Refugees in Uganda: lost boys looking for a better life

15-11-2012 Feature

Since the beginning of the year, more than 35,000 men, women and children have crossed the border from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to Uganda in search of safety. During its visits to refugee camps in Uganda, the ICRC met a group of lost boys coming from various parts of eastern DRC. Some want to go back home, some hope for a brighter future in Uganda or elsewhere.


It was four o'clock on a Thursday afternoon in August when 15-year-old Thomas* finally made contact with someone from his family. He had been alone for over a month after fleeing fighting near his home in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

We found him sitting in a plastic chair in the Uganda Red Cross tent in Rwamwanja refugee settlement, a camp hosting around 26,000 refugees, mostly from the Congo.

Fragile contact

Thomas waited anxiously to be passed the receiver. After two attempts the volunteer manning the phone booth said he’d made a connection.

"Hello? Hello? Can you hear me?" Thomas strained into the receiver over the sound of the rain thundering on the walls of the tent. "I'm in Rwamwanja camp,” he told his cousin on the other end of the line.

“I came from home some time ago and I am staying with some other orphans," Thomas said.

Both his parents were killed together when armed men attacked their home earlier this year. He ran from the area and managed to make it to safety across the border in Uganda.

Disappointing news

The phone call was the first time he'd managed to speak to any relatives since the incident. His cousin had been tracked down by Red Cross staff with the help of other refugees from Thomas’s area.

After two minutes – the allotted time for calls – Thomas said goodbye and handed back the receiver.

It wasn’t enough time to catch up on months of violence, hardship and loneliness. But it was enough to hear an important piece of information. Thomas’ cousin cannot look after him in the camp where he is staying, meaning for now, the 15-year-old must stay put.
Thomas is one of scores of children and teenagers who arrive alone as refugees fleeing violence in the DRC, and seek help getting back in contact with relatives.

The “lost boys”

While unaccompanied girls are placed quickly with other families in the camp who offer to foster them in return for help with other children or cooking, boys are harder to place and are instead put together in their own tented quarters.

The basic huts they sleep in are lined with beds and mosquito nets. By day they kick a football around or roam the camp in search of extra food. As dusk falls they cook each other rations of peas and maize porridge over an open fire.

Like the Lost Boys in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, they find themselves in a strange “never never land” limbo. Waiting for someone to find them and claim them, but everyday growing more independent and a little further from the children they were when they ran away.

Jennifer Seninde is a tracing assistant based in Uganda’s capital Kampala. She has worked for the ICRC’s family tracing service known as Restoring Family Links or RFL for over 20 years and says unaccompanied minors always present a unique problem.

“We have a reasonable success rate but it can take months to trace people and even then it is sometimes the case that the relatives are not in a position to take the children back,” she said.

Phone service boosts success rates

In the past few months Seninde has overseen the introduction of phone calls to the RFL service in Uganda, adding a vital new means of getting in contact with someone after years of using hand written notes passed from one refugee to another known as a Red Cross message. She says the impact has been huge.

“In the case of unaccompanied minors the phone service has helped us find relatives much much more quickly. In the past it could take months to get information, now it can be done in a matter of minutes as long as people have a number and we can get it to go through.”

Thanks to the new service 19 children and teenagers from the most recent influx of refugees from the Congo have been reunited with their families in the past few months.

Others like 12-year-old Antoine are still hopeful.

“I heard that one of my father’s brothers is also in Uganda. I have not been able to find him yet but every day I try and call,” he said.

Many don’t want to go home

According to Mark Safari, tracing officer at Rwamwanja, it’s rare that a child has no one they want to contact, the problem is working out what to do with them if, like in Thomas’ case, the relative doesn’t want to take care of the child.

Many, especially the older boys say they don’t want to return even if their relatives are found.

“I don't want to go back to Congo,” 15-year-old Samuel* told ICRC staff.

He belongs to a small number of boys at the camp who have come to Uganda for a second time. Two years ago he fled his home as a shy 13-year-old and was reunited with his grandmother back in the Congo when fighting died down.

Now he finds himself in the same position, Samuel says he’s had enough.

“I want to move to Canada,” he says simply.

According to Safari, the longer the boys stay alone as unaccompanied minors, the harder it is to persuade them to reunite with their families.

“They grow accustomed to life in the camp and also hear ideas about being able to live in different places all over the world,” said Safari. “Increasing the need for us to carry out our tracing services as quickly and efficiently as we can.”   

*Not their real names