OXFAM is calling for the UK to do more to help those fleeing South Sudan as the number of people escaping across the border into Uganda will reach one million in the coming days.
The charity, working with refugees running from the conflict in South Sudan – where brutal fighting between government and opposition forces has been ongoing since 2013 – said that the crisis demanded the international community to step up its efforts. South Sudan’s farmlands have reportedly been turned into “killing fields” with civilians shot, killed with machetes and burnt in their homes.
Oxfam, which provides water and sanitation projects in Uganda’s Bidi Bidi refugee camp, with a population of over 270,000 people making it the largest in the world, said that richer countries should also offer resettlement places for vulnerable refugees.
The UK could play its part by reuniting separated families, it claimed. Children in Uganda can be vulnerable to traffickers and people smugglers and may end up in the UK without their parents.
Earlier this month SNP MP Angus MacNeil launched a private members bill that would see UK law changed to give refugee children the right to be reunited with their parents. Under current reunion rules children cannot sponsor their parents to come to Britain, leaving them alone here.
International Development Secretary Priti Patel has called on those in power in South Sudan to end the violence.
A UK Government spokesperson said: “The UK has consistently been clear that the crisis in South Sudan is man-made and the government of South Sudan must end it. The International Development Secretary firmly told President Kiir during a visit to see the situation on the ground that the fighting must stop and aid be allowed to reach people in desperate need so they do not starve to death.
“The UK is a world leader in responding to the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan and Uganda. We were one of the first to respond to the UN’s appeal, stepping up support in less than 24 hours and providing a lifeline to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing violence and starvation.
“This is giving vulnerable people hope for a future in the region so they are not forced to make perilous journeys in search of a better life.”
Speaking exclusively to The National, Oxfam Scotland advocacy worker Sara Cowan, who has been working in and around Bidi Bidi in for the last three months, said people were suffering.
“People speak about fighting breaking out in the village when the women are in the farms and they just run when the gunshots start. Children have had to run when fighting has broken out around their schools. Families have been separated from each other, which is desperately difficult.”
Reunion does happen – Cowan witnessed one mother volunteering with an Oxfam project reunite with her children after many months of searching. For others the process can be more traumatic and it can be hard for parents separated from their children to know if they are alive or dead.
Uganda has one of the most generous refugee policies in Africa, and arguably the world. Refugees are registered at the border and transported to settlements where they are initially given a hot meal and a space to sleep. Each family is then allocated a 30 x 30m plot and given emergency shelter materials, access to a latrine and food rations.
Yet life is incredibly tough. Many arrive traumatised by past experiences and with nothing but the clothes they stand up in.
Temporary school structures are easily damaged by wind and rain and teachers are in short supply, meaning children’s education is suffering and work can be almost impossible for refugees to secure.
Cowan added: “The UK Government could definitely do more, for example to ensure that children are automatically entitled to be reunited with their parents if they become separated.
“We need to see governments taking a positive stance on refugees in their own countries as well as supporting those shouldering the burden such as Uganda.”
Angus MacNeil MP said: “We can see from the work of Oxfam and the difficult situation faced by people in Bidi Bidi the extent of the difficulties that people can face in being separated from their families.
“We need to bring UK law in line with other countries and make sure that the very natural impulse to be reunited is not blocked by bureaucracy. At the moment the law is inhumane.”