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German foreign minister visits South Sudan refugees

Daniel Pelz
August 10, 2017

Nearly a million refugees from South Sudan have crossed the border to Uganda. Kampala is hoping for more support from Germany after Sigmar Gabriel, Germany's top diplomat, visited the refugees.

Germany's Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel with Ugandan children
Germany's Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel spoke with refugee children in UgandaImage: picture-alliacne/dpa/K. Nietfeld

Foreign Minister Gabriel called for renewed efforts to bring peace to South Sudan during a visit to Juba this week: "South Sudan really deserves to finally find peace after so many years of war, and press ahead with its economic development and the reconstruction of the country," he said.

Gabriel took time to praise Uganda, where he visited refugee centers, for the help it has given to a million South Sudanese refugees. "Maybe we should also send a few delegations ... from a few other European countries to see what solidarity can do," Gabriel said during a visit to a refugee settlement in the north of the country.

Refugees who fled to Uganda

When the rebels came, Susan Keji took her 1-year-old daughter and fled. Away from her hometown of Yei in South Sudan and as far away as possible from Africa's worst ongoing civil war. "They killed my father and mother," the 22-year-old says in a low voice, while her dark eyes stare at an invisible point on the red earth.

Together with her aunt, Susan Keji managed to get to Uganda. Since April 2016, the Rhino refugee camp in northern Uganda has become their home. Some 91,000 refugees live there. In addition to her straw-roofed circular hut, the young woman has been allocated a small piece of land on which she plants cassava. "This place is good; it can give us food. But water is a big problem," says Susan Keji. "Water is not enough for us. Our schools and hospitals are not good either."

A South Sudanese refugee woman with her baby in Uganda attending to her cassava plants
South Sudan refugee Susan Keji is grateful that she can plant cassava on a small farm provided by the Ugandan governmentImage: DW/D. Pelz

Uganda: a model for refugee policy

During his visit, Gabriel was only a few meters away from her field. Instead of his usual suit, he was dressed casually. "The fact that a country like Uganda, which is itself poor, opens its borders to people who are fleeing the civil war is really impressive," the minister said.


Uganda's refugee policy is considered exemplary worldwide. Like Susan Keji, other refugees in Uganda are given a piece of land by the state in order to grow something. They can look for a job, go to school and move freely in the country. But Uganda is reaching its limits. Soon the East African nation, with a population of 38 million people, will be host to 1 million South Sudanese refugees. Together with the refugees from Congo and Burundi, that number rises to 1.3 million.

Germany's Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel talks to the Ugandan minister for refugees Francis Ecweru
Uganda's minister for relief and disaster preparedness, Francis Ecweru (center), hopes for more aid from GermanyImage: Imago/photothek/T. Koehler

"These people need to be fed; they need medical help and protection," says Uganda's minister for relief and disaster preparedness, Francis Ecweru. Uganda will continue to receive refugees, he tells DW. But he adds that if his country does not get the necessary aid, it would be a disaster. "The international community has a responsibility to support Uganda."

More classrooms and food needed

During his visit to the camp Gabriel had a firsthand experience of how Uganda is reaching its limits. In the local school, around 200 children are crowded on shaky wooden benches in a classroom. "When you sit in the last row, you can hardly hear what the teacher says in front, " the class teacher tells DW. Three classes have been combined and are taught at the same time in one room, the headmaster says. There is an urgent need for classrooms but the money is missing. In other schools, children are taught under trees.

At this school, Gabriel gave footballs to some of the children. The UN refugee agency would probably have preferred money. The UN needs 624 million euros ($731 million) to support the South Sudanese refugees in Uganda alone. However, the UN has only received about 30 percent of this sum. If the money does not come, the situation could become difficult. Food aid for the refugees is secured until September. But Kemlin Furley, UNHCR Deputy Representative to Uganda, does not know what will happen after that.

Uncertain future

"The tension is there already," Furley told DW. "It's a very generous government policy towards refugees, and the population is very hospitable. But you can only push it so far. If the pressure on the schools, clinics and so on continues, plus a lot of youth unemployment, that's not a good recipe for the future."

Scene showing a group of huts at Uganda's Rhino refugee camp
The Rhino refugee camp in northern Uganda is now home to 91,000 refugeesImage: DW/D. Pelz

The German minister was also aware of this. "We are trying to help. We have significantly expanded our humanitarian aid," he tells the accompanying journalists. "But at the same time, we see here that it's not enough."

This year Germany is giving 90 million euros as humanitarian aid for the South Sudan crisis. Of that sum, 14 million euros will go to Uganda. Germany will do more in the coming years, Gabriel promises. However, he does not make any specific commitments. Uganda's government, the UN and the refugees in the Rhino camp will have to wait and hope that the necessary funds will arrive sooner rather than later.