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As food shortages hit 800,000 African refugees, UNHCR and WFP issue urgent appeal

News Stories, 1 July 2014

© UNHCR/C.Fohlen
A young Sudanese refugee's arm is measured at the nutrition centre in Iridimi refugee camp, Chad. The malnutrition rate in Iridimi camp for children aged under five is 13.7 per cent.

GENEVA, July 1 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency and the World Food Programme (WFP) on Tuesday warned that funding difficulties, compounded by security and logistical problems, have forced cuts in food rations for nearly 800,000 refugees in Africa, threatening to worsen unacceptable levels of acute malnutrition, stunting and anaemia, particularly in children.

WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin and UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, at a meeting with government representatives in Geneva, made an urgent joint plea for US$186 million to allow WFP to restore full rations and prevent further cuts elsewhere through December 2014. For its part, UNHCR needs US$39 million for nutrition support it provides to malnourished and vulnerable refugees in Africa.

"Many refugees in Africa depend on WFP food to stay alive and are now suffering because of a shortage of funding," Cousin said. "So we are appealing to donor governments to help all refugees half of whom are children have enough food to be healthy and to build their own futures."

Across Africa, 2.4 million refugees in some 200 sites in 22 countries depend on regular food aid from the World Food Programme. Currently, a third of those refugees have seen reductions in their rations, with refugees in Chad facing cuts as high as 60 per cent

Supplies have been cut by at least 50 per cent for nearly 450,000 refugees in remote camps and other sites in the Central African Republic, Chad and South Sudan. Another 338,000 refugees in Liberia, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Ghana, Mauritania and Uganda have seen their rations reduced by between five and 43 per cent.

In addition, a series of unexpected, temporary ration reductions has affected camps in several countries since early 2013 and into 2014, including in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Cameroon. Some cuts were also due to insecurity that affected deliveries.

"The number of crises around the world is far outpacing the level of funding for humanitarian operations, and vulnerable refugees in critical operations are falling through the cracks," said Guterres. "It is unacceptable in today's world of plenty for refugees to face chronic hunger or that their children drop out of school to help families survive," he said, calling for a rethink on funding for displacement situations worldwide.

A joint UNHCR-WFP report issued in conjunction with today's Geneva meeting says that refugees are among the world's most vulnerable people and warns that reductions in their minimum rations can have a devastating impact on already weakened populations.

Many refugees arrive in countries of exile already in urgent need of emergency nutritional care. Lacking any means to support themselves in many host countries, they remain totally dependent on international assistance sometimes for years until they can return home or find other solutions. Generally, WFP tries to provide 2,100 kilocalories per refugee per day.

Guterres warned that while a sustained 60 per cent reduction in rations would be catastrophic for refugees, even small cuts can spell disaster for undernourished people. The impact, especially on children, can be immediate and often irreversible. Undernutrition during a child's first 1,000 days from conception can have lifelong consequences, compromising both physical growth and mental development. Numerous studies have shown that this "stunting" leaves affected children at a severe social and economic disadvantage for the rest of their lives.

Even before the most recent ration cuts, refugees in many of the camps surveyed were already experiencing unacceptable levels of malnutrition, despite some progress over the past five years in improving nutrition standards. For example, a programme to prevent and treat micro-nutrient deficiencies has helped to slow or even reverse rising malnutrition rates and associated problems in some areas. But the current shortfall now threatens to negate even those hard-won gains.

Nutritional surveys conducted between 2011 and 2013 showed that stunting and anaemia among children was already at critical levels in the majority of the refugee sites. Only one of 92 surveyed camps, for example, met the agencies' goal of fewer than 20 per cent of refugee children suffering from anaemia. And fewer than 15 per cent of camps surveyed met the target of less than 20 per cent stunting among children. The surveys also showed that acute malnutrition levels among children under five years of age remain unacceptably high in more than 60 per cent of the sites.

Refugees hit by the food shortages are struggling to cope, posing a host of additional problems as they resort to what the report calls "negative coping strategies." These include an increase in school dropouts as refugee children seek work to help provide food for their families; exploitation and abuse of women refugees who venture out of camps in search of work; "survival sex" by women and girls trying to raise money to buy food; early marriage of young girls; increased stress and domestic violence within families; and increasing theft.

The end result, the report says, is a "vicious cycle of poverty, food insecurity, deterioration of nutritional status, increased risk of disease, and risky coping strategies. Therefore, improving livelihood opportunities and food security is paramount to break this vicious cycle, and ensuring that previous investments and advances in nutrition and food security are preserved."

