Uganda at a “breaking point” with Africa’s biggest refugee crisis

Each day thousands of refugees have arrived in Uganda since violence in South Sudan escalated last summer. Aid organisations warn of a severe lack of funding.

Text: Erik Nyström, Photos: Cornelia Kästner (Lutheran World Federation)

“We are at breaking point. Uganda cannot handle Africa’s largest refugee crisis alone,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a U.N. statement on Thursday.

South Sudan’s 3,6 million refugees now constitute the biggest refugee crisis in Africa. Globally only Syria and Afghanistan have produced more refugees.

Most remain internally displaced, but over 1,5 million people have fled South Sudan to neighbouring countries. Uganda hosts more than half of those refugees, a total of 800 000 in March.

Thousands have arrived each day since hostilities erupted into war in July 2016. Most arrive after wandering in the bush for days with horrific stories of indiscriminate violence, killings, rapes and forced recruitment of children.

South Sudanese refugees awaiting plot allocation in Palorinya refugee settlement in Northern Uganda. Around 90 per cent of the refugees are women and children. According to their stories all adult males – brothers, fathers and husbands – have been killed or captured. Photo: LWF / Cornelia Kästner

Severe underfunding is creating significant gaps in the crisis response of Uganda’s government and aid organisations. Only 36 per cent of the 251 million US dollars needed for 2016 has been received. This creates significant challenges in providing refugees with food rations, clean water and services like health and education.

The drought that’s consuming Eastern Africa has also complicated food production in Uganda. In November WFP was forced to halve food rations in order to provide nutrition for everyone.

“Further cuts can’t be ruled out”, fears Kaisa Huhtela, FCA’s humanitarian coordinator in Uganda.

UN agencies, humanitarian organisations and the office of the Prime Minister in Uganda issued an appeal to the world in December to bring an end to the suffering of the South Sudanese people. FCA was one of the signatories.

Uganda’s way of dealing with refugees has long received a lot of praise. Newcomers are provided with a small plot of land within local host communities, where they can settle down and live peacefully. However, the pace of arrivals has been tough to keep up with.

FCA works with the refugees in Bidibidi settlement in Yumbe district and Pagrinya settlement in Adjumani district. New settlements have basically been opened every third month, Huhtela says. A new refugee settlement opened in Palorinya in December already exceeded its capacity of 100 000 in February, totaling at 140 000.

Creating new plots for farming is an enormous task on the rocky grounds of the settlements.

“We can’t keep up with this pace of arrivals and the need of further settlements. Without increased funding it becomes ever more difficult to ensure refugees their basic human dignity”, Huhtela says.

South Sudanese refugees who have just crossed the border to Uganda near Pomoju border point. Photo: LWF / Cornelia Kästner

The first collection point behind the South Sudanese border, where all refugees are vaccinated against Polio and Measles. Photo: LWF / Cornelia Kästner

Refugees are transported for plot allocation in Palorinya refugee settlement in Northern Uganda. Photo: LWF / Cornelia Kästner