The hidden emergency: South Sudan’s refugees in Uganda

by CARE International | CARE International Secretariat
Thursday, 27 February 2014 10:13 GMT

One of the most vulnerable households that will receive support from CARE - a group of four young boys, two of them brothers, who fled from South Sudan and met on their way to Uganda. Photo: Nicholas Brooks

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Nicholas Brooks, a Senior Emergency Water and Sanitation (WASH) Advisor with CARE International, has recently returned from Uganda, where he came face to face with the plight of South Sudanese refugees

What is the situation of the South Sudanese refugees that you’ve met?
In the Rhino camp, the refugees are spread in 10 ‘Clusters’ (villages). This area is one of a number of locations in northern Uganda designated by the Government of Uganda to host refugees.  Though there are still South Sudanese refugees fleeing across the border, the vast majority arrived late December and during January this year . Initially, they stayed at a reception centre, an area next to the border - a crowded place with very poor conditions.  By now, most of them have moved on to live in the clusters.

The clusters of the Rhino camp are village settings and are in a remote location – 65km from the nearest town of Arua.  The infrastructure is basic and poor; for example, most of the water handpumps are broken or closed/capped off. There are a few clinics and schools as most of the clusters were used for South Sudanese refugees displaced by previous crises. The schools now host local children; they are open to the new refugees but the already poor facilities will become insufficient and this is likely to become an issue. What is worse is that there are no opportunities for families to earn a living. They are fully dependant on food distribution.

Many families have basic shelter – this can be as basic as taking refuge under a tree - whilst more substantial shelters are being built now with help from humanitarian agencies such as CARE. Some families have managed to bring a few bags with them – their now meagre belongings - others, have close to nothing.

Is there one thing that stood out for you the most? Something that will stay with you?
Several things:
• Meeting one of the most vulnerable households that will receive support from CARE. The household is a group of four young boys, two of them brothers, who fled from South Sudan and met on their way to Uganda. Here they were recognised by other people from their community and taken in in one of the clusters. The community members support them the best they can but the boys still need a place to sleep and help with other essential, basic needs. I recall them being serious and hesitant when I first started talking to them but once I’ve taken some photos and joked a little, they really relaxed and enjoyed the attention.
• In view of the funding constraints, the challenges the CARE team and local community face to identify only 55 of the most vulnerable households when the actual number of those most vulnerable is 10 times higher or more.  One of the beneficiaries I spoke to was sharing a shelter with two other families. The others looked just as vulnerable. We really need more resources so that we can do more.
• Seeing a family sitting on the bare ground at the reception centre. They had nothing. One of their children was very sick. They arrived the previous day. They seemed to have no idea about what to do next nor the support they could receive. They didn’t know, for example, that there was a clinic 500m away where they could take their boy. CARE guided the family but this was a good reminder for all humanitarian actors of how important it is to ensure that families are informed, have access to vital information, and are aware of agencies’ planned activities so that the refugee families know when they can expect a food distribution or the arrival of the water truck.
• The quality of the shelters built by those more able.  They looked a really good quality considering the lack of resources available to build.  However I do recall seeing cut up mosquito nets used to tie branches together for shelters.  Almost every household who built a shelter had sacrificed this way the net their received from another organisation to protect their and their children’s health.  CARE plans to engage with community leaders and teach hygiene promoters to urge the community to protect their nets.

What were the water and sanitation conditions like in the clusters?
Very basic.  Some of the other agencies continue to truck in water but they are running out of funds and not delivering at same schedule. People queue at tanks or leave their jerry cans in the queue only to not have the tanker arrive.  Thus collection of water from handpumps, which are very limited, can potentially cause tension between the different groups of refugees and the local community.  In the cluster that I visited, apart from the ten emergency latrines provided by CARE, there are no other sanitation facilities. It is interesting also to see the speed in which beneficiaries (and humanitarian agencies) are shifting focus from short-term intervention to supporting longer-term activities, a definite sign that the refugees have no imminent plans to return to South Sudan. They are also conscious of the upcoming rainy season in March. 

How is CARE helping?
The main focus of the program is shelter (traditional hut) and latrine construction for the most vulnerable families. Due to funding constraints, CARE is able to support only 55 families with a shelter at this stage but the needs are huge.  CARE is also undertaking sanitation (emergency latrines, solid waste management), hygiene promotion (public health campaigns, community mobilisation, children’s health clubs etc) and sexual and gender-based violence support for the entire community living across four Clusters (supporting approximately 6,000 women, men, girls and boys in total).

CARE has also completed a technical review of all water resources to share with all partners and encourage a comprehensive response. 

We were also the sole agency to have undertaken an assessment to identify protection and sexual and gender-based violence issues in the clusters. Based on this, we will roll out activities to create a safer environment for women and children.
What are the challenges?
• Sourcing local materials for latrines (and shelters) – grasses for shelter / thatching. This is traditional time for local communities to burn the undergrowth/grass for agricultural purposes so potential materials are going up in smoke!
• The funding. This is a massively underfunded emergency, hidden unfortunately behind the emergency and the needs inside South Sudan. All humanitarian actors are struggling.  At the moment we have no funding to rehabilitate water handpumps, for example, a much needed facility in view of the scarcity of water sources.
• The logistics. The long travelling time to access the clusters. 
• The imminent rainy season that will bring additional challenges. 
• The uncertainty, or indeed certainty of more refugees.