As of Thursday, there are now one million South Sudanese refugees living in Uganda, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said, as fighting has flared up between rebel groups and government forces in the protracted civil war in South Sudan.
About 1,800 refugees enter Uganda from South Sudan on a daily basis over the past year, 85 percent of whom are women and children who travel for days fleeing civil war and famine. Since 2013, the civil war in the world’s newest country has created the continent’s largest refugee crisis. The once-bustling South Sudanese border town of Bidi was “largely abandoned last year” when rebels attacked pro-government forces near Juba, EU Observer reported in May, and “warring factions indiscriminately targeted” civilians. Roughly one-sixth of South Sudan’s 12 million people have fled their country.
Uganda’s Bidi Bidi refugee settlement holds more than 250,000 people, but chronic underfunding has compromised critical life-saving help, the United Nations said in March. Uganda’s generous refugee policy has been “among the most progressive anywhere on the African continent,” the refugee agency pointed out, with refugees receiving small plots of land in settlements that are integrated into the local host community.
Tabu Sunday, a 14-year-old South Sudanese refugee, was chosen as the symbolic one millionth refugee in Uganda, the UNHCR announced. Tabu traveled with her aunt, twin sister, and brother from her hometown of Yei to the Imvepi settlement in northern Uganda. Fighting has intensified since South Sudanese pro-government Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) forces killed 114 people around Yei between July 2016 and January 2017, Reuters reported in May.
“Where I was living they were killing people,” Tabu told UNHCR, explaining that her parents had sent her to uganda so that she and her sister could continue to go to school. “My parents said they didn’t have enough money for travelling. So we had to walk on foot with my aunt.”
For Tabu and her sister, they now live in a settlement where they’ve been given a 30-metre-square plot of land, the allotment for all refugee families when they arrive. She wants to stay in Uganda so that she can continue attending school and one day hopes to become a doctor, a dream that may only be made possible outside of South Sudan.
“I want to be a doctor because when someone falls sick, or a woman needs to deliver a baby, I can help,” Tabu said.
Tabu may be one of the luckier ones arriving in Uganda. But the road ahead is still difficult and life will continue to be unstable. Once South Sudanese refugees arrive in Uganda, they face innumerable challenges like a shortage of food, water, and—for young children—class overcrowding in schools. Uganda, one of the poorest countries in the world, has only received a quarter of the $569 million needed to host refugees. The funding gap has meant that major infrastructure projects have been stalled, resulting in no electricity in health clinics, an East African-based journalist wrote in June for the Washington Post.
“The number of hungry and displaced South Sudanese is overwhelming,” the International Committee of the Red Cross President Peter Maurer said in a statement. “The staggering scale of suffering is evidence of the cumulative effect of 3.5 years of a style of fighting that appears calibrated to maximize misery. Warfare should not directly impact the lives of so many civilians.”