RapidFTR Field Trip – Day Three

This is a write up for day three out of five. here’s a link to the other days:

(Disclaimer – this post reflects my own personal thoughts and opinions and not those of anyone else (or any organisation))

(Note: this is going to be a long post as I’ll be detailing the way the camp runs in addition to my experiences on the day)

Day Three – 8.00am, Tuesday 13th Feb, 2013 – D Day

The mosquitos have gotten a taste for my blood, the second night was even worse. I may have gone delirious from the bites and lack of sleep. I finally snap at 2am and spend the next hour standing on top of my bed like a lunatic, swatting at the flies and tweeting. I manage to kill 8 mosquitos (with photo evidence), but not before getting just as many bites. One buzzes right past my ear as I tweet my latest triumph. I jump. The phone falls in slow motion. I swat at the mosquito. I miss. I check the phone, it landed face down on the hard floor, the screen is slightly cracked. I sigh. My next tweet reads “Mosquitos 10, Me 8”.

The final tally at the end of the night is 15 bites, and a graveyard of mosquitos around my bed.

the horror

The rest of the morning is similar to the last. The hotel makes a pretty decent omelette and the service is snappy so we have our fill, get into the cars and head down to the refugee camp.

On the short drive from the camp to the hotel I came across a surprising sight. A runway designed for small aircraft that literally intersects the road we’re driving on. There’s a small manual barrier (kind of like the ones you would find at the entrance to a car park) on the road, it’s open and doesn’t seem to be anyone in sight that’s manning it. we don’t see/hear any aircraft arriving during our stay there so I’m led to assume it’s not used very often, but it’s definitely the first time I’ve seen something like this!

We arrive at the camp a few minutes later. I’m told this is a relatively small camp which usually houses around 2000 refugees at any given time. The camp is currently over capacity, with around 4000 registered refugees, straining the already tight resources.

Nyakabande is known as a “transit centre”, a border camp which is the first point of contact for people leaving DRC and crossing the border into Uganda. I also overhear that while it is a relatively small camp, the conditions of the camp are considered by some to be amongst the worst in the world.

Upon arrival, refugees are expected to only stay for a few days. It’s designed to be a temporary residence (which is demonstrated by the use of tents for accommodation and non-permanent structures). During this time refugees can decide if they do indeed wish to stay in Uganda and become citizens; if they decide to stay, then there is a regular “convoy” which transports refugees from Nyakabande to the larger camp located at Rwamwanja. Rwamwanja is a much larger (~80 square miles) camp located a few hours north of Nyakabande in western Uganda. It provides a much more permanent destination for the refugees – they are provided land, materials for a basic house and access to schools amongst other amenities. In reality, the convoy tends to be once or twice a month, and so people end up staying in Nyakabande for weeks on end, and some even stay for months.

The camp itself is the amalgamation of numerous aid organisations. Here’s a breakdown of how they are all related (warning: this is solely based on my understanding of what I saw over the few days I was there, and therefore is potentially not 100% accurate):

We drive into the camp, it’s a vast field with various sections. They are not cordoned off or signed in anyway, but the arrangement of the tents gives some indication of the areas of the camp. As we drive in we pass a police checkpoint and a few meters ahead I see what I assume is the reception/admin area where the tents for the various organisations are.

the entrance to Nyakabande Transit Centre

The camp

Before I start with my personal experiences at the camp, I’ll first give an overview of the camp structure. The Office of the Prime Minister is the organisation responsible for the donation of the land where the camp was set up, they also oversee operations from a high level. My understanding is they don’t have any staff on the ground at the camp, but are interested weekly status reports, including breakdowns of the numbers of refugees.

The camp runs under the banner of the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees), however they only have a handful of staff on the ground. To aid in the running, UNHCR have pulled in other organisations. The following diagram shows a snapshot of the organisations involved:

Nyakabande – an organisational snapshot

 First impressions

(Note: due to legal reasons I am unable to share any of the pictures I have taken of the child refugees)

The first thing we saw as the car came to a stop and we got out was just a sea of refugees standing around. I guess I had never actually thought about what these people are expected to do once they arrive at a camp. I can only imagine the struggles that some of these people have had to endure, but somehow these refugees have made it across the border and arrived at Nyakabande. Once there however, there isn’t an awful lot for them to do. They usually have to stay here for a few weeks until the next convoy to take them to Rwamwanja where they can finally settle down and start to rebuild their lives. As a result it became a common sight to see people wandering, standing around, not doing much and it’s even worse for the children. When these people do see a large UN car pull up and see 4 “Muzungus” step out, its probably the most interesting sight they’ve seen in weeks. People swarmed around us before we had even finished getting out of the car. The adults look at us with curious, but friendly, eyes and the children repeat a chorus of “Muzungu! Muzungu!”.

