Food security
Promoting opportunities for refugees and IDPs to earn their livelihood

Refugees and IDPs are frequently forced to flee without the basics of life. Even when they are provided with a degree of protection in a country of asylum, they may be denied freedom of movement and the legal right to work, be confined to refugee camps where they are prevented from cultivating their own food, and lack access to trading markets.

Under these conditions, refugees are forced to depend on the host country and international community to meet their basic needs including, most fundamentally, food. Food aid is often inadequate either in quantity or in nutritional value, leading to serious physical harm and negative social consequences.

The refugee food pipeline is often precarious, depending on the sufficiency and timing of aid from a few donor nations that respond to urgent appeals. Frequently, new crises compete for attention with ongoing needs. An emerging issue is access to food in urban areas, where aid may not be available, or where a lack of legal status or documentation may lead refugees and asylum seekers to avoid seeking assistance for fear of exposing their presence to the authorities.


  • JRS position
  • In practice
JRS position

Tragically, too many refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in camps and centres served by national and international humanitarian organisations, literally live a "hand to mouth" existence. Their access to food depends on the adequacy and timing of aid received from a few donor nations responding to urgent and competing appeals in which new crises compete for attention with ongoing needs.

Most people would find the standard food ration of 2100 Kcal per day, often consisting of nothing more than grain, salt and a small amount of oil, meagre and monotonous at best; yet far too often, the present capricious international food delivery system leads to breaks in the food pipeline, resulting in a period of time in which one or more basic commodities necessary to meet even the most minimal nutritional standards is unavailable.

Chronic food insecurity leads not just to the immediate misery caused by hunger, but also to malnutrition and increased susceptibility to illnesses. This is particularly true for the most vulnerable - the youngest and oldest in the population, pregnant and lactating women and those with compromised immune systems. Food shortages of even a relatively short duration can lead to developmental deficiencies in children, with severe and sometimes permanent consequences for their physical and mental development. Malnourished girls are more likely later to die in childbirth due to impaired physical development.

Malnourished children tend to drop out of school and are at increased risk of abuse and exploitation and recruitment as child soldiers. Some women, desperate to feed their families, are even forced to resort to trading sex for food, which contributes to the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases, as well as to a loss of human dignity. Likewise, many men are driven to engage in risky endeavours in order to obtain food for their families.

Often, refugees and IDPs facing food cuts will feel they have no alternative than to leave the camps and move on in search of livelihood opportunities without the appropriate travel documents or official sanction - thus becoming "irregular movers", risking arrest and imprisonment, or becoming victims of human smugglers and traffickers.

In protracted refugee situations where donor response is flagging, where partial integration is thought to have been achieved, or where authorities wish to encourage repatriation, permanent rationcuts may be instituted. The premature institution of rationcuts faces refugees with the stark choice of remaining in their host country without sufficient food, or returning to their home countries prematurely.

Some refugees may be forced to return to situations where their lives are at risk, either because of security conditions at home or because no adequate arrangements have been made to ensure their livelihood upon return.  Such coerced repatriations are much less likely to be sustainable. People forced to repatriate in this way will frequently move on again. The same dynamic applies to IDPs effectively forced to return home due to lack of food in their place of refuge.

Key recommendations

  • Donors should give priority to appeals from the UN World Food Programme (WFP) for refugees and IDPs, and fulfill their pledges completely and in a timely manner. Sufficient food assistance should continue to be provided to refugee populations in protracted situations until durable solutions can be found.
  • Host governments should promote opportunities for refugees and IDPs to engage in livelihood activities so that they may either produce or purchase food. This includes the legal right to work, freedom of movement in order to seek employment, and access to land, agricultural inputs, and markets.
  • Donor governments should assist host governments by providing additional humanitarian and development assistance in refugee and IDP hosting areas, so as to make possible the development of self-reliance opportunities for refugees and IDPs, reduce tensions between displaced populations and local residents, and mitigate any negative economic effects on host communities.
  • Donors should recognise that both cash and commodities are needed to meet world food needs. Pledges should be met in such a way that the World Food Programme will have the flexibility either to import food or purchase food on local or regional markets as individual situations dictate.
  • Food ration reductions should only be made when it is certain that refugees have adequate access to food from other sources. Before any rationcuts are made, a careful assessment of the needs of vulnerable individuals within refugee and IDP communities should be undertaken and subsequent food distributions should take these needs into account.
  • Cuts in food rations should never be used as a means of coercing repatriation.
  • More attention should be paid to the development of early warning systems, allowing more rapid assessment of, and responses to, food needs at all phases of forced migration.
  • Reforms should be sought in the present system of funding food needs, so that the ongoing needs of refugees and other vulnerable populations are not neglected due to competing demands from new food emergencies.
In practice

JRS South Africa has an office in Makhado, a town close to the border of South Africa and Zimbabwe. This office provides food and hygiene packages of World Health Organisation (WHO) standards to those who visit the office, on a no-questions-asked basis. This office fed approximately 12,000 beneficiaries in 2010 – many of whom were undocumented, vulnerable Zimbabweans. Many visitors arrive hungry and tired, without having slept or washed in days. The Makhado office is in the process of building a shower station to provide visitors with a space to clean up and restore this aspect of their personal dignity.

Burundians who repatriate from the Tanzania camps are more vulnerable than those who decided to stay in Burundi during the war. In an overpopulated country where more than 85% of the people rely on land for cultivation, JRS Burundi runs a food security programme in the east. Our aim in this programme, underway since 2007, is to promote self-sufficiency and durable solutions for returnees through accompaniment, workshops and ongoing formation.

In many countries, such as Central African Republic, food security is inadequate for both the local population and refugees. Through dialogue and supplying information to refugee and host communities, JRS works to reduce tensions between the two, and to achieve a more equitable aid response.

Refugees and IDPs account for only a small proportion of the one hundred million people today receiving international food assistance. However, they are critically disadvantaged by the very fact of their displacement and by legal and physical restrictions that often make it impossible for them to meet their food needs. This is why access to food is a key advocacy area of JRS. We work to promote food security in Africa, in other places where refugee food aid may be inadequate, in new emergencies or in protracted refugee situations.