A funding shortfall is putting the lives of some three million refugees in eastern Africa at risk, two UN agencies warned on Tuesday.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and the World Food Programme (WFP) are appealing for $266 million as they have been forced to cut food rations by up to 60 per cent.

The situation is further compounded by COVID-19 lockdowns and containment measures, they said, which have reduced food stocks in markets in refugee camps, and limited refugees’ ability to support their families through casual jobs and small businesses.

Negative coping strategies

“The pandemic has been devastating for everyone, but for refugees even more so”, said Clementine Nkweta-Salami, UNHCR’s Regional Bureau Director for the East, Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes. The office covers 11 countries, home to some 4.7 million refugees, a staggering 72 per cent of whom face food cuts.

“Unless more funds are made available, thousands of refugees including children will not have enough to eat.”

Ms. Nkweta-Salami said refugees have adopted negative coping strategies to meet their basic food needs, such as skipping or reducing meals, taking out high-interest loans, selling assets, child labour and increased domestic violence, adding “there is often a desperation and a feeling of no alternative.”

Difficult decisions ahead

Meanwhile, WFP has been forced to cut monthly assistance to refugees in six countries, ranging from 16 per cent to up to 60 per cent.

“We’ve never had such a terrible funding situation for refugees”, said Michael Dunford, Regional Director for Eastern Africa.

“We have a $266 million shortfall for the next six months for refugees’ minimum needs. We are deeply concerned that if cuts continue, they will be faced with a very difficult decision: stay in the camps where food and nutrition security is deteriorating, or consider risking going back when it is unsafe.”