We turn and say hello. Most of the children don’t speak english and so communicating is difficult. Some of the adults and older children speak french, again I’m at a loss. Eleanora and Chris are fluent in French so they start to greet some of the people. The refugees seem overjoyed that there is someone new they can communicate with. The children continue their chorus, “Muzungu! Muzungu!”. I couldn’t speak Kiswahili (their local language, I did manage to learn a little the next day) and they couldn’t speak english. This was the only word that they could use that would invoke any kind of reaction in me (as it’s the only word i recognised), which I imagine fuelled their use of it.

After a few minutes we politely gesture the crowd to allow us to pass and we make our way to the nearby UNICEF tent. The crowd makes way, and follows us to the tent. It’s a small tent and is empty expect for a small plastic table and 2 chairs. This is where the STC volunteers spend their day.

The plan for the day is for the volunteers to actually start using RapidFTR. It’s an exciting day, but the morning starts slow. Cary is busy talking to the various organisations, and so this gives me some time alone in the tent; I spend an hour or so kidding around and entertaining with the growing crowd of children that have amassed. Once all the volunteers have arrived and we’ve briefed them one last time on RapidFTR, we hand over the phones and they start their registering.

A refugee’s journey through Nyakabande

In order to understand just how RapidFTR works, let me explain the steps a refugee takes upon entering the camp and the involvement of the various organisations during the stages. Very strong boundaries have been defined for the various organisations (due to reasons that are beyond my knowledge) and so a given aid worker is restricted to perform only the actions that fall within the boundary of their organisation.

Step 1 – Identification

When a refugee arrives, they enter through the main gate shown above. The police at the checkpoint should direct them to the initial identification tent in the middle of the “reception” area that you saw in the picture earlier. The identification tent is staffed by members of URC.

The aim of the URC volunteers in this tent is to identify the “type” of refugee they are dealing with. Through a brief conversation they try to determine if the person is:

1. A regular refugee (my choice of word, I don’t know the term they use at the camps for this) -> This would be any adult, or any child that is with their family or a parent.

2. A Separated Child -> This term is used to describe any minor that has been separated from their parents but has some adult with them (This could be an older sibling, a neighbour, a friend etc)

3. An Unaccompanied Minor (or a UAM) -> This is a child that has been separated from their parents and is either travelling alone, or only in the company of other minors (i.e. no adult)

As an outcome of the conversation the refugees are also handed a small piece of paper with a “URC” stamp on it. This paper acts as a voucher and provides the refugee with 3 days worth of rations. They are not officially registered as refugees yet (as only an informal conversation has taken place). The idea is that from this point the refugee has 3 days to decide whether or not they wish to go ahead and become a refugee, or return to their own country. If they decide to stay, they will then need to officially register with the UNHCR, at which point they will be provided with more supplies and rations.

In the previous paragraph I mentioned the 3-day thinking period the refugees are given. While this sounds reasonable on paper, it’s important you understand the reality on the ground is very different. Most of what I’m about to say about the processing of a refugee sounds like a well designed system, but it’s actually chaos on the ground. There are a lot of people coming in and out of the camp, and the processing of an incoming refugee requires them to move between multiple tents, which is impossible for them to do unless there are volunteers that are vigilantly ushering people to the correct locations. I didn’t see many examples of this happening, so I imagine that often refugees just get lost in the process and survive at the camp without the official provisions of supplies that are offered.

Step 2 (optional) – RapidFTR registration

Back to the journey. RapidFTR is specifically designed to deal with the reunification of children that fall into the latter 2 categories. While the camp currently has around 4000 people, of which around half are children, only around 150 of these are children that require reunification and will be registered into RapidFTR.

The theory is that during the previous step, the aid worker should attempt to classify the child as either an Unaccompanied Minor or Separated. The current agreement by the participating organisations is that URC will be responsible for the registration of UAMs into RapidFTR and STC will deal with the separated children. A volunteer at the identification tent should ensure that the child is directed to the right tent at which point the corresponding organisation takes over.

Once there, a worker from either URC or STC will interview the child and register their details into RapidFTR via the android application. They will take down various details as well as a photograph (with the child’s permission of course). At this point the child is marked as either a UAM or as separated, but also as unverified. This first interview is a basic registration, but the idea is over the next few days the aid workers will try to gather more information and edit the record as they learn more. They will also attempt to verify the child’s story and ensure they are indeed unaccompanied/separated.

The reason for this verification step: Some families believe that lone children will be provided with additional rations/supplies, so there are cases of families pretending to be separated when in fact the child’s parents are in the same camp.

