Uganda has temporarily opened its border to thousands of people fleeing deadly ethnic clashes in neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The Ugandan government closed its reception centres at border crossings in March in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
But last week President Yoweri Museveni instructed the minister of relief, disaster preparedness and refugees to provide asylum to an estimated 10,000 men, women and children who have been stuck in no-man’s land between the two countries since late May, after fleeing violence.
Dozens of people are reported to have been killed and thousands displaced by recent clashes in Ituri province in eastern DRC.
Gerald Menya, commissioner for refugees at the prime minister’s office, told the Guardian: “In the next three, four or five days they [the refugees] should be arriving in Uganda. Right now, arrangements are being made to receive them. We are not simply bringing them into Uganda. We shall take all the necessary health precautions.”
All the refugees will be tested for Covid-19 and quarantined, he said.
Duniya Aslam Khan, of the UN refugee agency in Uganda, said it is working with the government, local authorities and aid groups to set up a quarantine facility and testing centre near the border with DRC.
Following the mandatory quarantine period of 14 days, the asylum seekers will be relocated to existing refugee settlements, Khan said.
To date, 49 refugees have tested positive for Covid-19 out of the 797 confirmed cases in Uganda. Another 304 refugees remain in quarantine across 18 refugee settlements. At least five refugees have recovered from the virus.
According to UNHCR statistics, Uganda hosts more than 1.4 million refugees , mainly from neighbouring South Sudan, DRC and Burundi, which has strained already overstretched resources. The coronavirus is an added pressure, said Khan.
“While funding for the response in Uganda was already inadequate to address the basic needs of asylum seekers and refugees, the direct and indirect needs triggered by Covid-19 have posed additional financial challenges in providing protection and assistance to the 1.4 million refugees in Uganda,” she said.
“International support is urgently needed to help Uganda step up services both for refugees and for local communities – who face an equal risk of contracting and transmitting the virus.”
In April, the UN World Food Programme
announced a 30% cut in food rations to refugees in Uganda due to a funding shortfall.
On Monday, a coalition of 39 international and refugee-led organisations across Africa called on governments to reopen borders for anyone seeking asylum during the pandemic. Burundi, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Somalia also closed their borders in March.
Dismas Nkunda, executive director of Atrocities Watch Africa, welcomed Uganda’s decision. “They [refugees] are trying to find a safe place to live but the Covid-19 pandemic made Uganda close its borders,” he said. “Covid-19 or no Covid-19, seeking asylum is the most important thing for someone fearing for their lives.”