Uganda has taken about half of the more than 1.5 million South Sudanese who have fled into neighboring countries, as South Sudan has become Africa’s largest refugee crisis, resulting from more than three years of civil war.
As the refugees flee conflict, sexual violence, looting, and food insecurity — highlighted by the recent announcement of famine in two counties of Unity State — they’re finding that aid agencies are struggling to provide them with enough food in the Ugandan refugee settlements.
FILE - Women who fled fighting in South Sudan carry water in plastic container on arrival at Bidi Bidi refugee’s resettlement camp near the border with South Sudan, in Yumbe district, northern Uganda, Dec. 7, 2016.
Charlie Yaxley, the spokesperson for the United Nations refugee agency in Uganda, says resource constraints meant food rations had to be cut in half last year for all refugees who arrived in Uganda prior to mid-2015. He noted that exceptions were made for those who were considered vulnerable.
“We continue to operate in a context of chronic, severe underfunding. Last year, the humanitarian appeal for South Sudanese refugees in Uganda was $251 million U.S. dollars, and we received just 40 percent of that money,” said Yaxley. “And that has a real, direct impact on humanitarian organizations’ abilities to deliver critical live-saving aid.”
With thousands of South Sudanese refugees continuing to arrive in Uganda every day, including more than 120,000 new arrivals in the first two months of this year, aid agencies are struggling to keep up.
“The resourcing situation is so bad, that it is possible that we will have to extend those cuts; we have been on the brink of having to do that several times in the last month but have managed to avoid it,” said Challiss McDonough, a spokeswoman for the U.N. World Food Program in East Africa. “But we just are simply not getting the resources that we need to keep pace with the incredibly large number of refugees that have arrived in the country in the last six months.”
FILE - A women stands in front of a UNHCR passenger bus next to a refugee registration site near Bibi bidi, Uganda.
It costs the U.N. about $13 million per month to feed the more than 700,000 primarily South Sudanese refugees now living in Uganda who depend on food assistance, a figure which McDonough says is not being met. Approximately 200,000 of the refugees are receiving the reduced rations.
A progressive approach
Despite the resource challenges, though, Yaxley says that Uganda has an "incredibly progressive" approach to asylum. It provides refugees with plots of land to build new homes and grow crops, and they live next to the Ugandan host community. They can find work, start a business, and are free to move around the country. He says the host community has "welcomed refugees with open arms," but that others need to do more.
FILE - Children, who fled fighting in South Sudan, stand inside a tented classroom at the Bidi Bidi refugee resettlement camp near the border with South Sudan, in northern Uganda, Dec. 7, 2016.
“It’s key to stress that this is not a crisis Uganda and neighboring countries can tackle alone,” said Yaxley. “It’s vital that the international community come together with their resources and expertise to first of all ensure the humanitarian appeals are fully funded but also to explore the reasons why people are fleeing in the first place.”
And because refugee crises are impacting so many places around the world, including Syria and Afghanistan, resources are already stretched thin, observes McDonough.
“And we try very hard not to prioritize one hungry person over another, because of where they live,” said McDonough, “but the problem is that the needs globally are so enormous that there just aren’t right now the resources within the international community to meet those needs.”
The government of Uganda and UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency, work with humanitarian organizations to coordinate the refugee response at border entry points. They provide clean water and medical screenings that include examining children for malnutrition, and providing high-energy biscuits for people who are likely malnourished.