By Aggrey Nyondwa
Recent statistics by the UNHCR indicate that Uganda now hosts 36,000 children who have arrived unaccompanied to the border, having been separated from their families due to conflict, killing and displacement ‚Äì making it the country with the most ‚Äòalone refugee children‚Äô in the world.
As the country and aid agencies struggle to cope with the numbers of vulnerable children fleeing fighting in DR Congo and the ravages of war in South Sudan, anemic funding means that these children are not getting services which provide them with the material and emotional support that they need to deal with their losses.
Children are arriving in Uganda having witnessed the most appalling crimes, including the rape and murder of loved ones, the burning of their homes, sometimes having scattered to the four winds as militias arrive and with no clue as to what has happened to their parents.
The latest spike in child arrivals is from the DR Congo. There are now 13,000 separated children from that country living in refugee settlements in South Western Uganda. They join some 22,500 separated children from South Sudan who fled to the north, now in Bidibidi, Imvepi and other Refugee settlements in West Nile.
Sadly, when children cross without parents or relatives it increases their vulnerability, hence exposure to all sorts of sexual, psychological and emotional abuse. There have been major child protection concerns where cases of sexual abuse have been reported as the children cross to Uganda. Sexual and gender based violence also remains a big issue in refugee settlements and all these call for immediate protection attention and interventions.
Due to financial constraints, government and aid agencies are finding it hard to adequately address challenges faced by unaccompanied refugee children. Currently, aid agencies have resorted to finding refugee host families where such children are housed and the agency takes care of them from there. There is need to ensure that each child has people in their lives who can give them love and attention and who have the know-how and the resources to meet their individual needs, without compromising their safety.
Refugee children in Uganda are receiving child protection and education services which just aren‚Äôt good enough. Aid agencies, and the government are unable to meet minimum standards in humanitarian assistance because they don‚Äôt have enough money to hire and train enough case workers. Today one case worker is taking care of over 106 children instead of the international standard figure of 25.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), only 16% of the Refugee Response Plan budget is so far funded, leaving a huge gap to assist these refugees. Over the years, Uganda has been considered a model hosting nation with one of the friendliest refugee policies in the world. It is also one of the first countries to adopt the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) which emphasizes refugee self-reliance and resilience. The country today hosts over 1.3 million refugees, 774,000 (60%) of these are children. The international community must bridge this funding gap, lest Uganda‚ as hospitality and cutting-edge refugee policy frustrated.
With continued tribal clashes, grave violation of human rights by the different militia groups in the north eastern provinces of DRC, the monthly average Congolese refugee influx has more than doubled. Over 350,000 Congolese refugees currently stay in refugee settlements in south western Uganda, mainly in Kyaka II and Kyangwali Refugee Settlements. With constrained resources and almost no media coverage, this part of the response has become difficult for aid agencies, as challenges go unnoticed.
The government of Uganda and partner humanitarian agencies are working as much as they can, to support the refugee response; to have a presence in the lives of these vulnerable children and restore their hope through: early child development, child friendly spaces, peace building, early and vocational skills development, food security and livelihoods, and food assistance programming.
This is an appeal for more support and assistance to further extend and expand the assistance to South Western Uganda where the DR Congo refugee situation is rapidly growing and also reach and impact every single one of these separated and unaccompanied children, to save them the risk of being exploited and abused.
Aggrey Nyondwa Kikobera is Communications Coordinator, World Vision. Follow Aggrey on Twitter @AggreyNyondwa