NGOMOROMO REFUGEE CAMP, Uganda – As convoys of aid agency vehicles rolled into this refugee camp recently, Ugandans carrying bags and buckets rushed to receive food supplies meant for South Sudanese who had fled war across the border.
The sprawling Ngomoromo camp in northern Uganda hosts more than 50,000 South Sudanese refugees. But Ugandans in the surrounding communities are also starving.
“We are feeling hungry. Our children have no food,” said 30-year-old Belinda Nakato, a Ugandan mother of five, adding that she hadn’t eaten anything for the last three days. “We’ve now opted to become refugees in our own country in order to gain access to food being distributed in the camp.”
Nakato is one among 10 Ugandan families who told Refugees Deeply they had posed as refugees in order to feed their families. It is hard to tell exactly how widespread the practice is. Joseph Okello, a local official in Ngomoromo, said he believed their number might run into the thousands, but there are no official figures and national government officials were reluctant to discuss whether they were tracking the problem.
“We suspect that some locals might be benefiting from free food meant for refugees,” Okello said. “We’ll arrest anyone found pretending to be a refugee from South Sudan.” But no arrests have been made so far, he said.
What is clear is what’s driving Ugandans to such desperate measures. The worst drought in over half a century has hit parts of East Africa, leaving more than 11 million people in landlocked Uganda facing food insecurity and 1.6 million on the brink of famine, according to the Ugandan government’s National Food Security Assessment Report in January.
Ugandan prime minister Ruhakana Rugunda said in July that the government would respond to the drought by rolling out irrigation programs “so that people are able to grow enough food.”
But for many Ugandans, help isn’t coming quickly enough. And the country is struggling to accommodate the more than 1 million South Sudanese who have escaped across the border since civil war broke out in 2013.
The Ugandan government’s call for more support from the international community has largely fallen on deaf ears. At a “solidary summit” in June hosted by Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni and U.N. secretary-general Antonio Guterres, leaders gathered to discuss an additional $2 billion to assist both the refugees and their Ugandan hosts. But the summit ended with donors pledging just $358 million.
“We continue to receive hundreds of refugees every day, but we operate in a situation where we are chronically and severely underfunded,” Charlie Yaxley, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Uganda, told journalists recently. “This year we only received 21 percent of the $674 million needed to provide all the needs of the South Sudanese refugees in Uganda in 2017.”
Uganda has long been praised for its refugee policies, including giving refugees access to land and public services. A study by the U.N.’s World Food Program found that giving refugees aid and land for cultivation also ends up helping Ugandans by boosting the local economy in the area.
Yet drought-stricken Ugandans are currently in need of more immediate help. Some feel entitled to access refugees’ aid after generously hosting their troubled neighbors for so long.
“I think nobody should stop us from sharing this free food with our brothers and sisters from South Sudan whom we have helped for so long,” said Joyce Ssemakula, a mother of three who has given two families from South Sudan some of her land to build their own homes and cultivate in Ngomoromo village. “We [Ugandans] are in dire need of food for now and we can’t get a portion unless we pretend to be refugees.”
It can be complicated for officials to distinguish between South Sudanese refugees and Ugandans in these borderlands. Members of the Acholi tribe, who make up much of the population of northern Uganda, also live in lesser numbers in South Sudan near the border. Many speak Arabic or have South Sudanese identity cards.
The South Sudanese government has used this point to claim that the number of refugees from their country has been exaggerated and downplay the brutal war raging in the country.
“I don’t think all these refugees are from South Sudan,” said Ateny Wek, a spokesman for the South Sudanese government. “You cannot differentiate between Acholi of Uganda and South Sudan. They are all the same and one people.”
Yet refugees continue to flood out of South Sudan, many bringing horror stories of regime and rebel atrocities with them. Over the past year, an average of 1,800 South Sudanese have arrived in Uganda every day, according to the U.N.
Nyaela Amer, 35, and her daughter – her only remaining child – recently arrived at the Ngomoromo camp having fled violence in Pajok, just across the border in South Sudan. She described how rebel soldiers had shot her husband, Chol, and her two sons.
“They shot them as I watched,” she said, crying. “I have been living in horror. I feel I should not live any longer. I realized life is short when you are in South Sudan.”
For some local Ugandans like Nakato, the arrival of more refugees means more chance to get something to eat.
“Let them come. They are welcome,” she said after receiving her share of flour and cooking oil. “We are relying on them to survive, so they should come. I can’t die of hunger and there’s food.”