9:12 pm - Monday September 22, 2014

Uganda Grapples With Congo Refugee Crisis

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The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Uganda Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) have Tuesday started relocating the first 800 refugees from Bubukwanga transit centre in Bundibugyo district to Kyangwali refugee settlement some 10 hours drive away in Hoima district

It is there that they will receive more comprehensive assistance and support including plots of land to cultivate, building materials and household items in order create a home for themselves.

Tens of thousands of refugees began pouring into western Uganda one month ago after fighting erupted between a rebel alliance including the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan rebel group, and the Congolese armed forces in Kamango, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on July 11.

They have been assisted by UNHCR, OPM and partners in the transit centre at Bubukwanga which was opened on July 14.

This comes as the transit centre, meant as a temporary safe haven for those who fled attacks, has become dangerously full – with some 19,000 refugees staying in a space of 10.5 acres meant for no more than 12,500 people.

According to UNHCR site planning and shelter coordinator Olivier Siegenthaler this could pose serious safety and hygiene issues.

“We now have close to two times more people than we can accommodate.” He said.

In just 1 month the transit centre has already seen close to 20,000 new arrivals, with more arriving daily – many of them making their own way on motorbikes or on foot from the border which is over 20 kilometres away.

Some continue to report low level fighting and instability back in the DRC. The transit centre is designed to provide temporary assistance with refugees encouraged to move on to Kyangwali refugee settlement- one of Uganda’s 8 refugee settlements.

In order to ease pressure on transit centre UNHCR and OPM are working around the clock to register refugees in order to be able to relocate those willing to move to Kyangwali.

OPM and UNHCR staff have already registered some 3,500 people – the majority of which are willing to move to the refugee settlement. The first convoy will take around 800 people and will be followed by convoys running twice a week of 1,000 people each.

One refugee – Bhalitwana Elyezere notes, “we are willing to go anywhere there is peace and security and are grateful to receive assistance from UNHCR”, while another – 18 year old Obumu Byaruhango – is looking forward to continuing his education in Kyangwali.

“I am willing to go anywhere UNHCR takes me – there is no work here and I want to be able to study again,” he says.

Registration is a key step in relocating and assisting refugees. “It [registration] is necessary in order to better protect the refugees – it allows us to know the basic information about people who have fled and those that need any extra assistance,” said UNHCR’s IT Associate Hassan Ochen who is overseeing the registration process at Bubukwanga.

Efforts are also being made to renovate and increase services at Kyangwali settlement – currently home to some 22,079 refugees.

This includes constructing the reception centre where they will be received, improving the road network in the settlement to allow for buses to arrive and the provision of water, sanitation, health and education facilities to the new villages which will be established to accommodate the new arrivals.

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