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Uganda refugee camp on pace to become world’s largest by year’s end

People wait for a health screening in the Bidibidi refugee camp in northwest Uganda. (Credit: Medical Teams International)

Tens of thousands of South Sudanese are fleeing the country’s civil war for refuge in neighboring Uganda each month. More than 400,000 people made the journey this year. The majority are going to the Bidibidi refugee camp, a place that a few months ago was just a small village in Uganda.

Today, the more than 250,000 people make it the world’s second-largest refugee camp. More than 2,000 people arrive each day, putting Bidibidi on pace to surpass Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp as the world’s largest by the end of the year.

“The world isn’t paying attention,” said Shoshon Tama-Sweet, program manager for Medical Teams International, in an interview with Humanosphere. “The fact that you have a quarter of a million people cross an international border get little or no press is disappointing.”

The majority of refugees arriving in Uganda came since fighting in South Sudan’s civil war resumed in July. More than 340,000 people fled to Uganda in four months – more than the number of people who went to Greece in the first nine months of this year. Another 300,000 refugees are expected in the coming months, with projections as high as 500,000, said Tama-Sweet.

The World Food Program said in late November that it is struggling to keep up with the influx of refugees to Uganda. That was after the agency announced in August a 50 percent cut in food and cash assistance to refugees in Uganda who arrived prior to July 2015. It needed $7 million a month to do its work at the time, now it needs $13 million a month and likely more as people keep arriving.

“People are fleeing because they are afraid for their lives. Our communities are welcoming them and giving them what we can: land and hope for a better future. But our message to the international community is this: We need your help to meet their basic needs until they are able to stand on their own two feet,” said Ugandan Commissioner for Refugees David Apollo Kazungu, in a statement.

Months later, the situation is unchanged. More people are coming and the humanitarian community is struggling to keep up. Most of the people arriving are women and children. Some men are remaining to take care of homes or participate in the fighting. Aid groups are using the high numbers to bring attention to a growing humanitarian crisis.

“The volume of refugees are in a remote and underserved part of Uganda, everyone is running in order to stand still,” said Tama-Sweet.

He and other aid groups describe Bidibidi as a sparsely populated grassland that has transformed into a refugee camp. It is located in northwestern Uganda, near the border with Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. With little existing infrastructure, the aid groups have to provide assistance at a handicap.

The building used for a level-three medical facility is “dilapidated,” said Tama-Sweet. It does not have running water nor electricity. Medical needs are high, but resources and staffing are limited. Medical Teams International staff are making as many as 300 consultations per day.

“They are drinking from the fire hose 12 hours a day, six days a week,” he said.

A recent grant from the Gates Foundation provides some financial help for the organization. The growing camp is just a part of a bigger humanitarian issue. South Sudanese refugees may total 1 million by the middle of 2017, the U.N. has predicted.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]