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Impact of Food Delays on Refugees

Author: Lina Payne - Food Researcher Resettlement programme, N. Uganda, Oxfam

Between 1995 and 1997, Ikafe and Imvepi settlements in Arua District, North Uganda, accommodated around 55,000 refugees from Southern Sudan. The long term objective of both refugee programmes was to move towards self-reliance within a period of 5 years. During this time, refugees were to be given assistance to help re-establish rural livelihoods, with support for agriculture, natural resources, community management and other off-farm initiatives. In the interim, while homes and enterprises were established and fields cultivated, refugees were to be provided with full food rations. The food was donated by WFP, with Oxfam (UK) responsible for distribution.

However, before the programme goals could be achieved, the entire area was seriously affected by escalating and on- going rebel activity. Much of this was centred within the settlement, with targeted attacks on over 60% of established refugee communities. By March 1997, the entire population, except for a few hundred households, was displaced either to other points within the settlement, or outside the gazetted area altogether. Many refugee communities (called 'Points' - comprising approximately 500 households) were burned, and some families displaced leaving them without any property whatsoever. More hard felt was the fact that the majority of families lost access to any independent source of livelihood. Unable to access their fields during the harvest period, they lost not only a valuable food source, but also seeds for the next season. Markets that had begun to flourish within the settlement collapsed, and small businesses failed because of lack of cash and low demand.

Refugees are now once again entirely reliant on outside agents to provide food and water. Yet Oxfam's efforts to maintain essential services are consistently frustrated because of shortages in food supply. WFP delivery of food has often been delayed by up to 40 days, mostly because of insecurity on the route from Kampala, forcing even the most cautious households to sell off assets or dispose of cash in order to feed their families. This paper highlights the impact of delayed food distributions which ultimately mean less food over a given period of time for men and women in Ikafe and Imvepi, and points to some changes in agency procedure in Uganda that might be explored to help alleviate the situation in the short-term.

Over the past year, refugees have lost on average up to 10 days food ration every month. As security has deteriorated, the situation has worsened. In October/November 1996, for example, some food distributions in Ikafe were up to 20 days late; in the following month, the entire population of Imvepi settlement - at that time numbering some 10,000 people - received food rations between 36 and 40 days late. For the month of December 1996 WFP representatives recommended that Oxfam distribute a 50% ration uniformly across the settlements, as there was no guarantee of further supplies in the short-term because of delays on the access route from Kampala.

Delays in delivery of food and the resulting reductions in food aid received have had significant impacts on the lives of refugees, as communities have adopted a series of short-term coping strategies to deal with the situation. These have included movement in unsafe areas in search of food (risking beatings, rape and even death); the sale of valuable assets and incursion of debt; the depletion of seed stocks, and consumption of seeds for cultivation; as well as activities with more socio-political implications, such as theft, prostitution and desertion. These strategies are having various long- term negative impacts, including an increase in family breakdown, loss of self-respect among men and women, lack of an independent source of livelihood, breakdown in community and cultural mores, increased malnutrition, and an escalated risk of contracting AIDS and STDs through rape.

Movement in unsafe areas

Refugees returned to unsafe areas in order to harvest crops which have not been destroyed. However, many refugees have been beaten and looted of all their produce as they return from their fields, some women have been raped on the roads, and there have been cases of men being killed whilst harvesting. On top of this, there have been several reported cases of abduction by rebels, with both men and women allegedly taken across the borders for training, or to be used by rebels for sex. "The most movement is the harvest movement. The young girls and women fear much because of the raping. But conditions force them to go to their fields to harvest their crops" Faisa Ring, a woman in Imvepi settlement explained.

Depletion of food and seed stocks

Households have exchanged simsim (sesame), which is an important source of protein, for more staple foodstuffs, especially maize flour. However, the rates of exchange are extremely poor, as local traders take advantage of their need to sell. In many cases, especially where families are displaced and a long way from their fields, men have taken on responsibility for harvesting - a role that was formerly entirely the domain of women. "Imagine: men are now doing the work of women. Is this what you call gender balance?" Alice Alia, the Women's Representative on the Refugee Council asked. But this change in roles could potentially impact negatively on women, who may be losing control over the sale and storage of crops and food. It may also have an impact on the nutritional and health status of the entire family, as women lose the capacity to make strategic decisions related to food security and requirements.

Many families have harvested their crops prematurely because of food shortages. This has meant that productivity is significantly reduced and seeds are more prone to being destroyed by pests. "Some of us have been forced by hunger to cut our crops early. Serena and simsim are not mature, so we are getting even less. The tubers for the sweet potatoes are being destroyed. We will have to start afresh with everything next season" Faisa Ring explained. The fact that seeds and tubers are not being left long enough to mature for the next planting season, coupled with the sale and exchange of an entire seed crop, represents a significant depletion of assets for most refugees. It means that Oxfam has had to consider providing another uniform seed distribution throughout both settlements, something that represents a significant setback in our efforts to encourage self reliance among refugees.

Sale of Assets

On top of this, families are forced to sell any remaining assets in order to buy food. As two refugees from Ikafe put it: "How can you let a small child go hungry when you still have a cooking pot or some clothes sitting beside you. Of course you will sell things just to put food in your child's stomach even for one day. But the rates here in the camps are so low, that selling a blanket will hardly last a family of five for two days" (Janet Moira). "People are selling their non- food items and any other assets, even clothes. This is only because of food" (Wilson Akulu). This has very immediate practical implications viz-a-viz Oxfam's ability to plan for future procurement and distribution needs. It also again compromises our efforts to enhance self-reliance, good management, and community or individual responsibility within the settlement.

