NEW YORK: Fighting in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has forced at least 11,000 people to flee to neighbouring Uganda since Sunday night, representing the largest refugee influx in a single day for more than a year, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said on Tuesday.
Women and children comprise the majority of those who have crossed the border to escape clashes between militia groups and the Congolese armed forces in Rutshuru Territory, in the DRC’s North Kivu province.
Rushing to escape
Shabia Mantoo, UNHCR spokesperson in Geneva, said some 8,000 asylum seekers crossed at Bunagana town, while another 3,000 came through the Kibaya border point in Kisoro district. Both locations are roughly 500 km southwest of the Ugandan capital, Kampala.
“The new arrivals told UNHCR staff that fighting was going on in the villages of Binja, Kinyarugwe and Chanzu,” she said.
“Many people came with cooking utensils, sleeping mats, clothing and livestock, gathered hurriedly as they fled. Some appear to be returning to remote areas in the border vicinity.”
UNHCR and Uganda are responding to the situation, in coordination with district and local officials. Several partners are also assisting, including the World Food Programme (WFP).
Ms. Mantoo reported that her agency has so far relocated around 500 people to the nearby Nyakabande transit centre, which can house up to 1,500 people.
Resources needed urgently
The asylum-seekers are screened for COVID-19. They are also registered and given water, food, communal shelters, blankets and other items. A system is also in place to identify and fast track people in need of emergency assistance.
Although Uganda’s borders are currently closed to asylum-seekers due to pandemic-related restrictions, Ms. Mantoo said the Government has again implemented a humanitarian exception to allow safe passage for people seeking safety, which UNHCR has commended.
“However, we are concerned that local capacity and services may be soon overwhelmed and request urgent resources to address the needs of the new arrivals,” she added.
UNHCR is seeking some $335 million this year for its operations in Uganda, which hosts more refugees than any other country in Africa. Globally, only three countries take in more refugees.
So far, only around 45 per cent of the funding has been received.