An invitation to Boris Johnson

An invitation to Boris Johnson

A CMS mission partner invites the prime minister to visit southwest Uganda – to gain some perspective and more compassion when it comes to refugees.

Photo: Women pass the perimeter fence of Nyakabande transit camp outside Kisoro, south-west Uganda (Nicci Maxwell/Church Mission Society)

For years refugees have been arriving in south-west Uganda from DR Congo. In recent days, the town of Kisoro has tripled in population as the number of new arrivals has soared.

By Nicci Maxwell

There’s a war going on in DR Congo. It hasn’t really stopped in about three decades, possibly more. At the moment, the fighting seems pretty fierce and it’s close too. The border town of Bunagana is only 10km by road from where I am and if reports are to be believed, there’s been plenty of action there, even involving the Ugandan army.

War equals refugees. For years there has been a flow of refugees from Congo into Uganda, which has a very generous refugee policy – essentially “if you come, we will look after you!” – assisted by UNHCR and various agencies.

A costly welcome

In recent weeks, the surge in fighting in Congo has meant a massive influx of refugees into Kisoro. The usual one UNHCR bus from the border each day has been supplemented by a stream of chartered buses full of people being taken from the border to the camp. It’s not clear exactly how many refugees we have but I’m told around 30,000 people may have arrived. The population of Kisoro town is only around 15,000 normally.

The ‘new’ transit camp, built around three years ago to accommodate around 1,000 people and with an isolation area for Ebola, was clearly hopelessly inadequate and the ‘old’ camp site has been reopened with dozens of huge tents to provide shelter and amenities for the arrivals.

The number of people has clearly strained local resources. The UN, MSF and numerous other aid agencies are all involved in the camp. Unfortunately, many of the refugees are sicker than the camp facilities can cope with and for a few weeks the government hospital became overwhelmed. Paediatrics struggled to admit local people because every bed was occupied by a refugee. It’s much better now but the sickest children on the ward this week have all been refugees.

Women and children first – to suffer

The refugees are predominantly women and children. Today I met Clementine (not her real name). She is six months old. She was born in December, about two months early, to a young Congolese woman who was still attending school at the time. The baby struggled through her first few months but has had significant feeding problems and has been becoming steadily more malnourished. A couple of weeks ago she started to have seizures but couldn’t get medical attention because of the fighting.

Clementine’s mum crossed the border a day or so ago with Clementine and a two-year-old who is in her care but not her biological child.

I saw Clementine at the government hospital this morning when the ward staff just didn’t know what to do. She weighs just over 2kg and is desperately ill. Even if she recovers from her infection and we can sort out her nutrition, she is likely to have permanent neurological damage from what has happened so far.

Such a complicated situation – impossible to tease apart the child’s medical issues (and perhaps even her conception) from the war and now complicated by being far from home, family support and all that is familiar. This young mum will probably lose her only child in this situation and still have to continue to care for someone else’s toddler through it all.

Locals feel the strain

There are some ‘mutterings’ beginning locally about the overwhelming number of refugees and the services they are needing/receiving. People are worried about diseases like Covid and monkey pox which have been detected among the refugees. I’m probably more concerned about cholera and dysentery. The locals living near the camp are complaining about rubbish and crowds and just not being able to live their lives as they did before. There is the possibility of civil unrest but hopefully that will be averted by swift action from the aid agencies.

All of this is going on and then I’m reminded when I listen to the news that the UK was about to send a plane-load of refugees (call them asylum-seekers or illegal immigrants…it changes very little about their lives in my opinion) to Rwanda. The whole idea makes me so angry. I won’t start shouting about justice and human rights because there are some very clever lawyers doing that and it looks like they won…this time. There are tens of thousands of refugees leaving Congo, surely East Africa has enough refugee problems without adopting the UK’s as well!

Invitation to compassion

There is no town or city in the UK that has doubled or trebled its population because of an influx of refugees. Uganda has a similar land area and a slightly smaller population than the UK and a significantly smaller GDP!

Perhaps I could invite Mr Johnson and Ms Patel to take a trip to the transit camp at Nyakabande or sit in the children’s ward at the hospital and hear some stories to help them grow both compassion and perspective?!

On another note, I wonder how long it will be before I meet an Iraqi or an Afghan in Kisoro because they have embarked on a new refugee journey out of Rwanda?

I will do what I can for children and families at the government hospital and at Potter’s Village (where some of the sickest children and any sick or premature newborns are sent). My heart breaks for refugees at the moment. No matter which part of the world they are from and where they have fled to, each has their own very difficult story and is worthy of our care and protection simply because they are fellow human beings, created in God’s image.

Perhaps they are even deserving of a little bit of extra effort because of all they have had to endure.

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