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New IRC data shows COVID-19 brings increased food prices, hunger and economic distress to refugees; immediate cash assistance needed now

  • Food prices for refugees and people living in conflict are skyrocketing in Colombia, Yemen, and Sierra Leone, forcing many to eat less meals per day.

  • New IRC data, including in Kenya, Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Uganda, and South Sudan shows those we serve are having their businesses shut and losing their incomes.

  • The IRC is responding with immediate cash assistance to help clients meet basic needs, but calls for more support from major donors to reach the most vulnerable.

New York, NY, May 14, 2020 — Refugees and people displaced by conflict and crisis are experiencing severe economic distress stemming from COVID-19, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) warned today. A combination of rising costs of food as well as job and income losses are leading to a dire situation for the world’s most vulnerable.

The IRC is working to intervene now to save lives and minimize the economic and food security threats to those we serve by providing cash assistance. But, this pandemic is going to have far-reaching, long-term impacts which could lead to a global humanitarian disaster. The IRC is calling for a scale-up of immediate, life-saving programming and long-term support to rebuild markets and job opportunities.

David Miliband, President and CEO at the IRC, said, “These figures show that COVID-19 is leading to a double emergency for IRC’s clients - an unprecedented economic and hunger crisis, the scale of which we have not seen in our lifetimes. The world’s most vulnerable - namely refugees and people living in war zones - are already being hit the hardest, losing critical income amongst increasing food costs, resulting in an inability to feed themselves and their families. Most refugees and people living in crisis earn small wages working in the informal sector and have seen their businesses shuttered or are unable to get supplies due to COVID-19 mitigation measures and market shortages. These are people living day to day, not just paycheck to paycheck. Weeks turning into months without an income means reverting to extremes to keep their families fed, and in many instances, means going without food at all.”

The IRC is seeing food costs rise for refugees and people displaced by conflict across the countries where we work.

  • In Colombia, the cost of basic goods have increased by 140 percent (1)

  • In Freetown, Sierra Leone, the price of rice has risen by 32 percent, its highest increase in five years - In Venezuela, consumer prices rose 80 percent in April (2)

  • In Yemen, the cost of basic food items in Sana’a has increased by 24 percent (3)

Surveys conducted by the IRC and partner organizations found large-scale livelihood losses and difficulties in purchasing basic goods across the populations they serve.

  • In Colombia, 100 percent of 60 patients in our health clinics said they have lost their ability to make a steady income - In Iraq, 89 percent of 1,481 people surveyed reported loss of employment as the main impact of the COVID-19 crisis, and 55 percent reported an inability or difficulty in purchasing basic necessities - In Kenya, half of IRC’s 1,328 clients in Nairobi have said they are affected by the pandemic, including loss of income and closed businesses. More than half of those affected indicated food was their biggest need - In Lebanon, 90 percent of 416 Syrian refugees surveyed in April said that they are in critical need of food, compared with just 32 percent who said the same in March - In Pakistan, 60 percent of the 252 households surveyed reported food shortages - In South Sudan, over 11,000 farmers supported by the IRC have had to suspend farming activities - In Uganda, 87 percent of refugees surveyed reported a major economic impact from COVID-19 and almost all Kampala-based refugees experienced some level of income loss (4)

“The worst outcome of this will be hunger and death,” said Miliband. “The World Food Programme has estimated a doubling in the world’s acute hunger by the end of the year, but what about those who are hungry now? Lives are being lost, and we must intervene quickly to prevent unnecessary death. The IRC is providing services to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on our clients, including cash assistance to help them meet their immediate needs and survive the worst impacts of the pandemic.

“There is no one size fits all solution to putting an end to COVID-19, and attempts to model approaches seen in developed countries are unrealistic and potentially counterproductive. Refugees live in crowded areas where social distancing is nearly impossible and do not have access to social protection systems and unemployment benefits. The IRC’s recent report, 'One Size Does Not Fit All: Mitigating COVID-19 in Humanitarian Settings' details the risks and possible solutions required to combat COVID-19 in fragile settings and avoid exacerbating humanitarian suffering. But, we are already seeing the beginnings of a global humanitarian disaster. With immediate support from donors to scale up life-saving programs, and a long-term commitment to helping refugees survive, we can save lives and prevent the worst outcomes of this horrible disease from reaching too many before it is too late.”

The IRC has launched a US $30 million (under review) appeal to help us mitigate the spread of coronavirus among the world’s most vulnerable populations, with a focus on mitigating and responding to the spread in vulnerable communities, protecting our staff and ensuring the continuation of life-saving programming.


Kellie Ryan
International Rescue Committee
+254 758 710 198

IRC Global Communications
+1 646 761 0307