Dispatches From The Road: The Unaccompanied Children of Uganda’s Refugee Crisis

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It comes as no surprise that the vast majority of South Sudanese refugees coming into Uganda are women and children. For the past few years trends and data from the region have shown that when violence breaks out, the men stay behind. However, perhaps one of the most heartbreaking and forgotten demographics of this statistic are the unaccompanied minors. Young boys and girls who flee their villages alone, or lose a guardian along the way.

In my trips to refugee camps, and in interviews with relief workers, it became clear that children who left without their families – or lost them along the way – will face a dangerous uphill battle. That’s because, as it was explained to me, they have so few real protections. Refugee aid workers can offer their best of care, but with the sheer numbers of unaccompanied minors flowing over the border, it’s impossible to keep an eye on them all.

And the numbers, I learned, were staggering.

According to the UNHCR, “Children have been separated from their families on an unprecedented scale. Over 34,000 separated or unaccompanied children have been registered, representing 10%, of the total number of refugee children in some of the countries of asylum.” These statistics are staggering from a humanitarian perspective, which UNHCR goes on to point out, “With almost 70% of the refugees from South Sudan and Sudan under the age of 18, both conflicts are nothing less than a war on their children.”

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Interviews with workers at refugee centers highlight the humanity of refugees – who despite lacking their own resources – often take on unaccompanied children under their wing, at least until they reach Uganda.

Catherine Ntabadde with UNICEF told me that unaccompanied children are targeted first for special care. She says that education tents and a group of rotating psychosocial workers have been deployed in Northern Uganda’s refugee centers and camps. However, unaccompanied minors still face an increased threat of sexual and gender based violence as well as increased risk of exploitative child labour practices.

Aid agencies are working to register these children and ensure that unaccompanied refugees are offered all proper protections. Yet with overflowing camps forcing many refugees to move on a moment’s notice – unaccompanied children can too easily fall through the cracks.

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The UNHCR says that legal framework and enhanced policy must be enacted to ensure children are well cared for under these refugee programs. It also encourages monitoring and reporting to enhance our current data on the crisis.

Yet on ground participation from local communities, offering some semblance of normal life is a must for recovery. This includes access to schooling, a safe home life and a team of advocates to ensure that the most vulnerable, among an already dispossessed population, have a place to call home.

When a Gorilla Looks You in the Eye

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While travelling down the steep muddy roads near Bwindi National Park, this was the question that ran through my head: “What should I do when a gorilla looks me in the eye?” With lions you blink both eyes, hoping they return the gesture. This “cat kiss”, I was told, is the feline version of “sup dude?”.

Other animals you look down, away or stare back with a ferocity that bluffs away your weak and fragile human form.

But what about a gorilla? Well, according to the UWA guide, you simply look back. Looking down isn’t great, staring aggressively is quite stupid. But just return the gesture. It’s your cousin after all, might as well be friendly.

And so we trekked into the jungle. I slipped through mud with strangers, thanking the sweet and merciful shoe gods I had bought a decent pair of waterproof boots. And then, surrounding by a cloud of bugs, there he was. The alpha. He just sat there staring at us, and I stood on a log huddled behind the UWA guide peeking back.

As we ventured further, Mr. Alpha ventured right alongside us to where the rest of his group was resting. And then boom! Baby gorilla! The playful sprout quickly took me out of my fear zone, and I soon found myself venturing closer and closer, snapping photos and slipping into a severe state of camera click tunnel vision.

But a rustle right in front of me snapped me out of my daze. A large gorilla, the guides said was a ‘teenager of sorts’, wandered out of the bush in front of me. A brief, and what I’d like to think was cordial stare later, and it began to amble past me.

But what they don’t tell you, and this is probably for the best, is that occasionally gorillas will casually slap your ass as they pass by. Friendly cousins indeed.

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