A war in South Sudan is sending thousands of refugees across the border into northern Uganda, and now Catholic agencies—along other Christian charities—have moved to provide assistance.
At the center of the relief efforts are nearly 1 million refugees who fled torture, killing, rape, and other abuses, and are now living in several sprawling displaced-persons camps in the East Africa nation. Each day, more refugees arrive at the settlements, putting pressure on local resources. The war in Africa’s newest nation is now in its fifth year and hope of finding a solution seems dim, in spite of the opposing parties signing peace agreements.
The situation of these refugees is compelling. Take, for example, the teenage girl who must take care of her siblings because she does not know where their parents are, or the numerous children who have told the agencies that their parents were killed or lost on the way.
But even as these developments point to a tragedy of huge proportions, it has not been lost on analysts that the international community may not be doing enough to help the migrants; many have questioned the rest of the world’s commitment to addressing the root causes of the refugee movement and to providing enough financial resources for aid work.
Funding shortfalls mean the refugees cannot access basic services, said Amnesty International in a June 2017 report. The report warns that rich nation are failing to help Uganda support the South Sudanese refugees.
Agencies point to severe underfunding in the midst of the crisis. In 2016, for example, the humanitarian response only received 40 percent of the $251 million requested, which compromised the ability of the agencies to provide sufficient aid.
But it is against this background that relief agencies are putting words into action by providing what aid they can. These include Catholic agencies such as Caritas, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), and the UK’s Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD). These groups are working alongside Christian charities such as World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, Adventist Development and Relief Agency, Finn Church Aid, Danish Church Aid, and the Lutheran World Relief.
From providing basic items such as sleeping mats, blankets, medical relief, and female sanitary supplies to undertaking complex projects such as schools and long-term water and sanitation systems, the footprints of these groups are highly visible.
According to John Bosco Komakech Aludi, the Caritas director for the Archdiocese of Gulu in Uganda, Caritas is helping refugee households to grow their own food by providing seeds and farming tools, while providing capital for start-up businesses. It is also working on water sanitation and hygiene projects.
The agency takes a neutral approach, Aludi explained, keeping away from politics to focus on saving human beings. Caritas is also supporting peace efforts between host communities and refugees, and among the refugees themselves.
The need for aid increased last year when the number of the migrants arriving at Uganda’s border reached a peak. By September 2017, it was estimated that 1,800-2,000 individuals were arriving at reception points on the Uganda border daily. Of these, many were children who showed up at the border unaccompanied, having been orphaned or separated from their families by the war.
Agencies have been re-uniting children with their families when possible, but when that has proven difficult or impossible, children have been placed with other refugees families who are willing to accept them. Once these children get shelter and food, the agencies place them in schools.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, nearly 2.5 million South Sudanese people have fled the mainly Christian and animist country into Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic. By end of this year, the numbers are expected to reach three million, making this Africa’s largest refugee crisis since the Rwanda genocide in 1994. Inside the country, seven million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.
One in every three people in South Sudan has been forcefully displaced, either within the country or across its borders.
At the moment, the number of new refugees coming into the camps has lessened, but with the continuing conflict between the government of South Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition, it is likely the number will go up once again. The war ignited in 2013 following a dispute between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy-turned rebel leader, Reik Machar, has grown into an inter-ethnic war.
In the refugee camps in northern Uganda, religious groups offer more than relief aid alone. Churches and missions have also moved to meet the spiritual needs of Christian migrants. Refugees find places of worship, where they can recite the Rosary, sing hymns, and pray. These simple, makeshift structures serve as spiritual refuge for the often traumatized migrants.
The Salesians are one Catholic order operating such a mission. By February 2017, four Salesian priests were serving 41,000 refugees in the Ugandan camps, running a nursery, a high school, and a vocational center in the settlement.
Father Lazar Arasu, director of the Salesian mission, said of the Ugandan camp: “We will have plenty of spiritual and pastoral work.”
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