A crisis turning inwards: refugee and IDP militarisation in Uganda
by Robert Muggah, Small Arms Survey, Geneva December 2003

Uganda’s displacement crisis has been called the ‘forgotten humanitarian emergency’. One particularly devastating feature of this crisis is the lack of physical protection of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). Surveillance data reveals that injury rates in settlements and camps are disproportionately high. A considerable number of refugees and IDPs are injured as a result of intentional violence, and a significant proportion of these can be attributed to gunshot wounds. Sexual violence is also common, and is regularly perpetrated at gunpoint. Displaced people are the target of direct military attacks, coercion, intimidation, forced conscription into formal and militia forces, informal taxation, abduction and arbitrary arrest.

This article explores the issue of the militarisation of refugee settlements and IDP camps in Uganda. It argues that, while technical and humanitarian interventions are no substitute for the political solutions the problem ultimately requires, specific measures aimed at demilitarising communities and displaced populations could improve their protection.

Displacement in Uganda

Uganda has hosted refugees from over a dozen countries since the 1950s, from Europeans fleeing after the Second World War to former combatants from neighbouring countries. Hundreds of thousands of Ugandans have also been violently internally displaced since the late 1960s as a result of internal conflicts in the West Nile and Gulu/Kitgum districts. The country’s 210,000 refugees and 1.6 million-plus IDPs are geographically and ethnically differentiated. The majority of Sudanese, Congolese and Rwandan refugees are concentrated in relatively small ‘settlements’ throughout the north-west, west and south-west. Many of these populations share ethnic affiliations with communities in neighbouring states. Between five and twenty per cent of the overall population of Uganda’s western districts are refugees. IDPs are concentrated in large ‘camps’ predominantly in the north-west, north-east and central districts of the country; they are primarily from the Acholi ethnic group. Between 60% and 90% of the total aggregate population of north-eastern Uganda are considered to be internally displaced.

The militarisation of refugees and IDPs in Uganda

‘Militarisation’ in the context of refugees and IDPs is often described as a combination of military or armed attacks on people within camps, the storage and diffusion of weapons, military training and recruitment, infiltration and the presence of armed elements, political activism and criminal violence within camps. In Uganda’s case, camps and settlements are exposed to escalating levels of armed violence by Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) combatants, Karamoja pastoralists and criminals. The motivation for attacks appears to be a combination of forced recruitment, the pursuit of assets including food and non-perishable goods, and politically-motivated violence. Arms caches, usually of assault rifles, grenades and ammunition, are occasionally uncovered outside of refugee settlements, though most are believed to be on the other side of the border in Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Virtually all IDP camps are fortified with barracks, and have a military presence with increasingly heavy deployments of army forces and militia groups. The current policy of the Ugandan army is to increase overall militarisation in order to pursue LRA combatants and to ‘protect’ refugee settlements and IDP camps. Although the majority of IDPs are not ‘militarised’, a considerable number of young men have been recruited into self-defence units. These are trained by the army, with some members redeployed to other parts of the country or even abroad. In the central and north-eastern districts, Acholi leaders and displaced people are increasingly reluctant to volunteer for ‘militia’ service or civil defence activities without guarantees against redeployment to other districts. The widespread presence of militias, with relatively ambiguous controls, potentially constitutes a long-term threat to the protection of refugees, IDPs and civilians more generally.

Moving forward: humanitarian and political aspects

Concern over refugee militarisation – particularly in protracted refugee situations – has increased. According to one estimate, over 15% of all refugee crises involve militarised refugees. UNHCR has recognised the importance of enhancing security – and controlling the spread of small arms – to achieve its basic protection mandate. ‘Goal 4’ of UNHCR’s Agenda for Protection highlights a variety of small arms-related concerns, and UNHCR’s Executive Committee (EXCOM) 94 explicitly called for measures to disarm combatants during refugee emergencies. In 2002 the agency recommended that measures ‘for the disarmament of armed elements and the identification, separation and internment of combatants should be taken as early as possible, preferably at the point of entry or at the first reception/transit centres for new arrivals’.

