses. Our view is that peace in society begins with peace in the mind. Through our experience working with partners in refugee settlements and host communities, we have seen how refugees experience significant unaddressed trauma from violent conflict and having to leave their homes. If not addressed, this can escalate tensions between conflicting refugee groups and between refugees and host communities. By helping people deal with these issues, we can build strong foundations for peace and real change. One important step is to enable people to express their needs and concerns both to each other and to authorities and service providers, giving people the tools to peacefully address tensions when they arise. We are also working closely with authorities and community support groups to incorporate mental health and psychosocial support into refugee responses.

There are many examples of host communities and refugees working together to build good relations, but there are tensions too – everyone wants a safe environment for themselves and for their families. When pressure on services and natural resources is high, relations can become strained. By helping to address the mental well-being of people placed in difficult situations, we can begin to tackle the tensions when they arise, and prevent conflict from spiralling.

We will be exploring the relationship between mental health and peacebuilding in more detail. Watch this space for future blogs, comment pieces and interviews with our partners in Uganda and beyond.

Read more about our work in Uganda. 

Photo: Groups gather their belongings from the back of a truck outside the reception center at the Imvepi Refugee camp on Friday, 23 June 2017 in Northern Uganda. Credit: UNMISS/Flickr.

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