Refugees Magazine Issue 105 (Life in a refugee camp) - Feeding the hungry

Refugees Magazine, 1 September 1996

The World Food Programme provides the food needs in UNHCR's camps worldwide. The two agencies agree on food baskets for refugees, which vary from country to country.

News of a sudden reduction in food rations hit Hartisheik camp in mid-July. Because of shortages due to lack of donor pledges to the World Food Programme's food pipeline for refugees in Ethiopia, individual cereal rations were being reduced from 500 grammes to 375 grammes per day. And, for the first time since their arrival eight years ago, the refugees also were told they were going to receive sorghum instead of the usual wheat grain from WFP, the United Nations' food arm.

"We are going to die," said a bearded Somali after a meeting called by the Ethiopian camp administrator to announce to a group of about 100 refugee leaders the WFP's food reserve position. "Send us home to Somalia," he cried.

With wheat grain, the refugees say they are able to prepare several types of meals, but with sorghum only one kind. Sorghum is a staple meal in southern Somalia and has the same nutritive value as wheat. But these refugees have been receiving wheat grain or wheat flour for years and say it would take time for them to get used to sorghum.

What was left unsaid by the refugees was that wheat grain sells for more in the market than sorghum. Refugees are known to sell part of their ration to vary their diet a practice that is looked upon with an understandable degree of tolerance by some aid providers, but with dismay by food donors.

In a place where there is nothing, food is everything. The refugees sell part of the ration to buy other needs. Food also is used as an incentive to spur people to become productive by encouraging such programmes as "Food for Work." It is also used to promote repatriation. For example, large numbers of Mozambican refugees in Malawi decided to return home several years ago when it was announced that food would be distributed in Mozambique instead of the refugee camps.

Under agreements that have been refined through the years the last time in January 1994 WFP provides the food needs in UNHCR's camps worldwide. WFP seeks donations in cash or in kind, arranges for transport of food from the donor country or from the market where it is bought, and ensures storage and handling right up to delivery to the camps. There, UNHCR's implementing partner either the government or non-governmental agencies receives, transports and distributes it to leaders of groups of refugee families or to individual family heads. UNHCR is pushing for a greater role for women in the camps and efforts are being promoted to hand over food rations to women instead of men.

UNHCR and WFP agree on food baskets for refugees and returnees in different countries for a given period. The basket varies from country to country, depending on the recipients' eating habits, culture, customs, traditions and, most important, state of health. Whether the entire food package agreed upon is delivered to refugees ultimately depends to a large extent on donors making good on their pledges to WFP.

In Ethiopia, UNHCR and WFP decided in 1989 on a general daily food basket that includes 500 grammes of cereals, 25 grammes of oil, 20 grammes of sugar, 5 grammes of salt and 30 grammes of blended food, usually corn and soya. Over 18 months ending in December, WFP's needs total 102,515mt for 366,000 refugees in Ethiopia, including 275,000 Somalis, 63,000 Sudanese, 18,000 Djiboutians and 8,700 Kenyans. During the period, WFP also distributed food packages to 47,000 Ethiopians who have returned from exile in neighbouring countries. This programme costs WFP $46.3 million about half of which represents the actual food value; the rest is for transport, handling, storage and administrative services. WFP spends roughly 28 U.S. cents a day to feed a refugee in Ethiopia.

In July, WFP announced that it had a shortfall of 42,000mt in its programme for Ethiopia, saying donors had made available only 60,320mt. Thus the cereal ration was cut. This was a severe blow since the wheat grain was in fact the only regular ration the refugees had been receiving. The 'ideal' food basket, including sugar and salt, had long been unavailable. The delivery of oil had been held up for months because local authorities wanted to impose a levy on oil. This problem had been sorted out and oil again was being distributed in the camps in late July.

Aggravating the situation of the Somali refugees is severe malnutrition. To lessen the impact of a further reduction in rations in the camps and at the same time address malnutrition problems, both WFP and UNHCR launched a supplementary feeding programme. Children under five years and pregnant and lactating mothers now receive weekly dry rations consisting of blended food such as corn and soya mix in addition to the general ration. Severely malnourished children are enlisted in therapeutic feeding programmes in hospitals where high-energy milk is provided.

UNHCR and its implementing partner in Ethiopia, the government Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA), run the emergency feeding programmes. The two agencies have also agreed to deploy additional nutrition workers and to train them in managing health and nutritional emergencies. The posting of a senior advisor from the British agency Save the Children Fund (SCF) has been recommended to supervise the blanket feeding operation and screening of children. SCF had been operating in Hartisheik before ARRA took over its feeding programmes for vulnerable people.

Appeals have been made to donors to enable WFP to meet its cereal shortfall. The Italian government has said it would provide an additional $2 million to WFP. Other donors, including the European Community, have responded positively to pleas for contributions.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 105 (1996)