Uganda has been praised for opening her borders to refugees from South Sudan, but Adjumani district is getting overwhelmed. ARTHUR MATSIKO went along as Plan Uganda delivered relief items to help child-refugees settle in.
The resumption of war between South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and his deputy Riek Machar since early July has increased the number of refugees entering Uganda through Elegu boarder. Within two weeks from July 8, between 2,000 and 2,500 asylum seekers were registered daily at Nyumanzi reception centre in Adjumani district.
By August 4, the daily influx had reduced to between 1,500 and 1,000. In spite of this drop, government officials are afraid the number of refugees might surpass the population of Ugandans in the district.
Addressing journalists at the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) in Adjumani recently, Refugee Desk Officer (RDO) in charge of Adjumani, Moyo and Yumbe districts Titus Jogo revealed that the 2014 national census put the number of Ugandans in Adjumani district at 210,000. But the worry is that by August 4, the total number of asylum seekers had reached 170,000 and still counting. This implies that unless something is done, natives would become the minority in their homeland.
As one of the measures to solve the competing numbers, OPM has decided to send new arrivals to Bidibidi, a newly-established settlement in Yumbe district.
“Our next destination will be Yumbe because in Adjumani, we no longer have space. We do not want the population of refugees in this district to exceed the number of Ugandans,” Jogo said.
But the first attempt on August 3 resulted into a demonstration as refugees at Nyumanzi refused to be taken to Yumbe. Jogo explained that the asylum seekers had not been sensitized on why they were being taken to a different district yet they expected to be hosted in Adjumani.
“The lists were also displayed a bit late. We had to meet with them because they had their reasons that Yumbe was not the right location for them,” he said.
After consensus, only 359 refugees agreed and were transported. Most of those who refused argued that they preferred Adjumani because they can speak the native language—Ma’di.
“They also came up with issues of insecurity that Yumbe may not be secure for them in terms of distance from their country of origin and that they may not easily associate with the Lugbara,” he explained. “They also had other fears that the place may be a bush; but we managed to ask them to get us 50 elders from the different tribes whom we also took to Yumbe to see and come and tell others about what Yumbe is and most especially the issues that they raised.”
According to Jogo, the host communities in Adjumani have been very generous.
“I am still getting land offers from land owners [who say] that ‘these are our brothers and sisters and we want to stay with them’,” he said. “They have no problem with the numbers.”
THE FOOD CHALLENGE
While the NGO Plan International Uganda is one of over 30 humanitarian agencies responding to the refugee emergency in Adjumani. Last week, while Plan was delivering non-food items worth Shs 550m to new arrivals at Pagirinya settlement, the refugees we interacted with had a common challenge—food shortage. They argued that they had been told by officials from the OPM that there would be a reduction in the food rations received every month.
“Recently, we were told that the food [ration] we receive is going to be reduced by 50 per cent,” said Yar Joi Ajak.
This mother of two had come for her portion of the items donated by Plan, which included tents, blankets, saucepans, soap, jerry cans, and mosquito nets. According to Plan country director Rashid Javed, the donated items were intended to meet basic needs of vulnerable children who crossed into the country with no belongings.
“Children are the most vulnerable group during emergencies and in the aftermath of a disaster, they are faced with long-term impact of trauma both emotionally and physically. It is the responsibility of everyone to ensure their safety and protection,” Javed said.
Ajak was concerned that the food rations were being cut. When we asked Jogo, he explained that he is aware of the food cut being talked about by the refugees.
“In terms of resources for this particular new group, I must say that we do not have a lot of gaps. We have prepositioned enough food to cater for them. We have all the non-food items.
I can proudly say that we have all the essentials to handle this emergency phase,” he said, adding that the food cut is temporary and would not affect the new arrivals. “It is only going to affect refugees who came before July 1 [because] the World Food Program cannot get all food requirements that we want for the entire Uganda.”
To avoid duplication of services offered by the non-governmental organisations, the OPM ensures that activities are allocated to the 19 settlements according to the specialized sectors humanitarian agencies are involved in.
For example, Jogo explained that if ten agencies are involved in water, hygiene and sanitation, they are categorized under a ‘wash walking group’. They then meet and decide on what to do and work accordingly.
“This is how we ensure that they are coordinated and we are following what they are doing. They also submit reports to us on weekly basis so that we can know whether they are doing work according to our expectations,” Jogo said.
Although Kiir and Machar signed a peace agreement in August last year, the war hasn’t ceased in the world’s youngest country, which got its independence on July 9, 2011. With Uganda maintaining an open-door policy to refugees, more of them could yet arrive.