Refugees in Uganda are facing increasing hunger and some are considering returning to their home countries as funding shortages force the World Food Programme (WFP) to cut rations for the third time in as many years.
Uganda hosts more refugees than any other nation in Africa, with almost 1.5 million people sheltering there from conflicts in countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan, and Somalia.
Though the country’s refugee response has been hit by past corruption scandals, it has also been widely praised by the international community for promoting self-reliance, freedom of movement, and strong integration between refugee and host communities.
Yet these efforts are being threatened by a funding gap that has forced humanitarian agencies to once again pare back services and food baskets in refugee settlements – some of which already had high levels of acute malnutrition.
“If they keep on reducing [aid], it keeps adding more trauma on people,” said Mary Martin Poni, a South Sudanese refugee and teacher who lives with her family in Bidi Bidi settlement, which is in northern Uganda and is one of the world’s largest camps.
“When you eat and you have a place to sleep, those feelings… begin disappearing,” added Poni. “But when you are suffering, the feelings and thoughts begin coming back. You’ll be thinking about what happened when you were coming from South Sudan.”
Stay or go home: Refugee perspectives
Humanitarian officials attributed the latest cuts to a competition for resources. They mentioned the drought emergency in the Horn of Africa and the war in Ukraine, which has resulted in international donors reallocating relief budgets.
But resources have been further strained in 2022 by the unexpected arrival in Uganda of 130,000 refugees from neighbouring countries, including South Sudan and DRC, where violence is escalating due to a rebellion by the M23 armed group.
“One of the real challenges this year is that there has been a very significant increase in the number of people that we have had to assist, beyond planning figures,” said Marcus Prior, deputy country director for WFP in Uganda.
The latest round of cuts hit refugees in October and follows earlier reductions in 2020 and 2021. By the end of the last year, refugee households were already only receiving 40%-70% of standard rations, based on their relative vulnerability levels.
The recent cut means all refugees receiving food aid – assistance in the camps is split between cash assistance and direct food aid – are now on less than 40% of what WFP calls basic survival rations, which include maize grain, beans, fortified oil, and salt.
Prior told The New Humanitarian he was “confident” WFP wouldn’t have to make further cuts. He said the agency is currently in negotiations with donors and hopes rations will increase early next year.
Still, refugees were facing food consumption gaps before the recent reductions. And a lack of basic services, employment, and livelihood options – worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic – have driven many to return home.
Almost 350,000 South Sudanese – who constitute the majority of refugees in Uganda – have left the country over the past four years. The number has accelerated since 2020, even as conflict has spiked and aid workers have pointed out the risks facing returnees.
“Access to cultivable land and other livelihood opportunities remains extremely limited.”
South Sudanese in Bidi Bidi said the latest cuts have already limited the number of meals they are able to eat in a day. “Life has not been easy, and it is even worse now,” said Margaret Mauridiyo, a 25-year-old living in the settlement.
Uganda’s refugee policy means new arrivals are given plots of land and are encouraged to supplement food distributions through farming or other work. But humanitarian analysts said it is difficult to plug the gap left by aid cuts.
“Access to cultivable land and other livelihood opportunities remains extremely limited,” said Yotam Gidron, a Kampala-based researcher with the University of Oxford’s Refugee Economies Programme.
Celina Kidden, a 36-year-old Bidi Bidi resident, said odd jobs like collecting firewood and cutting and selling sheaths of grass can earn refugees a bit of money. But she said casual work like this is hard to find.
Nakinde said she is currently only able to feed her six children twice a day because food rations are running out after two to three weeks. “Even getting clothing for the children is very difficult,” she said.
Prior explained that the refugees who receive WFP cash assistance – which accounts for 58% of the agency’s distributions across the refugee response – have not had their support cut because of the global rise in food prices.
Despite this, the UN official said the current level of cash assistance is still insufficient. “We know that it simply doesn’t cover what it used to cover,” he said. ”We are looking at ways we can increase the cash ration to recognise that reality.”
Idro Erikole Festo, a 33-year-old refugee, said people who receive cash in Bidi Bidi have “suffered greatly”. Some have been digging up unripened sweet potatoes because the money they’re getting isn’t enough, Festo said.
Increasing hunger levels are also impacting education. According to Isaac Anguba, assistant head at Bidi Bidi’s Rockland Primary School, a lack of food makes it harder for children to attend school and to focus during class.
Anguba said around 440 students had dropped out of his school this year, and those who do attend mostly turn up at exam time, or leave before the day is finished to look for food.
“Instead of dying of hunger, people have gone ahead to say better to die in the war.”
Despite the ongoing threat of conflict in many parts of South Sudan, Bidi Bidi residents who spoke to The New Humanitarian said they are now increasingly considering returning home.
“Instead of dying of hunger, people have gone ahead to say better [to] die in the war,” said Festo, a father-of-five who arrived at the settlement in mid-2016, when civil war reignited in South Sudan.
Festo said 15 of his neighbours left on foot to South Sudan just last month. And he too set off for home earlier this week, carrying gardening tools and a few goats and chickens, according to his wife, who is still in the settlement.
Cutbacks across the board
WFP is not the only organisation making cutbacks. Last month, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said it was unable to provide enough soap to refugees or properly equip health centres, even amid an ongoing Ebola outbreak that has cost 56 lives.
In July, the agency also ended a programme providing menstrual health kits to women and girls in settlements across Uganda, said Frank Walusimbi, an associate communications officer for UNHCR.
Walusimbi said UNHCR’s “operational capacity” in Uganda is likely to shrink by 45% next year, impacting dozens of partners. “The situation will result in a reduction in health, WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene), and education services,” he said.
“We are currently facing a situation next year where we will have to significantly scale down on our doctors, nurses, and clinicians, because we are not able to get the resources required.”
Elijah Okeyo, who heads up the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Uganda, said the reduction in UNHCR’s budget would affect his organisation’s programmes, including health activities that cater for half a million refugees.
“We are currently [facing] a situation next year where we will have to significantly scale down on our doctors, nurses, [and] clinicians, because we are not able to get the resources required,” Okeyo said.
WFP’s Prior said humanitarian organisations need to ensure that Uganda’s refugee response isn’t forgotten and that the open door policy, “which is so important to so many people, remains viable”.
But it may already be too late for Bidi Bidi residents like 53-year-old Rose Mary Kute. She said humanitarian agencies used to provide sufficient support to refugees, but the situation has now “really changed”.
Like others in the settlement, Kute told The New Humanitarian she is considering leaving Uganda. “I know my security is not perfect [back home in South Sudan],” she said. “But due to the conditions [here] it may force us out.”
Sophie Neiman reported from Bidi Bidi and Kampala. Christine Onzia Wani reported from Bidi Bidi, where she currently resides.
Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.