Food assistance cuts in the DRC severely impact refugees

UNHCR and WFP have sounded the alarm on the impact of food shortages on refugees in the DRC, after cuts of up to 25 per cent

Story by Johannes van Gemund (UNHCR) and Claude Kalinga (WFP) in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo

When conflict drove Josephine Androa from her native South Sudan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she left her farm and her ability to be fully self-reliant behind.

Refugee from South Sudan Josephine Androa in Meri refugee camp with two of her children in front of their shelter. Photo: UNHCR/Jean-Jacques Soha

Now living in Meri refugee site in Ituri province, the sickly mother of five relies on the monthly food assistance she receives from aid agencies as she takes care of her children alone.

“I would have died a long time ago without the aid I am receiving. With my poor health, I can’t work,” says the once hard-working farmer, who has had three surgeries since arriving at the camp in 2016.

Over 132,000 refugees like Josephine rely on food assistance from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency and the World Food Programme (WFP). Since March this year, this assistance has been cut by 25 per cent due to reduced funding.

The two agencies have called for urgent support to reinstate full food rations for the refugees mainly from Burundi, the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

Compounding the problem is the COVID-19 pandemic which has further exacerbated an already precarious food security and nutritional health situation.

“Due to the pandemic, refugees face rising food prices and may not be able to work because of confinement measures, closed markets and severely limited trade,” explains Alexandre Reounodji, the Head of WFP’s sub office in Bunia that provides food assistance to South Sudanese refugees.

He adds that the assistance — a US$ 9.75 stipend per person per month, down from original US $ 13 due to ration cuts — is given as direct cash or mobile money and is meant to cover the most basic food needs.

“Many refugees are now more dependent than ever on this assistance,” he adds.

But funding cuts have already had a significant impact on refugees like Josephine, for whom the cash for food assistance is indispensable.

“The cash is for food but I also use some of it for my medicine,” says Josephine who sometimes has to take small loans from neighbours when there are distribution delays.

“I pay it back when the cash comes. It is not easy, but I have no option.”

Almost a thousand miles to the west, in Inke refugee camp, Central African refugee Anne Marie Yagboute and her family have just finished shelling groundnuts and selecting cassava leaves for their next meal.

“This is the only thing that what we have been eating for weeks now. We cannot afford any other food since our monthly rations were reduced,” says the 42-year-old, who was forced to flee with her family in 2013, when fighting broke out between rebel groups and government forces.

CAR refugee mother Anne-Marie, 42, her husband Dibert and their children, are dependent on food assistance. © UNHCR/ Claris Achu

Anne-Marie’s husband, Dibert, used to be a fisherman back home — an activity he couldn’t continue in exile.

“When we arrived in the camp, there was nowhere to fish and as I can’t do any laborious work anymore, we really depend on aid,” explains Dibert, who stopped farming after undergoing surgery a couple of years ago.

While Anne Marie has been supporting the family by using the monthly cash to buy and sell meat, fish, cooking oil and other items, COVID-19 restrictions have made things harder. She explains that movement restrictions have led to increased prices on most basic items.

“A bottle of cooking oil that used to cost about 300 Congolese Francs has gone up to 1,500! Life is really tougher these days,” she adds.

Her worry has extended to her children’s education — one of her children has dropped out of secondary school for lack of money to cover tuition fees, uniforms and other school needs.

“We can no longer afford to have our children in school. Although schools are closed now, I am very concerned as all of them may have to drop out after the schools reopen.”

UNHCR and WFP are working on a long-term plan to ensure refugees like Anne-Marie and Josephine can progressively become self-reliant and less dependent on aid.

There are already small-scale initiatives in North and South Ubangi provinces, targeting Central African refugees. Both agencies plan to scale up and roll out further activities, including providing farming equipment and seeds to refugee farmers.

But the current food cuts have negatively affected ongoing self-reliance activities — in some cases, some refugees involved in the farming projects have abandoned their farms to work in other people’s farms.

“Reduced cash rations have limited people’s ability to take the time to develop their own businesses,” explains Pierre Polepole, a UNHCR Field Associate in Gbadolite, covering operations for Central African refugees in North and South Ubangi. “People need all the support they can get to survive in the short term and become self-reliant in the long term.”

He adds that more funds are needed to create more self-reliance schemes for refugees to lead decent lives. UNHCR and WFP are appealing to donors for US$ 12 million to continue the cash for food assistance for 132,000 refugees in the DRC until mid-2021.

Further funding of US $ 3.5 million is also needed for the first half of 2021 to expand self-reliance activities that will make refugees less dependent on food assistance.

Read more about WFP’s work in the DRC

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Insight by The World Food Programme

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