South Sudanese child refugees in need of urgent psychological therapy

25 Jul 2017 by World Vision New Zealand
South Sudanese child refugees in need of urgent psychological therapy
More than 150,000 child refugees in mass settlements in northern Uganda require therapy after fleeing violence in neighbouring South Sudan.

Psychologists and child welfare experts working in the Imvepi and Bidi Bidi refugee settlements of Uganda say nearly all children arriving in the country require psychosocial first aid. Most have suffered and witnessed terrible brutality as the fighting intensifies in South Sudan. A staggering 60 per cent need urgent specialist therapy to treat the effects of conflict-related stress disorders.

Brenda Madrara, a child protection facilitator for World Vision who works in Bidi Bidi refugee settlement in northern Uganda, says most of the children arriving at the Imvepi and Bidi Bidi refugee settlements have faced horrendous experiences.

“Most have witnessed killings and brutal violence. Some saw their parents murdered in front of them,” she says.

“Every child here has psychosocial needs and it can take a very, very long time for them to recover. If South Sudan’s children are not given the therapeutic interventions they need, it will affect generations to come.”

Official figures show that around 100 new children arrive at the settlements every day alone, sick or separated from their parents. Many of the children show deep disturbances caused by atrocities they have witnessed. Symptoms include insomnia, regressive behaviour, social withdrawal and violent or self-destructive outbursts.

World Vision has set up Child Friendly Spaces (CFS) in five of Uganda’s 14 refugee settlements and has supported more than 40,000 children with child protection projects and education. 

World Vision have been collaborating with the Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation (TPO) to ensure children suffering from high levels of trauma get the specialist support they need. Children in these CFSs are assessed for their psychosocial needs and referred to TPO specialists if they need advanced intervention.

Dorothy Namara, a clinical psychologist at TPO, says children in the settlements are facing unimaginable distress.

“Most of the children suffer nightmares, inability to sleep, and are withdrawn. Some have hallucinations – believing that people who attacked them in South Sudan have found them in Uganda. 

“Trauma is like a wound – a silent wound. When a silent wound is not treated, it keeps eating slowly. When trauma is not treated in early childhood, then it manifests in adulthood,” Namara says.

The Ugandan government, TPO, World Vision and other agencies working in the settlements say they lack the resources to cope with the psychological demands. Most aid has been channelled towards other humanitarian aid and relief efforts, experts say.

Namara says: “We need to tackle the extreme levels of conflict-caused trauma now. If this trauma is normalised, it can devastate children’s lives for generations to come as well as create a cycle of violence and underdevelopment in the region.

“The future of South Sudan is dependent on the mental health of these children.”

Chloe Irvine, Head of External Affairs, World Vision New Zealand  |  ​+64 22 340 4271