A top UNHCR official has visited Congolese refugees in south-west Uganda this week and said continuing instability across the border could lead to a major influx of refugees to an area struggling to cope with the arrival of thousands of civilians this year.
“The situation remains very fluid across the border [in Democratic Republic of the Congo’s North Kivu province] and there is constant concern that we may yet receive a major influx which could totally overwhelm our capacity,” said Assistant High Commissioner for Operations Janet Lim, who on Monday visited the Bunagana border crossing and the Nyakabande Transit Centre.
Since the beginning of the year, more than 33,500 people have been registered at the transit centre, which lies some 20 kilometres from the border. Stop-start fighting between government forces and the rebel M23 group since May has led to waves of people fleeing in Uganda, mainly at Bunagana. According to UN figures, more than 220,000 have been displaced in North Kivu since April.
In the most recent fighting earlier this month, the M23 captured the border crossing and almost 7,000 people fled into Uganda and were registered at Nyakabande, putting a fresh strain on shelter facilities and water sources.
The large number of arrivals is also stretching services for the whole district of Kisoro, including water, sanitation and health and damaging some education facilities and the environment as some refugees seek somewhere to stay near the border while waiting or things to improve.
UNHCR Representative in Uganda Mohammed Adar said there was a need for a joint UN approach in helping the district to cope with the influx and prevent it from impacting beyond the transit centre at Nyakabande.
Moreover, due to funding problems, the World Food Programme (WFP) has had to cut cereal rations for all refugees around the country. “This is of great concern to us,” said Adar, adding that the ration cut could impact new arrivals.
“The recent refugee influx has put a strain on WFP’s resources,” said the WFP country director, Sory Ouane, who accompanied Lim. “The refugee programme was already under-funded, now we have to support tens of thousands more new people,” he added, while warning of the possibility of further ration cuts.
Assistant High Commissioner Lim addressed refugees at a meeting in Nyakabande, where the refugees where strongly encouraged to relocate to the safety and services of Rwamwanja settlement, 350 kilometres to the north, because of the fragile situation across the border. The settlement was opened in April and to date 15,931 refugees have relocated there, helping to decongest Nyakabande, where there were an estimated 11,570 refugees on Monday.
Lim met district officials in Kisoro before visiting the Bunagana border crossing, where they were briefed by border security and immigration officials. The situation at Bunagana remains relatively calm, with mainly normal cross-border movement of locals from either side of the border observed. M23 soldiers were seen on Monday manning customs, immigration and road checkpoints.
Bunagana has been the main crossing point for people fleeing North Kivu, but UNHCR’s Adar said that as the fighting shifted more people were coming across at different points to the north of Bunagana, such as Ishasha and Busanza. “UNHCR is faced with challenges of access due to bad roads,” said Adar, highlighting another challenge for the refugee agency.
Lim visited the south-west with government officials and David Robinson, a senior official at the US State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. Before heading back to Kampala, she praised local and central Ugandan authorities for their cooperation and commended UNHCR field staff for “doing their utmost to cover the most urgent needs in a cost effective way” at a time when the refugee agency has several emergency operations.
Lim and Robinson stressed that donors and humanitarian agencies working in Kisoro also needed to be sensitive to the needs of the local population.
The conflict in North Kivu has also forced almost 20,000 people to flee to Rwanda since late April, while tens of thousands have been displaced in North Kivu.