UNHCR rushes aid as 66,000 Congolese refugees stream into western Uganda

News Stories, 15 July 2013

© UNHCR/L.Beck
North Kivu has long been a volatile province and thousands of civilians have sought shelter in Uganda to escape conflict, like these Congolese queuing for aid earlier this year.

BUNDIBUGYO, Uganda, July 15 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency is providing emergency shelter, blankets and other essential relief items to some 66,000 Congolese refugees who have fled fighting for the safety of western Uganda in the last five days.

Refugees began fleeing after a reported attack last week on the town of Kamango in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) by the Allied Democratic Forces, a Ugandan rebel group said to be operating around the Ruwenzori Mountains of DRC's North Kivu province.

By the early morning hours of last Thursday, the refugees had reached Bubandi sub-county in western Uganda's Bundibugyo district, with 13,000 arriving on the first day alone. By mid-afternoon Sunday, the Uganda Red Cross Society said it had registered 66,139 people. Whole families have been carrying mattresses, pots and pans, and children were even carrying chickens.

"This is an extraordinarily swift and concerning influx of refugees into an area with very limited preparedness to extend humanitarian assistance to such a large number of people," said Mohammed Adar, UNHCR's representative in Uganda. "We are, however, moving to mount the initial response as quickly as possible while preparing at the same time for an enhanced operation."

With no indication the refugees will go home soon, UNHCR joined the Office of the Prime Minister and other agencies in providing emergency aid. UNHCR sent plastic sheeting for shelter construction, plates and cups, and temporary latrine kits as well as soap. The agency has also provided fuel for transfers to a new transit centre, 23 kilometres from the DRC border, and the first 300 refugees were moved on Sunday.

Today, UNHCR plans an emergency shipment of tents, blankets and sleeping mats.

Bundibugyo is a mountainous and densely populated area about a seven-hour drive from the Ugandan capital Kampala. The new arrivals are being received in five primary schools, and other sites. Some are staying with families in the community.

The World Food Programme has delivered enough food to feed 20,000 people for five days, with more food due to arrive on Monday. The Ugandan Red Cross has organized communities to cook and serve hot meals, while the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and other partners are providing water.

Even before the arrival of the newest refugees, Uganda was already home to more than 210,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers, 63 per cent of whom came from the DRC.