Ten percent of the children fleeing fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) claim to have been raped along the way.
Save the Children in its new assessment, says it interviewed 132 refugee children aged 10-17 about their protection and education needs and found that hunger was the biggest issue facing children fleeing DRC.
According to the assessment, sickness affected more than 1 in 2 children (53%) along the way, and a quarter of children interviewed said they were assaulted by armed groups as they fled. Johnson Byamukama, Save the Children’s Emergency Response Director in Uganda, says the conflict in DRC is one of the world’s forgotten crises.
He says they see child refugees arriving in Uganda every day in desperate need and that every one of them has a horrific story to tell, including of rape, of parents being killed and witnessing extreme violence.
“Two children we spoke with had made it to Uganda after becoming separated from their parents in the chaos of an attack on their village. Then they heard that their mother might still be alive so they went back home, only to be shown her dead body. She had been killed just a few hours before. The children then had to make the dangerous crossing to Uganda all over again. Heartbreaking stories like this one are all too common,” he said.
The assessment was part of the documentation submitted at the just concluded DRC pledging conference in Geneva. The conference committed almost a third of the $1.68 billion needed to support the Humanitarian Response Plan. Despite the enormous need, the crisis in DRC and the refugee response in Uganda remain seriously underfunded.
On Friday, Save the Children urged donors at the DRC pledging conference to dig deep and urgently increase funding for the regional crisis, including psychological first aid and counseling support for the survivors of sexual violence.
“The size and scale of this devastating crisis is hard to fathom, and yet the world has not taken notice. It’s time for donors to step up and give generously to support these children, who have had their childhoods ripped up from beneath their feet. Uganda now hosts more refugees than anywhere else in Africa2, putting enormous pressure on basic services, especially health and education, and it needs more support,” Byamukama said.
Even after arriving in Uganda, children remain at risk of sexual violence, with numerous incidents reported around the settlements in recent weeks. Byamukama said interviewees, said the risk of sexual violence was highest while collecting firewood (42%); water (42%); or on the way to school or while playing.
According to Byamukama, children singled out not being able to go to school, hunger, teenage pregnancy, sexual violence, attacks, abductions, and lack of shelter as their biggest challenges.
Around 80% of school-age children in the Kyaka II settlement in western Uganda are not attending school, putting them at even greater risk of exploitation, despite 95% of the children, saying they want to go to class. Only 9% of the children interviewed were hopeful of being back in their home country DRC in the next five years.
“With many children now out of school for lengthy periods and likely to be in Uganda for some time, it is vital that funding is provided for longer-term education and accelerated learning programmes to help children catch up on the learning they have missed,” Byamukama said.
Save the Children is setting up classrooms and safe spaces to educate and protect children, and working with the Uganda government to develop a new plan to improve education for refugees and host communities.
In addition to these challenges, there are growing tensions over land allocation in the settlements. As more refugees arrive in what are already some of the most deprived areas of Uganda, the amount of land allocated for more established refugees is reducing, leaving families concerned th]at] they will not be able to grow food.
“The amount of land refugees receive has shrunk over time, which risks making their already challenging lives even more difficult and creating huge tension between different groups of refugees and local communities – all of whom are living in a desperate situation,” Byamukama said.
Adding that, “The lack of land is causing extreme overcrowding, which poses direct health risks to thousands of children, women and men living in trying conditions. In Kyangwali settlement alone, 43 people have died of cholera since mid-February, and there are a further 2,000 cases requiring treatment.”
So far this year, more than 73,000 refugees have fled the gruesome and escalating conflict in DRC to Uganda, including nearly 2,800 unaccompanied or separated children.