GENEVA - Nearly 800,000 refugees in Africa have had their food rations slashed due to a lack of global aid funding, threatening to push many to the brink of starvation, the UN has warned.
The cuts of up to 60 percent are "threatening to worsen already unacceptable levels of acute malnutrition, stunting and anaemia, particularly in children," the United Nations' World Food Programme and refugee agency UNHCR said in a joint statement.
The heads of the two agencies were in Geneva on Tuesday to make an urgent appeal to governments for more funds to help feed Africa's refugees.
"It is unacceptable in today's world of plenty for refugees to face chronic hunger," said UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres.
WFP will need $186 million (136 million euros) by the end of the year to restore full rations and prevent cuts elsewhere, while UNHCR said it needed another $39 million (29 million euros) to fund the nutritional support it provides to vulnerable refugees across the continent.
"Many refugees in Africa depend on WFP food to stay alive and are now suffering because of a shortage of funding," Ertharin Cousin said in a statement.
Refugees hit by ration cuts were desperately looking for ways to put food on the table, with the crisis pushing more and more children to quit school to seek work and prompting families to marry off their girls at a younger age.
"Survival sex" prostitution by women and girls trying to raise money for food was also a growing problem, the statement said.
South Sudanese women fight for food at an IDP camp. PHOTO/AFP/UNMISS
The funding crisis has forced WFP to cut rations for a third of the 2.4 million refugees it helps feed in 22 African countries, with more than half of the 800,000 affected refugees seeing rations slashed by at least 50 percent.
'Dire' situation in Chad
The situation was most dire for the 300,000 refugees in Chad -- mainly from Sudan's Darfur region and from the Central African Republic -- whose rations had been cut by as much as 60 percent, the statement said.
Refugees there were in many cases left with rations of just 850 calories per day, compared to the recommended 2,100 calories adults should receive to remain healthy.
"Desperately hungry refugees continue to cross daily into southern Chad from the strife-torn Central African Republic, only to find that hunger does not stop at the border," the statement said.
It cited the case of 24-year-old Habiba who walked with her four children for three months through the Central African bush to escape the violence ravaging the country, often going days without food and water.
Habiba, who gave birth to her youngest daughter along the way but who became so weak, starved and dehydrated she could not breastfeed, crossed into Chad only to discover that UNHCR's Dosseye border camp had run out of supplementary food for pregnant and nursing mothers, it said.
A woman carrying a bucket of water on her head looks on as refugees gather water at the Tomping IDP camp. PHOTO/AFP
The situation was not much better for some 150,000 refugees in Central Africa or in South Sudan, where supplies had also been cut by at least half, while another 338,000 refugees in Liberia, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Ghana, Mauritania and Uganda had seen their rations dwindle up to 43 percent, the UN agencies said.
In addition, a series of unexpected, temporary ration reductions, sometimes due to insecurity, had hit camps in several countries since early 2013, including Kenya, Ethiopia, the Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon.
"The number of crises around the world is far outpacing the level of funding for humanitarian operations, and vulnerable refugees in critical operations are falling through the cracks," said Guterres.
He warned that even small cuts to rations could spell disaster for already undernourished people, with the impact, especially on children, "immediate and often irreversible".