First, let me commend AVSI — the Association of Volunteers in International Service — and the International Rescue Committee for their work in Uganda long before international attention focused on the crisis and also for organizing today’s program on the humanitarian challenges in northern Uganda. The new book, Kop Ango? A Day in the Life of Northern Uganda by Roberto Fontolan captures the devastating experience of people forcibly uprooted within their own countries by internal conflict and huddled into more than two hundred overcrowded internally displaced persons camps.
The overall destitution, insecurity, poor medical conditions, lack of livelihoods, and dependency in the IDP camps are not, however, unique to Uganda. Throughout the world, one can find an estimated 25 million internally displaced persons, many without adequate food, medical care, shelter, education or security. Many are in camps for lengthy periods of time, in the case of Uganda more than 10 years. In most IDP situations, governments do not have the will or capacity to protect or assist their displaced populations.
The Ugandan humanitarian situation nonetheless has distinctive features. The IDP camps in Uganda have generally been described as among the worst in the world with unusually high mortality rates (1000 deaths per week) and high HIV AIDS rates. Francis Deng, the former Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, on visiting Uganda in 2003, described the situation as “clearly one of the gravest humanitarian crises in the world today.” Jan Egeland, former UN Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said in 2006, “In few other places on Earth, has so much suffering been inflicted on a civilian population.” Another distinguishing feature has been the horrific protection problems facing young people, as exemplified by the night commuters. In 2005, tens of thousands of young people had to walk each night to safer areas in order to sleep without being abducted, robbed, mutilated or raped by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Although international publicity gave some attention to the night commuters, they received minimal protection from their own government or from the international community. Today, the re-integration of those who became child combatants and sex slaves, or child mothers as the UN calls them, remains one of the more daunting challenges for the relief and development communities. Still another distinguishing feature is the huge number of IDPs in the country. Until recently, Uganda had the third highest IDP population in the world; it’s now the fourth, after Sudan, Colombia and Iraq. Even with recent IDP returns as a result of the peace process, IDPs still number over 1.3 million; last year it was 1.7 million or 6 percent of the population. Of the 20 countries in Africa with displaced populations, Uganda has the second highest number. Africa, it should be noted, has more than half of the world’s IDPs – about 12 million, being the continent most severely affected by civil war, human rights abuse, and poor governance.