Rhino Camp, Uganda: A Refugee Perspective

By Grace Abu

Late last year, nutritionist Grace Abu, visited the Rhino Refugee camp in Northern Uganda for a two day period to see family and friends. This article describes her observations and those of refugees about the conditions of camp life with particular emphasis on the quality of agency-administered feeding programmes. During the two days Grace witnessed a general ration distribution herself.

Rhino camp is one of the major Ugandan camps accommodating Southern Sudanese refugees and is situated on the fringe of the country's largest game park.
The population of more than 100,000 comprises mainly women and children with few men or elderly in evidence. Absent men visit their families in the camp between lulls in the fighting in Sudan. UNHCR rationale for settling refugees at this location was to allow greater scope for self sufficiency through land allocation for crop cultivation. Tools and seeds are provided by various agencies. The land is fertile so that in normal circumstances crop yields in addition to a general food ration should be sufficient to sustain the people throughout the year.
This policy of land allocation appears to indicate agency recognition that the civil war in south Sudan is likely to continue indefinitely, and that resourcing food assistance for this population may prove politically problematic in the longer term.

Humanitarian Agency involvement in the camp

The number of agencies involved in providing camp services has diminished, leaving only a small number of UN agencies and the German Federation Action Team.

Refugee views

During my visit, refugees raised their concerns about the following issues;

Food Security

Refugees report that food availability is regularly threatened in a number of ways; grazing animals, rebel attacks, and interrupted food supplies, all of which are contributing to increased levels of malnutrition in the camp. Because of the camp's game park location, wild animals, mainly herbivores, eat the growing crops at night. This means that refugees are constantly anxious about the destruction of their crop yields before harvest. Of greater concern are the problems posed by the area-based, anti-government, Ugandan rebels. Known as the 'Lord's Resistance Army', these rebels often attack the refugees in their fields confiscating crops just before harvest time. Some times the rebels actually enter the camp during general food distributions in order to loot the foods. Forced to flee their crops and homes for the safety of neighbouring villages, refugees frequently find themselves left with 'inadequate' general rations*, the variety and quantity of which is based on the assumption that refugees have access to alternative food sources. In addition, periodic interruption of donated food supplies results in general ration delays and shortages. It is unclear as to whether the problem is political, (i.e. reduced donor support) or due to poor regional food availability (causing supply problems for WFP). Either way, the result is fewer and reduced quantities of items in the general ration and the perception that this is leading to increased levels of malnutrition in the camp.

Malnutrition

Therapeutic and supplementary feeding programmes have been set up in the camps by the German Action Federation team. Although I did not see any nutritional survey data, I felt from my visit to the centres that there is a malnutrition problem in the camp mainly due to lack of food. Severely malnourished children, are cared for and weighed daily in the 24 hr therapeutic feeding centre. Those who do not improve are referred to Arua Hospital, over fifty miles away. Children enrolled on the supplementary feeding programme are weighed when they are brought to collect their rations each week. There have been ongoing problems with the preparation of corn soy blend (CSB) in the feeding programme, because refugees are not familiar with its use. When prepared at the feeding centres, it is properly cooked and so causes no problems. When prepared by the mothers at home however, many children end up with diarrhoea because the CSB is not cooked long enough. Consequently, mothers often report giving the CSB to other family members instead.

Communication between agency staff and refugees

General ration distribution involves long hours and hard work. Agency field workers and refugees must work closely together with only two people responsible for distribution of food and non-food items to over 1,000 refugees. Obviously, everyone gets tired. Tempers fray, especially when there is under-provision of commodities, and there is often disorder among refugees before the completion of distribution. Refugees report that fieldworkers sometimes end up shouting and losing their tempers, at times even closing the distribution site and justifying this in reports by claiming that there were a large number of defaulters. These actions undermine the emotional wellbeing of refugees, creating resentment and loss of respect between both parties.
Refugees also feel that information about their problems regarding looting of crops etc. is not filtering through to senior agency management. For example, refugees believe that in light of the regular looting, agency staff on the ground who know of their predicament, should at least conduct some form of assessment to determine the extent of the resulting food shortages and make these good. The perception of refugees is that because field workers are effectively the mediators between the refugees and the so called headquarter 'experts', that the latter don't know exactly what is happening on the ground other than through reports prepared for them by field workers. These reports are believed by the refugees to be biased and non- representative of their grievances.
They are thought to be written in a way that ensures continued donor support, by describing the situation as normal with refugees 'doing well'. Looting and food security are rarely mentioned. There is a sense that fieldworkers downplay problems out of fear of losing their jobs (i.e. programmes may be closed if the extent of the problems are accurately reported).
When headquarter staff do make the occasional camp visit, refugee leaders claim they have been 'encouraged' by agency field workers to advise their communities to tell the experts that all is 'going well'.

Repatriation

Because of the problems described above, a large number of despondent refugees choose to return home, often without notifying the camp authorities. In some cases, the male head of household departs in advance of his family to plant crops and build a house in preparation for his family's arrival. For these families, the return 'home' is less traumatic as their basic needs will be met.
Other groups plan less well with whole households departing together. These families experience problems of food shortages and may be lucky to get some food from relatives already resettled. Real hardship and suffering may be experienced as they try to re-establish themselves. It would be interesting to assess the numbers of refugees who return home because of despair with camp conditions.

Conclusions

It would appear there is a need for better management, monitoring and evaluation of activities carried out in this camp. The detection of problems at an early stage is crucial. Evidently this needs co-operation between all parties involved; headquarter/field staff and refugees alike. In particular, the problem of ration content and quantity might be resolved if the 'experts' came more often to witness what actually happens on the ground.

Recommendations

  1. There is an urgent need to review security measures to protect refugee crops and rations.
  2. General ration distributions should be re-organised so that the process is not so arduous for agency staff and beneficiaries. This may require more distribution sites and/or more staff. Refugees should be better informed about general ration shortfalls so that they are aware of this before queuing up for rations.
  3. Nutrition education measures should be undertaken to inform mothers about how best to prepare CSB at home.
  4. General ration planning should be more flexible and based on ad hoc assessments of crop losses as and when they occur.
  5. When there is a failure to supply refugees with planned general rations, subsequent distributions should make up for short-falls (retrospective ration provision).

Show footnotes

*The general ration comprises of: Maize meal (<7kg/person/fortnight), 2 mugs of lentils/person/fortnight, and 1 cup of salt/person/fortnight

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Reference this page

Grace Abu (1998). Rhino Camp, Uganda: A Refugee Perspective. Field Exchange 5, October 1998. p15. www.ennonline.net/fex/5/rhino