Uganda’s Urban Refugees Struggle with Covid 19 Restrictions

By Gloria Laker

“When access to food is easy to those in settlement camps or upon presentations of National Identification (ID) card, the vulnerable suffer when disaster strikes” Gloria Laker Aciro Adiiki reports that more than 2,000 South Sudan Refugees who have settled in Gulu City as urban refugees are straggling to eat because they are unable to access their monthly food ratio due to the transport restrictions, high cost and limited space per place.

Adeline Kakule is a Salonist in Kampala the lockdown crippled her business and only source of income to feed her children. Photo By Mosos Mbulula2

In 2016, thousands of South Sudan nationals fled their homes to Uganda following the outbreak of fighting between government forces and opposition factions.

Subsequently, refugees who fled to Uganda and registered at different settlements across northern Uganda choose to stay in urban centres rather than refugee settlements in order to access better services such as schools for their children while running income generating projects, which is a good initiative for their personal growth.

Lockdown and Livelihoods of urban refugees

However today, several of them who settled in Gulu City suburbs for example cannot access refugee settlements for their monthly food donations. Adjumani for example is 95 kilometers away and as a district bordering Uganda nd South Sudan Adjumani was affected by the June Presidential directive that stopped movement to control the spread of Corona virus.

Adeline Kakule is a Salonist in Kampala the lockdown crippled her business and only source of income to feed her children. Photo By Mosos Mbulula

Ms Angelina Agok, 28, a mother of three, says she used to plait women’s hair and earn at least shs. 30,000 but her income was crippled when salon business were closed in the  closed in the first round of lockdown. “The money I raised by plaiting hair helped me buy basic needs  like salt, soap, and food. Life was moving on quite well I didn’t even feel like a refugee,” Agok reminiscences her rewarding life before the lockdown.

Agok’s husband, a carpenter, remained in South Sudan when the war broke out. Being the head of the family, he couldn’t bear the thought of coming to sit in a foreign country and just wait for food aid. He used to send money at the end of the month to his family in Uganda. Much as their economic life then wasn’t what they dreamed of, it was way better than what they have now.

“My husband’s business is suffering. Who wants to buy furniture when they can barely have a meal?” Agok squeals at how covid 19 has economic livelihoods in desolation. “I have eliminated items such as sugar from my diet. I don’t remember when I last bought a kilogram of meat. Bread is a luxury,” she adds.

Ms Pauline Ayotto, the LC 1 Chairperson Kasubi central a village which hosts a greater percentage of the urban refugees in Gulu, acknowledges that the biggest challenge among the urban refugees is shortage of food since a majority of them are jobless.“Even some who remained in South Sudan and were sending financial support to their families here have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.’’  Ms Ayotto said they appealed to Gulu district covid-19 task force to help urban refugees with food relief but they are yet to get a response.

Out going Gulu district local council 5 Chairperson Martine Ojara Mapenduzi notes that there are more than 2,000 South Sudanese urban refugees in Gulu city, saying the task force can’t help the urban refugees, because they are already overwhelmed with the number of vulnerable people requesting for food aid and other basics. On a monthly basis each refugee is given 8 Kilograms of maize flour, 0.9litres of cooking Oil, CBS (porridge flour) 1.5 Kg, and salt 0.15.

William Manyok, an official at the Refugees Welfare Council (RWC) in the 19 settlements in Adjumani says he has received several calls from urban refugees who are stuck with no means to reach the settlement and collect their monthly food ratio. “Some refugees opted to stay out of the refugee settlements in order to access good schools for their children while others started business but when Covid 19 struck the country, their socio-economic livelihoods were restrained disrupted,’’ he elaborated the plight of refugees amidst corvid pandemic. Manyok says he has reached out to the settlement leaders to have engagements with the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) and UNHCR on how best to rescue the starving urban refugees.

Titus Jogo, OPM Refugee Desk Officer in Adjumani district advised that the urban refugees with certificates indicating their refugee status should obtain travel permits from the office of the Resident District Commissioner in order to go and get their food rations.

“Food items for May and June has been distributed to refugees at the settlement. According to the guideline if you are no there you do not get but because of covid 19 travel restrictions, those who missed can also be considered,’’ he said. Manyok says since April there has been a reduction by 30 percent of the quantity given to refugees due to cuts in donor funding.

Currently, there are 230,000 south Sudanese refugees in the 19 settlement camps in Adjumani district who fled the war that forced about 1.5 million South Sudanese flee to Uganda according to statistics from UNHCR.

Outgoing Gulu district chairman recently echoed that the district begun registering Gulu city urban refugees in the COVID 19 crisis following cries over lack of access to relief food.

Majority of Uganda’s urban refugees were originally registered in settlements ona rrival into Uganda but because of Uganda’s good refugee policy, they freely move to different parts of the country, rent houses and start businesses though most often their documentation details remain at the settlements. However, the lockdown found many in the urbans and unable to get to the camp and get their food ration. However, there are also refugees that survive on their businesses.

Minister for Refugees and Disaster Preparedness Musa Ecweru in a recent interview said government had tasked Action Aid to look into aiding food delivery to urban refugees.

Plights of Urban Refugees in Kampala

Meanwhile in Kampala, urban refugees continue to cry for food. Since most live in rented houses their situation is pathetic given the high cost of living in the city. “We feel abandoned with nowhere to get food from yet we have children to feed and rent to pay. In a foreign land its even much harder to survive now that our business have been brought to a standstill because of the lockdown.”

Latifa Murefu is a Congolese refugee tailor in Masajja B zone in Wakiso district which is home to several refugees transacting different businesses.

However, amidst all the challenges of Covid 19, refugees here live as one family, they share and support each other with their meagre resources. Like ordinary Ugandans, there are refugees whose skills, talents and creativity kept them in their jobs even in the lockdown, and it is from their earnings that they support one another.

Magalin is all smiles after re-opening her saloon which was closed in the lockdown. “It was hard to feed my kids during the lockdown. Fortunately, my benevolent neighours kept on sharing with us. Finally I’m now able to earn a little money from plaiting hair; I lost many customers but slowly I will get them back”, Magalin concludes.

Minister Ecweru advises urban refugees who are not employed to return to the settlement areas where it is easy to support them. “I will engage and talk to those not doing anything and encourage them to return to the settlements where it is easy for the government to support them”.Ecweru

Uganda has one of the best refugee policies in the world, while the Serbian refugees have spent several months at he Hungarian border, their south Sudanese and Congolese counterparts seeking asylum in Uganda usually spend few days at the border points and are cleared, they are only limited right now because of Covid 19 pandemic which forced government to close its borders to control the spread of corona virus.

Gloria Laker Aciro-Adiiki is a Ugandan award winning Journalist and heads Refugee and Migration Media Network, She is also a media activist involved in supporting refugees and promoting Peace Journalism. Gloria covered the LRA conflict in northern Uganda.Twitter @GloriaLaker +256788368386 Email; glorialaker@gmail.com

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