By Spy Uganda
Kampala: According to the 2020 Global Trends Report recently released by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, Uganda remains the largest refugee-hosting country in Africa, with nearly 1.5 million refugees currently present in the country. Over 860,000 are children, mostly from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Despite pandemic-related border closures since March 2020, Uganda applied several exceptions allowing thousands of asylum seekers to cross the border and receive protection and humanitarian assistance in line with COVID-19 screenings and protocols.
“This is a stark reminder of the magnitude of needs and the scope of the response required,” said Hon. Hillary Onek, Minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees. “Uganda and its people continue to share resources with their brothers and sisters in need. The international community must commit to do more to share the burden of supporting the refugees and the poor districts hosting them.”
This year’s WRD campaign calls for greater inclusion of refugees in education, health care and sports, underscoring the value and practice of “us” under the motto “together we can achieve anything.” Since the launch of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) in March 2017, the Government, with support from UNHCR, partners and donors, has operationalized four integrated plans to respond to the needs of refugees and host communities in Education, Health, Water & Environment, and Jobs & Livelihoods. Refugees are also included in the national COVID-19 response and vaccination plans.
Access to clean water remains a challenge, with funding shortages affecting both distribution and consumption. In addition to receiving an average supply of water of 16.9 litres per person per day (l/p/d), below the UNHCR post-emergency standard of 20 l/p/d, refugees are facing even greater challenges in collecting and storing clean water, with substantial geographical inequalities.
“Access to potable water for hygiene and a safe sanitation system are essential to protecting health, especially during the pandemic,” said Munir Safieldin, UNICEF Representative in Uganda. “With a second COVID-19 wave in full swing in this country, limited access to clean water exposes refugees to a greater risk of infection.”
Food assistance is an essential need. The rapid and drastic scale down of resources in this sector has led to multiple cuts in food rations since April 2020, with refugees currently receiving only 60 per cent of their food basket, either cash or in-kind.
“Food assistance is more than just ensuring adequate levels of nutrition. It provides stability to refugee households,” said El-Khidir Daloum, WFP Representative in Uganda adding that it is even more crucial now to mitigate the socio-economic impact of COVID-19. “With fewer jobs, limited income and rising food insecurity, there a risk that more and more refugees may resort to harmful coping strategies for survival.”
Several studies undertaken in the last 12 months revealed that increased levels of poverty forced families to turn to negative coping mechanisms such as child labour, survival sex, and child marriage, to put food on the table.
Gender-based violence has been on the rise since the outbreak of the pandemic, with 3,999 incidents recorded in 2020 and another 1,394 in the first quarter of 2021. Most cases are young women who survived rape, physical assault and emotional abuse.
“Even before the pandemic, gender-based violence was a challenging concern. As economies and schools are on lockdown, community and household tension has heightened, making women and girls more vulnerable to physical, sexual, economic, and emotional violence. Moreover, as health systems struggle to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, sexual and reproductive health services are interrupted,” said Alain Sibenaler, UNFPA Representative in Uganda. “While we remain committed to respond to the needs of survivors, many more resources are needed to explore preventive solutions that are grounded in gender equality and human rights.”
In Uganda, the Office of the Prime Minister and UNHCR coordinate the refugee response with support from over 100 partners, including line ministries, district local governments, UN agencies, international and national NGOs, and refugee-led organizations. To date, 628 refugees have tested positive to COVID-19, with 419 recoveries and 11 deaths.
Since Uganda began the vaccination campaign in mid-March 2021, 8,761 people received the first dose of vaccine in the refugee response, including 3,905 refugees, 2,036 health workers, 1,940 teachers and 880 humanitarian workers.