Uganda: Ebola - Uganda At Risk As Congo Flares Up

Health workers assist a patient suspected of having Ebola (file photo).

Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is flaring up again, with a surge in violence that has forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.

The attacks, which started on March 30 in Beni, North Kivu, have escalated in recent weeks and could get worse for people that remain trapped between the border of Uganda and an area of DRC that is terrorised by armed groups close to the Ebola outbreak that has claimed 1,000 lives, humanitarian agencies warned on Friday May 3.

Over April alone, local health authorities in these areas report that over 60,000 people were displaced, and about 7,000 of these are sheltering in a school just one kilometre from the border crossing into Uganda.

The area lacks essential items including water--the only water available to drink is from the river and there are only a few toilets at the school, meaning the threat of disease spreading is high.

In addition, no food is being provided, and for many people the only way to get food is to go back to their villages where they are not safe as the risk of violence is high.

"This is a deeply worrying situation. These people fear going back to their homes and are being forced to live in cramped, unsanitary conditions, in an area where Ebola remains a significant threat.

"These people urgently need food and adequate sanitation facilities as well as clean water and health services," said Tamba Emmanuel Danmbi-saa, Oxfam's humanitarian programme manager in the DRC.

Oxfam is one of 18 humanitarian organisations that said the ongoing violence in the area makes reaching people with aid from within DRC extremely difficult and Ugandan authorities are preparing to receive an influx of new refugees.

In Uganda, the displaced people could have greater access to basic services, including healthcare, and the protection they need.

Concerns

However, there are serious concerns about reports that people are being prevented from crossing the border into Uganda using at least sixteen official crossings.

As a result, some displaced people are being left with little choice but to return to the villages they fled, where they are at risk of further attacks, while others are avoiding official border points and choosing to cross illegally through the forests along the border or by boat across Lake Albert.

They increase the risk of Ebola being spread, since people are not being screened as they would be at the official border crossings.

"These unofficial crossings are placing people in search of refuge at an increased, and totally unnecessary risk of sexual exploitation and abuse. Once they enter Uganda, they also are avoiding official immigration procedures and registration as refugees--which means they may not be screened for Ebola and will be unable to use the very services prepared to assist them," says Francis Iwa, the executive director of Care for Forced Migrants.

As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Uganda government prepare to receive the displaced people, relief agencies want the governments on either side of the border to work with the humanitarian community to protect the displaced people and provide the help they urgently need.

"We estimate at least 30,000 children have been displaced in this violence, and are now living in squalid conditions. Many of these children would have seen terrifying violence, with family members attacked and their homes destroyed.

"Now, they are exposed to diseases like Ebola, which hits children hardest. This is an unacceptable and needs to be resolved, now," says Heather Kerr, Save the Children's country director in DRC.

Humanitarian organisations are calling on Congolese and Ugandan authorities, UNHCR, international organisations and donors to urgently pool resources to ensure people receive the help they need as quickly as possible, in addition to making sure they are prepared to cope with a new refugee influx from the DR Congo.

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