The plight of African refugees, already grappling with the aftermath of violence, famine, and instability, has worsened dramatically in 2023. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the World Food Program, hamstrung by severe budget shortfalls, have been forced to slash food rations and living stipends for millions of displaced individuals across the continent.
In Uganda, Africa’s largest refugee-hosting nation, UNHCR programs are alarmingly underfunded, operating at a mere 39% of their required budget. Nearby Burundi, despite a 35% surge in its refugee population, has seen its budget increase by only a scant 12% since 2018. The COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war, which impacted global food production and spiked prices, have contributed to these dire circumstances. Yet, the refugees we spoke to across camps in Burundi, Uganda, and Kenya, recount being left in the dark, merely told that directives come from UNHCR’s Geneva headquarters.
The impact of these cuts is nothing short of catastrophic. Jean-Claude, a refugee in Burundi’s Bwagiriza settlement, poignantly described the struggle of rationing a drastically reduced supply of cornflour, a daily dietary staple. The psychological toll of this constant battle for sustenance, coupled with rising inflation, has left many refugees unable to supplement their diets, leading to increased hunger and desperation.
The anguish is palpable among parents who must face their hungry children with no food to offer. In Uganda’s Rwamwanja settlement, a young mother shared the heart-wrenching tactic of boiling an empty pot of water to give her children false hope of a meal. The desperation has driven some to consume inedible food, causing sickness and, tragically, even death.
Amina, a Congolese refugee in Bwagiriza, narrated the devastating loss of her child who, after days of starvation, could not digest the meager corn porridge provided. The absence of medical transport assistance, another victim of budget cuts, meant that help was out of reach when it was most needed.
The implications of these ration cuts extend beyond hunger. They fuel insecurity within the camps, with children turning to theft and women and youths exposed to sexual violence. Vumilia, a mother from a Burundian camp, shared the harrowing reality of young girls, including her own, being sexually exploited in exchange for food.
Moreover, the cuts threaten to transform peaceful coexistence with local communities into conflict. As Furah, a Congolese woman in a Ugandan camp, explained, the scarcity of resources is a recipe for violence and conflict.
In response, UNHCR has been pushing for self-reliance programs. However, the refugees we spoke to, like Marceline in the Kavumu settlement, question the feasibility of these programs without the necessary resources and support.
Our extensive interviews in African refugee camps reveal a profound disconnect between policy decisions and the lived experiences of refugees. Each budget cut translates into a human story of struggle and survival. The refugees’ keen observations and insights offer a critical perspective on the ground realities shaped by these cuts, reminding us that behind every statistic lies a human being in dire need of assistance and compassion.