20 June 2019

Uganda: Families Headed by Refugee Children Too Common in Uganda Camps

Photo: United Nations Mission in South Sudan
Refugees in Uganda's Imvepi Camp.

Uganda hosts Africa's largest refugee population — one-and-a-quarter million — and 36,000 of them are unaccompanied and separated children.

In 2013, sixteen-year-old Salila Miyala's family fled fighting in South Sudan to a refugee camp in Uganda.

But three years later, her parents returned home, leaving the children in Uganda, with Miyala as head of the household.

"I came with my parents, but my father beat my mother, so she left," Miyala said.

While most broken families were torn apart by years of conflict in South Sudan, domestic violence and poverty also play a role.

"Parents are looking for opportunities around, often creating tensions within the family," said Marta Bellini, associate protection officer for the United Nations Refugee Agency. "In some cases, you have perhaps, you know, the wife receiving more support, I mean, being able to provide more support than the husband, and that's already a situation of tension in families."

Ugandan authorities say foster parents take care of the unaccompanied or separated children when possible, while authorities search for the parents.

Uganda Commissioner for Refugees Gerald Menya says parents who abandon children should be dealt with.

In 2013, sixteen-year-old Salila Miyala's family fled fighting in South Sudan to a refugee camp in Uganda.

But three years later, her parents returned home, leaving the children in Uganda, with Miyala as head of the household.

"I came with my parents, but my father beat my mother, so she left," Miyala said.

While most broken families were torn apart by years of conflict in South Sudan, domestic violence and poverty also play a role.

"Parents are looking for opportunities around, often creating tensions within the family," said Marta Bellini, associate protection officer for the United Nations Refugee Agency. "In some cases, you have perhaps, you know, the wife receiving more support, I mean, being able to provide more support than the husband, and that's already a situation of tension in families."

Ugandan authorities say foster parents take care of the unaccompanied or separated children when possible, while authorities search for the parents.

Uganda Commissioner for Refugees Gerald Menya says parents who abandon children should be dealt with.

"Then we take care of them as child-headed families. ... but if they are within the country, the long arm of government always catches up with the parents and they are apprehended and persecuted and also disciplined," Menya said.

The Ugandan Red Cross last week helped track down Miyala's mother in South Sudan, where she had remarried.

"We managed to get the contact of their mother and through the phone call service, we managed to restore the links, the contacts between the mother and the children," said Abel Nuwamanya, the Uganda Red Cross Protection Officer. "And, also we discovered that the mother now has started sending some assistance to the children."

As for Miyala, she looks forward to the day when she can safely return to South Sudan and no longer play the role of both parents for her brothers and sisters.

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