With at least 67,000 refugees in southwest Uganda, the government and aid workers are still battling inadequate resources in what a UN official described as a "silent emergency".
"We can hardly meet international standards of indicators such as water, health and food," Nemia Temporal, deputy representative of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Uganda, told IRIN on 8 March. "For instance, we are delivering 15 litres [of water] per person per day instead of the standard 20l."
After years of protracted conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with large influxes to neighbouring countries, the situation of the majority Congolese refugees is no longer considered that urgent by the wider aid community, Temporal said.
At least 45,000 Congolese live in the 217sqkm Nakivale settlement in Isingiro District and Kyaka II in Kyegegwa District, where, thanks to the Ugandan government’s refugee-friendly policy, they cultivate small pieces of land.
Temporal said the delivery of quality services was complicated by new arrivals fleeing fighting between government troops and rebels, as well as militia groups, in North Kivu.
"We plan for the existing refugee population but, often, many others continue arriving and this has an impact on the quality of the services we provide," she said.
Temporal said among the aid delivery gaps were the provision of shelter (plastic sheeting), water, health and sanitation, infrastructure and refugee protection.
She urged a shift in humanitarian assistance so that relief aid goes hand-in-hand with livelihood support "right from day one. We need money to get livelihood interventions going at the same time that we are offering emergency humanitarian assistance.”
Photo: Jane Some/IRIN
A newly arrived Congolese man at a reception centre in Kyaka II refugee settlement
UNHCR and other agencies also cater for asylum seekers and urban refugees, bringing the total to 142,758, according to UNHCR's 28 February figures.
"Overall, the food security situation in the country deteriorated last year in comparison to the previous year," UNHCR said in a briefing document. "For the refugee programme, WFP [UN World Food Programme] is planning to roll out a 'cash-in-lieu-of-food' project with a pilot expected to start in Oruchinga - a refugee settlement with some 2,032 refugees in southwest Uganda."
Stanlake Samkange, Uganda's WFP country director, told IRIN the project, due to begin in April, would help improve the plight of Rwandan refugees who have not been receiving food as they are long-time residents – some for up to 14 years.
"We hope the pilot project will help the refugees to better cope with breakages in the food pipeline," he said, adding that food distributions for March and April were in place but that a gap was looming in May.
In October-November 2009, refugees in Nakivale rioted over delays in food distribution. Officials said most of those who took part were new arrivals.
"Interim assessments indicate that if the food shortage is not adequately addressed by the next distribution, UNHCR operations in settlements will be affected, with limited staff access on safety grounds," UNHCR said in a January briefing document.
Limited funding for the refugees' care and maintenance programme continues to bring protection risks, such as insufficient quantities of water, inadequate health services, limited access to post-primary education services and lack of follow-up in cases of sexual and gender-based violence, according to UNHCR.
Mupepelo Songa Nyangi, chairman of Base Camp II or the New Congolese Village, told IRIN most refugees were grappling with myriad problems, high on the list being inadequate food (for both those on full rations and those who arrived earlier than 2006 who receive half rations), lack of specialized treatment for those suffering from stress-related ailments, poverty-induced sexual exploitation and abuse and limited access to education as well as different syllabuses and languages of instruction.
"The life we lead as refugees is hard," Nyangi said. "We don't know what the future holds for us; our children who go to school study in congested classrooms in languages different from what they were taught at home and most of the time when we visit health centres the medication prescribed is not available or there is no special doctor to handle the more difficult cases of mental illness."
However, UNHCR and aid officials in Nakivale said efforts were made to meet the refugees' needs, with investigations of sexual violence cases being made, monthly visits by a psychiatric specialist, and schools being improved or expanded, including a new secondary school that began operations this year.
Agency officials said it was focusing on boosting refugees' livelihood activities in 2010, with various projects, such as goat-rearing and cooperatives planting vegetables in both Nakivale and Kyaka II settlements.
Moreover, UNHCR officials said, adult literacy programmes were in place and a youth centre was being renovated at Nakivale to offer vocational and recreational support for the mostly idle youths.
Photo: Jane Some/IRIN
Refugees at a food distribution in a village inside Nakivale settlement, southwestern Uganda
Side by side
Established in the 1950s, Nakivale has served hundreds of thousands of refugees. About 20,000 Ugandan nationals live inside the settlement alongside the refugees; they are allowed to build permanent iron-roofed buildings while the refugees are only allowed semi-permanent structures, with tarpaulin and plastic sheets.
Nakivale is divided into three zones, with different aid agencies operating in each zone. Four health centres serve the refugees as well as Ugandan nationals living close by. There are seven primary schools and one secondary school within the settlement.
Further southwest is the 209sqkm Kyaka II refugee settlement, home to at least 16,785, mainly Rwandan, refugees, according to UNHCR.
In 2009, UNCHR, local and international partners and the Ugandan government conducted a voluntary repatriation programme for thousands of South Sudanese refugees, resulting in a sharp drop in their number to 21,151 as of January 2010.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions