South Sudan: a lonely journey to Uganda for unaccompanied children
Hot air beats down on massed people, many selling gadgets and vegetables.
This is the main entry point for refugees fleeing the violence in South Sudan.
Thousands of unaccompanied and separated children have been registered here. Among them is Diana*.
Diana is 15 years old. She is visibly shy and struggles to maintain eye contact as she sits with her two younger brothers and tells us about her arrival in Uganda.
Her story is heartbreaking.
Both her parents died in South Sudan before this latest wave of violence, leaving Diana as her brothers’ sole carer. They were living in a close-knit community in Bor last December when the ethnic violence broke out.
“My brothers and I were alone when the fighting began,” she said. “It was chaos. Everyone ran in different directions and I almost lost them, but we kept running towards the river and managed to escape.
“We got a boat across the river, away from the killings. A few families helped us when we reached the other side but then we were on our own.”
They took temporary refuge in a distribution centre; then their older cousin found them and took them into his care. Together, they fled to the border of Uganda, but the cousin has since returned to South Sudan after hearing that his brother had been killed and Diana and her brothers are alone yet again.
Staggering numbers of separated children
Sadly, Diana’s case is not uncommon. Numerous children who have fled the conflict are arriving in neighbouring countries alone.
They have travelled for many days without food, money or belongings. They are hungry, weak and terrified by the things they’ve seen and what their future may hold.
Very few of the extended family members or adult carers who take them in have enough food or space to comfortably accommodate another child.
Young children, distressed and vulnerable
Separation from their families is highly distressing for younger children, particularly when they also have to deal with the challenges of displacement and scarcity.
It can have an adverse impact on their long-term well-being, and without the protection of their families and community, they are at great risk of sexual and economic abuse and exploitation on their journey and within the camps.
What we’re doing
Save the Children is the lead agency for documenting, tracing and reunifying these separated and unaccompanied children. We work closely with the Uganda Red Cross and UN agencies to ensure they are fostered safely while we search for their families.
In Uganda alone, we have oversight of nearly 1,000 separated and unaccompanied minors and have reunited 250 children with their families to date.
Working across the region
We are also working with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to reunify children and families across international borders and to support our field teams to better respond to children in emergencies.
Our 14 new Child Friendly Spaces will serve as an essential space for them to play, discuss their difficulties with sympathetic community members, volunteers and staff, and restore some normality to their lives.
In this way, Diana and her brothers and hundreds of other children can start to recover from the horrors of being a child abandoned in conflict.
*Name changed to protect identity