Uganda marks World Refugee Day this year amid a second wave of COVID-19, with growing concerns for the well-being of refugees and host communities that have been already hit hard by the pandemic and have not yet recovered from the loss of income and livelihoods.
According to the 2020 Global Trends Report recently released by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, Uganda remains the largest refugee-hosting country in Africa, with nearly 1.5 million refugees currently present in the country. Over 860,000 are children, mostly from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Despite pandemic-related border closures since March 2020, Uganda applied several exceptions allowing thousands of asylum seekers to cross the border and receive protection and humanitarian assistance in line with COVID-19 screenings and protocols.
“This is a stark reminder of the magnitude of needs and the scope of the response required,” said Hon. Hillary Onek, Minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees. “Uganda and its people continue to share resources with their brothers and sisters in need. The international community must commit to do more to share the burden of supporting the refugees and the poor districts hosting them.”
This year’s WRD campaign calls for greater inclusion of refugees in education, health care and sports, underscoring the value and practice of “us” under the motto “together we can achieve anything.” Uganda has fully embraced this principle, making giant steps towards including refugees in national development plans and service delivery systems. Since the launch of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) in March 2017, the Government, with support from UNHCR, partners and donors, has operationalized four integrated plans to respond to the needs of refugees and host communities in Education, Health, Water & Environment, and Jobs & Livelihoods. Refugees are also included in the national COVID-19 response and vaccination plans.
“Inclusion has been and remains the hallmark of Uganda’s progress refugee policy, right from the 1960s when the first refugees came to Uganda. From being allocated land by Government or host communities so that they can grow their own food and start a new life with dignity to participating in governance structures in settlements, Uganda endeavours to treat our brothers and sisters who come to our shores as humanely as possible,” said Hon. Onek.
Uganda’s progressive refugee model not only enables refugees to access social and community services like any Ugandan citizen but also to be part and parcel of systems delivering services to communities. Thousands of refugees serve as teachers and health workers in 13 refugee-hosting districts, working alongside their national counterparts. The role of over 3,000 refugees within the Village Health Teams was essential in helping with risk communication, identification and referral of alerts, and contact tracing. Through the Refugee Engagement Forum, refugees have representatives in the highest-level decision-making body of the Uganda refugee response, the CRRF Steering Group, where they can share the views and concerns of their communities.
“No doubt efforts must continue and increase to support and sustain Uganda’s inclusive approach to refugees. This means creating more synergy with development partners,” said Joel Boutroue, UNHCR Representative in Uganda, adding that while inclusion of refugees in national systems is crucial, it does not address the immediate needs of refugees, especially after the devastating effects of the pandemic and reduced food assistance. “With a response funded at only 22 per cent, I am concerned that the living conditions and well-being of refugees will further deteriorate if the international community does not pay closer attention to cover major gaps in meeting basic needs.”
Access to clean water remains a challenge, with funding shortages affecting both distribution and consumption. In addition to receiving an average supply of water of 16.9 litres per person per day (l/p/d), below the UNHCR post-emergency standard of 20 l/p/d, refugees are facing even greater challenges in collecting and storing clean water, with substantial geographical inequalities. For example, in Imvepi settlement, in the West Nile region, each refugee is able to access 27 litres of water a day, but only 37 per cent of refugee households is able to store and use more than 20 l/p/d due to lack of jerry cans. In Kyaka II settlement, in the South West, the situation is more dire. The average water distribution is 10.6 l/p/d, with 73 per cent of refugee households able to collect and store less than 20 l/p/d.
“Access to potable water for hygiene and a safe sanitation system are essential to protecting health, especially during the pandemic,” said Munir Safieldin, UNICEF Representative in Uganda. “With a second COVID-19 wave in full swing in this country, limited access to clean water exposes refugees to a greater risk of infection.”
Food assistance is an essential need. The rapid and drastic scale down of resources in this sector has led to multiple cuts in food rations since April 2020, with refugees currently receiving only 60 per cent of their food basket, either cash or in-kind.
“Food assistance is more than just ensuring adequate levels of nutrition. It provides stability to refugee households,” said El-Khidir Daloum, WFP Representative in Uganda adding that it is even more crucial now to mitigate the socio-economic impact of COVID-19. “With fewer jobs, limited income and rising food insecurity, there a risk that more and more refugees may resort to harmful coping strategies for survival.”
Several studies undertaken in the last 12 months revealed that increased levels of poverty forced families to turn to negative coping mechanisms such as child labour, survival sex, and child marriage, to put food on the table.
Gender-based violence has been on the rise since the outbreak of the pandemic, with 3,999 incidents recorded in 2020 and another 1,394 in the first quarter of 2021. Most cases are young women who survived rape, physical assault and emotional abuse.
“Even before the pandemic, gender-based violence was a challenging concern. As economies and schools are on lockdown, community and household tension has heightened, making women and girls more vulnerable to physical, sexual, economic, and emotional violence. Moreover, as health systems struggle to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, sexual and reproductive health services are interrupted,” said Alain Sibenaler, UNFPA Representative in Uganda. “While we remain committed to respond to the needs of survivors, many more resources are needed to explore preventive solutions that are grounded in gender equality and human rights.”
National and international NGO bear witness to the challenge refugees face trying to make ends meet and the devasting impact on their emotional well-being. The number of attempted and completed suicides increased by 129 per cent in 2020, with the highest numbers recorded in the period following the outbreak of COVID-19 and the enforcement of restrictive measures to curb its spread. The first quarter of 2021 is equally alarming, with 76 recorded incidents, compared to 68 in the same period of last year. Most cases concern young women, affected by gender-based violence.
“The ongoing gaps that persist in basic humanitarian assistance such as water, food, protection and education are critical in refugee communities throughout Uganda,” said Paul Mwirichia, Co-chair of the Refugee International NGO Forum. “We are seeing a vicious cycle of poverty, hunger, and negative coping strategies. We need the international community to come forward with increased assistance and sustainable funding with a strong focus on the most vulnerable populations including older persons, children, persons with disabilities, persons with chronic diseases and single-headed households who have been disproportionally affected by the current pandemic.”
Given the pandemic surge in the country, planned WRD commemorations have been scaled down in compliance with COVID-19 restrictions, focussing on awareness campaigns, radio talk shows and online discussions.
“This year we pay tribute to all refugees and nationals who lost their lives in this pandemic and celebrate all frontline workers who continue working tirelessly to save lives,” said Francis Iwa, Co-chair of the Humanitarian Platform for National and Local Organizations. “I hope more resources will be made available to firstly help families and individuals pursue the dream of a better tomorrow, and to break the cycle of violence that robs the children of a life of dignity.”
In Uganda, the Office of the Prime Minister and UNHCR coordinates the refugee response with support from over 100 partners, including line ministries, district local governments, UN agencies, international and national NGOs, and refugee-led organizations. To date, 628 refugees have tested positive to COVID-19, with 419 recoveries and 11 deaths. Since Uganda began the vaccination campaign in mid-March 2021, 8,761 people received the first dose of vaccine in the refugee response, including 3,905 refugees, 2,036 health workers, 1,940 teachers, and 880 humanitarian workers.