Food rations have been cut to more than 1.4 million vulnerable refugees in Uganda by the World Food Programme (WFP) because of insufficient funds.
Announcing a 30% reduction to the relief food it distributes to refugees and asylum seekers, mainly from neighbouring South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi, the WFP in Uganda warned that further cuts could follow.
The agency said it is struggling with a shortfall of $137m (£109m) in funding it needs for refugee response in 2020, raising fears over how people will cope while the country is in lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“WFP is faced with a significant funding shortfall for its refugees response – $137m against total needs of $219m through the course of 2020,” El-Khidir Daloum, WFP country director in Uganda, told the Guardian.
“Where there are food shortages, refugees often resort to desperate measures to feed themselves and their families. In addition to increased levels of malnutrition, it is likely that incidents of domestic violence will increase and some refugees may turn to negative coping mechanisms such as survival sex just to put enough food on the table,” he said.
“Young girls may be forced into early marriage and children may be forced to drop out of school to help their families survive.”
Activists warn that the food cuts are set to further complicate the lives of hundreds of refugees whose small businesses have been paralysed after President Yoweri Museveni imposed a nationwide shutdown to contain the spread of coronavirus. On Tuesday Museveni extended the lockdown for 21 days.
“The likely impact is that refugees will suffer disproportionately since that [food rations] is their major source of livelihood. This means that starvation – hunger – during this Covid-19 lockdown becomes a double jeopardy,” said Dismas Nkunda, executive director of Atrocities Watch Africa.
“It’s a generalised tightening of the belt … for refugees there are no other copying mechanisms than depending on WFP,” he said.
“Tight countrywide restrictions on movement, imposed by the government to stem the spread of the virus, will possibly reduce farming, working or business by refugees trying to fill the gap caused by the cuts,” said Daloum. “Therefore, refugees may be at greater risk of malnutrition,” he said.
Uganda recently suspended receiving new refugees to slow the spread of coronavirus.
“For as long as people continue to flee conflict and arrive in Uganda with little to no means of sustaining themselves, most donors know that it is not an ‘either/or’ choice,” said Daloum.
“They understand the importance of keeping people alive and supporting the Uganda government to uphold its progressive approach to the refugees as a model for the wider region and beyond,” he said. “So, we will continue our dialogue with donors. Without sufficient relief assistance, refugees are unable to transition to self-reliance.”
Duniya Aslam Khan, spokesperson for the UN refugee agency in Uganda, said: “UNHCR believes that’s it’s critical that WFP receives the necessary resources to ensure a stable food pipeline for refugees and to avoid a vicious cycle of poverty, hunger and risky coping strategies.
“At the moment, it’s a difficult prospect because donors who contribute to WFP are more concerned about the internal pandemic than courtesy and humanitarian assistance. It’s a difficult ask from them,” Nkunda said.