Warning of increasing risk of mass deaths from starvation in many countries in Africa and in Yemen due to worsening drought and conflict, the United Nations refugee agency has called for international support to prevent a repeat of the 2011 tragedy in the Horn of Africa that claimed more than 260,000 lives.
“An avoidable humanitarian crisis in the region, possibly worse than 2011, is fast becoming inevitable,” Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said at a media briefing in Geneva.
“A repeat must be avoided at all costs.”
Estimates indicate about 20 million people are living in areas hit hard by drought. More than four million of them are refugees and the number of displaced is rising due to consecutive harvest failures, famine and insecurity.
Worst affected are children and lactating mothers.
In south-east Ethiopia, for example, acute malnutrition rates among newly arriving Somali refugee children aged between six months and five years is reported in the range of 50 to79%. Similarly, in South Sudan, children account for the majority of the refugees, about 62%.
Nearly all refugees, including children, are dependent on food assistance, such as that provided by the World Food Programme (WFP) – the UN’s emergency food relief agency – but the lack of funds to buy food is seeing rations being cut. Worst hit is Uganda where rations have been cut by up to 75%. Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Rwanda (by between 20 and 50%) and Djibouti (by 12%) are also witnessing this decrease.
“Many refugees are without access to livelihoods and agriculture or food production and their ability to take matters into their own hands and help themselves is limited,” noted Edwards said.
Severe food insecurity is also causing many students to drop out of school. About 175,000 students in drought areas in Kenya have stopped going to school and almost 600 schools have closed in Ethiopia.
In all, some five million children could see their education disrupted over coming weeks and months.
Drastic situation becoming worse
This daunting humanitarian scenario has been further complicated by challenges including new displacement, economic hardships, crop failure and conflict.
In Somalia, of the half a million people displaced since November, close to three hundred thousand were displaced in the first quarter of this year and the country continues to see a complex situation of outflows and returns, mainly from Yemen.
In famine hit parts of South Sudan increased fighting, insecurity, lack of access to aid and a collapsing economy have left 100,000 people facing starvation and a further million on the brink of famine.
The humanitarian situation in Yemen continues to decline. Already the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, food needs are being cited as the lead factor in displacement at three quarters of all locations across the war-torn country where there are internally displaced people.
Responding to the growing crisis, the UN refugee agency and its partners have been scaling up efforts.
UNHCR operations in these countries are facing considerable constraints due to limited funding and Edwards said it had become urgent for shortfalls to be addressed.