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
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
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.
During my visit, refugees
raised their concerns about the following issues;
- Food security
- Communication between agency
staff and refugees
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.
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.
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
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'.
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.
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.
- There is an urgent need
to review security measures to protect refugee crops and rations.
- 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.
- Nutrition education measures
should be undertaken to inform mothers about how best to prepare CSB at
- General ration planning
should be more flexible and based on ad hoc assessments of crop losses
as and when they occur.
- When there is a failure
to supply refugees with planned general rations, subsequent distributions
should make up for short-falls (retrospective ration provision).
*The general ration comprises
of: Maize meal (<7kg/person/fortnight), 2 mugs of lentils/person/fortnight,
and 1 cup of salt/person/fortnight
Taken from Field Exchange Issue 5, October 1998