African Refugees Face Severe Food Shortages
Over one million African refugees risk severe malnutrition and even starvation if the international donor community fails to respond in full to the UN urgent appeal for $84 million, state International Rescue Committee, Jesuit Refugee Service, Refugees International and U.S. Committee for Refugees. The four humanitarian agencies are alarmed by recent donor statements acknowledging that refugee food assistance is being cut to meet other emergencies. With war pending in Iraq, and the potential for massive humanitarian needs there, humanitarian agencies are concerned that donors will fail to fund urgent food needs in Africa.
Drought in Africa has created life-threatening food shortages for 38 million people. Refugees are among the most vulnerable in this group because their displacement has weakened their capacity to deal with food shortages. The latest joint appeal for refugee food assistance by the World Food Program (WFP) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) totals $84 million.
Approximately 3 million, or nearly one-fifth of the world's refugees, are in Africa. In addition to the immediate impact on malnutrition rates, food shortages in refugee camps have other grave consequences.
At a February 25 Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on world hunger, James T. Morris, the WFP's Executive Director, spoke clearly about how food shortages contribute to the exploitation of refugees in camps, including demands to trade sex for food. "These are people that are already in very difficult circumstances, and food shortages lead to serious hostility and conflicts and make the camps almost impossible to manage. Also, particularly vulnerable are young girls, young girls who are forced to turn to things we don't find acceptable to find resources in order to be fed."
International donors are to be commended for their initial response to the larger emergency food needs throughout Africa, but due to specific vulnerabilities of refugees and their absence of coping mechanisms, it is imperative that refugee food needs not be sidelined, diverted or ignored. Already, food rations have been slashed up to 50%, with a threat in some camps of a complete break in the food pipeline. Donor governments must recognize that food needs in Africa are so critical that a failure to fully respond to this urgent UN appeal in a timely fashion or any further diversion will directly result in massive malnutrition and loss of life.
Specific vulnerabilities of refugees include the following:
- Food shortages within refugee camps make circumstances ripe for sexual exploitation and violence of the most vulnerable;
- Refugees have few income generating options inside their camps and often are not permitted to work outside the camp;
- Refugees do not have the freedom to move to other areas where food may be available;
- Most refugees are not permitted to grow food or herd livestock, and have meager, if any, assets to convert to cash to buy food;
- Continued reduced food rations for refugees may lead to conflicts between refugees and host communities, and can result in host country governments forcibly repatriating entire refugee populations.
Donor countries must share the burden with African countries hosting refugees. Nearly one-fifth of the world's refugees are in Africa. Presently, some 45 African countries are host to approximately 3 million refugees. The international community must support recent statements from longtime host governments, like Kenya, where authorities are considering relocating refugees from camps to agriculturally viable areas to allow them to farm, own cattle, and work with local citizens, eliminating their total dependency on humanitarian assistance.
Donor countries must also take very seriously statements of threatened forced repatriation of tens of thousands of refugees. As an indicator of the strain refugees place on host country governments, Tanzania's minister of home affairs stated last month, "We are afraid that we might have riots in the refugee camps because of hungry refugees." Tanzania is home to more than half a million refugees. Tanzanian government authorities have repeatedly warned that if security should deteriorate in and around refugee camps, they might swiftly respond by forcibly repatriating refugees.