UN World Food Programme (WFP) has been forced to reduce its food and cash assistance for refugees in Eastern Africa by up to 30 per cent, the agency has said, voicing fears that the reductions could worsen in the coming months unless urgent additional funding is received in time.
According to WFP, over 2.7 million refugees in Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan, and Djibouti have been impacted, with food or cash transfers reduced between 10 to 30 per cent, as the socio-economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic reduces vital funding from donors.
“Refugees are especially vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19 because they are crowded together in camps with weak or inadequate shelter, health services and access to clean water and sanitation,” said Michael Dunford, WFP Eastern Africa Regional Director.
In addition to COVID, the refugees, especially women, children and elderly, are also at risk of becoming malnourished, which can in turn impact their immune systems and increase their risk of being infected by disease, a tragic vicious cycle in the midst of a global pandemic.
“With COVID yet to peak in East Africa, we cannot turn our backs on people forced to flee and stuck in remote camps,” added Mr. Dunford.
Hard-won development gains at risk
COVID-19 restrictions closed schools in refugee camps, meaning children missed out on vital school meals in Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, Rwanda and Uganda. In these countries except in Rwanda, funding shortages meant that WFP was unable to provide take home rations to refugee children to help them study at home and stay nourished.
Extended school closures can also expose children to additional challenges, including, teenage pregnancies, sexual abuse, early marriage, violence at home, child labour and high school dropouts, eroding hard-won development gains made over several years.
Women and girl refugees are also at heightened risk of gender-based violence, sexual exploitation and abuse, in addition to resorting to having sex for payment in order to survive. People with disabilities and unaccompanied or separated children are the most vulnerable, said the UN food relief agency.
World cannot let the most disadvantaged suffer
“Sadly, it is the poorest and most disadvantaged who suffer the most,” said Mr. Dunford, adding, “We simply cannot let this happen. COVID-19 cannot be an excuse for the world to turn its back on refugees at this terrible time.”
Given the pressing situation, WFP is appealing both to traditional donors and new would-be donors, such as international financial institutions, to step forward and assist refugees precisely because their vulnerability only increased with COVID-19.
The UN agency needs some $323 million to assist refugees in the East Africa region over the next six months, about 22 percent greater than during the same period in 2019.