GENEVA, Switzerland, March 19, 2018-This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch – to whom quoted text may be attributed – at today’s (March 16, 2018) press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva: UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is working with partner organizations in western Uganda to support a growing number of people, most of them women and children, fleeing horrific inter-ethnic violence and sexual abuse in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
More than 57,000 refugees have been displaced by the violence in eastern DRC since the beginning of this year. An overwhelming majority – some 77.5 per cent – are women and children.
In the space of just three days, between 10 – 13 March, more than 4,000 people crossed into Uganda from the provinces of Ituri and North Kivu. These numbers are on a larger scale still than in 2017 when some 44,000 fled over the course of the entire year. UNHCR fears thousands more could arrive in Uganda if the security situation inside the DRC does not immediately improve.
The majority continue to cross into Uganda via Lake Albert in rickety and unsafe boats from Ituri, a journey that has already cost the lives of several refugees. The situation has been even more dangerous in recent days because of bad weather. Others continue to arrive on foot near the villages of Kisoro and Ntoroko.
Several of the new arrivals are in deep trauma from the violence. Many are exhausted, hungry, thirsty, sick, and have fled with few or no belongings.
While the lack of access to this part of Democratic Republic of the Congo means it is difficult to offer a detailed picture of the situation, UNHCR has received chilling accounts of violence. These include accounts of rape, murder and separation from family members.
These are linked to the deteriorating security situation, internal conflicts and inter-communal tensions. Armed men are reported to be attacking villages, looting and burning down houses, indiscriminately killing civilian populations and kidnapping young men and boys. A growing number of reports indicate that the violence is taking on ethnic dimensions as tribal groups engage in retaliatory attacks.
Dozens of refugees have told UNHCR staff in Uganda of sexual violence and assaults they have endured in the DRC. The vast majority of survivors are women and girls, as well as a smaller number of men and boys.
These alarming reports have led the UN Refugee Agency and partners to strengthen the systems in place to identify and support survivors of sexual and gender based violence.
UNHCR has deployed significant additional staff and resources to identify victims and strengthen support. Efforts include strengthening the medical screening at landing sites on the shores of Lake Albert and at SGBV screening at the reception centres as well as making gender segregation spaces available.
Working with partners, we have deployed additional staff specifically trained in psychosocial care to increase support to refugee survivors of SGBV and have conducted further outreach with community leaders and networks to ensure refugees are aware of what services are available to them.
We are also working with our humanitarian partners to save lives after a Cholera outbreak killed at least 32 refugees. The number of reported cases have significantly gone down from 668 to 160 since the outbreak in February.
The refugee response funding appeal for Uganda of nearly US$180 million remains poorly funded, severely restricting capacities of humanitarian organisations to deliver vital aid and assistance. In that appeal, UNHCR’s requirements of US$118.3 million are at present only three per cent funded. Humanitarian needs remain extensive, including food, water, shelter and healthcare.