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Uganda counts close to 20,000 new Congolese refugees from Ituri region

Uganda counts close to 20,000 new Congolese refugees from Ituri region

Assessment teams have found another 10,000 Congolese refugees in areas north of Lake Albert, bringing to nearly 20,000 the total number of people fleeing the Democratic Republic of the Congo's volatile Ituri region. Many are living with relatives and may not want to move to government-allocated camps.
19 May 2003
Congolese refugees collecting water in Rwebisengu village, south-western Uganda, where they are living outdoors despite torrential rains.

KAMPALA, Uganda, May 19 (UNHCR) - An additional 10,000 Congolese refugees have been found encamped near Lake Albert, bringing to nearly 20,000 the total number of people who have arrived in Uganda after fleeing recent fighting in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). There are fears that more refugees could follow.

Over the weekend, two assessment teams comprising Ugandan government officials and staff from the UN refugee agency and the World Food Programme (WFP) visited six sub-counties in western Uganda's Nebbi district, which is close to Ituri district. More than 10,000 refugees have been registered by local authorities in these areas north of Lake Albert, which separates western Uganda from north-eastern DRC.

There are growing fears that more refugees could be on their way to Uganda behind the last group of Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF), who are withdrawing from Ituri. Some of these troops reportedly arrived in Nebbi district on Monday, followed by hundreds of new refugees.

Many of the recent arrivals in Nebbi district are ethnic Hema and Alur. Local authorities said many of them have come from Mahagi, Bunia and Beni, less than 300 km across the border in north-eastern DRC. Significant numbers are living with friends and relatives and are unwilling to consider relocation to refugee settlements.

The Ugandan government, however, would like all refugees arriving in Nebbi district to be assisted in the nearby Imvepi settlement, some 65 km from Arua in north-western Uganda. Imvepi is already hosting 15,000 Sudanese refugees.

In some of the sub-counties visited over the weekend, the refugees had mingled with the local community and were difficult to trace. Local authorities were unable to locate them to speak with the assessment team.

In Jang Okoro, the local councillor said many of the 3,000 Congolese refugees in his sub-county were women, children and elderly men. He recounted reports that younger men were being prevented from leaving Ituri. In one incident, he said, Congolese rebels of the Union Patriotique du Congo (UPC) had forcefully conscripted young men from a market in the DRC.

To survive, many of the refugees in Jang Okoro are working on farms, making 2,000-3,000 Ugandan shillings (just over $1) for a day's work. Other refugees have rented small parcels of the agriculturally-rich farmland and are living off the land.

The Ugandan Red Cross has made a one-time distribution of domestic supplies including tarpaulins for shelter, kitchen sets and blankets to particularly vulnerable refugee families in Nebbi district.

Local authorities said that while there continued to be local goodwill towards the refugees, rapidly-dwindling resources could raise tensions within the community. They called for the transfer of refugees to settlements and advised local officials to resume the registration of those willing to relocate, although there is little optimism that many will come forward.

Last week, a 10-person team consisting of government officials, WFP and UNHCR staff visited four other locations - mainly fishing villages - on the southern shores of Lake Albert and confirmed the presence of nearly 9,000 Congolese refugees. Registration of those willing to be relocated to the existing Kyaka II camp in Kyenjojo district, west of Kampala, is expected to begin soon.

The assessment team found many of the refugees living in very difficult conditions. In Ntoroko, the mainly Hema refugees were living outdoors. Many were sleeping on the bare floor of shop verandas and restaurants in a small trading centre. Local authorities have identified some land for the temporary settlement of the nearly 5,000 refugees registered there, but refugees said they lacked shelter material and implements to construct the shelters. Many said they fished for food.

UNHCR officials remain extremely worried about the sanitation conditions, particularly as one refugee in Ntoroko has died of cholera while two others have been hospitalised.

Meanwhile, large parts of Kamuga and Ruhangara villages remain submerged after torrential rains, cutting off the road from Ntoroko and forcing the assessment team to travel by boat. There, they found both the local community and refugees living in squalid conditions. Scores of refugees were sleeping in two churches in Kamuga, while children were wading through the stagnant, greenish water.

In Rwebisengu village, some 30 recently-arrived families were cooking and sleeping under trees close to the local administrative office. Local officials raised concerns over the large number of cows brought in by the cattle-keeping Hema community, fearing the spread of animal diseases and pressure on pastures.