Ethiopian refugee boy in a makeshift shelter next to a highway in Nairobi, Kenya | PHOTO: EPA/DANIEL IRUNGU
Ethiopian refugee boy in a makeshift shelter next to a highway in Nairobi, Kenya | PHOTO: EPA/DANIEL IRUNGU

The World Food Programme (WFP) has launched an alarm on the situation of Eastern African refugees. The UN body says millions of people face serious famine and malnutrition due to the socioeconomic consequences of the coronavirus.

Serious hunger and malnutrition loom for millions of refugees across Eastern Africa who depend on assistance from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) to survive, the organization said. The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced vital funding from donors in the region. 

In a statement, WFP said it has already been forced to reduce food or cash transfers by as much as 30% for over 2.7 million refugees in Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and Djibouti. 

And the UN programme will be forced to cut deeper in the coming months unless urgent additional funding is received in time, it said.

'Refugees are particularly vulnerable' 

"Refugees are especially vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19 because they are crowded together in camps with weak or inadequate shelter, health services and access to clean water and sanitation," said WFP Eastern Africa Regional Director Michael Dunford. 

The refugees are also affected both by the wider socioeconomic impact of the pandemic as well as by the disease itself. The most vulnerable women, children and elderly are increasingly at risk of becoming malnourished, which can in turn impact their immune systems and increase their risk of being infected by disease. 

"With Covid yet to peak in East Africa, we cannot turn our backs on people forced to flee and stuck in remote camps," Dunford added. "Many have already lost the few opportunities to earn money due to the economic downturn caused by COVID-19 restrictions." 

Appeal to finance aid in the region 

WFP requires 323 million US dollars to assist refugees in the region over the next six months, 22% greater than during the same period a year earlier. 

COVID-19 restrictions closed schools in refugee camps, meaning that children missed out on vital school meals in Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, and Rwanda. In all these countries except Rwanda, funding shortages meant that WFP was unable to provide take-home rations to refugee children to help them study at home and stay nourished. 

Extended school closures can lead to increased teenage pregnancies, sexual abuse, early marriage, violence at home, child labour and high school dropouts, WFP warned. The closures threaten to erode hard-won gains made over the years to improve access to quality schooling for refugees in camps. 

"Sadly, it is the poorest and most disadvantaged who suffer the most," said Dunford. "But we simply cannot let this happen. COVID-19 cannot be an excuse for the world to turn its back on refugees at this terrible time."

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