While technical and humanitarian interventions are no substitute for political solutions, specific measures are available that could improve the ‘protection’ of refugees and internally displaced people in Uganda. Increased attention to the monitoring and reinforcement of borders could assist with the screening of potential armed elements crossing into Uganda from the DRC and Sudan, which could in turn reduce the frequency of attacks on settlements and camps. Border control thus needs to be assigned a high priority. Regional approaches will be required – with the possible involvement of a peacekeeping force in the DRC, as well as increased joint operations with Kenyan authorities and the army along the Sudanese border. Uganda has played a pivotal role in the establishment and enforcement of the 2000 Nairobi Declaration on the proliferation of small arms in the Great Lakes and the Horn of Africa, indicating that a degree of political will currently exists here.

Non-violent efforts to deal with LRA combatants and other armed elements should also be encouraged. The government declared an amnesty in 2000, and there have been other pro-peace initiatives via radio programmes and an Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI). Programmes have also been established to demobilise and reintegrate child soldiers via the army’s Child Protection Unit, UNICEF and local NGOs like the Gulu Support the Children Organisation (GUSCO). The surge in respondents and defectors from the LRA indicates that non-violent approaches to demilitarisation can yield positive results. Every effort should be made by international actors to support these locally-developed programmes.

Procedures for screening settlements and camps of ‘armed elements’, as well as interning combatants, need to be strengthened. UNHCR has elaborated screening procedures for settlements, and OCHA could also establish protocols, together with UNHCR, the UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and the Ugandan government. Practical, appropriate and transparent procedures for the identification, internment and demobilisation of ‘armed elements’ in camps need to be developed together with the Ugandan army. The current policy of demobilising and subsequently redeploying former LRA combatants in the north is an extremely dangerous precedent.

The Ugandan army must also articulate a clear strategy for dismantling the militia. At present, the process appears ad hoc and confused. Although internal processes of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) were undertaken in 2002, and the Ugandan government has submitted a proposal for a ‘security package’ to UNHCR in order to reinforce the army and police presence in settlements, there do not appear to be any coherent, integrated and medium-term strategies to disarm, demobilise, return or resettle ex-combatants. Moreover, the UNHCR favours ‘policing’ approaches rather than ‘military’ solutions. The disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of militia, paramilitary and rebel forces is a priority and should be included in a long-term strategy for security sector reform.

The Ugandan government, the army and the national police must develop a responsive and proactive approach to the protection of refugee settlements and IDP camps. Concerns were frequently expressed by refugees and IDPs about the lax and in some cases predatory behaviour of the army and militia. There are clear normative safeguards in refugee law and via EXCOM 94 resolutions concerning the protection of refugees. In the case of IDPs, Guiding Principles 11 and 21 guarantee protection against rape, mutilation, torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, as well as the protection of property against pillage and direct or indiscriminate attacks. These should be enforced, and humanitarian agencies should monitor whether protection is being ensured. Particular attention should be paid to ‘self-settled’ refugees and IDPs in ‘un-gazetted’ (unofficial) camps, and OCHA’s work with the District-level Disaster Management Committees should be maintained.

Clear rules and regulations are needed governing army functions and mandates in relation to protection and settlement/camp management. At present, there appears to be confusion over the role and mandate of the army and its auxiliaries (e.g. local defence units and militia) with respect to protection. Although perimeters are established around settlements and camps at nightfall, these are often inadequate to defend refugees and IDPs from attack. This is especially the case with ‘non-recognised’ or ‘spontaneously settled’ refugees and IDPs in un-gazetted camps, many of whom are forced to search for food away from the protection of army forces due to limited access to international assistance. Moreover, refugees and IDPs appear to have little influence over the shape and character of their own protection, despite clear norms that call for their informed consent and participation. Consultations with IDP representatives could facilitate the elaboration of appropriate benchmarks and mechanisms for strengthening security and protection.

