3 July 2014

Africa: WFP - African Refugee Camps 'No Longer Attract Global Awareness'

Photo: Charlton Doki/IPS
A woman weeds a sesame crop field in South Sudan's Eastern Equatoria state

interview

The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) and refugee agency UNHCR have appealed to governments for more money to help feed refugees in Africa. Cuts in daily food rations have already had to be made.

In Africa the World Food Programme (WFP) provides food aid for 2.4 million refugees. They live in 200 camps in 22 countries, victims of war and persecution. Due to a shortage of funding, the WFP says it has already had to cut food rations for 450,000 refugees in camps in Central African Republic, Chad and South Sudan. A further 338,000 refugees in Liberia, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Ghana, Mauritania and Uganda receive between five and 43 percent less food aid.

Mr Ohlsen, you are the WFP Country Director for the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as being responsible for the whole of North Africa. Where are the most serious problems?

Most of the refugee camps set up by the WFP are located in inhospitable areas, not far from the borders with crisis states. It is a logistical problem to supply people there with medicines and food.

Meanwhile, other refugees are taken in by families who are themselves not well-off and need support. We supply people with foodstuffs such as salt, oil, peas and fruit. They are also given money to buy maize, wheat or rice for themselves. A family of five receives the equivalent of $20 (14.7 euros) a month for this.

How much does someone in a refugee camp get to eat every day - qualitatively and quantitatively?

Each refugee has up to $1.5 dollars a day for basic foodstuffs. But the WFP is not getting enough money from donors and so the rations will have to be halved.

This means people will only get one meal a day. This is particularly hard for the very old and the very young who need high value nutrition to survive. At some point deficiency symptoms become apparent, such as swollen stomachs, and people become more susceptible to illness.

Hunger causes lethargy but can also produce aggression. Does this mean that refugees who go hungry will revolt sooner or later?

There are other ways to survive. Many refugees leave the camps. Prostitution, child slavery and the recruitment of child soldiers are terrible phenomena that can result when people do not receive sufficient care. But on the other hand, there are refugees whose governments make land and seeds available. We have observed that, where this is the case, people start immediately to cultivate the land in order to become self-sufficient.

The WFP is not getting enough money from donor countries, that is from countries which are UN member states. How is that possible?

Let's take the example of a refugee camp on the border between Kenya and Somalia which accommodates 350,000 people. It has existed for many years but it is no longer a topic that attracts global awareness. Donations are rather for current crisis regions, such as Syria. Donor countries also see little point in permanently supporting a particular country.

We speak here of 'donor fatigue'. In addition, we are also feeling the effects of the global financial crisis. And the number of hot spots in the world is rising. Aid organizations and the different crisis regions are competing for the funds available. This makes it all the more important to approach private foundations for donations.

Most are based in the US, such as those set up by Bill Gates and Howard Buffett, or the UPS Foundation. German national airline Lufthansa also supports the WFP. Unlike other UN organizations, the WFP depends entirely on voluntary contributions and is mainly financed by governments.

You have just visited the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin. What message did you receive there?

The German government is very aware of the refugee issue and has the wish to be actively involved. There is a clear interest in Syria and in the Italian island of Lampedusa which is the destination of most of the refugees from Africa. Germany is traditionally one of the main supporters of the World Food Programme.

Martin Ohlsen coordinates food supplies for refugees in North Africa and is the WFP's Country Director for DRC.

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