UNHCR’s Regional Refugee Coordinator for South Sudan calls for heightened support for South Sudanese refugees in DRC as they live in hardship
By Andreas Kirchhof in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo | 06 December 2017
Martha* cradles her baby in her arms as she sits in the refugee registration centre in Meri, a refugee site in the remote province of Bas- Uélé in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The site which was opened last year in October to accommodate South Sudanese refugees now has almost 30,000 inhabitants.
Speaking to Arnauld Akodjenou, UNHCR’s Regional Refugee Coordinator for the South Sudan situation, Martha, who arrived in Meri about a week ago, recounted her ordeal.
“We walked for days before arriving here,” she said. “Our children are suffering from hunger. There is barely enough food to survive here.”
Martha is among the South Sudanese refugees that the Regional Refugee Coordinator met and spoke to during his visit to the DRC. While they spoke of the generous support that they have received from the Congolese community, they also stressed that vital humanitarian support was insufficient.
Standing inside a mass shelter – a large hangar covered with plastic sheeting – Noah*, a middle-aged man, lamented the dire lack of proper building materials to build a traditional hut for his family.
“We have been waiting for more than two months here,” he said, adding that they needed help to build houses and land and tools to start farming. “We sleep on the floor and we don’t have mosquito nets. My kids have all been sick.”
The Regional Refugee Coordinator was visiting the region to assess the situation of South Sudanese refugees.
“The most worrisome element is their situation, which is truly dire and it is clear that they are suffering a great deal,” he said. “They are traumatized.”
He stressed the need to scale up livelihood activities, as not all refugees have received seeds, tools and land to farm. Mr. Akodjenou also observed that despite the economic challenges, host communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo had continued to welcome these refugees, sharing what little resources they have, in the spirit of African solidarity.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is focusing on the most urgent needs of refugees and by supporting the construction and extension of schools, is meeting a crucial one – education.
“Thanks to this new school, we can partially respond to the refugees’ education needs,” said the director of a newly constructed school near Meri site.
The school’s capacity is limited, with only four out of ten children of primary school age attending school. Classes are held in the mornings and afternoons to double the number of students who can attend and another building with three more classrooms is under construction.
However, even with these measures in place, the school director painted a grim picture.
“We can only accommodate 300 more students,” he said. “We have about 10 times more of that number for primary school only.”
In the nearby town of Dungu, over a thousand South Sudanese refugees have found shelter with local families, despite the widespread poverty in the region. A year after their arrival, most have expressed concern over their situation which they say is unsustainable.
“We need help to relocate to Kaka site and be self-reliant as we cannot stay too long with the host families,” said a representative of the urban refugee delegation that met with Akodjenou. “It is a big burden for them.”
UNHCR opened Kaka site at the end of November where over 300 South Sudanese refugees have since settled. The refugees pleaded for farm tools and land to develop so that they could cater for themselves.
There are over 87,000 South Sudanese refugees in the DRC, with most of them living in remote areas in the northeast of the country. More refugees continue to arrive, increasing the humanitarian needs. Despite generous contributions received this year from donor countries like Belgium and the United States of America, UNHCR’s budget for South Sudanese refugees in DRC is only 23 per cent funded.
“We call on the international community to ramp up its support for South Sudanese refugees,” he said. He also called for aid partners to develop lasting solutions so that refugees and their hosts can be self-sufficient and live in dignity.
“When you compare the situation of South Sudanese refugees in DRC to those in other countries of asylum, namely Sudan, Uganda or Ethiopia, the refugees here really need more attention and assistance.”
*Names changed for protection reasons