Step 3 – UNHCR registration

After either step 1 or 2 (only in the case where the refugee is a UAM or separated), the refugee is directed towards the large UNHCR tent to the left of the diagram. it is here that the UNCHR register all incoming refugees into a (software) system they call proGres. This means that regardless of their status, all incoming refugees must be registered into UNHCR as it’s the only place where we have a record of everyone (RapidFTR only has details of a small subset of the refugees, and records a different set of data, relevant for reunification)

There’s also some effort done (through finger-print recordings) here to identify what is termed  as”recyclers” -> Refugees that for various reasons have attempted to register as a refugee. At times this is because some believe that registering twice would mean twice the supply of food and NFIs (Non Food Items, e.g. blankets and jackets). Other times they are genuine reasons.

I heard stories from the aid workers of families that came to the camp as refugees and had moved to Rwamwanja; once there they had decided to move back to their original homes after the situation in their region had become more stable, only to find that some months later they were again uprooted and ended up back at Nyakabande.

The most amazing story of a genuine repeat registration I heard was that of a mother and child that left DRC and came to Nyakabande, but where the father had stayed behind the look after the family house. The mother and son had taken a convoy, moved to Rwamwanja and had a permanent house when they received news that the father had been killed. The son then made his way back (all alone) to DRC to bury his father, and travelled back (again, all alone) to Nyakabande and reregistered as a UAM so that he could get the convoy back to Rwamwanja and back to his mother.

UNHCR registration

Once UNHCR have registered you, you are then assigned a tent to sleep in (1 tent sleeps 2 families), provided with a voucher for 7 days of rations, and also access to various NFIs.

queue for NFIs (Non Food Items)

Let’s take a look at that first picture again, this time with markings identifying the various tents so you get an idea of where the refugees go during their first moments at the camp.

RapidFTR – the first child registered!

Later that morning, I sat in at the UCR tent and observed the two aid workers registering UAMs into RapidFTR. It was great to see the application being used. There were a few hiccups, a strange intermittent issue that would cause the app to crash (perhaps due to phone memory and photo processing) but we quickly found a workaround. People were, for the most part, pretty comfortable using RapidFTR and by the end of day 1 we had around a dozen children registered. Here’s a picture of the first ever child to be registered:

Biggest Lesson Learned

We often say that the biggest problems you’re going to face on a project are not going to be technical, but rather, human. It’s a saying that I’ve always found to be true many times in the past and was just as true here.

People had little trouble adjusting to using RapidFTR. However there are many issues that exist at the camps, most, if not all, of which are outside the realm of RapidFTR, but will impact it’s effectiveness. While the phone was capable of recording the data captured by the volunteers, it was at times painful to observe the interview process.

Despite the refresher on interview techniques the previous day, I saw interviews happening in public, in front of large groups of refugees. I saw insensitivity to the refugees with the occasional raised voice and frustrated faces from the volunteers, amongst many other issues. I don’t want to go into a blame game of talking about all the issues I observed but there were enough to leave a sad impression.

Having said that, it’s important that we don’t be too quick to judge. It’s a trait that I’ve seen develop is many a person – as we grow in experience so does our confidence and knowledge. This can lead to that fine line between confidence and arrogance being crossed and gives birth to a horrible tendency to judge way too quickly and give advice unfounded on any understanding of the situation.

I don’t know why the volunteers I saw behaved the way they did, or why these organisations get caught up bickering and fighting and at times forget about the very children they’ve vowed to help. I saw people making what I felt were basic mistakes, failing on something as simple as how to talk to a child or how to ask a question. But these people are here because they want to help, they are choosing to work here for these organisations because some part of them wants to help. And after one day, I am not in a position to judge or understand why they behaved the way they did. At the same time, it is truly sad to see the result of such actions, because ultimately the children are suffering.

About the Author: akash


  1. Reply Gurpreet

    Very well written post. Thank you very much Akash! Invaluable insight into RapidFTR, and the ground situation.

  2. Pingback: RapidFTR Field Trip – Day Two | blog

  3. Reply jorge

    thanks for providing such a detailed explanation of the deployment, and not shying away from problematic aspects of this work. more, please.

  4. Reply Nick

    Thanks for this fantastic post Akash. Looks like the app got some really great field testing. It’s interesting to see how RapidFTR fits into the larger picture of the ecosystem of a camp.

    Will you be able to stay in contact with the team there after you leave? I’m curious to know if the way that they use the app and train volunteers changes over time.

  5. Pingback: RapidFTR Field Trip – Day 5 | blog

  6. Pingback: RapidFTR Field Trip @Nyakabande Transit Centre – Day One | blog

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