UGA170930TO003BIDI BIDI REFUGEE CAMP, Uganda – Sitting outside her tent in this sprawling camp in northern Uganda, 40-year-old Martha Atong was angry.

She and others were going hungry as Ugandan officials stood accused of inflating refugee figures to pocket millions in humanitarian aid funding.

“I’m suffering with my children because of them,” said the mother of four. “Many of us will die of hunger due to lack of food as they enrich themselves using the money meant for us.”

Atong’s plight is probably far from over. American, British and European leaders are threatening to withhold humanitarian funding to Uganda over the corruption allegations, according to the said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The East African nation hosts more than 1.4 million refugees, mostly from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 14 camps.

But during a recent camp inspection, UN officials found 7,000 people where Ugandan overseers reported 26,000 needing aid, leading to questions about where the funding for the missing 19,000 refugees was going. The fraud has been allegedly occurring for at least a year.

“There’s concern that the numbers are not accurate,” said UNHCR spokeswoman Teresa Ongalo in Uganda’s capital last month. “What we have received from donors is an indication that until we’re able to verify the numbers they will withhold funding.”

In northwestern Uganda, the news sparked anger in the Bidi Bidi camp, which has now become the second largest refugee camp in the world with more than 285,000 refugees.

“We are not receiving enough food because some officials are eating money meant for refugees,” said Charles Lujang, a refugee representative at the camp. “They are using our name to enrich themselves. They should be arrested and jailed.”

The Ugandan government has suspended four camp officials pending an investigation. Investigators are determining whether funding, food and other relief items were sold, used for bribes or involved in trafficking refugee girls.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said he would severely punish anyone found guilty.

“The ones who are stealing refugee money will go to jail,” said Museveni, who has ruled this landlocked nation for more than three decades. “They bring shame to Uganda. Because to steal what is meant for refugees, what is meant for desperate people, so, these thieves they will pay.”

The Ugandan government, with support from the UNHCR and the World Food Program, has launched a large-scale biometric data system to verify the identities of refugees in the country. Similar systems have already cataloged 4.4 million refugees in 48 other countries, said UNHCR.

Slated for completion in September, the system will collect fingerprints and eye scans of more than 1 million refugees, according the UNHCR. Refugees will then receive ration cards.

“This is important to us to increase the accountability and transparency not only to the government and UNHCR and partners, but also the donors who are very key in our operation,” said Douglas Asiimwe, Uganda’s refugee protection officer.

But Atong and others they can’t wait so long. Fleeing after she lost her husband to civil war in South Sudan, Atong said the drop-off in aid has forced camp overseers to cut her food rations.

“We are starving, our children are crying (of hunger),” she said. “We nowadays don’t see convoy of trucks carrying food aid coming to the camp. The situation is getting worse and we need help.”

Uganda has been a notable and generous host for refugees from elsewhere in the recent past. Upon receiving refugee status, refugees are given plots of land to cultivate, settle and integrate with local host communities.

The revelation has angered leaders of neighboring nations who have accused the UNHCR of deliberately fabricating figures of refugees from their countries to seek funding for the agency. That funding could have been used for aid to countries repatriating their citizens, to help them get settled and promote economic development, the leaders said.

“UNHCR has refused to recognize that some Burundian refugees have returned home and was using inflated numbers to seek aid,” said Terence Ntahiraja, assistant interior minister for Burundi, one of the world's poorest nations that is struggling to emerge from a 12-year ethnic-based civil war.

Atong was more concerned about the short-term.

“I desperately need food to feed my starving children,” she said. “Those who are causing these problems should be hanged because they are playing with people’s lives.”

Photo: September 30, 2017 - Refugees from South Sudan relax in the Palabek Refugee Camp in northern Uganda. Many here are growing more hungry after UNHCR cut their food ratio from 12kg to 6kg.
Credit: Tonny Onyulo/ ARA Network Inc. (09/30/17)

Story/photo publish date: 03/22/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.
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