Children face new perils in Ugandan refugee settlements

Dozens of unaccompanied or separated children fleeing the war in South Sudan have arrived in Uganda every day.

Seventeen-year-old Kenyi John, in the white shirt, takes care of his siblings.  © UNHCR/Catherine Robinson

IMVEPI REFUGEE SETTLEMENT, Uganda – In the shade of a teak tree, teenager Kenyi John sits on a mat with his four siblings and raises his arm. He throws a dice on to a colourful board and the children laugh and cheer. He has scored a six and their board game can start.

Kenyi, 17, and his younger brothers and sisters are among more than 5,000 unaccompanied South Sudanese refugee children who have fled their country’s civil war and arrived in Uganda without parents. In July, they left their village with their uncle and walked for seven terrifying days until they reached the border.

“The journey was so hard,” says Kenyi. “The sun was very hot and we had trouble finding food and water. We also met soldiers and rebels along the way. Our uncle decided to turn back but we continued on because we wanted to go to school.”

Last year, an unprecedented number of South Sudanese refugees arrived in Uganda, now estimated at more than one million. The number of unaccompanied children or those separated from their parents has also continued to grow.

“The journey was so hard.”

“The number of child refugees travelling alone to escape fighting is rising in alarming levels,” says Suwedi Yunus Abdallah, a UNHCR child protection specialist.

“Many of these children saw family members killed or were separated from them when they went on the run. They have been forced into adult lifestyles, by having to become responsible for themselves and their siblings.”

On arrival at the Ugandan border, UNHCR and its partners, including the non-governmental organization World Vision, identify unaccompanied children, interview them and determine their status.

Because Kenyi is 17 years old, it was decided he was old enough to act as the head of the household and the family would live independently. They were given a plot of land, materials to build a shelter and kitchen utensils.

“We get food donations and go to school,” he says. “And, I make sure everyone works together at home to collect wood and water, so our sister can cook our food.”

“Many of these children saw family members killed."

UNHCR partners such as World Vision, Save the Children and the Danish Refugee Council send out case workers to monitor child-headed households.

Staff shortages and the size of the settlements make it difficult to provide regular, coordinated visits. As a result, children risk being exposed to hazards and abuse, such as illness, rape, pregnancy, forced marriage and forced recruitment into sexual slavery or armed groups.

UNHCR’s child protection partners have worked with communities and child welfare groups to create foster banks, families who are willing to care for young children unable to look after themselves. Foster parents who volunteer are vetted and sign an agreement to care for the children.

“We don’t want to break up families, so we try to keep siblings together,” says Evelyn Atim, World Vision child protection coordinator. “If children aren’t happy in a foster home, they have the right to leave.

“Foster parents are refugees themselves, so we support them by providing a one-time cash grant, basic personal effects to fostered children, household items, plus a makeshift homestead for the entire family.”

At Bidi Bidi refugee settlement, the world’s largest, 32-year-old Betty Leila fosters six, in addition to her own four children and two of her nieces. Betty fled South Sudan last year with her children and nieces. During their journey, they came across six unaccompanied children, aged between 10 and 16, hiding in a burnt-out car. They joined Betty’s group and, by the time they arrived at the Ugandan border, they had bonded with her children.

“I took them in because they had no one and nowhere to go,” Betty says. “It’s a mix of hardship and joy to keep these children because it’s hard to meet all of their basic needs. When they need medicine, clothing or school supplies they look to me. I work as a care worker at a child friendly space to make extra money, but I often need to borrow from my neighbours to buy food.”

In order to improve conditions for the most vulnerable families in the Imvepi settlement in northern Uganda, UNHCR decided to make cash payments to some 463 households by the end of 2017, including foster families and child-headed households.

A first payment helps pay for necessities and a second goes towards training and funding families to start their own businesses.

As war rages on in South Sudan, the Ugandan government and UNHCR are seeking increased funding from the international community to cope with the refugee influx, to provide schools, as well as medical and psycho-social care for children who make up more than 60 per cent of new arrivals.

At Kenyi’s plot of land, where the board game is in full swing, he and his siblings have temporarily forgotten their troubles. As they move their counters around the board, they are children again, safe in a place they now call home.