With a total refugee population of around 3.25 million, the region of East Africa hosts one of the highest levels of refugees in the world. The majority of refugees originate from four countries – South Sudan, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi. The refugees have been displaced due to a number of primary factors including violent conflict, political instability and natural disasters. This update presents an overview of WFP’s refugee operations in East Africa as COVID-19 continues to spread across the region. It highlights some of the innovative measures taken by WFP and partners to better serve refugees in the region but also draws attention to critical funding shortfalls across WFP’s refugee operations and reduced rations being provided to most refugees.
The emerging threat of COVID-19 is of concern, as the region’s refugee camps and settlements are particularly vulnerable due to a number of factors including limited health systems, insufficient water and hygiene facilities and constricted living spaces which make necessary physical distancing difficult to implement.
Refugees’ ability to work and earn an income is also severely hampered, as many businesses in and around settlements have been forced to close. With the exception of Burundi, all schools in the region have closed, and UNHCR estimates that one million refugee children are out of school due to this. So far, cases of COVID-19 in refugee populations have been reported in Djibouti and Kenya. Given the potentially catastrophic effects that the pandemic’s spread in refugee camps could have, the Kenyan government on 29 April put Kakuma and Dadaab camps under partial lockdown. In Uganda, the government suspended all new refugee arrivals in late March and banned all cross-border movement to curb the spread of the pandemic. Other refugee-hosting countries in the region could take similar mitigating approaches. While understandable, such bans also serve to inhibit the livelihoods and income earning opportunities of refugees, who often ‘commute’ back to their home countries to undertake informal trade, as well as tend the land in their areas of origin.