The United Nations launched an appeal on Tuesday for $266 million (221 million euros) to help feed more than three million refugees and asylum seekers across East Africa, suffering extra hardship because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Lockdowns and other measures to contain the contagion have made it more difficult for refugees to get food or earn money, said the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in a joint statement.
"We’ve never had such a terrible funding situation for refugees," said WFP's regional director for East Africa, Michael Dunford, adding that $266 million was needed for the next six months just to cover refugees' minimum needs.
The UNHCR estimates almost three-quarters of some 4.7 million refugees living in the 11 countries where it works in the region do not have enough to eat.
"The pandemic has been devastating for everyone, but for refugees even more so," said UNHCR's Clementine Nkweta-Salami. "Unless more funds are made available, thousands of refugees including children will not have enough to eat."
She said refugees faced with food rationing and cash cuts are already turning to "negative coping strategies" including skipping meals, selling assets, child labour and increased domestic violence.
"There is often a desperation and a feeling of no alternative," she said.
The funding shortfall has led the WFP to slash its monthly assistance for refugees by more than half in Rwanda, and make big cuts in countries including Uganda, Kenya, and South Sudan.
"We are deeply concerned that if cuts continue, (refugees) will be faced with a very difficult decision: stay in the camps where food and nutrition security is deteriorating or consider risking going back when it is unsafe," Dunford said.