Some 66,000 Congolese refugees have crossed into Uganda in recent days, following fighting between Ugandan rebel group Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and the Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) national army (FARDC). Their arrival has left the Ugandan government and humanitarian agencies struggling to meet the refugees' needs amid funding challenges.
"The situation is very dire. It's overwhelming... given the massive arrivals of these refugees, and sudden number of this nature, in an area with very limited preparedness to extend humanitarian assistance," Mohammed Adar, country representative for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Uganda, told IRIN. "We don't have the infrastructure to support this huge influx of this scale in an area [where] we didn't have [a] presence in the past."
Uganda already hosts more than 200,000 refugees and asylum seekers, over 60 percent of whom are from DRC.
The new refugees are in the western Ugandan town of Bundibugyo, where they are occupying five primary schools and other sites; they have been arriving since 11 July, when fighting broke out close to DRC's border with Uganda.
"These [Bundibugyo] villages were empty. They didn’t have any facilities. We are putting up water systems, sanitation, shelter, and providing food," Charles Bafaki, a senior settlement officer with the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), which is coordinating the emergency response, told IRIN by telephone.
UNHCR says only 29 percent of its US$93.8 million operating budget for Uganda this year was funded by 19 June. "We appeal for financial assistance from donors and international community to support this huge influx of refugees," Adar said. "The international community and donors have a responsibility to help Uganda share this burden."
The ADF was formed in the mid-1990s in the Rwenzori mountain range in western Uganda, close to the country's border with DRC. The rebellion was largely contained in Uganda by 2000, with reportedly just about 100 fighters finding refuge in DRC’s North Kivu Province. However, the Ugandan government has recently reported that the group is recruiting and training - with the support of Somali Islamist militants Al-Shabab - in eastern DRC.
On 15 July, officials said they were struggling to relocate the refugees to a newly established transit centre, near Bubukwanga Subcounty, Bundibugyo District, about 28km from the DRC-Uganda border. "They are currently occupying schools, churches, people[’s] gardens, verandas, and causing tremendous problems for the host community," UNHCR's Adar said.
The agencies say the refugees are in dire need of humanitarian assistance and relief services.
"While food and supplies have arrived, the huge numbers of people and their wide distribution has made it difficult to provide services," Adar added. "The main concerns at this point are water, health and sanitation, and shelter."
The UN World Food Programme has delivered enough food for 20,000 people for five days, and more food is expected to arrive, UNHCR said in a statement issued on 15 July.
Uganda's military says it has beefed up security at the DRC-Uganda border to ensure the ADF rebels do not infiltrate the country.
More refugees on the way
Meanwhile, UNHCR also says it has experienced an increase in the number of Congolese refugees crossing into Uganda's southwestern district of Kisoro, following fresh fighting near North Kivu's provincial capital, Goma, between the M23 rebel group and FARDC troops. According to Congolese officials, an attack by M23 on 14 July was repelled by FARDC; however, fighting continued on 15 July.
"The situation near Goma is a big concern. It's definitely going to cause problem for us," UNHCR's Adar said. "We have received over 1,000 refugees at our transit centre in Kisoro in the last few days. These are coming in as a preventive measure. We expect more new arrivals to cross as a result of the Goma situation."