Desertion of Families and Communities

In many cases, women have abandoned their communities to stay with local people or soldiers, those who can better guarantee a source of food. Some have even deserted their families, abandoning their plots, livelihoods and independent security, as they find their husbands unable to perform the expected role as provider for the household. A few unmarried and young girls have been forced into prostitution. "These things happen, but they are happening illegally" Janet Moira from Ikafe explained. "This condition is forcing the young and unmarried women to prostitution. They are getting used by the natives so that they can be given money or food for feeding. Some abandoned their plots and lived with natives because of food".

These factors are likely to have significant longer-term implications. With a forced increase in the number of partnerships, women open themselves up to contracting AIDS and other STDs, as well as to pregnancy and early motherhood in a very unstable environment. By abandoning their communities and any independent source of livelihood, they jeopardise their longer-term security. Already, some girls who stayed with soldiers in Ikafe have been forced to leave their parental homes for good, because they were not accepted back into the community after the military presence was reduced. Communities feel even more disempowered and a greater loss of control, as they are unable to take decisions and provide any guidance especially to the younger generation. As Wilson Akulu from Ikafe put it, "In Sudan, parents could keep control of young girls; they were often kept inside. Even before the insecurity, in Ikafe if someone played with another person's daughter, she was given to him in marriage. Now because of hunger, anyone resorts to anything. Parents have no power over soldiers". Charity Apai has added that "it may be an agreement between two people; the woman will say she hired the man to help her, but we don't know how they agreed for payment". It has become increasingly difficult to utilise the normal checks and balances, particularly in an environment where traditional ethnic and kinship networks have already broken down.

Employment & Business

Another mechanism for coping with the delays in food supply is for refugees to seek piece rate work ("leja-leja"). However, wages are highly exploitative, because of the fierce competition for work throughout the settlement. This is even more accentuated, for women seeking work in nearby fields because of their restricted mobility. The pressures of having to look for a daily source of cash income in order to get food have brought with them a change in gender responsibilities, which has had negative (as well as some positive) implications. During the harvest season, for example, more work was available in the immediate locality for women; as a result, it fell on men to cook and care for children, while their wives were out earning. Many women became the primary income earner for the family. While this may have raised the profile of women at household level, it inevitably increased their work burden, which was already overloaded because of the additional responsibilities they took on in the wake of insecurity and displacement, especially as health and water services declined. At the same time, it led to a significant loss of confidence and self- respect among men. "They are no longer the ones who bring in the income. (They are no longer) like the man in the house" Martin Izzy, a refugee from Ikafe explained. As Hilary Sebit, also from Ikafe, put it: "Doing women's work makes them feel bad about themselves". As a result, men are notably demotivated, and there has been a significant increase in drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. Women in turn have become more at risk from violence within the home, as a result of increased stresses created by the daily worry of having to search for food. Some women have returned to their parental homes, while in other cases, men have chased their wives away. "This confusion is making a lot of women leave their husbands. Families are breaking up because food is not there.the women are too tired (to perform their responsibilities) and fighting breaks out. This is all because of hunger", Dominica Kaku, a representative on the Refugee Council explained.

In addition to leja-leja work, refugees are seeking income from traditional sources such as brewing and petty trading, but any profit is being drained on food expenditure, instead of being reinvested. As a result, fewer people are managing to sustain small businesses, even though refugees with access to cash income are considerably less vulnerable. In other cases, families are taking loans of food (though sources are limited) or pawning property, which is subsequently lost. There has also been a noticeable increase in petty theft.

Decline in Health Status

Apart from all the social and economic implications of food shortages, many refugees are now suffering from malnutrition and poor health. In Imvepi settlement, for example, the cases of malnutrition increased considerably since the insecurity. The elderly and young children are particularly vulnerable to sickness; but even the able-bodied are less able to walk long distances or work a full day when they are already weak. As a young mother, Sarah Dudu, from Ikafe put it: "Everyone is becoming too weak. We have had no food for 3 weeks now. God blessed me with this child 6 weeks ago, but she's not growing. I have no milk because I have no food, and now I fear I'll lose her".

A Time for Changing Practice

Oxfam fully acknowledges that WFP is making every effort to ensure timely food delivery for refugees in Ikafe and Imvepi settlements, in spite of extreme global and regional resource demands. There are also extreme logistical constraints on transporting food items to Arua District. However, it is still a fact that the late delivery of food is having significant negative impacts on the lives of refugees, as they adopt various short-term coping strategies some of which have potentially important longer-term implications.

Oxfam does not have the financial resources, nor is it mandated, to provide food to refugees in Arua District. However, because of delays in the delivery of food, we have been unable to ensure sufficient and fair distribution of food to all refugees throughout the settlement, which is our responsibility. Three changes to WFP procedures in Uganda could make a significant difference to the coping strategies of refugees in this and any emergency environment.

First, all possible options to ensure that when food is available at country level it can be distributed to the settlements in a more timely way should be explored. Such options might include negotiating for the creation of 'peace-convoys' for the transportation of food, and could even include consideration of the air-lifting of supplies. Secondly, buffer stocks of at least one month's ration for the entire refugee population, within the district or vicinity of the settlement, should be provided. This would significantly reduce the number of days that refugees are left without food, and also enable agencies to provide more accurate information to communities on delivery schedules, so that they are better positioned to plan for shortages. The third change is for WFP to revisit their policy of not providing food rations retrospectively. There is evidence, not only from Ikafe and Imvepi, of significant depletion of assets and incursion of debt as a result of food delays and shortages. This means that it will now take this refugee community significantly longer to re-establish mechanisms for achieving self-reliance. They have lost the foundation and means to start building up and planning for the future.

See also the Post Script to this article.

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Lina Payne (1997). Impact of Food Delays on Refugees. Field Exchange 2, August 1997. p9. www.ennonline.net/fex/2/impact

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