UN agencies warn refugees in Africa face hunger as COVID-19 worsens food shortages


UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the World Food Programme (WFP) warned that millions of refugees across Africa face hunger and malnutrition because of loss of income due to COVID-19, severe underfunding, conflicts, disasters and rising food prices.

“Millions of refugees throughout Africa are currently reliant on regular aid to meet their food needs,” said Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “Around half are children, who may develop life-long difficulties if deprived of food at vital stages in their development.”

Unless urgent action is taken to address the situation, levels of acute malnutrition, stunting and anaemia are expected to rise. In refugee camps in Ethiopia, 62% of children are experiencing critical levels of anaemia.

“While the situation continues to deteriorate for everyone, the disaster is magnified for refugees who have absolutely nothing to cushion their fall,” said WFP Executive Director, David Beasley.

“In the best of times, refugees live in cramped conditions, struggle to meet their basic needs and often have no option but to rely on outside assistance for their survival. Now more than ever, they need our lifesaving support.”

WFP is providing food assistance to more than 10 million refugees worldwide, including to those in the world’s largest refugee settlements, such as Bidibidi settlement in Uganda, where rations were reduced by 30% in April due to lack of funding.

Refugee populations who were previously able to feed and fend for themselves, including many living in urban areas and those working in the informal economy, are also facing significant challenges.

Large numbers have lost their only source of income as work possibilities disappeared due to COVID-19 prevention measures. Most are not covered by social protection schemes, leaving many families destitute and dependent on humanitarian assistance.

At the same time, import and export restrictions are squeezing supply chains. In the mostly landlocked Sahel, COVID-19 prevention measures such as border closures and movement restrictions limit capacity to transport produce in the region.

In Cameroon, WFP was forced to reduce its assistance to refugees from the Central African Republic by 50% in May and June due to funding gaps and, based on current funding levels, will have to stop cash assistance entirely from August.

Cuts in rations are also expected for Nigerian refugees in the country from July.

In many parts of the continent, food prices are rising, posing a potentially devastating threat to millions of refugees, particularly those who were already living hand-to-mouth on daily wages.

In the Republic of Congo, the average price of a basic food basket has increased by 15% while in Rwanda, WFP market monitoring around refugee camps found food prices were already on average 27% higher in April 2020 compared to 2019, and 40% higher than in 2018.

As a result of these challenges, many refugees are resorting to negative coping mechanisms, such as skipping meals or reducing meal portions. More than 80% of refugees in South Sudan are estimated to be resorting to such measures.

Amidst severe underfunding, UNHCR and WFP are struggling to meet the rising needs, with the situation expected to worsen in many cases as costs rise, in part due to the unexpected expense involved in providing cooked meals in quarantine facilities.

In addition to the recent cuts in Uganda, more than 3.2 million refugees in East Africa are already receiving reduced rations due to underfunding, including in Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan and Tanzania.

Significant funding shortfalls threaten, or have already given rise to food cuts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia.

UNHCR and WFP are concerned about the negative impact of reduced assistance on refugees and urge donors in the international community to provide further funding to ensure refugees do not face starvation. (Source: UNHCR)