The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is reducing food aid to nearly 800,000 refugees in Africa.
The agency said the cuts of 40 to 60% will affect refugees in the Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan, Chad, Uganda, Mauritania, Mozambique, Ghana, Liberia and Burkina Faso.
The cuts are “threatening to worsen already unacceptable levels of acute malnutrition, stunting and anemia, particularly in children,” the WFP and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said in a joint statement.
WFP spokesman Peter Smerdon told Voice of America there were two main reasons for the cut.
“Mostly it is because of funding difficulties. We have not got the money to keep full rations on for these people”.
He said security concerns and the difficulty of shipping food by road also play a role. WFP could transport or drop the food by air, but that makes the operation prohibitively expensive, Smerdon added.
Now, the two agencies have launched an urgent appeal to address the funding shortfall that has led to this situation.
UNHCR is asking for $39m to fund nutritional support and food security activities to refugees in the affected countries, while WFP is appealing for US$186m to maintain its food assistance to refugees throughout Africa until the end of 2014.
Worst hit have been refugees in Chad, CAR and South Sudan where a total of nearly half a million refugees are experiencing ration cuts of 50 to 60%.
A substantial increase in the need for food assistance has been generated by an unprecedented number of refugee emergencies in 2014. Of the 11.7m refugees under UNHCR’s protection at the end of 2013, the highest number since 2001, 3.3m live in Africa.
According to Paul Spiegel, UNHCR’s deputy director of programme support and management, there has been a lot of earmarking by donors for certain situations such as that in Syria, with the result that some situations, particularly CAR, have been severely under-funded. Protracted refugee situations have also not attracted the same level of funding.
As donors increasingly prioritise funding for the emergency phase of refugee crises over protracted situations, UNHCR has had to shift its approach in the last two years.
“The big shift has been that we’re looking at saying ‘if we can avoid camps, let’s do so’,” Spiegel told the UN humanitarian and news anlysis service, IRIN.
“Having refugees be amongst local communities is better for so many different reasons: it allows them to be more self-reliant, reduces long-term dependence and UNHCR can use its funding to improve existing communities.”
Long-term refugees are often unable to wean themselves off food aid, usually because they are confined to remote camps where there are little or no possibilities for them to generate an income. Governments, however, have the final say on the refugees they host, and for now few are willing to grant refugees even basic economic freedoms such as the right to work and live outside of camps. Overcoming this reluctance will mean convincing host nations that, given the chance, refugees have the capacity to boost rather than burden local economies.
“We’re now gathering more and more information in Africa and the Middle East to show that improving refugee livelihoods, if it’s done in a smart way, can have a positive effect on host communities,” explains Spiegel.
UNHCR is also attempting to reshape its livelihoods strategy to be more responsive to socio-economic realities and more inclusive of host communities.
Alexander Betts of Oxford University’s Refugee and Forced Migration Studies is director of the Humanitarian Innovation Project (HIP) which is also keen to expand the evidence base for giving refugees greater economic freedom. In June, Betts and his team released research from Uganda, which allows the 387,000 refugees it hosts to live and work outside designated refugee settlements. The study found that 78% of the refugees surveyed did not receive any international aid and instead relied on farming land allocated to them in the refugee settlements or trading with fellow refugees and their Ugandan neighbours. “What we’ve tried to do with the research is offer data that can demonstrate that governments prepared to offer basic economic freedoms [to refugees] can in turn reap benefits,” said Betts. However, he acknowledges that far more research into the economic lives of displaced populations is needed if there is to be a major shift in host nations’ attitudes towards refugees.
Meanwhile WFP and UNHCR are faced with hard choices about which groups of refugees are more able to withstand ration cuts.
According to WFP spokesperson Elisabeth Byrs, “in situations of funding constraints, WFP conducts vulnerability assessments to prioritise its assistance to the most vulnerable.” Prolonged ration cuts, however, inevitably lead to refugees adopting increasingly drastic coping strategies. “Refugees initially try to make do by skipping meals, taking out loans and pulling their children out of school,” said Byrs. “In the longer-term, ration cuts can lead to more risky behaviour such as crime, sexual exploitation and conflict with host communities. “We are urging donors to try to find innovative ways to supply badly needed funding.”