By Aggrey Nyondwa
As the Uganda refugee crisis gradually continues to lose media attention, already underfunded services to protect children are being slashed. More than 1.3 million people found refuge in Uganda after fleeing violence and deprivation in neighbouring countries. 801,419 (61%) of these people are children under 18 whose lives have been destroyed by the wars and missteps of adults. Though they arrived in a country which has a great history of hospitality and where their basic needs are met; their psychological and emotional health is often neglected.
Recent statistics by the UNHCR indicate that Uganda now hosts over 36,000 children who have arrived unaccompanied, having been separated from their families due to conflict and fighting mostly in DR Congo and the ravages of war in South Sudan. This makes Uganda the country with the most ‘alone refugee children’ in the world. Anemic funding therefore, means that these vulnerable children are not getting services which provide them with the material and emotional support that they need to deal with their losses and trauma.
Child Friendly Spaces are safe spaces where communities and child protection actors create nurturing environments in which children can access free and structured play, recreation, leisure and learning activities. They provide educational and psychosocial support and other activities to restore a sense of normality and continuity. They are designed and operated in a participatory manner and serve a variety of age ranges. Every World Vision CFS also includes an Early Childhood Development (ECD) component for younger children. There is often additional, complementary programming like drama clubs or hygiene trainings happening at the spaces as well.
40 CFS currently funded by UNHCR and UNICEF will lose funding in January 2020. Today, 33,295 children regularly play and learn at these facilities. 63% of them are girls. Closing these down will be a big blow to our child protection efforts considering that the number of refugees in the country is expected to grow next year. Last year, over 90,000 new refugees arrived in Uganda and this means by the end of 2020 the number of refugees in the country will have grown to more than 1.5 Million.
Standard 18.1.7 in the Minimum Standards for Child Protection in Humanitarian Emergencies provides that aid agencies should ensure that one case worker is in charge of overseeing well-being of 25 children (1:25), but given the current funding shortfalls, aid agencies find that One case worker looks after 99 children instead (1:99) which is below the minimum standard. Case management of vulnerable children does not and will not meet international minimum standards for child protection under the current rates of funding.
Child protection case workers are the foot soldiers in the fight against violence, neglect, abuse and exploitation of refugee children. From morning to evening, day-to-day, they visit vulnerable children to identify those at risk and monitor their well-being, ensure their access to critical services and provide psychosocial support services, letting them know that they are safe and cared for in Uganda. Right now, these children need adequate case management to protect them. As time passes, fewer children will require case management and normal government services will take over, but to achieve this transition, we need to lay a strong foundation that requires us to train, equip and empower local actors on issues of child protection and how to effectively utilise the CFSs.
In the Ugandan refugee response, we are failing to protect children. Not because we don’t know it’s important or because we don’t know how to help but because we don’t have enough resources to prevent and respond to abuse, neglect, exploitation and violence against girls and boys. It will require everyone’s extra effort including the international community to support the hard work of those on ground to restore hope and a future for these children.