Around 26,000 children are among more than 42,000 people who have fled across the Ugandan border from Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since the first of January, seeking refuge from ongoing conflict.
At the peak of the influx, more than 3,000 people were arriving every day, while in DRC armed groups burned down villages, raped women and carried out mass killings.
As 2018 began, some 5 million Congolese were displaced, mostly within the country, due to various crises in different parts of DRC – making it among the world’s biggest displacement crises.
Most of the new arrivals – more than 27,000 people - fled violence in DRC’s Ituri region and crossed Lake Albert in canoes and fishing boats to reach safety in Uganda. An additional 15,435 refugees arrived from North Kivu through Uganda’s southwestern borders. There are reports a recent decline in new arrivals could be due to armed groups stopping people fleeing.
Twenty-six year old mother Mwavita* is among the newly-arrived traumatised and distressed refugees Save the Children is helping to support as part of its expanded response in Western Uganda. She said she fled her country in fear with her children
“I left because they burnt my house and killed my husband. I ran away with my children – they were crying – and we came here on foot. It took three days, walking,” she said.
“My children kept asking, ‘Mother, where are you taking us?’ I’d tell them, ‘We are going to Uganda. Your father is dead and if we stay we will be killed too’. Then they asked me, ‘Mother, who will take care of us?’”
“I hope that we can stay here and that my children can attend school and complete their education. I don’t want to go back. Without peace, I cannot go home.”
Among those most at risk are children who are arriving unaccompanied by parents and who depend on the support of foster carers. Agencies have identified at least 355 unaccompanied and separated children so far. Francine* , 41, is a foster mother - she has 19 children living in her home (5 are her own children) - in Rwamwanja refugee settlement. Save the Children has helped her to enroll some of her children in school and provided them with soap, clothing, shoes, books and pens. She said:
“I'm taking care of them because these children are my family, there is nobody else who can take care of them. Their parents have died and there's nobody who can take care of them apart from me. I can’t refuse, I can’t say no to anyone.
“I have hope for them finishing their education, have a good life and see that they can also take care of their future.
Save the Children is providing child protection and education support, including safe spaces for children to play and psychosocial support, as well as ensuring those children who arrive alone are protected and supported in foster families and have access to the basics such as food, soap and clothes.
The aid agency’s Country Director in Uganda, Brechtje van Lith, said:
“Our staff are doing their best to help these children as soon as they cross the border. But they are facing huge dangers as they flee. Three children are known to have drowned on this crossing earlier this month when their canoe capsized, overloaded with luggage containing people’s worldly possessions. And they’ve fled from their country having seen things no child should witness. We need more funding to ensure these children get the psychosocial support they require to begin recovering from these traumatic experiences.”
*names have been changed
NOTES TO EDITOR
Save the Children is launching a programme at UNHCR’s newly established Matanda Transit Centre (Kanungu district) as well is expanding and setting up child friendly spaces, early childhood and accelerated learning facilities at Kyangwali (Hoima district) and Kyaka II (Kyegegwa district) settlements. The charity is also continuing its programmes in Rwamwanja settlement (Kamwenge district), which is no longer receiving new refugees. Ongoing support (activities) will also be provided in Nyakabande Transit Centre and Kyangwali settlement.
Save the Children has also been working with the Ugandan Government on an education response plan for refugees and the communities that host them. With over 200 students in each classroom in some settlements, the quality of education and the number of places in school falls well short of the aspirations of the communities, with current levels of funding. The new plan shows how an average of 675,000 learners per year can be reached with improved education services, for three and half years, which will cost approximately $395 million USD in total. Save the Children is campaigning for refugee children to have the chance to continue their education, even when they’ve been uprooted from their homes. Research has shown that when children drop out of school, not only will they not reach their potential, but they will face grave dangers to their health and wellbeing.