In addition to urging donor governments to fully fund the refugee food pipeline, WFP and UNHCR are also encouraging African governments to provide refugees with agricultural plots, grazing land, working rights and access to local markets to promote self-sufficiency among refugees. Given the unpredictability of funding, the agencies are also refining their methods of prioritizing those affected by possible cuts to ensure that the most vulnerable are identified and receive the help they need.

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Joint Appeal: Help Sought as Food Shortages Threaten Refugees in AfricaPlay video

Joint Appeal: Help Sought as Food Shortages Threaten Refugees in Africa

The World Food Programme and the United Nations refugee agency seek urgent funding to help 800,000 refugees in Africa affected by food shortages. Cuts in food rations threaten to worsen already unacceptable levels of acute malnutrition, stunting and anaemia, particularly in children.

Food and Nutrition

UNHCR strives to improve the nutritional status of all the people it serves.

Food cuts in Chad camps expose refugee women and children to exploitation, abuse

A funding shortfall has forced the World Food Programme (WFP) to cut food rations in refugee camps in eastern Chad by up to 60 per cent. As a result, Sudanese refugees in 13 camps in the east now receive about 850 calories per day, down from the minimum ration of 2,100 calories daily they used to get. The refugees are finding it difficult to cope. Clinics in the area report a significant spike in malnutrition cases, with rates as high as 19.5 per cent in Am Nabak camp.

WFP needs to raise US$ 186 million to maintain feeding programmes for refugees in Africa through the end of the year. Additionally, UNHCR is urgently seeking contributions towards the US$ 78 million it has budgeted this year for food security and nutrition programmes serving refugees in Africa.

In the meantime, the refugees experiencing ration cuts have few options. Poor soil quality, dry conditions and little access to water mean they can't plant supplemental crops as refugees in the less arid south of Chad are able to do. To try to cope, many refugee women in eastern Chad are leaving the camps in search of work in surrounding towns. They clean houses, do laundry, fetch water and firewood and work as construction labourers. Even so, they earn very little and often depend on each other for support. In the town of Iriba, for example, some 50 refugee women sleep rough each night under a tree and share their some of their meagre earnings to pay for a daily, communal meal.

They are also subject to exploitation. Sometimes, their temporary employers refuse to pay them at the end of the day. And some women and girls have resorted to prostitution to earn money to feed their families.

Ration cuts can have an impact far beyond health, reverberating through the entire community. It is not uncommon for children to be pulled out of school on market days in order to work. Many refugees use a portion of their food rations to barter for other essentials, or to get cash to pay school fees or buy supplies for their children. Small business owners like butchers, hairdressers and tailors - some of them refugees - also feel the pinch.

WFP supplies food to some 240,500 Sudanese refugees in the camps of eastern Chad. Many have been in exile for years and, because of their limited opportunities for self-sufficiency, remain almost totally dependent on outside help. The ration cuts have made an already difficult situation much worse for refugees who were already struggling.

Food cuts in Chad camps expose refugee women and children to exploitation, abuse

Emergency food distribution in South Sudan's Jonglei state

Humanitarian organizations in South Sudan are working to deliver emergency assistance to some of the tens of thousands of people displaced by armed conflict in Jonglei state. Most of those uprooted have fled into the bush or have walked for days to reach villages away from the fighting. Others have journeyed even greater distances to find sanctuary in the neighbouring countries of Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda. Gaining access to those affected in an insecure and isolated area has been a significant challenge for aid workers. Since mid-July, an airlift has been providing food supplies to families living in two previously inaccessible villages and where humanitarian agencies have established temporary bases. As part of the "cluster approach" to humanitarian emergencies, which brings together partners working in the same response sector, UNHCR is leading the protection cluster to ensure the needs of vulnerable individuals among the displaced are addressed.

Emergency food distribution in South Sudan's Jonglei state

Afghanistan: The Reality of Return

The UN refugee agency and the World Food Programme join forces to improve the lives of Afghan returnees in the east of the country

After more than two decades of war, Afghanistan faces enormous recovery needs. The rugged, landlocked nation remains one of the poorest in the world, with more than half its 25 million citizens living below the poverty line. Furthermore, the rise in global food prices has affected more than 2.5 million Afghans, who can no longer afford to buy staples such as wheat flour.

Since 2002, more than 5 million Afghans have gone back home, with a large proportion returning to the eastern provinces. The returnees face huge challenges, such as insecurity, food shortages, insufficient shelter, unemployment and a lack of access to basic services.

UNHCR and WFP are working in partnership to help returnees in Afghanistan to rebuild their lives, particularly in the east. Programmes such as skills training, micro hydroelectricity projects and food distribution have helped Afghans get back on their feet and work towards creating sustainable livelihoods.

Posted on 18 September 2008

Afghanistan: The Reality of Return

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