"We have received communications from WFP [World Food Programme] stating that from 2009 they will stop providing food to refugees at the Meheba and Mayukwayukwa refugee settlements. This is due to circumstances beyond their control: they don't have funding to continue supporting our refugees," said Fernando Protti-Alvarado, deputy country representative for the UNHCR in Zambia.
Meheba and Mayukwayukwa, in western Zambia, are the country's biggest refugee settlement camps, housing asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Rwanda, Burundi and even Somalia.
The camps are home to about 26,300 people, but the WFP has been providing food assistance to about 9,000 vulnerable refugees, including the elderly, unaccompanied minors, the chronically ill, female-headed households with children under five, the severely handicapped, and newly arrived refugees.
On arrival, refugee families are each allocated about 2.5 hectares of arable land for cultivation and provided with food rations for the first two seasons, after which they are expected to become self-reliant and grow their own food for consumption and sale.
"While the majority of refugees in these settlements don't need food assistance because they have attained self-sufficiency from agriculture on land provided to them by the government, and other sources of livelihood, we are worried for the very vulnerable persons who still need assistance," Protti-Alvarado said.
"Withdrawal of food would result in malnutrition in children under five, and a potential increase in sex-for-food transactions, leading to higher incidences of sexually transmitted diseases [and HIV/AIDS]," he said. lese refugees in the Kala and Mwange camps in northern Zambia would not be affected by food cuts if donor support for the programme continued.
Zambia hosts more than 86,000 refugees, of which about 56,000 live in settlement camps. lese make up the majority of refugees (about 50,000), followed by Angolans (27,000) with the remainder from Rwanda, Burundi and Somalia.
Pablo Recalde, WFP's country director, told IRIN that the UNHCR and WFP were part of a partnership with the Zambian government, and that a meeting of donor organisations and the government had been called for next week. It was envisaged that any problems regarding Zambia's hosting of refugees would be addressed at the meeting.
Susan Sikaneta, Zambia's permanent secretary in the interior ministry, is calling for urgent donor support in light of the impending withdrawal of the WFP's food support programme.
"This development will place the concerned citizens in a more vulnerable situation, and may compel the government to take desperate measures, given the lack of adequate national resources to address the problem," she said.
Until the voluntary repatriation of Angolan refugees began in 2003, the Meheba and Mayukwayukwa refugee camps were major food-producing centres, with the surplus produce being sold to surrounding communities. Angolan refugees in the two camps were credited with contributing to the region's food security.
The death of Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi in 2002 ended the country's long-running civil war, and the refugees, some of whom had lived in the Zambian camps since 1970, began to return home.