AFRICA'S REFUGEES RISK EXPLOITATION AND VIOLENCE DUE TO FOOD RATION CUTS
GENEVA/DAR ES SALAAM - Two leading United Nations agencies, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) and the UN World Food Programme (WFP), today warned that continued food ration cuts are forcing Burundian and Congolese refugees in western Tanzania to take part in activities that put them at risk in an effort to ward off hunger. UNHCR and WFP are especially concerned about the rising trend of sexual exploitation and violence against refugee women outside the camps.
Since September 2004, poor funding of WFP's operations to assist the 400,000 refugees living in 12 camps in the western part of the country has forced the agency to cut food rations. Without enough food, an increasing number of refugees have to go out of the camps to look for work, thereby putting themselves at risk of arrest or imprisonment. Local regulations in Tanzania restrict the movement of refugees to so-called "designated areas", most often the perimeter of the camps.
"As a result of poor funding and the subsequent ration cuts, refugees say the food they receive every two weeks in the camps lasts for seven to ten days rather than the intended 14 days, meaning that they must either let their families go hungry, or risk going outside the camps where they might be arrested, beaten or raped," said WFP Country Director Patrick Buckley.
Unless an additional US$5 million, representing some 11,000 metric tons of food, is pledged directly, ration reductions will continue through December 2005. In July and August, the refugees will receive just 65 percent of the necessary 2,100 daily kilocalories for healthy survival; without additional contributions, by October the percentage drops to 55 percent.
In addition to searching for work outside the camps, ration reductions have led to increased domestic violence, as families argue over how the limited food provided should be distributed among its members.
"Hunger will drive people to do almost anything. After nearly one year of ration reductions, we have seen a significant rise in gender-based violence in the camps that can be linked to food shortages," said Buckley.
"It is not uncommon, especially the week between food distributions, for refugees to be eating just one meal a day. Lack of food increases tensions among neighbors and families in the camps. In a survey earlier this year, we found that the number one reason for domestic violence was arguments over food husbands and wives arguing over who in the family will eat, who will go out of the camp to look for work and risk arrest or worse," explained UNHCR'S Representative in Tanzania Chrysantus Ache.
There are also concerns over the effects the reductions are having on children living in the camps, some of whom are taken out of school on days when food is scarce, and other younger ones not yet of school age who are left alone while parents leave the camp in search of work. In addition, a 2004 nutritional survey found that 37 percent of children under five were chronically malnourished and 23 percent were underweight; a follow-up survey is planned for August 2005.
The food shortages in the camps have also resulted in some refugees deciding to return to their countries of origin prematurely, where conditions remain unsafe. As one Burundian refugee told the UNHCR Representative: "It is better to be killed in your own country, than to die a slow death in the camps from hunger."
"Although UNHCR is helping refugees return to Burundi, the voluntary nature of returns is a key principle for the agency, and extremely important to ensure that returns are sustainable," added Chrysantus Ache. "No refugee should go back home under duress, be it lack of food or anything else."
In an effort to redress the situation, the agencies are urging international donors to contribute cash to the operations which will enable a quicker delivery of food in country.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provides protection and assistance to more than 19 million people worldwide, among whom are refugees, people who have been displaced within their own country (IDPs), and stateless people.
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