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World Refugee Day. In fleeing violence and hunger they’re facing the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time

The countries hosting the most refugees aren’t the wealthy, Western ones. An overview by NGO Action Against Hunger reminds us that refugees and internally displaced people are far from being safe.

World Refugee Day, celebrated on 20 June, is the right occasion to remember that migratory phenomena caused by wars and conflicts are on the rise. Last year alone the number of refugees and internally displaced people around the world hit 66 million. One of the main consequences has been the increase in the number of people facing hunger, a figure that has grown for the first time in over a decade.

Clinic for malnutrtion screening and treatment in Bangladesh © Action against Hunger
Clinic for malnutrtion screening and treatment in Bangladesh © Action Against Hunger

World Refugee Day and hunger

Indeed, hunger is often linked to massive displacement caused by violence. As well as their homes, these people leave all sources of income behind, becoming totally reliant on hosting communities’ solidarity and humanitarian aid, if they manage to reach a refugee camp and gain refugee status.

On average, a displaced person spends 17 years away from home. A shocking figure. However, their prolonged stay not only pushes refugee adaptation mechanisms to their limits (with cases of early marriages and child labour increasing almost everywhere, among other things), but also threatens basic services and resources of host countries, which aren’t the world’s wealthiest, but are instead developing countries, often susceptible to new conflicts.

A family of internally displaced people in Telkaif, Iraq
A family of internally displaced people in Telkaif, Iraq © Lys Arango/Action against Hunger

Moreover, in recent years there has some donor fatigue with regards to “frozen conflicts” and a tendency to reduce humanitarian aid when the presence of refugees lasts more than one or two years. This is why Action Against Hunger seeks solutions to generate livelihoods among refugees, through small forms of commercial exchange or professional activities within camps, in order to generate some kind of independence from humanitarian aid. One of the most successful projects in this area, linked to the recycling of waste, was launched by the NGO with Syrian refugees in Irbid, Jordan, with financial support from GIZ, the German development agency.

Syrian refugees in Jordan

The arrival of refugees, particularly from Syria to Jordan is putting pressure on the country’s economy and infrastructure. The number is now estimated at over 1.3 million people, with 79 per cent of them living in urban or rural communities, and the remaining 21 per cent in camps. The challenge is, therefore, to provide this broad population with basic livelihoods and at the same time support host communities in their immediate needs.

Read also: Azraq is the world’s first refugee camp powered by solar energy

Action Against Hunger’s Waste Upcycle programme, dedicated to Syrian and Jordanian women living in poverty, increases opportunities for livelihood activities, social integration and benefits for local areas, which are scattered with plastics, paper and other household waste. For many Syrian refugees, this is the first time they have the opportunity of earning some money and integrating in the local community of Irbid.

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In addition to Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, Action Against Hunger works in the context of other major crises: Mali, Niger, Mauritania, South Sudan and with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

With 620,000 arrivals in just three months, the Rohingya’s is the fastest-rising refugee crisis. This huge influx has had an overwhelming effect on Bangladesh, a country where 31.5 per cent of the population lives in poverty.

The informal camp of Cox's Bazar, in Bangladesh
The informal camp of Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh © Action Against Hunger

About one million people have taken refuge in the camps and villages of Cox’s Bazar. Over 40 per cent of children are facing stunted growth and rates of severe malnutrition are far above the the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s emergency thresholds.

In 2017, Action Against Hunger responded to three main (and interconnected) emergencies: the Rohingya refugee crisis, typhoon Mora and heavy flooding in north-western regions. Together with various local and international organisations, its has undertaken the prevention and treatment of acute malnutrition, and supported vulnerable people in formal and informal camps through direct interventions in the fields of nutrition, physical and mental health, water and hygiene.

Action Against Hunger have provided more than 190,000 hot meals to refugees through its kitchens and mobile distribution. At the feeding centre in Kutupalong, refugees receive a hot meal.  For many, it is their only proper meal of the day.. Bangladesh, 2017 © Kathleen Prior/Action against Hunger
Action Against Hunger has provided more than 190,000 hot meals to refugees through its kitchens and mobile distribution. At the feeding centre in Kutupalong, refugees receive a hot meal. For many, it is their only proper meal in a day. Bangladesh, 2017 © Kathleen Prior/Action Against Hunger

At the same time, the NGO’s teams have carried out activities of disaster risk reduction, strengthening the resilience of communities and authorities to cope with natural disasters. Bangladesh, in fact, is particularly vulnerable to climate disasters. But it isn’t the only one.

Forgotten refugees

The Sahel‘s unstoppable desertification is making an entire region of the African continent uninhabitable. If it is indeed true that the hunger season is a cyclical phenomenon typical of the sub-Saharan belt, due to global climate change the period of the “lean season” is extending more and more, while seasonal rains become more and more unpredictable.

The 2012 drought in Mauritania
The 2012 drought in Mauritania © Susana Vera/Action Against Hunger

This year, Senegal and Mauritania fear the worst food crisis since 2012, when the countries faced the last major drought. But this isn’t enough to stop the influx of refugees from Mali. “In Mberra’s camp there are about 56,000 refugees who have escaped from violence in Mali, half of whom aren’t even 18,” says Nouakchott Elena Vicario, Director of Action Against Hunger Mauritania. “We’re in a critical situation: only 6 per cent of the humanitarian appeal for refugees in Mauritania has been covered, but they’re completely dependent on food assistance.”

malnutrition senegal
During hunger season in Senegal, 750,000 people are expected to be at risk © Lys Arango/Action against Hunger

According to data from Italy’s Ministry of the Interior, in the last six months 14,400 people arrived on Italian shores – just one quarter of the refugees in this arid, resource-poor country, and just one-twentieth of the 280,000 refugees and asylum seekers from East Africa stranded in Yemen.

To flee violence, these people have found themselves in a war. To escape from hunger and drought, they’ve (unconsciously) ended up in the midst of the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time. But the international community (which is aware of their condition) has decided to forget them. World Refugee Day is here to force us, if not to act, at least to admit what’s going on.

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