Nakivale Refugee Camp in Uganda is a place like no other in terms of facilities and needs.
Set up in rural areas in the late 1950s, refugee reception areas for new refugees are not part of the rigorous structure of the camps. There are no tidy and crowded camps or tents where the shelters line up as far as the eye can see. Rather, there are villages of dwellings that occupy vast expanses without any order.
The camp covers an area of 185 square kilometres and is home to nearly 80 villages in the middle of the savanna in Isingiro district, in southwestern Uganda. It contains communities from several countries: Rwandans, Somalis, Burundians, Congolese, Ethiopians or South Sudanese. There are more than 100,000 refugees.
Nakivale is like a village: There are stalls, bars, restaurants, car and bus parks that connect the camp with the town of Mbarara, which is closest to the camp. There is even a village called ‘New Bujumbura’.
And the most vulnerable refugees are Burundians. Most recently, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) pointed out that “the Burundian refugee crisis is the most underfunded in the world”, adding that “it is a crisis we do not hear about and which is given little attention. More than 5,000 Burundian refugee children are out of school.”
At the entrance of the camp, a single slogan is repeated when children at elementary and secondary school shout to every passerby, “We want to go to school.” They have not seen a school bench since they went into exile in 2015.
“I just spent two years without studying,” says a 15-year-old girl who says she left high school in Bujumbura in the ninth grade. Her friend just spent three years out of school. She was in the paramedic school in Burundi. Further away, a teenage boy adds: “It will be almost four years since I went to school.”
“It finally became normal for us,” they say when asked about their feelings after so many years without studying. They are not the only ones who have nostalgic memories of the school desk. UN officials who work on Burundi in Nakivale camp say the number can be as high as 5,000 children.
Parents do not come back to check on their children. “It’s been four years since I was here. I swear to you that my four children have not yet returned to school. It’s a shame and I’m not the only one. We watch helplessly the delinquency of our dear children …” indignant a mother of about fifty years.
“All my children were in secondary school in Burundi,” says a man, “but for the moment they are with me at home because the school fees are exorbitant.”
A schoolboy can pay between 150 and 250 thousand Ugandan shillings ($45- $75) per semester, while a student can pay between 400 and 600 thousand Ugandan Shillings ($100- $180) per semester. “No refugee can have this money,” say these parents.
The Joseph Nishirimbere Foundation based in the USA has since September 2018 helped refugee children living in Uganda and Rwanda.
“Our goal is for all Burundian refugee children to study. It is not normal for us — we are in Europe or in the USA, that our children go to luxury schools while there are thousands of our Burundian compatriots who have dropped out of school because of their refugee status,” says Egide Nimubona, a representative of the foundation.
For this school year, which has just started in Uganda in January, this foundation assists more than 300 primary and secondary school children in Nakivale and Kampala.
Egide Nimubona, a representative of this foundation agrees that one charitable soul cannot help all the out-of-school children. They make a strong appeal to all benefactors to help Burundian children, victims of their refugee situation.
Medical care is poor
Only one UNHCR-managed health centre is in Nakivale. The clinical officer is overwhelmed by the more than 100,000 refugees he has to serve. “The reception, the treatment, the follow-up, the drugs, … it is in fact the total mediocrity that is testimony that even the women arrive to give birth in the open air”.
Burundians who have the means have regrouped in a cooperative and installed a health center, Abaryango Clinic. It is in a village called New Bujumbura, inhabited mainly by Burundian refugees.
It is equipped with various services. Reception, emergency, consultation, pharmacy, laboratory, maternity, gynecology and hospitalization.
However, a member of this cooperative regrets that this structure does not work properly for lack of sufficient means. But she is satisfied with the services she offers. Yet, refugees say they cannot find money for treatment in a private facility.
Cracking lack of drinking water
Burundian refugees in Nakivale camp fear contracting communicable diseases because of the lack of water, which can last even two weeks.
“The taps are dry for two weeks, we wake up in the morning to queue before the taps and we can spend the whole day without being served, we do not know yet the cause of this shortage,” laments a Burundian refugee.
“How can my children resist the diseases of dirty hands? Life was already difficult and it can be worse when we can not afford to get treatment,” says a mother of four.
According to refugees, the water used at Nakivale Camp comes from the lakes that surround it. It is captured, distilled before being sent to the taps installed in the different villages of the camp.
Refugees have asked UNHCR officials to seek solutions with the help of other partners.