Bidi Bidi refugee camp is home to nearly a quarter-million South Sudanese who fled the violence of civil war in their home country. Its progressive policies allow refugees to live, farm and work together while they wait to return to their home country. But, as conditions are slow to improve in South Sudan, many refugees are opting to stay.
U.S. Democratic Senators Chris Coons and Chris Van Hollen visited the camp recently. The two lawmakers were touring several refugee settlements throughout Uganda last month, including Bidi Bidi -- one of the world’s largest.
Speaking by phone, Senator Van Hollen called the settlements an “important model” that other countries should consider when housing the displaced.
“Obviously a key ingredient to the success of that model has been significant international support,” he said.
When Bidi Bidi was opened in 2016, it was a rural piece of land in northern Uganda, where South Sudanese refugees, mostly women and children, fled to avoid violence during their country’s civil war.
As is often the case, tensions are common between refugees and the local population, who feel that the refugees are taking resources that might have been available for them.
But, Uganda decided to do something different, earmarking a percentage of the country’s international funding to go toward local amenities. Refugee families were given plots of land to build family-style clusters of homes with room to grow their own fruits and vegetables. As a result, a small-scale economy began to flourish in the camp, with some refugees starting their own businesses.
Last year, following a peace deal between warring South Sudan leaders, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said he hoped the refugees would begin returning home.
But, that’s not the case.
According to a new report published this week by several humanitarian agencies, including Oxfam, refugees -- especially women -- are hesitant to return home. They fear the peace won't last.
As a result, settlement official Michael Joelle says Bidi Bidi has reached capacity, and refugees are being turned away and settlements are feeling the strain.
“Before the 2016 emergency, we were offering a plot of 50 by 100, so the number has been decreasing as the number of refugees increase,” said Joelle.
The situation has become more dire after international donors suspended their funding earlier this year after it was reported that funds for refugees in Uganda had been mismanaged.
Grace, a refugee at Bidi Bidi, fled her home country with her children four years ago. Her husband finally joined the family last year.
The former teacher said she doesn’t see herself moving back to South Sudan anytime soon.
“Even we’re receiving bad news, so and so has been killed, so and so has been raped, so many things are happening.”