Minimum benchmarks and standards of protection and care for refugees and IDPs must be adopted by all stakeholders. In particular, donors and international agencies should apply pressure to ensure that minimum standards are devised for IDP camps and the ‘spontaneously settled’. Such standards may be achievable, at least with regard to IDPs, who are entitled to basic human rights under the Ugandan constitution. The establishment and deployment of ‘protection monitors’ to ensure that protection and the management of settlements and camps are of a minimum standard could be considered.

Preventing forced ‘encampment’ and exploring concrete options for the ‘decongestion’ of refugee settlements and IDP camps in situations of safety and security is a priority. The movement towards permanent settlement cannot wait for the final neutralisation and disbanding of the LRA. UNHCR is preparing the messaging, logistics and financing for voluntary repatriations from refugee settlements from 2005. Although the contexts are different, there do not appear to be similar strategies for IDP camps. While many IDPs would no doubt prefer to stay in camps until they are sure that security in their home areas has improved, a small minority wish to return.

Security sector reform (SSR) must be front and centre in any strategy to demilitarise refugee settlements and IDP camps. This should include strengthening the accountability of militia groups to the army and civilian jurisdiction, improved training and accommodation and transparent procurement and budgeting procedures for the army and its auxiliaries, as well as appropriate disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration activities for army and LRA combatants. The police force also needs strengthening, particularly in relation to community policing in rural areas, improved communications infrastructure and coordination across districts, tighter regulatory controls for illegal weapons, and better storage, maintenance and destruction procedures for small arms.

Finally, international agencies must establish clear policies on the use of armed escorts. A sizeable proportion of relief agencies hold that military escorts are necessary for access to refugee settlements and IDP camps. This is particularly the case for food convoys in high-risk areas. However, this sends out contradictory signals to the populations agencies purport to assist. Greater emphasis on negotiated access and alternative approaches to service delivery should perhaps be considered.


Robert Muggah is project manager of the Small Arms Survey at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. He is also a professional fellow of the US-based Social Science Research Council and a doctoral candidate in Development and Forced Migration Studies at the University of Oxford.

This article is drawn from a longer report entitled Protection Failures: Outward and Inward Militarisation of Refugee Settlements and IDP Camps in Uganda. It is part of a four-country study of refugee militarisation in Africa undertaken in 2004, also including Guinea, Tanzania and Rwanda. The work was commissioned by the Small Arms Survey and the Bonn International Center for Conversion, in partnership with UNHCR and OCHA.


References and further reading

Rosa da Costa, Maintaining the Civilian and Humanitarian Character of Asylum, Legal and Protection Policy Research Series (Geneva: UNHCR/DIP, 2004).

Jeff Crisp, ‘A State of Insecurity: The Political Economy of Violence in Refugee-Populated Areas of Kenya’, New Issues in Refugee Research, no. 16, 1999.

T. Kaiser, Participating in Development? Refugee Protection, Politics and Developmental Approaches to Refugee Management in Uganda, presentation to ASA-UK, London, 2004.

Zachary Lomo, Angela Naggaga and Lucy Hovil, The Phenomenon of Forced Migration in Uganda: An Overview of Policy and Practice in an Historical Context, Refugee Law Project Working Paper 1, 2001.

J. Merkx, ‘Refugee Identities and Relief in an Africa Borderland: A Study of Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan’, Refugee Survey Quarterly: Displacement in Africa – Refuge, Relief and Return, 21(1 and 2), 2002.

Leben Nelson Moro, Refugee Camps in Northern Uganda: Sanctuaries or Battlegrounds, American University of Cairo, 2002.

Stephen John Stedman and Fred Tanner, ‘Refugees as Resources in War’, in Stedman and Tanner (eds), Refugee Manipulation: War, Politics, and the Abuse of Human Suffering (Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2003).

Willet Weeks, Pushing the Envelope: Moving Beyond ‘Protected Villages’ in Northern Uganda (New York: OCHA, 2002).

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