KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — Uganda is at a "breaking point" as almost 3,000 South Sudanese refugees pour into the country every day, the United Nations refugee chief and Uganda's government said Thursday, calling for international help to support over 800,000 people now sheltering there.
The U.N. has called it the world's fastest-growing refugee crisis.
More than 570,000 refugees have arrived from South Sudan since July — and the number could pass one million by the middle of this year, the joint statement by U.N. refugee chief Filippo Grandi and Uganda's government said.
"We are at breaking point. Uganda cannot handle Africa's largest refugee crisis alone," Grandi said. "The lack of international attention to the suffering of the South Sudanese people is failing some of the most vulnerable people in the world when they most desperately need our help."
The refugees — more than 60 percent of them children — have been arriving since neighboring South Sudan's civil war began in late 2013. More than 1.6 million have fled the country overall.
The unprecedented surge in refugee arrivals since fighting broke out in South Sudan's capital in July has placed "enormous strain" on public services and infrastructure, Uganda's Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda said.
Some arriving refugees are living under tarpaulins in the baking sun. Food and clean water have been running short.
"We continue to welcome our neighbors in their time of need, but we urgently need the international community to assist as the situation is becoming increasingly critical," Rugunda said.
More than $250 million is needed this year to support the refugees in Uganda, Thursday's statement said.
The World Food Program has indicated there will be serious food shortages by June if more supplies are not shipped in, Musa Ecweru, a Ugandan government minister in charge of refugees, told The Associated Press.
Some of the refugees who have been in Uganda for several months and years may be "weaned off" U.N. food rations if more refugees continue to arrive, he said.
"The weight is unbearable but we have no choice," Ecweru said. "We can't close our borders. That will be extremely inhuman."
Uganda's refugee response has been recognized by the international community as one of the most progressive in Africa and is being used as a global model.
Arriving refugees receive small plots of land in host communities to help support themselves. But Ugandan authorities warned in February they would have to "be more creative" with basic support like food and housing.
One resettlement camp in northern Uganda known as Bidi Bidi was set up in August and already is one of the largest in the world, home to more than 270,000 refugees.
A refugee at Bidi Bidi told an AP reporter last month that the food they receive is not enough. The refugee, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to avoid retribution, said a month and a half had passed without food being distributed, and many had resorted to eating leaves or coconuts.
Another refugee resettlement area has since been set up elsewhere in northern Uganda.
"The consistent lack of global attention on the South Sudan emergencies is now affecting the ability to respond," Jesse Kamstra, Uganda director for the Lutheran World Federation, warned last month.
A U.N.-backed "solidary summit" to find a solution to the South Sudan refugee crisis is scheduled for June in the capital, Kampala, Ecweru said.
Lynch contributed from Nairobi, Kenya.