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Spotlight on the Refugee Food Crisis
Friday, July 18, 2008

by Mitzi Schroeder, Director for Policy

July 18, 2008

Near the Bottom of the Barrel – Why Food Security Matters Most to Refugees

A Growing Crisis

In the past year, most of us have become increasingly concerned about rapidly rising food and energy prices. Since 2007, international food prices have gone up 54% with cereal prices rising 94%. Rising oil and energy prices have been major contributors to the price rise, as has higher demand from developing countries such as China and India. According to the World Food Program, the increasing use of agricultural land for the production of biofuel crops rather than food has also contributed to the crisis, as have droughts and other natural disasters which have reduced this year’s harvests in a number of locations. All of this amounts to "a perfect storm" of factors all leading to greater scarcity and higher prices.

While rising costs have caused Americans some degree of alarm and even hardship, the effect of the food crisis on refugees, internally displaced persons, and other forced migrants has been far more serious.   Across the world, people displaced by both manmade and natural disasters depend on food aid from agencies such as the World Food Program, UNHCR, and the US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance for their survival. As prices rise and stockpiles diminish, maintaining the food pipeline has become more problematic. 

Because so many displaced populations are in remote and insecure locations, it is a challenge even at the best of time to get food to those who most need it.  With transportation costs rising steeply and food scarcity increasing, getting enough food to refugees, IDPs, and other migrants has become harder than ever. Meanwhile, economic experts say, rising prices threaten to force an additional 100 million people into poverty, raising the risk of further forced displacement.

More than Hunger

For many refugees, breaks in the food pipeline have consequences that go far beyond the suffering caused by mere hunger, as terrible as that can be. Refugees are too often confined to camps and not allowed to seek jobs or to grow food to feed their families. Such refugees, who may be "warehoused" in a camp setting for a decade or more, are often totally dependent on international food aid for their survival. Food rations are shockingly limited in both amount and in variety, often lacking in the nutrients necessary for good health. 

Experience has shown that prolonged dependence of refugees on insufficiently nutritious food rations can result in lasting physical and mental harm, especially for the most vulnerable people such as young children and expectant mothers.


The Most Basic Human Right

Yet even malnutrition is only part of the story. Access to adequate food is the one human right without which no other human right can be enjoyed. Food security is thus a matter of fundamental refugee protection.  Without a secure supply of food to live on, refugees must take drastic measures in order to survive and may engage in risky behaviors in the desperate attempt to do so.   

The stress caused by food insecurity can contribute to increasing levels of crime and violence and the break up of families.  Children may be removed from school or may become too weak to learn. Some people may seek illegal employment or try to flee to a place of greater opportunity, risking exploitation, arrest or deportation, and even death along the way. Both women and children may be forced into prostitution or become the victims of human smugglers and traffickers.

Especially troubling have been instances when in the face of insufficient food to feed their families refugees have been compelled to risk return to the lands from which they originally fled, even though by so doing they may once again put their lives in danger. Such premature repatriation as a result of lack of food amounts to forced repatriation, a practice forbidden by international law.

A Time of Peril

The food pipeline for refugees is already in peril.  Food aid cuts have already occurred in places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan and Ecuador, and are threatened in other places, such as along the Thai-Burma border. In many locations, food is not reaching displaced communities due to security situations and a failure of governments to ensure humanitarian access. The WFP estimates that only 31% of its planned aid in Afghanistan has been distributed, for example, and, in Sudan, the lack of sufficient military escorts continues to limit the movement of food into unsafe areas.  In coming months there is also a strong possibility that the number of people in Zimbabwe in need of food assistance will increase due to the displacement caused by political violence in that country.  The ability to respond to this crisis is gravely threatened by limited access of assistance agencies to this population.

Drought and crop failure ar