A few months ago, there was a global outcry when lifeless bodies of two toddlers were found on a Turkish beach. Later, the Turkish media identified the boys as three-year-old Aylan Kurdi and his five-year-old brother. Both died when their boat sank while attempting to flee from northern Syria near the Turkish border which was then a scene of heavy fighting between Islamic State insurgents and Kurdish regional forces.
In Uganda, in 2012, a 28-minute film made about the plight of children in Uganda at the hands of the warlord Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) guerilla group, went viral on YouTube eliciting unprecedented global emotions and support against this brutal war. Perhaps what the video did not show was that the LRA had, since its inception in 1986, killed thousands of people in northern Uganda, displaced others from their homes, with an estimated 30,000 refugee children being forced to flee the war and abduction and seeking relative safety on streets, resettlement camps and other public places.
The influx of refugee children in Uganda over the last 20 years has been growing because of both internal and external conflicts. The LRA war in Uganda fuelled the internal exodus of refugee children. This situation has been exacerbated by regional conflicts in Rwanda, Burundi and more recently in southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The conflicts in these countries led to a mass exodus of refugees into Uganda. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) 2012 report, 46 per cent of refugees and 56 per cent of people in camps are children in Uganda.
Recently, I toured Rwamanja Refugee Resettlement Camp in Kamwengye District and was shocked by the huge number of refugee children settled in this camp. Most of these refugee children fled from eastern Congo at the height of the M27 rebellion. Although government and other international agencies like UNHCR, Medecins Sans Frontieres etcetera have made efforts to resettle these children, life in the camps for most of them is a nightmare. Most of these children suffer from psychological trauma from war experiences, separation from parents and critical deprivation. From poor sanitation, limited clothing, lack of education and poor feeding and shelter, most of the children now have resorted to doing manual work around the camp to earn a living and this has robbed them of their right to childhood even as refugees. In such a situation, it is inconceivable to imagine that such children will grow to love or contribute to meaningful development of their respective countries.
Yet, it is possible that Uganda and the other regional governments can do more to improve the welfare of these refugee children. Uganda, for example, inter alia ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children that provides for appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance of refugee children.
More so, governments in the region can jointly work to promote regional peace so that constant displacements of people due to wars are mitigated. This is possible and this is why an international charitable organisation, Fund for Global Human Rights (FGHR), has worked with frontline regional human rights organisations to mitigate humanitarian crises in the region. For example in DRC, FGHR since 2005 has closely worked with an organisation based in south Kivu called Bureau pour le Volontariat au Service de l’Enfance et de la Santé (BVES), which was set up to fight for the protection of children. BVES rescues children trapped in conflicts and child soldiers from armed groups across eastern DRC. Through this initiative, thousands of children have been rescued that would have otherwise have added to the statistics of child refugees across the region. This is the same approach that FGHR has employed in Burundi through frontline organisations like the Association for Protection of Prisoners and Human Rights.
It is possible for Uganda and other countries within the Great lakes region to take on a more proactive methodology that not only promotes internal and regional stability but also guarantees the protection of children during conflicts and in the post-conflict period to avoid the specter of refugee children in the region as we currently face.
Mr Agaba is a psychosocial support specialist at Centre for Children’s Rights.