COVID-19: Uganda opens border to stranded refugees

Uganda has opened part of its border with the Democratic Republic of Congo to allow in thousands of people stuck in no-man’s land for more than a month.

At least 3,000 of them fled their homes in May after inter-communal clashes in north-eastern Ituri province.

But they were unable to cross into Uganda to seek safety as the country had closed its borders in March to control the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19).

It has been agreed the refugees will be quarantined before being settled.

This will happen for 14 days at a new isolation centre, 13km (eight miles) from the border.

The United Nation’s (UN’s) refugee agency (UNHCR) says sample testing will be carried out on the group to see if coronavirus is present amongst them.

This will help authorities decide when the refugees can be transferred to camps.

Two border crossings in Uganda’s Zombo district temporarily opened yesterday and it is expected all the refugees will be able to cross over in three days.

Uganda hosts more than 1.4 million refugees – most have fled from South Sudan, while about 30 per cent come from DR Congo.

Aid agencies have talked about the difficulties of ensuring social distancing and sanitation in refugee settlements, BBC Africa correspondent Catherine Byaruhanga reports.

Fifty-two refugees have so far tested positive for COVID-19 in Uganda out of nearly 900 confirmed cases.

The UN says it is concerned about reports of rising violence in eastern DR Congo, where a two-year Ebola outbreak was declared over last week.

“DR Congo has one of the highest rates of internal displacement in the world,” UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch said yesterday.

He said that about six million people had fled their homes – five million remain in the country while a million have “sought safety in neighbouring countries as refugees”.

“UNHCR is receiving accounts of the way armed groups are unleashing terror on people as they flee, in displacement sites and hosting areas, and when they attempt to return, including reports of killings and mutilation, sexual violence and looting.”

Ethnic violence in gold-rich Ituri, involving the Lendu and Hema communities, has soared since March. At least 531 civilians have been killed by armed groups in the region between October and May, 375 of them since March, according to the UN. -BBC

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