Aid workers in Uganda say armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has doubled the flow of refugees in past weeks, straining humanitarian funding. Many DRC refugees brave cold nights and risk big waves on Lake Albert to reach the Ugandan border.
In the pitch-black hours of the early morning, a boatload of refugees from the DRC arrives on Uganda’s side of Lake Albert. Some of the babies are hysterical.
Aid workers say the number of Congolese refugees fleeing armed conflict to Uganda has more than doubled since June to about 300 per day.
Refugee Gipato Margaret says there has been intensive fighting in the last two weeks in the DRC town of Chomya.
"There are so many soldiers, yet the enemy rebel groups are in the surrounding forests. If they find a person in the garden, they kill you. They completely finish you. And when they see government soldiers, they follow and kill and fight them. We saw it was too much, there is a lot of gunshots nearby and staying there got difficult. So, we had to find a way out," Margaret said.
Refugee Joshua Oshaki lost contact with his wife during fighting in the DRC’s Ituri region but managed to escape with his two children.
“We got here in the night. We moved with children and other people. We moved in the cold, the children are suffering, we are hungry till now. And so many things got lost, clothes, money and property. We do not have peace in Congo,” Oshaki said.
Fighting over land, mineral wealth, and politics has raged in eastern Congo for more than two decades.
Uganda works with the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, to register and transport new arrivals to camps already hosting over a million refugees, 350,000 of them from the DRC.
The UNCHR’s deputy representative to Uganda, Kemlin Furley, says the influx of refugees has stretched the agency's funding.
“It’s about 17 percent of all the needs that need to be covered. So, this new influx is definitely challenging. You know we are short of funds for the assistance that they need immediately. Lifesaving assistance upon arrival,” Furley said.
The World Food Program says it is managing to provide aid for the new refugees but Julie McDonald, the deputy country director for WFP-Uganda, warns its budget won’t last long.
“At this point in time, we are scheduled to run out of food and cash by September. So, we do urgently need new contributions in order to ensure that we can continue to feed the refugees,” McDonald said.
Meanwhile, there seems no end in sight to the flow of Congolese refugees fleeing for safety to Uganda.