UN agencies highlight dangers of increasing malnutrition in refugee camps
GENEVA, October 7 (UNHCR) - The UN's refugee and food agencies joined forces once again on Thursday to appeal to donor countries to end an unacceptable level of suffering and acute malnutrition caused by insufficient funding and food supplies to protracted refugee situations in Africa and Asia.
The worrying trend of increasing acute malnutrition amongst refugees in some camps was discussed in depth when specialists from the two UN agencies, UNICEF, and the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition met with donor countries and other agencies in a special session during the five-day meeting of UNHCR's governing Executive Committee in Geneva.
According to UNHCR and World Food Programme (WFP) experts, 20 percent or more of the refugees are suffering from acute malnutrition in, refugee camps in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Chad. Lack of Vitamin B is a public health problem among refugees in countries like Nepal and Bangladesh. Meanwhile, more than 60 percent of the women and children in camps in Kenya and Algeria, who are highly dependent on food aid, are anaemic.
"Many refugees in Africa and Asia live in a unique harsh environment for extended periods while being heavily dependent on continuous international food, and other forms of assistance, often confined to camps," said Oluseyi Bajulaiye, deputy director of UNHCR's Africa Bureau. "The international support needed to sustain their basic livelihoods has not always been forthcoming. These situations create precarious nutrition and protection situations in several camps."
Malnutrition is a consequence of having either not enough food or the right type of food, or can be brought on by water-related and communicable diseases. While it is obvious that everybody needs a balanced diet to be healthy, refugees and displaced people are particularly prone to malnutrition. Anaemia is a serious risk to mothers during childbirth and impairs the health and labour productivity of working adults, as well as children's performance in school.
According to Daly Belgasmi, the Director of WFP's Geneva office, 852 million people - 70 percent of whom are women and children - are not assured of receiving at least one meal a day. Nearly 10 million people die every year from hunger and related consequences. The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 150 million - 26.7 percent - of children under five in developing countries are underweight. An additional 200 million have stunted growth due to poor nutrition.
"Fifteen million tons of food aid were provided in 1999 and only 7.4 million in 2004 ... as you can see, food aid is falling," Belgasmi said during the meeting.
The problems are especially prevalent in certain protracted refugee situations where the refugees have limited access to a diversified diet, and the methods refugees resort to in order to cope with a shortage of food can create a host of other serious problems.
"When food becomes scarce, refugees often turn to desperate measures to feed themselves and their families," stated António Guterres, UNHCR's High Commissioner earlier in the year. "We are particularly worried about the health of the refugee population, domestic violence and refugees resorting to illegal employment or even to prostitution, just to put enough food on the table."
UNHCR and WFP officials said they are working closely together in an attempt to alleviate these serious concerns, and especially in their efforts to highlight the preoccupying situation of refugees and IDPs to the donors.
In addition to the existing nutrition programmes, UNHCR and WFP jointly, with other agencies, addressed micro-nutrient deficiencies and malnutrition in refugee camps in Zambia through a promising local milling fortification project, and in Nepal through distributing vegetable and fortified food. The agencies promoted parboiled rice instead of plain rice in Bangladesh, introduced supplementary feeding programmes in Tindouf camp, and nutrition assessments in several other refugee situations.
"The adequate and timely provision of a balanced food basket is a pre-condition to good nutrition. In the absence of even that, however, we are bound to fail," added Belgasmi. "We know the problems. We know part of the solutions. But we still need to be innovative in the way we tackle malnutrition, so that despite the funding constraints we can still make progress in reducing malnutrition amongst the most vulnerable groups."
Strategies for fighting malnutrition include food fortification, enhancing infant and young child feeding, as well as care and support for mothers.
In his opening statement on Monday, High Commissioner António Guterres said tackling malnutrition will be a priority goal for UNHCR in 2006.