UNHCR fears for welfare of Congolese refugees in Uganda hills; worried about fighting near Goma

News Stories, 16 July 2013

© UNHCR/L.Beck
Families fleeing to Uganda brought belongings, including mattresses.

BUNDIBUGYO, Uganda, July 16 (UNHCR) With a new emergency under way in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, UNHCR and its partners have been rushing to help the tens of thousands of refugees who have fled the violence into western Uganda's Bundibugyo district. The refugees, who began arriving last Thursday, are spread out along the hilly border area, where conditions are tough and getting help to them is difficult.

Meanwhile, renewed fighting has broken out near the North Kivu provincial capital, Goma, between government forces and the M23 rebel movement after a two-month lull. A senior UNHCR official in Kinshasa said the fighting since Sunday around Mutaho was "ongoing and intensifying."

UNHCR fears that continuing clashes could lead to a major new outflow of people to neighbouring countries. The fighting erupted days after the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan rebel group, captured the North Kivu town of Kamango. causing tens of thousands of civilians to flee across the border into Uganda.

As of Sunday night, the Uganda Red Cross, had manually registered more than 66,000 people. UNHCR and its partners have completed joint assessment missions and begun moving food and non-food aid to the area. The refugees are living in any space available, including schools and with host families.

A transit centre is now open some 20 kilometres from the border in Bubukwanga sub-county. Approaching 2,000 people have been transported there since Saturday, but many refugees are reluctant to move from the hilly border region, where there has been cross-border toing and froing during daylight hours as people return to their nearby towns or villages to get food and check on their crops at harvest time.

At the same time, and although the Congolese government is encouraging people to come back, refugees are not willing to return immediately to their homes because of the continuing dangerous situation in this region of North Kivu. While Kamango is quiet, empty and back in government hands, UNHCR has received reports of clashes in three other areas, including an ADF ambush of a UN peace-keeping vehicle, which was repelled by a helicopter gunship on Friday. The situation remains very fluid.

Moving the refugees to safer areas is now a main challenge. "We are worried about their current situation, as the conditions that many are living in are dire," a UNHCR spokesman said. "People are dotted across a hilly area where it is very cold at night and where it is difficult to find drinking water and food. Sanitation and hygiene facilities are almost non-existent. We believe that the longer they stay at the border, the more likely there will be outbreaks of disease," he added.

That is why UNHCR is trying to persuade the refugees that if they wish to receive protection, shelter and assistance they should come to the transit centre, which can hold 10,000 people, and another 10,000 once additional land becomes accessible. It will also enable UNHCR and the government of Uganda to do a more thorough registration of the refugees and identify those most in need of protection and assistance.

UNHCR is talking to community leaders to encourage the refugees to move and some families have started moving vulnerable family members to the transit centre. Meanwhile, the refugee agency plans to send technical staff with health, and water, sanitation and hygiene expertise to Bundibugyo as part of the emergency response.

Separately, UNHCR is also concerned about the situation further south in North Kivu and close to Goma, where fresh fighting erupted on Sunday afternoon at Mutaho, almost 10 kms north of the provincial capital.

UNHCR staff in Goma, which was captured and briefly held by the M23 in the last major fighting last November, said the city was tense but that most activities were continuing as normal. However, the two banks in Goma did not open on Tuesday. "People are worried and people are going home very early [by 6pm]," said a UNHCR protection office.

Violence and lawlessness in this area of North Kivu is also causing displacement, including preventive displacement. With a deteriorating situation in Masisi Territory to the northwest of Goma a steady stream of about 600 people a week has been crossing into Uganda's Kisoro district.

Commenting on the fresh fighting between the Congolese armed forces and the M23, the UNHCR spokesman said: "More skirmishes are likely and we fear that they could trigger a bigger exodus."

Meanwhile, for the refugee arrivals in Uganda's Bundibugyo district, UNHCR has 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 the transit centre. On Monday, UNHCR sent an additional emergency shipment of tents, plastic rolls, blankets, sleeping mats and fuel. Other items such as larger tents for office use as well as plastic tables and chairs are also being arranged.

The World Food Programme has delivered enough food to feed 20,000 people for five days, with more food due to arrive on Thursday. 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, more than 60 per cent of whom came from the DRC.