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GENEVA – As the media and the humanitarian community focus on the spreading drought in the Horn of Africa, the United Nations World Food Programme is deeply concerned that more attention is needed to highlight the persistent problems faced by the world’s refugees – most of them in Africa.

WFP is aiming to feed 1.7 million refugees this year and is facing major challenges in raising sufficient resources to do so.

“The world often forgets the refugees who live in camps far from home who depend on us for their very survival. Even a daily meal in the best, well organized camp cannot be taken for granted. A refugee’s life is far from easy,” said James T. Morris, WFP Executive Director.

Food shortages can severely hamper the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) ability to protect refugees and to find lasting solutions for them. Hungry people who lack economic opportunities often turn to desperate measures – like crime or prostitution – to support themselves and their families.

A lack of adequate funding during 2005 for some refugee operations resulted in WFP having to cut refugee rations; it has been forced to do the same in 2006.

Current refugee operations facing the most critical funding shortages include those in Zambia, Chad, Kenya and Uganda as well as assistance for Sahrawi refugees in Algeria, recently hit by torrential rains.

The situation in Zambia has been particularly dire. Due to insufficient funding, WFP was forced to halve rations in January to 72,000 refugees living in remote camps and settlements in Zambia. The impact has already taken its toll: growing numbers of refugees have been leaving the camps and entering local villages in search of work or food. With drought affecting 1.4 million Zambians this year, villagers do not even have enough food for themselves, leaving refugees little option but to go further afield. Some have been arrested for leaving the camps without the required permits.

The situation has been relieved slightly with contributions last week from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and USAID. However, it takes several weeks for in-kind donations as well as locally purchased food to reach the camps. A shortfall of US$4.6 million must be addressed immediately to ensure refugees do not face further ration cuts later in the year.

The funding situation for 45,000 refugees who have fled the Central African Republic for southern Chad is also becoming critical. The operation, which generally attracts limited public attention, is
proving more difficult than more high profile refugee crises.

Some 253,000 Ethiopian, Somali and Sudanese refugees living in two camps in Kenya will also face ration cuts in April if fresh pledges are not received. Kenyan law confines refugees to camps in the northern and eastern parts of Kenya where chronic poverty is endemic. The isolated and harsh environment around the camps means that they are highly unlikely to find jobs or any other means of feeding themselves. The agency urgently requires oil and beans, wheat flour and corn to ensure that full rations are provided. WFP Kenya requires 16,000 metric tons of food, valued at US$8.5 million, between now and July.

In Uganda, 165,000 refugees from Sudan, Rwanda and DRC remain dependent on WFP food aid for survival. As a result of continued fighting in eastern DRC, the agency has been assisting 3,000 new arrivals since the beginning of the year and temporarily fed an additional 12,000 Congolese who arrived at the border in January. From April to July, when stocks of some food commodities will run out, WFP requires US$12.7 million to help those seeking assistance.

Many refugees from Liberia, Rwanda and Sudan have said they wish to return home as their countries are on the road to recovery and peace. However, they require support to help them start afresh and become self-sufficient.

“Sudanese refugees would love to go back home, but many are hesitant because peace-building operations in south Sudan are not well funded and there are no basic social services available in their places of origin.”

“It is crucial that operations for returnees be fully funded,” said Morris. “If there is one thing all refugees want, it is to go back home and start a new and productive life. Helping refugees to return home not only ends a life of dependency in the camps but also contributes to peace and development.”