Sunday, May 21, 2017

Help Uganda to help others

Uganda is now home to 1.25 million refugees, including 898,000 South Sudanese who have fled civil war and famine. For years a progressive policy allowing refugees to obtain a plot of land, start businesses and access healthcare and education has proved a godsend for people from Uganda’s unstable neighbours.

The compassionate approach, dating back to the 2006 Refugee Act, is not purely altruistic. Entrepreneurial incomers helped the economy while new settlers provided larger markets for existing businesses. Those on both sides of the border tend to be from the same tribe and share a language and relations have been good, with the mutual benefits of improved infrastructure often funded by foreign donors.

But now the unprecedented influx from South Sudan, coupled with food shortages, drought and high unemployment, means that hospitality is waning, especially in some areas where refugees now outnumber the indigenous populations.

Isabelle D’Haudt, an adviser on humanitarian aid with the European commission, said while integration has proved successful in the past, the cracks are starting to show. “Host communities that have shared their land have benefited from new schools and health centres. But expectations are not always met and we are seeing increasing tensions as refugees and locals compete for services and natural resources.” She added: “The crisis is a financial one – the framework is there but we need funding to provide better facilities – we can’t work miracles without money.”
 In the border town of Lamwo, landowners are resisting the relocation of refugees. Politicians have been stoking tensions by inciting locals to demonstrate in the camps or hamper the delivery of aid. Last month armed youths ambushed a convoy in an attempt to stop supplies reaching the settlements. D’Haut said: “It only happened once but it is a warning of what could come without more money to ease the pressures.”
The relief budget required to meet the needs of Uganda’s refugee crisis stands at £744m but aid groups have received only 10% of that sum. The European commission has allocated £38.3m in 2017 to address the emergency but the sheer scale of the crisis means more help is needed from the international community.
South Sudanese have been fleeing since relations broke down in December 2013 between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar, igniting a civil war. It has forced in excess of 3 million people from their homes, with Uganda shouldering the bulk. At first the numbers were manageable. However, since renewed fighting in Juba in July 2016, almost 627,000 people escaping indiscriminate killings, looting, burning of houses, torture and rape by both government and opposition forces, have crossed the border. The violence has become increasingly sectarian and warnings of impending genocide are fuelling the exodus. Between January and April this year, more than 227,000 South Sudanese arrived in Uganda compared to just over 29,000 during the same period in 2016. Of those, 65% are under 18.
Aid workers at Imvepi say the arrivals coming through are increasingly vulnerable. Reka Farkas, a UNHCR field worker, said more people are fleeing due to famine declared in parts of South Sudan in February. “Around a fifth of children are suffering from malnutrition and the figure is rising,” she said.
Women and children comprise 85% of Uganda’s total refugee population. Many are at the Bidi Bidi settlement in Yumbe, which opened in August last year and expanded at such a rate it was soon home to more than 272,000 people, becoming the world’s biggest refugee camp.
Meanwhile environmental pressures are mounting. As more settlements pop up the number of trees being cut down is increasing and locals say they are having to travel further to find firewood. Access to clean water is another contentious issue exacerbated by recent drought. Boreholes have been drilled but the vast majority of water is trucked in from the River Nile. Desperate locals in Yumbe recently blocked access to one borehole for several hours saying they were not benefiting from the influx of refugees.  One family said a refugee from the Nuer tribe was murdered at a borehole after a fight over water broke out with a group of Dinkas. The settlement officer, Joel Nabugere, said: “We’ve been enjoying good relations and not had many clashes but recently there have been heightened tensions.”
The EU’s ambassador to Uganda, Kristian Schmidt, told reporters at a briefing in Kampala last week, “Uganda is the Germany of east Africa,” said Schmidt. “All the top members of government have been refugees so their inclination is to say these South Sudanese are our brothers. The policy has always been, let them in.”

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