On Tuesday, 3,000 South Sudanese refugees poured into Uganda, adding to the country’s already-enormous intake of 800,000 refugees.
Uganda — a country that struggles with extreme poverty and lack of funding for refugee resettlement— has one of the world’s most compassionate refugee policies. Migrants are granted land to build a home and enjoy rights to travel and work. But the country is struggling to provide for an unexpected surge in refugees in 2017.
The UN initially expected that Uganda would host a roughly 300,000 South Sudanese refugees in 2017. Only three months into the year, that number has already risen to 172,000.
To put things into perspective, in 2016, the US accepted 22,472 from African refugees overall.
“Uganda has continued to maintain open borders,” said Ruhakana Rugunda, Uganda’s prime minister. “But this unprecedented mass influx is placing enormous strain on our public services and local infrastructure.”
For example, a single camp in the northwestern town of Arua, called Bidi Bidi, hosts more than any other settlement in the world — at least 270,000. In December 2016, it closed its doors to prevent overcrowding, but new settlements will continue to be opened around every two months.
What began as a dispute fueled by ethnic tensions between South Sudan’s president and vice president in 2013 became a full-fledged civil war that has reached “epic proportions” and resulted in “unprecedented levels” of humanitarian need.
“A famine produced by the vicious combination of fighting and drought is now driving the world's fastest growing refugee crisis,” the spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Babar Baloch, told journalists at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.
In February, famine had been declared in parts of South Sudan, affecting 100,000 people and posing a threat to one million more. Some 3.5 million people — around one-quarter of the country’s population — have fled their homes.
Imvepi, a Ugandan refugee camp that hosted Sudanese refugees during the civil war preceding South Sudan’s independence in 2011, had to reopen in February in response to the crisis.
“We are now suffering because of food,” James Luonga, a 42-year-old Sudanese refugee who recently arrived in Imvepi, told The Guardian.
Luonga, who developed a hernia during the long trek from his homeland, is one of the thousands of refugees who line up outside of the camp’s food distribution tent to receive a bowl of porridge.
“The people are very many,” he said.
Camps are reaching “breaking points” as migrants wait for registration, meals, and medical care.
Heavy seasonal rains are expected in the coming weeks, which could lead to a malaria outbreak.
As the crisis grows, however, the international community has remained quiet. The UNHCR has reiterated its funding appeal for Uganda of $267 million. Currently, the UN has just received 8% of that.
Last year, the US provided over $86 million in humanitarian assistance to Uganda, adding an additional $40 million in emergency funding to the World Food Program in December for refugees in Uganda.
The Trump Administration’s proposal to cut foreign aid by 28% is cause for a major concern.
“That money is the one that is keeping refugees having food now,” the Ugandan government’s Osakan said. “If Donald Trump decided that this money should not come to Africa to help, then you certainly have a problem.”