Tooth can lost

A cryptic warning greets travellers on the road to the Ikafe Refugee Settlement in Northwestern Uganda. / Photo: Justin Dubois
A cryptic warning greets travellers on the road to the Ikafe Refugee Settlement in Northwestern Uganda. / Photo: Justin Dubois

By Justin Dubois

On the drive from Arua in Northwestern Uganda to the Ikafe Refugee Settlement, some 60 kilometres east, one comes to a steep incline in the country road. Small water streams have carved miniature canyons in the traveler’s path. Where the ruts don’t prohibit the passage of vehicles, sharp rocks protrude from the reddish East African earth. From the top of this incline, I glance in the distance at the endless sparse yet rich shrubbery, trees and crops typical of this area that borders the Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Although I cannot name most of the vegetation, I do know that it produces the most delicious and sweet fruits and vegetables I have ever tasted. I also know that that the livelihood of most people residing in the region – including the refugees in the nearby settlements – is intimately tied to the greenery’s yield.

However, carved in the rock face, a conscientious traveller’s warning reminds those on the road not to let their attention stray too long: “Tooth can lost. Be to careful 2009.” I hope to myself that this is a mere warning and not the result of actual experience.

The length of the trek to Ikafe depends on the state the last rain has left the road. It is, however, always over two hours. As Salongo, with a firm hand on the steering wheel, navigates his way to our destination, we pass by isolated homes – each comprised of three to six thatched roof mud huts. As we drive by, many of the young children run up excitedly to the road. Their eyes light up even more when they spot the muzungu in the open window. This inevitably leads to fingers pointed in my direction, a large smile, and at times a shy wave that I just as shyly reciprocate.

Along with Salongo, I am joining Godwin, a lawyer, and Eunice and Salome, psychosocial  counselors – all with the Refugee Law Project (RLP) where I am interning for the summer. Our mission for these two weeks is twofold. First, we want to monitor the respect of rights of refugees in the settlements as well as the ongoing repatriation process. Second, we will attend to any individual legal or psychosocial issues refugees may have.

At the height of the conflict between the Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army and the central Khartoum government’s forces, this region was home to tens of thousands of refugees. Since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, the Sudanese refugees have been returning home. Given that most are gone from Ikafe, our visit comes in its last week as a refugee settlement – at least for the time being, as the local district government has decided to reserve the land for any potential future humanitarian use.

And why shouldn’t it? With the DRC and Sudan so close by and the region’s history of forceful displacement resulting from violent conflict, it might be wise to maintain the land, infrastructure and tested security protocol that can serve as home for the next wave of displaced persons. In addition, with Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army still roaming about with periodic reports of clashes and killings in the bush, plus the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming referendum in South Sudan, I can understand why Ugandan authorities want to reserve the land to prevent having to reinvent the wheel in the future. I wonder to myself how much of the decision is also influenced by the reality that any humanitarian situation brings humanitarian dollars from which the local population – often the elite – inevitably benefits.

There are a little over 125 refugees in Ikafe camp who have not repatriated to the Sudan. They will be transferred by the end of the month to another refugee settlement in the region. Some of these refugees have genuine protection cases – that is, returning to their home would put their lives in jeopardy. Uganda has the international obligation, then, not to force them to return to their home. Others have not yet repatriated for reasons of ‘convenience’ that international law does not recognize: access to health centres or schools in their home area is limited or non-existent; their children have six months left of schooling to obtain their primary 7 or A-level certifications here in Uganda; they fear that the upcoming referendum will be violent. However, the Ugandan government has issued an ultimatum that all refugees from South Sudan who want to benefit from assisted voluntary repatriation must leave before the end of June. Although the vast majority of refugees want to return to their homes, some nevertheless perceive this ultimatum as infringing upon the necessity for repatriation to be voluntary. During an information session we are running for the refugees, one man asks: “Why must we return to the Sudan when Sudanese refugees in London or New York don’t?”

The question has a straightforward answer according to Godwin: politics. The Government of South Sudan needs these people back in the country so they can participate in the upcoming referendum. But the question is more complex and touches on how most of us understand the present world order. There are citizens and then there are others. There are relatively few refugees in the Global North, whose shores are difficult to reach, whereas there are numerous refugees in the Global South, where violent conflict forces people to move across porous borders. I see that much more clearly now that I am here. Consequently, in the Global North, liberal norms and international law have evolved to consider the refugee as an individual with distinct moral and legal claims allowing him to enter and remain in the host society. Many of us know the one Congolese refugee family that frequents our church, or the lone Columbian man who plays on our soccer team. They are, in most instances, welcomed and integrated. In Ikafe settlement, however, the refugee is a member of a large group fleeing conflict. More generally, in the Global South, it is not the individual but the group that is the refugee.

Essentially, the Sudanese refugee in London, or Montreal for that matter, needs not repatriate because his refugee status there is temporary; he has distinguished himself from the group and is on a path to integration into his new society. For mass populations of refugees, the camp setting perpetuates the refugee label. And if they are still refugees, they can be asked to repatriate once their home is again safe.

On the way back to Arua going up the steep incline, I run my tongue along the inside of my top and bottom teeth. No tooth be lost. They are all still there and I know I will soon be back in Arua for the night, back in Kampala in a few weeks, and back in law school in Montreal in a few months. I must not think too much about matters of convenience; they are mostly guaranteed for me. When the refugees repatriating pass on this same road on their way to the Sudan, I imagine their teeth will be the least of their worries. Are the plots of land they fled over a decade ago be occupied? How will they get their children to the closest health centre 28 km away from their home? How will the neighbours who remained treat them – considering there are reports that returnees have been treated as second-class citizens and viewed as cowards for having fled?

Does that mean the refugee label and identity will follow them home as well?

Justin Dubois is a student in the Faculty of Law. His internship was undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Robert S. Litvack Fellowship through the McGill Faculty of Law, the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, the Helton Fellowship from the American Society of International Law, and the Human Rights Working Group Bursary at the McGill Faculty of Law.