Johannesburg — The World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have launched an urgent appeal to address a funding shortfall that has already resulted in food ration cuts for a third of all African refugees.
As of mid-June, nearly 800,000 refugees in 22 African countries have seen their monthly food allocations reduced, most of them by more than half.
WFP is appealing for US$186 million to maintain its food assistance to refugees in Africa through the end of the year, while UNHCR is asking for $39 million to fund nutritional support and food security activities to refugees in the affected countries.
A joint report by WFP and UNHCR released last week warns that failure to prevent continued ration cuts will lead to high levels of malnutrition, particularly among children and the most vulnerable.
The funding shortfall is not the result of shrinking budgets for either WFP or UNHCR, but a substantial increase in the need for food assistance generated by an unprecedented number of refugee emergencies in 2014.
"The amount of large-scale, simultaneous emergencies has never been so high to the best of my memory," said Paul Spiegel, UNHCR's deputy director of programme support and management, speaking to IRIN from Geneva.
Out of a global figure of 11.7 million refugees under UNHCR's protection at the end of 2013, the highest number since 2001, 3.3 million live in Africa.
"There has also been a lot of earmarking [by donors] for certain situations, particularly the Syrian situation," he added. "Some situations, particularly CAR, have been severely under-funded so there is an equity issue here that needs to be dealt with. Protracted refugee situations have also not had the same level of funding."
Only about a quarter of those affected by the ration cuts are new arrivals, according to Spiegel. The rest are long-term refugees who have been unable to wean themselves off food aid, usually because they are confined to remote camps where there are little or no possibilities for them to generate an income.
Camps or communities?
As donors increasingly prioritize funding for the emergency phase of refugee crises over protracted situations, UNHCR has had to shift its approach in the last two years.
"The big shift has been that we're looking at saying 'if we can avoid camps, let's do so'," explained Spiegel. "Having refugees be amongst local communities is better for so many different reasons: it allows them to be more self-reliant, reduces long-term dependence and UNHCR can use its funding to improve existing communities."
But while UNHCR is advocating that refugees be allowed to settle in communities rather than in camps, governments have the final say when it comes to the refugees they host.
For now, few are willing to grant refugees even basic economic freedoms such as the right to work and live outside of camps. Overcoming this reluctance will mean convincing host nations that, given the chance, refugees have the capacity to boost rather than burden local economies.
"We're now gathering more and more information in Africa and the Middle East to show that improving refugee livelihoods, if it's done in a smart way, can have a positive effect on host communities," Spiegel told IRIN.
He admitted that much of the evidence is still anecdotal and that there is a need for more studies demonstrating the potentially positive impacts of integrating refugees into local communities.
Where host governments insist on an encampment policy, said Spiegel, "we're looking more at sustainability from day one, so if we have to have camps, we would look at a development plan in that area."
This could include the placement of camps near existing communities, reducing the need for aid agencies to develop parallel services and increasing the likelihood of markets being available should refugees be allowed to trade.
New livelihoods strategy
UNHCR is also attempting to reshape its livelihoods strategy to be more responsive to socio-economic realities and more inclusive of host communities. "In the past, livelihoods [interventions have] been a lot of just keeping refugees occupied without a sufficiently market-oriented approach," Spiegel said.
Alexander Betts of Oxford University's Refugee and Forced Migration Studies programme agreed that "too often in the past, [UNHCR's] livelihoods interventions have been abstracted from the market into which they're intervening; they haven't been based on an understanding of what already exists and how you build upon it."
Betts is director of the Humanitarian Innovation Project (HIP) which seeks, in part, to expand the evidence base for giving refugees greater economic freedom.
Last month, Betts and his team released research from Uganda, a country that allows the 387,000 refugees it hosts to live and work outside designated refugee settlements.
The study found that 78 percent of the refugees surveyed did not receive any international aid and instead relied on farming land allocated to them in the refugee settlements or trading with fellow refugees and their Ugandan neighbours.
"What we've tried to do with the research is offer data that can demonstrate that governments prepared to offer basic economic freedoms [to refugees] can in turn reap benefits," said Betts, who admitted that far more research into the economic lives of displaced populations was needed if a major shift in host nations' attitudes towards refugees was to occur.
In the meantime, WFP and UNHCR are having to make hard choices about which groups of refugees are more able to withstand ration cuts.
Spiegel cited the example of Chad where mainly Sudanese refugees living in the desert-like east of the country have very few possibilities to sustain themselves compared to refugees from CAR living in the south where the availability of arable land for them to farm has made them more resilient.
"Also in Chad, we're doing surveys where we're trying to look at - even within a camp - who are the most and least vulnerable," said Spiegel. "We may even consider, based on consultations with communities and leaders, giving full rations to some and smaller rations to others."
According to WFP spokesperson Elisabeth Byrs, "in situations of funding constraints, WFP conducts vulnerability assessments to prioritize its assistance to the most vulnerable."
Prolonged ration cuts, however, inevitably lead to refugees adopting increasingly drastic coping strategies. "Refugees initially try to make do by skipping meals, taking out loans and pulling their children out of school," said Byrs. "In the longer-term, ration cuts can lead to more risky behaviour such as crime, sexual exploitation and conflict with host communities.
"We are urging donors to try to find innovative ways to supply badly needed funding."
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]