JRS on Plight of Refugees in Eastern Africa amid Cash Shortfalls, COVID-19 Restrictions

André Atsu, Regional Director for JRS Eastern Africa addressing the students of the Adult English Class in Doro Camp, South Sudan.
Credit: Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS)

The leadership of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) has, in an interview with ACI Africa, highlighted the plight of refugees in Eastern Africa as they grapple with the double crisis of  reduced food rations from the World Food Program (WFP) due to cash shortfalls and COVID-19 restrictions.

In the Thursday, July 23 interview, the Regional Director of JRS Eastern Africa, Andre Atsu noted that the reduced food rations coupled with COVID-19 restrictions  has had “an aggregate impact on the lives and the well-being of refugees” in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and South Sudan.

“The underfunding in the past months of the World Food Program (WFP), the main UN agency addressing hunger and promoting food security to the refugees in the camps, created deprivation among the refugees,” Mr. Atsu told ACI Africa July 23.

He added, “This has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the majority of countries into lockdown and/or restrictive movements.”

The challenges, the Regional Director said, have negatively impacted the livelihoods and well-being of the “15-20 percent of refugees in the region who live in urban settings” and who “are the worst hit with no access to their daily wages or income for food, nor are they able to pay their rent or medical bills.”

Malnutrition, street begging, and low self-esteem are among the negative impacts of the food crisis and COVID-19 restrictions facing refugees in Eastern Africa, the Kenya-based JRS official who has worked with the refugee agency for over 15 years said. 

“My main concerns, if the situation lasts longer, (are that) hunger and malnutrition will increase, and the poverty threshold flows into abject poverty, notwithstanding the destruction of agriculture due to swarms of locusts in the Horn of Africa precisely, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya,” Mr. Atsu told ACI Africa during the July 23 interview.

He also expressed his concerns about the increase “in domestic violence and gender-based violence” and the “spiraling of early or forced marriage, teenage pregnancies, and transactional sex for survival by the refugees.”

On July 9, WFP Executive Director, David Beasley indicated that more than 3.2 million refugees in Eastern Africa are “even more vulnerable than ever” due to aid disruption and rising food prices amid COVID-19 crisis.

Though food distribution is not JRS’s “priority area of intervention” but rather a “complementary activity,” the 40-year-old agency is bridging the food shortage gap among urban refugees by targeting “only the most vulnerable with food and/or cash assistance, payment of medical bills, and rent.”

“Kakuma camp (Kenya) is the only place where we distribute food to our Special Needs Children,” the Nairobi-based JRS official told ACI Africa and added, “Owing to their special dietary requirements of fortified foods, through support from our various donors, we were able to support them.”

In the last three months, the Catholic agency that is keen on the healing, learning, and determining the future of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons has reached out to urban refugees in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Kampala, Uganda; and Nairobi, Kenya with “food, cash assistance, paying rent, and medical bills.”

Among the refugees in dire need are those in Uganda. According to the Regional Director, these refugees are “most hit” by the strict lockdown restrictions imposed in the East African country on March 18 to curb the spread of the global pandemic.

He explained, “Within a month (from May 19 to June 19), the project received (support requests) from a total of 5,650 house-holds (25,760 individuals), an average of 270 house-holds (1,230 individuals) per day costing a total of US$185,000.00.”

By May, the official noted, the agency’s “annual budget for basic needs assistance was exhausted” leading to a COVID-19 appeal that saw various partners chip in.

Amid the food shortage and COVID-19 restrictions, JRS Eastern Africa is keeping refugees engaged through activities such as radio classes for students in Adjumani, northern Uganda; and ongoing online diploma courses for urban refugee students in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.

Other activities include counselling programs in areas where the agency works, as well as mass production of face masks by women in the agency’s skills training program in Kampala (Uganda), Kakuma (Kenya) and Mai Aini (Ethiopia) that enables them to earn a living.

In the July 23 interview, the Regional Director pleaded with governments in the region to “include refugees especially those in urban settings in their social safety net plan” noting that doing so “will ensure that they also receive assistance to meet their basic needs.”

“We continue to appeal to people of goodwill to continue supporting our activities through funding and any other means so that we are able to meet the needs of the people we serve,” Mr. Atsu told ACI Africa July 23.

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ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.

Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa
[email protected]