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Uganda hosting floods of refugees from South Sudan

KAMPALA (SE): The African nation of Uganda has seen more refugees coming across its borders in the last four months than arrived in the European nation of Greece during the first 10 months of this year.

Its once sparsely populated northern grassland of Bidi Bidi has in a short space of time been transformed into what Caritas Uganda describes of the second largest refugee shelter in the world.

A glance at the horizon now reveals not just the occasional cluster of buildings surrounding the homesteads, but a sweeping panorama of tents and temporary shelters that have become home to approximately 340,000 people.

A report released on December 2 by Caritas Uganda says that Bidi Bidi has become the stopping point for people fleeing the latest spasm of violence in South Sudan.

As government forces in South Sudan have intensified their push against the opposition, war and violence have spread across most of the world’s newest nation, leaving the people terrified, homeless and without food.

“South Sudan is political confusion,” Monsignor Francis Ndamira, the national director of Caritas Uganda, says. “There are many militias. People feel unsafe. The food system has collapsed in places.”

Caritas reports that more than 44,000 South Sudanese refugees arrived in Uganda during the first half of November. This brings the total since July to 340,000 people.

“Malnutrition among the refugees remains high, particularly severe acute malnutrition, visible mainly among children below five,” Godfrey Onentho, the Caritas Uganda project coordinator for refugees in Bidi Bidi, points out.

Caritas launched an appeal for assistance and with the support of the Swiss government was able to mobilise enough funds to support 20,000 people within a few weeks.

Meanwhile, the Ugandan government has asked Caritas to look after 42,000 of them in Zone 2 at Bidi Bidi.

“It was the most effective response in my 22 years at Caritas,” Monsignor Ndamira commented. “Things have never moved so quickly. This time it was really effective.”

He added that streamlining rapid response procedures by Caritas Internationalis is what made the difference. “The templates were simple for our staff to use and we got an immediate response from partners,” he explained.

The response process began in October with the distribution of large amounts of seed and tools. Within days volunteers helped to distribute 10,000 hand tools and 10 tonnes of vegetable seed. These will allow the refugees to grow vegetables to improve their diet.

“The area is fertile, but the refugees do not have the farming implements and input for planting. Caritas is planning for an intermediary response to provide targeted households with knowledge, skills and farming implements to produce food for themselves,” Onentho explained.

The land put aside by the Ugandan government to host the new refugees has been quickly filled, but more land is being made available. 

Still, those running services for refugees are overwhelmed. Some are living with no shelter or crowded into small shelters with other families. Access to food and water is a daily struggle.

People are also receiving sanitary pads and mosquito nets and, to help them use their time constructively, 420 young people will be given free vocational and agronomy training in regional technical institutes.

However, Caritas is also taking a long-term view and is already negotiating with the home government to clear the way for people to return when the situation settles down.

The hospitality is also being extended to about 4,000 vulnerable Ugandan people living around the camps, who will be given the same type of support as the refugees.

In addition, a massive tree planting campaign is being organised to compensate for the deforestation the camp has caused.

Sadly, Caritas regrets that there is no indication that the influx of refugees to Uganda will slow down soon.

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