The warning comes amid growing concerns that a potential conflict in Iraq may distract the attention of donor nations from the pressing needs of millions of refugees on the African continent. Some of the refugees are already receiving only half of their normal monthly food rations. Meanwhile, stocks of several food commodities in many countries are expected to run out by the end of March unless new money comes in.
The two UN agencies fear that new, highly visible emergencies could take attention and funding away from Africa's long-time refugee populations. "As new emergencies arise, the interest in these long-standing cases tends to fade, leaving refugees on the brink of hunger," said WFP Deputy Executive Director, Jean-Jacques Graisse.
Major interruptions in the food pipeline for one or more of the basic food commodities are feared in Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Algeria and Sudan - Africa's main refugee-hosting nations.
In Tanzania, for example, the maize ration for more than 515,000 refugees from Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was last week reduced for the second time since November 2002. This cutback now leaves refugees with only 50 per cent of the normal maize ration. Other commodities are also expected to run out by the end of May. The cuts and looming shortages will affect the health of refugees who also now face an added risk of forced repatriation if the food problems are not solved promptly. Last week, the government of Tanzania warned that it would compel refugees to return home if the crisis is not resolved soon. The government says it fears that food shortages in camps will spark banditry and insecurity in refugee-hosting areas.
In Kenya, a lack of funds has already forced WFP to reduce food rations by 25 per cent.
More cuts can be expected if declining stocks are not replenished. A recent UNHCR/WFP nutrition survey in refugee camps in Kenya shows that global malnutrition in children under five is at 16 per cent, which is significantly higher than the benchmark of 10 per cent set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). This means that more than 8,000 refugee children living in camps in Kenya are malnourished while thousands more are on the verge of malnutrition.
Funding difficulties are also being experienced in Uganda. Here, WFP has been able to raise only 30 per cent of food supplies needed to feed some 150,000, mainly Sudanese, refugees in settlements in the north and western part of the country. The UN agency urgently needs new contributions if it is to increase food rations for refugees and also feed some 395,000 internally displaced people in northern Uganda.
New contributions totalling 11,000 tons of food worth US$ 5 million are also needed in Sudan. This will enable WFP to continue assisting 91,000 Eritrean refugees for the next six months. Since May 2002, funding constraints have forced the UN agency to halve supplies of most food commodities for refugees. The situation is particularly difficult as drought currently affecting the region has lowered agricultural production by nearly 50 per cent, increased market prices and lessened opportunities for farm work. Some 11 per cent of the refugee population farm to supplement their food ration while others are employed on farms.
In Algeria, food for more than 155,000 refugees is expected to run out in April unless new donations are received for the Western Sahara refugees who have been in desert camps in south-western Algeria for the last 27 years.
A break in the food pipeline is also expected in Liberia by the end of March. This will force WFP to significantly reduce rations for refugees, among them, some 70,000 displaced recently into neighbour-ing Liberia by continuing violence in Côte d'Ivoire. WFP is also in dire need of new resources for an additional 40,000 Liberian refugees in Sierra Leone.
Meanwhile, UNHCR officials warn that shortages of food and other relief items will make it more difficult for the agency to protect refugees, particularly women and children, from all kinds of abuse and exploitation. "Refugee children risk to be sent out to work to supplement the family's reduced rations while women and girls may be forced to engage in exploitative relationships," said Kamel Morjane, UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees.
On various occasions, UNHCR was able to ease the impact of food shortages by providing more complementary foods such as fresh vegetables and dried fish or by increasing income-generating activities to help refugees support themselves. However, this time UNHCR will be unable to respond, as it is, itself, grappling with funding shortfalls which will affect the agency's ability to adequately meet the refugees' most basic needs.
For further information please contact:
Christiane Berthiaume, Public Affairs
Officer, WFP Geneva, Tel. +41/22/9178564
Laura Melo, Public Affairs Officer, WFP Nairobi, Cell. +254-733-518085
Francis Mwanza, Senior Public Affairs Officer, WFP Rome, Tel. +39-06-65132623
Millicent Mutuli, Tel. +41-22-7398261