Nutrition and food security
UNHCR works to ensure people forced to flee have access to adequate nutrient-rich food and basic services which are essential for protecting their survival, safety, health and well-being.
Refugees and displaced people are particularly vulnerable to malnutrition and undernutrition.
Displaced from their homes, they may be sheltering in areas with limited food or markets, have lost their jobs or livelihoods and have limited access to national support systems. All of these often result in food insecurity and undernutrition.
Poor quality diets and vitamin and mineral deficiencies can also weaken the immune system, leaving individuals at risk of succumbing to other diseases. It also contributes to delayed childhood development, which can cause irreparable long-term damage.
Children, pregnant women and people with chronic illnesses are often among the most vulnerable.
How does UNHCR improve the food and nutrition security of refugees?
Urgent action is often required to ensure that all members of the community have access to adequate food and basic services.
UNHCR works with partners, national governments and other UN agencies to ensure displaced populations can access adequate nutrient-rich foods and basic services to prevent malnutrition and reduce undernutrition.
We aim to implement evidence-based nutrition response plans aligned with the Global Compact on Refugees and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 2 – End hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition).
We also adopt a holistic approach to nutritional programming, working across public health, water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), education, shelter and livelihoods to address both immediate and underlying concerns.
Key areas of programming include:
- Prevention of all forms of malnutrition by supporting access to healthy, safe, affordable, and sustainable diets and basic services
- Early detection and management of acute malnutrition
- Improvement of Infant and Young Children Feeding (IYCF)
- Management of anaemia and other micronutrient deficiencies
- Prevention of obesity and link to chronic diseases
- Data-driven evidence and advocacy.
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Prevention of all forms of malnutrition by supporting access to healthy, safe, affordable, and sustainable diets and basic services
UNHCR works to prevent malnutrition by supporting access to healthy, safe, affordable and sustainable diets and basic services long-term.
Refugees, especially those in remote areas, often have limited access to a variety of foods as well as work opportunities. They often must rely heavily on food and cash assistance.
UNHCR works with partners to assess food security needs, advocate for adequate and nutritious food, promote livelihoods and agriculture, empower women and improve access to financial services. Working with our partner, the World Food Programme (WFP), we assist refugees in both emergency and protracted situations.
UNHCR also collaborates with governments, local communities and other organizations to create an environment that supports refugees' ability to provide for themselves and become more self-reliant.
Early detection and management of acute malnutrition
When children are malnourished, they become thin and weak, and their immune systems can become easily compromised.
Early detection and treatment of malnutrition can help children recover and survive. Where national programs have limited capacity, UNHCR provides treatment of severe and moderate malnutrition, in collaboration with UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Food Programme (WFP).
UNHCR follows the Community-based Management of Acute Malnutrition (CMAM) model, which involves the community, raising their awareness of good nutrition, while also actively screening people for malnutrition, referring them for treatment, and following up on their progress.
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Improvement of Infant and Young Children Feeding (IYCF)
The first two years of a child’s life are a key period of growth and development. Optimal nutrition during this period reduces life-long risks of disease and mortality and fosters better development overall.
UNHCR works to ensure that systems, services and practices that support young children’s optimal nutrition and care do not get compromised in emergencies and protracted displacement crises.
Promoting and supporting breastfeeding and adequately nutritious diets in the complementary feeding stage (6 – 23 months), can have a significant impact on preventing malnutrition and ensuring the optimal development of children.
Management of anaemia and other micronutrient deficiencies
Micronutrient deficiencies, caused by insufficient nutrient-rich food, poor dietary diversity, inappropriate feeding practices and disease burden, can easily develop or worsen during an emergency.
In refugee populations, anaemia and vitamin A deficiencies are major concerns, especially in young children and women where nutrient requirements are higher. Anaemia can negatively affect the growth and learning of children and the overall health and quality of life of adults. It can also increase the likelihood of complications during pregnancy and childbirth and exacerbate underlying health conditions.
UNHCR monitors displaced populations for nutrient deficiencies and provides nutrient supplementation and treatment, where necessary, as part of routine health services.
Prevention of obesity and links to chronic diseases
UNHCR also works with partners and host communities to provide access to basic healthcare services, including nutrition support, which is aimed at preventing related health problems, including obesity and chronic diseases.
This can include supporting immunization campaigns and disease surveillance systems and promoting education and awareness-raising activities on health issues among refugees.
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Data-driven evidence and advocacy
Effective nutrition programmes rely on quality data, which can be challenging, to collect in refugee or displacement settings.
UNHCR maintains crosscutting tools to collect, store and monitor health and nutrition, data through regular multisectoral surveys. This allows us, as well as governments and partners, to plan and respond effectively to the needs of refugees. These include the integrated refugee Health Information System (iRHIS), the UNHCR Standardised Expanded Nutrition Survey (SENS) guidelines and Joint Assessment Missions. View the SENS reports data dashboard.
Resources, tools and guidelines
Infant and Young Child Feeding case studies
Infant and Young Child Feeding Framework Introduction and implementation experience from the field.
Nasrin and Asif
Nyathak and her Triplets
Anjuman and her Child
Nutrition and Food Security Strategies and Policies
Nutrition and Food Security Lessons Learned and Field Experiences
The JAM Practical Guide has been developed to ensure timely planning and to facilitate the overall process of conducting joint UNHCR/WFP assessment missions