As Thousands Flee South Sudan, Ugandan Refugee Camp Becomes World's Largest

Apr 5, 2017
Originally published on April 5, 2017 6:29 am

As soon as you set foot in any of the refugee camps along the South Sudan border in Uganda, a vast human suffering becomes easily apparent. We explored some of the personal stories of people fleeing this young country's conflict in a story over at Goats and Soda, but it's hard to express the scale of this conflict, which has killed more than 50,000 people since the end of 2013. What began as a dispute between the president and vice president has turned into a brutal civil war fueled by ethnic tensions.

The U.N. has been using alarming superlatives to describe it. It has said sexual violence in the conflict has reached "epic proportions," that the humanitarian needs have reached "unprecedented levels." Last month, it warned that the conflict in South Sudan has precipitated the "world's fastest growing" refugee crisis. On Tuesday alone, 3,000 people streamed across the border into Uganda, which already hosts at least 800,000 refugees.

Two visuals help put the scale of this conflict into perspective.

The satellite images below show the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Uganda. On the left is the landscape in March 2014. On the right is the landscape in February 2017.

Click and drag the center line in either direction to see how it has changed over the years.

What you can see is that in 2014, about a year after civil war broke out in South Sudan, Bidi Bidi was just bush. But by the beginning of this year, the landscape was suddenly cut by a grid of new roads and dotted with new dwellings built by refugees.

Bidi Bidi was opened in August 2016, and by the end of the year, about 260,000 refugees were living there. The camp got so full that Ugandan authorities started opening new camps.

The U.N. refugee agency now says that Bidi Bidi hosts more than 270,000 refugees — making it the world's largest refugee camp. It is now bigger than Kenya's Dadaab camp, which has been receiving Somali refugees for more than 20 years.

This brings us to our second graphic:

What you're looking at there is a comparison between the number of refugees fleeing the Syrian war and those fleeing the South Sudanese conflict. The graphic shows that the Syrian conflict has displaced many more people — Syria is also more populous, with 18.5 million people compared to South Sudan's 12.3 million — but the flow of refugees to neighboring countries has leveled off.

The opposite is happening in South Sudan. As prospects for peace crumbled, the fighting has intensified. In the past year, the number of refugees who had fled into neighboring countries has grown by more than 100 percent — in March 2016, 832,000 South Sudanese had been displaced; by March 2017, that number had grown to 1.7 million. More than 100,000 South Sudanese arrived in Uganda in the first 44 days of 2017.

The conflict, as the two graphs show, has led to the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world.

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Uganda is now home to the largest refugee camp in the world. So what does that tell us? It's actually a sign that the situation in neighboring South Sudan is getting worse. Here's NPR's Eyder Peralta.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Back in March when I last visited Uganda, the country was opening refugee camps at a furious pace. The Bidi Bidi camp in northern Uganda had reached capacity. Amy Frost of Save the Children said then that some NGO staff couldn't rest.

AMY FROST: For the people working here, a day with a thousand people arriving is quite quiet.

PERALTA: Already, she said, the country and the U.N.'s refugee agency - UNHCR - were overwhelmed.

FROST: Uganda is now host to over a million refugees. UNHCR's worst case forecast for this year was 500,000 new arrivals from South Sudan. If the rate continues as it is now, then we're going to reach that figure in August.

PERALTA: Since then, the civil war in South Sudan has only gotten worse. What began as a dispute between the president and vice president has turned into a brutal civil war fueled by ethnic tensions. A few days ago, the group in charge of monitoring a peace agreement in the country made public a damning report that government soldiers burnt down entire villages.

The chief of the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission, Festus Mogwai, had already warned the U.N. Security Council that the situation in South Sudan was quickly, quote, "slipping out of control."


FESTUS MOGAE: And all parties to the agreement are failing in their basic duty to protect the South Sudanese people.

PERALTA: As the fighting continues, the number of civilians fleeing to Uganda has steadily increased. Bidi Bidi, one of the first camps opened, is host to more than 270,000 refugees, making it the world's largest. It is now bigger than Dadaab in Kenya, which has taken Somali refugees for decades.

Yesterday, 3,000 more refugees crossed the border into Uganda. UNHCR is scrambling to open up yet another new camp. The refugees told reporters what's become a familiar story, that they fled a once-peaceful village as fellow civilians were indiscriminately massacred. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi.

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