What happens when refugees are given land instead of tents

Oct 07, 2017
8-Minute Read
I’ve visited enough refugee camps in my work with World Vision, to know that for the most part they’re painfully similar. Hallmarks include thousands of closely-packed white tents, the classic turquoise UNHCR branding, and thousands of people filling what was an empty dusty landscape.

I didn’t expect the refugee settlement I visited in Uganda recently to be any different, but it was.
More than a million South Sudanese refugees have poured into Uganda in the last year, forming the biggest refugee settlement in the world. But instead of tents being closely compacted together in a grid, they dotted the landscape organically with vegetation filling the gaps in between. This was new to me, and I didn’t think much of it until I was introduced to Charity and Isaac.
Images of people and huts at a refugee settlement

Turning a hand out into a hand up

Charity and Isaac are parents who fled conflict in South Sudan with their five children last September. With an additional two foster children, they’ve lived at Bidibidi refugee settlement for over a year now -- much longer than they anticipated this temporary existence to last.

Like others, Charity and Isaac’s family’s food source has been monthly distributions of hard beans, corn soya blend, a little bit of salt and some oil; but unlike others, that’s not all they’ve been eating. After a couple of months Charity realized that if she saved some of the corn she was given, she could plant it and create a more nutritious diet for their children. This meant a month of going with less, but it soon paid off. When I visited Charity and Isaac, their maize garden was ready to be harvested.
Michael Messenger counts sorghum sacks and people line up for water
This wouldn’t have been possible without Uganda’s liberal refugee policy in place. Under Ugandan law each newcomer is entitled to a 30x30m plot of land. It’s not much, but it’s considerably more than anywhere else in the world and it recognizes that refugees aren’t always just temporarily passing through.

Room to grow

Corn is not the only vegetable Charity is growing. Thanks to a distribution of high-yielding, drought-resistant seeds, she also showed me patches of okra, aubergines and onions. In August and September , World Vision, with support from UNHCR, provided more than 3,000 families in a single settlement with seeds for maize, cabbages, okra, beans, sorghum, cassava, tomatoes, onions, and sesame seed.

Sustainable food assistance like this is a critical tool in the fight against global hunger. And at World Vision, we are not only serious about creating a world free of hunger, but we actually believe it’s possible. We have been the largest implementing partner of the World Food Program for over a decade, and we’ve seen firsthand the affects that conflict, displacement, climate and disaster have on food sources, and at times it’s dire.

But we’ve also seen what happens when communities are given a hand up rather than a hand out. In the last 15 years, more than 200 million people have been freed from hunger as a direct result of the world’s generosity towards sustainable food assistance programs.
Food for thought

Research conducted by World Vision, UNHCR and Caritas International indicates that 58% of the refugees at one of the settlements in Uganda relied solely on food assistance for survival and were not engaged in any form of economic activity. That number would have been much higher if families like Charity and Isaac’s were unable to generate an income through the vegetables they grow.

At the end of our visit, Charity and Isaac gave us a tour of their food gardens. Isaac told us that he takes the surplus vegetables that Charity grows and sells them to others – an action that provides him with an income, a livelihood, and some dignity too. More than just economic freedom, Isaac is free to be more than just a refugee. He’s regained his identity as a father providing for his family again.

Michael Messenger with a refugee family in Uganda

Michael Messenger is the President of World Vision Canada.