Susan Sikaneta, permanent secretary in the ministry of interior, said this week: "The security situation may become volatile, as refugees may resort to rioting and leave the camps to search for food in the host community villages, and there will also be an increased potential for sexual and gender-based violence and events related to sexual exploitation."
The UN World Food Programme (WFP), which has been feeding about 33,500 vulnerable refugees housed in four camps, announced in November that it would be forced to end the programme in January 2009, due to a lack of funding.
Vulnerable refugees supported by WFP include the elderly, unaccompanied minors, the chronically ill, female-headed households with children under five, the severely handicapped, and newly arrived refugees.
Meheba and Mayukwayukwa, the country's two biggest refugee camps housing asylum seekers from mainly the Democratic Republic, would be the immediate casualties. Beneficiaries in both sites were on half-rations in October and will be on quarter-rations in November and December, WFP said.
"[They] have no alternative means of supporting themselves," said Sikaneta, "failure to fund these vulnerable refugees may lead to increased malnutrition and even death."
Zambia is home to more than 86,000 refugees - 56,000 of them camp-based. There are some 50,000 Congolese, the largest share of the population, followed by 27,000 Angolans, with smaller numbers from Rwanda, Burundi and Somalia.
Pablo Recalde, WFP's country director, said the agency required about US$5.9 million to meet its commitments. "WFP does not have resources to feed either vulnerable refugees in the Meheba and Mayukwayukwa refugee settlements, or all the Congolese at the Mwange and Kala refugee camps, beyond 2008," he said.
The Zambian government and the UN agency for refugees, UNHCR, are encouraging refugees to return to their countries of origin, particularly those from Congo and the Angola, in an on-going voluntary repatriation programme.
But James Lynch, the UNHCR country director, appealed for continued donor support for WFP, saying: "Some of the refugees who are vulnerable are not Angolans, and some have just arrived in the country, and it is not possible to be self-reliant within a month or two."