BY JOYCE BABIRYE –
Uganda currently hosts a total of one million four hundred refugees from different parts of the World, but mainly from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Majority of these people have been forced to flee their countries because of civil wars and political persecution.
West Nile region hosts the largest number of refugees in Uganda. According to Mr. Solomon Osakan the Refugee Desk Officer for Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) in charge of this region, COVID 19 has affected the refugee programme just like the other programmes across the country. When President Yoweri Museveni announced a general lock down of the country on 20th March, 2020 to slow down the spread of the Corona virus, this also meant the closure of all schools and learning Institutions. According to Mr. Osakan, the students have become redundant and the crime rate has gone up. There is a lot of fighting among the youth. Fighting among the Sudanese youth of the Nuer and Dinka tribes in Rhino Camp Refugee settlement lasted one and half months. This resulted in the loss of two lives. This is due to cultural beliefs where it is a taboo for a Nuer girl to fall in love with a Dinka boy. This could have led to a spike in Covid 19 if there was a positive case amongst them” he said.
Mr. Micheal Nabugere the Camp Commandant for Bidi Bidi Refugee settlement which is home to 27,000 South Sudanese refugees in Yumbe District says there is increased level of gender based violence, defilement and early pregnancy, prostitution and forced marriages. Such crimes used to be handled by Mobile courts that are now suspended. Offenders are now transported to Arua police and later sent to Koboko prison. However due to overcrowding, some of the offenders are released after evaluation. This has led to a loss of trust in the justice system. Mr. Nabugere said that an NGO called Window Trust Uganda is trying to bridge the education gap. They have printed education materials for students to continue learning from home. They also train teachers to supervise students in small groups and mark the home work. However, distribution of the learning materials is expensive. Though Government has continued to pay teachers in government schools, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is considering saving teachers’ salaries and using the funds to address COVID 19 issues. This will increase the number of people who are not earning a living.
Hon. Hillary Onek, the Minister for Refugees, Disaster Preparedness and Management, during a press briefing for the World Refugee day, on 19th June, 2020, said that Uganda has an Open door policy for Refugees. Government of Uganda receives refugees, allocates each family farm land and gives them seeds to grow their own food. They also have freedom of movement within the country. However, there are challenges because some Refugees keep sneaking through the borders to go across and see their relatives. This could be a risk factor in the spread of COVID 19. The reduction in support from the International community to the Refugee programme has made it difficult for Uganda to continue supporting the Refugees. At the same press briefing, Mr. Joel Boutre, the UNHCR country representative said, “UNHCR now has problems in getting funding to support refugees because donor countries have also been hit hard by the COVID 19 pandemic and they have to focus more on their citizens. The budget allocation for the refugee programme was cut by 70%. World food Program (WFP) cut the funding for food to 30%.” The reduction of the food budget has forced government of Uganda to reduce the food rations given to the refugees from 12 kilogrammes to 8 kilogrammes of maize flour per person per month.
To reduce on the crowding at the food distribution centers, food is now distributed once in two months, instead of every month. Some people sneak out to go and collect food from the gardens they left behind in South Sudan. Mr. Osakan also said that some Refugees registered in Congo and in Uganda. The Refugees programme in Congo gives them cash while Uganda gives them food. So the refugees cross the borders on the days they know cash is being given in Congo. During the lock down period some people were unable to collect their food due to the long distances. Some are very old or disabled while others are child headed families. Besides the transport costs have also been constantly going up.
Richard Yanja a Refugee leader from South Sudan has been living in Bidi Bidi refugee settlement since 2016, he says he is grateful to Uganda for hosting them, but the food they are being given is not enough. “Before Covid 19, people used to have businesses or go to peoples gardens to dig for cash. During the lock down people were unable to work, we are losing hope. Some youth have decided to walk back to South Sudan, risking being killed on the way” He says giving food for two months is not good because some people cannot keep the food for that long. Yang appealed to government to increase the food rations. Yanja also asked government to give refugees face masks to protect them from Covid 19. Only refugees that were brought to Bidi Bidi from Zombo district were given face masks.
Gloria Boni was sponsored by the United Nations to study Building and construction but has not yet graduated. She had a temporary job at Yumbe Health center and was earning some money to take care of her siblings, but since March 2020, this is no more. Jessica Juan who takes care of a family of ten, said that when she came in 2016, the settlement was bushy, there was no market and water was scarce. The situation had gradually improved until recently. They used to get enough food and they would exchange some for other necessities. “Now the food is too little to feed my family. The children have also become very stubborn and spend the whole day on the road smoking drugs because they do not go to school” she complained. The Camp Commandant, Mr. Nabugere said that the OPM has secured 600 acres of land from land owners that will be hired out to refugees for cultivation.
Despite all this, Bidi Bidi which is the biggest refugee settlement in Uganda has so far not registered any case of a Covid 19 patient due to the vigilance of the leaders and the refugees. According to Mr. Osakan, at the beginning of the lock down in March, the NGOs and Partners were requested by the District task force to support the district to combat the spread of COVID 19. The government stopped receiving refugees. Some refugee reception centres were turned into isolation and quarantine centres for persons who had been in contact with COVID 19 patients. Community radios are providing free radio talk shows in local languages to assist in mass sensitization of the communities about the disease. Pickup vehicles and motorcycles with mega phones move around the refugee settlements to sensitise the refugees about the disease. Donors also allowed budget reallocation from the approved 12 months’ calendar budget to allow the districts attend to urgent needs.
Quick extension of water pipes to refugee villages has led to improved hygiene practices among refugees. Each home was taught to make a tippy tap and hand washing stations were provided in public places. There has been increased team work among refugee leaders and partners. People whose movements are not clear are reported to the authorities, tested for COVID and quarantined for 14 days. IRC donated an ambulance to each sub county and response teams are spread out in the refugee settlements to handle emergencies.