The Ugandan government’s decision to open its borders to thousands of refugees fleeing violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) amid coronavirus lockdowns, has been praised by the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.
Approximately 45,000 people, according to local DRC authorities, have attempted to flee towards the Ugandan border with the DRC shortly after deadly militia attacks on civilians in Ituri province between May 17 and 18.
While some have been able to return to their area of origin, thousands remained close to the border, stranded in a remote, inaccessible area in Mahagi Territory since late May.
“My gratitude goes to the Ugandan Government and the local communities for this great show of solidarity with people fleeing conflict,” said Joel Boutroue, UNHCR Representative in Uganda.
“It proves that even in the midst of a global crisis like COVID-19, there are ways to manage border restrictions in a manner which respects international human rights and refugee protection standards.”
Some 1,500 asylum seekers entered Uganda today through Guladjo and Mount Zeu crossing points in Zombo district. Most are women and children, as well many elderly people.
The new arrivals were hungry and tired. Many also arrived in a frail state having been in a precarious situation, hiding in the bush for the past several weeks without sufficient access to food, clean drinking water and shelter.
Uganda implemented restrictions on border travel in March to contain the spread of COVID-19, halting admission of new asylum seekers into the country.
On humanitarian grounds, the President of Uganda directed its government to temporarily re-open the Zombo border to allow life-saving aid and protection to be provided to the group of refugees.
The Government has indicated that border controls are set to be reintroduced on Friday, once the humanitarian operation is complete.
UNHCR and partners, in coordination with the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), Ministry of Health and the district local government, have been working around the clock in Zombo to strengthen reception capacities at the border, including quarantine facilities, and ensure adequate levels of emergency assistance are available.
All new arrivals will undergo security and health screening at the border. Vulnerable individuals will be identified and fast tracked for assistance.
Following the mandatory quarantine period of 14 days, in line with national guidelines and protocols, asylum seekers will be transported to existing refugee settlements.
The refugee response in Uganda is facing multiple challenges due to underfunding, including severe food ration cuts.
With 870 COVID-19 cases in Uganda, including 52 refugees, UNHCR has been working with the government and partners to construct and strengthen quarantine and isolation facilities and increase hand washing supplies and availability of masks as part of the response plan
“The needs are huge and growing,” said Boutroue. “Time is of the essence. If US$28 million is not made available immediately, we are faced with the risk of having to stop critical services providing non-COVID19 related health care, child protection and mental health support.”
UNHCR has received just 18% of the US$357 million required for its operation in Uganda.
UNHCR appeals for international solidarity to help Uganda uphold its commitments towards the Global Compact on Refugees and maintain its progressive refugee policy during these difficult times. (Source: UNHCR)