No time to play: Childhood in Uganda’s biggest refugee settlement

Every morning, Rose Inya makes her four younger siblings breakfast and gets them ready for school. In the evenings, the 16-year-old, who is herself still a student, prepares dinner, tends to her vegetable garden, and puts her sisters and brothers to bed.

She assigns them household chores and monitors their homework. When they misbehave, she reprimands them, and when they are sick, she is the one who cares for them.

Inya and her siblings, who are South Sudanese refugees, live alone in Uganda’s sprawling Bidi Bidi refugee settlement. They fled their village of Avumadrichi with their mother in 2016. Their father and eldest brother stayed behind. Six months ago, their mother went back to try to earn some money. They have not heard from her since.

According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), Uganda hosts the largest number of unaccompanied child refugees in the world – some 41,200 in 2018 – with the majority less than 15 years old and nearly 3,000 younger than five. Most of them come from South Sudan, which has been mired in civil war since December 2013.

Coping with the inflows of minors is one of many challenges facing the landlocked East African country, which, despite being one of the less-developed nations globally, is the world’s third-largest host of refugees, with some 1.2 million asylum-seekers in 2018.

Many Ugandans were themselves displaced during Idi Amin’s rule in the 1970s and later during an armed campaign by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group. And while Western nations are increasingly shutting their doors to migrants, the UN and the humanitarian community have praised Uganda’s unique hosting model, which allows refugees to work, farm, and study.

But hosting so many vulnerable people comes with challenges for the government, the UNHCR, and partner organisations in the refugee settlements. Unaccompanied children face a unique set of risks, including sexual exploitation, early pregnancy, and even robbery, according to Johnson Ochan Abic of World Vision International, an aid organisation.

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