Business is slow for Nelson Doko. The 27-year-old South Sudanese refugee sells candy, soap, cigarettes and other small items at his shop in Uganda’s Bidi Bidi refugee settlement, behind a stylized sign reading “Welcome to California.”
But there are few customers these days.
“There’s no money,” he complained.
There are more than 1 million South Sudanese refugees living in Uganda, fleeing a nearly four-year civil war that has split backers of President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, against former Vice President Riek Machar, of the Nuer ethnic group. More than one-quarter of the refugees live in Bidi Bidi, which opened in August 2016. With 285,000 residents, it’s now the world’s largest refugee camp — bigger even than the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, which has long held the title and been open since the 1990s.
There are no longer thousands of new refugees arriving at Bidi Bidi each day, as there were several months ago. Now, on its first birthday, the settlement is preparing for the likelihood that many of its residents will stay for years — or perhaps permanently. In the words of the United Nations’ refugee chief, these refugees are likely in for “a long-term exile.”
“[If] there is peace there [in South Sudan], maybe we can come and go back,” said Doko, whose brother was killed in the war. “But [if] it will be like this? No.”
‘A big city’
Bidi Bidi isn’t going away. Instead, over the next decade it will be transformed into “a big city” with factories and shopping centers, predicted Robert Baryamwesiga, the settlement’s government overseer.
“I’m actually more optimistic than ever now,” he…