With more than a million refugees worldwide threatened with hunger and malnutrition in the New Year due to food shortages, the United Nations today launched an urgent appeal for international aid, especially for Africa where some woman have resorted to prostitution to feed their children.
Several hundred thousand refugees are already struggling to survive on drastically reduced food rations, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.
"In this holiday season, we want to draw attention to their plight, which will only worsen unless the [UN] World Food Programme (WFP), UNHCR's partner agency, urgently receives the funding it is seeking," agency spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva. "We urgently appeal to donor countries worldwide to come to their help by generously supporting WFP's appeals."
He voiced particular concern over Africa. In Zambia, distribution of lentils and cereals, two essential food products, has been halved in the past two months. Overall food rations will soon have to be cut by half, putting 87,000 of Zambia's 191,000 refugees at risk of malnutrition.
"Already, we are hearing reports of refugee women resorting to prostitution to support themselves and their children," Mr. Redmond said. Field offices also report there has been a marked increase in children dropping out of school, presumably to help their families find food.
In Tanzania, daily rations of lentils and of maize, the most important staple in the refugees' diet, were reduced by 25 per cent in 13 camps in October. A joint UNHCR-WFP mission in November found that the rate of malnutrition among some 400,000 Burundian and Congolese refugees in Tanzanian camps is on the rise.
Malnutrition also threatens some 118,000 refugees in Ethiopia, and another 224,000 in Kenya. Both countries face imminent cuts unless there are immediate donations of cash or food commodities. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), WFP says it will need to make 30 per cent cuts in food rations from January, with adverse consequences for thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees.
Africa is not the only continent facing a breakdown in the food pipeline. IDPs in Azerbaijan face a complete cut in food aid in the New Year. Rations for 140,000 Azerbaijanis displaced by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia more than a decade ago were halved last month, but food stocks are so low that more drastic measures will be needed soon.
And the WFP yesterday launched a $1.2 million appeal to cover the immediate needs of 350,000 IDPs in Colombia, civilian victims of decades of military strife. To date, the agency's current 18-month relief operation, which started in October 2003, has received $14.3 million and needs the additional funds to tide it over through March.
In a related development the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the European Commission today announced a new €15 million (euro) partnership programme to improve the ability of decision makers to target food insecure and vulnerable people and take effective action to reduce hunger.
The three-year project covers 20 countries representing three very different food insecurity situations. Some, such as Eritrea and the DRC, are in the grip of protracted crisis or conflict. Others, such as Laos and Malawi, suffer chronic, structural food insecurity, while the third group, such as Tajikistan and Georgia, are making the difficult transition from a centrally planned to a free market economy.