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The world's refugee crisis: Out of sight, out of mind

by Jan Egeland | @NRC_Egeland | Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)
Wednesday, 21 June 2017 13:06 GMT

A child displaced by fighting in South Sudan arrives in Lamwo, Northern Uganda. April 5, 2017. REUTERS/James Akena

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As western countries build barriers against refugees, Uganda is welcoming 2000 every day

By Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council

This week, world leaders meet for a Solidarity Summit for Refugees in Uganda’s capital Kampala. Strong words about “responsibility sharing” now need to turn into action. 

So far, we have not seen this happening. Instead, richer and more stable countries seem to do their uttermost to keep refugees away. At the same time, they are not adequately funding reception of refugees in poorer host countries. 

65.6 million people are displaced worldwide, according to new displacement figures launched this week. For the fifth year in a row, the number continues to increase from an already historically high level. The system protecting refugees will collapse if we do not step up our support to countries like Uganda, countries that still provide a safe haven for a large number of people forced to flee. No other country received more new refugees last year than this relatively poor country in East Africa. 

Impossible choices 

The world´s fastest growing refugee crisis has its epicentre in South Sudan. The numbers fleeing violence and famine in South Sudan are as dramatic as they are neglected by global news media. Close to 4 million people have been displaced since the war broke out in 2013. Many are living in areas out-of-reach for aid organizations. Parents are faced with the impossible choice of a long and dangerous flight to a safer country, or stay behind without knowing when or whether they will be able to feed their children. 

Famine has already been declared in parts of South Sudan. But the 100,000 civilians facing mass starvation are only the tip of the iceberg. Another million people are on the brink of famine. Every day, more families are forced to make life and death decisions. 

Other neighbouring countries, like Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Central African Republic and DR Congo are also welcoming large numbers of South Sudanese. It is a nearly impossible strain on a region faced with widespread drought and limited economic resources. 

But in spite of this, African borders stay open and attitudes remain positive towards refugees. The village Bidibidi in the north of Uganda has fast become one of the world’s largest refugee settlements. Ugandans there are telling my colleagues in the Norwegian Refugee Council that they are glad to help provide safety for their 270,000 new guests. 

Responsibility sharing

However, the abundance of positive attitudes does not match the economic capacity to assist. “This unprecedented mass influx is placing enormous strain on our public services and local infrastructure,” said Uganda’s Prime Minister, Ruhakana Rugunda, this spring. “We continue to welcome our neighbours in their time of need, but we urgently need the international community to assist as the situation is becoming increasingly critical.” 

Rugunda is right. Borders must be kept open, but African nations cannot be expected to shoulder the entire bill. 

It was therefore promising that world leaders pledged robust support to countries affected by large movements of refugees, at the Summit for Refugees and Migrants in New York last September. 

Nine months have since passed – and the number of South Sudanese refugees in Uganda has more than doubled, and will soon pass one million. The refugees are provided with land and allowed to work, all in line with September’s summit. But the promise of international support appears to be long forgotten. 

So far this year, a mere US$117 million have been allocated to help Uganda support the influx of refugees from South Sudan. It covers about 17 per cent of what’s needed, according to the humanitarian needs assessment and appeal. Calls for support to other countries in the region hosting a large number of refugees are similarly underfunded. 

Refugees from South Sudan are simply out of sight and out of mind for the rest of the world. 

To prevent Africa’s host countries from kneeling under the pressure of an increasing number of refugees, world leaders must keep to their promise of support and immediately scale up their assistance. Now is the time to prove that they will take their fair share of the responsibility, even if the refugees are no longer turning up at their doorsteps.