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WFP Cuts to Affect Nearly 150,000 Refugees in Uganda

FILE - Refugees who fled the recent violence in South Sudan and crossed the border into Uganda carry their belongings as they await transportation from a transit center in the town of Koboko to a nearby settlement in Arua District, in northern Uganda, Jan 6, 2014.

The World Food Program (WFP) says it must cut its assistance to Uganda by half due to a shortfall in funding. The move will impact some 150,000 Ugandans living in refugee settlements, $30 million is needed to continue the needed level of assistance.

In recent years, Uganda has become a major hub for the region's refugees. Instability in the DRC and conflict in South Sudan has caused the numbers of those escaping violence to swell to more than 300,000. These are the largest numbers the WFP has ever worked with in Uganda and it' is causing incredible strain.

On January 27, the WFP announced they will cut rations for certain refugee groups in Uganda by 50 percent. The cuts will be rolled out according to length of stay, targeting those who have been here at least three years or longer. Those who are disabled, unable to seek work, ill or elderly will still receive their full rations.

"So prior to this ration cut, we would have broken across all of our commodities by April. So particularly in light of the uncertainty that is happening north of the border, or west of the border, we needed to build up some contingency stock," said Deputy Country Director of the WFP Michael Dunford. "In addition you never want to run out completely, because otherwise refugees have nothing. So it's better to gradually reduce, ensure there are provisions to meet the needs of the most vulnerable, to continue to provide something to those that are longer term, and to ensure there is a contingency should we have a dramatic increase in numbers, as a result of what's happening externally to Uganda."

Although the Ugandan government has one of the most progressive refugee policies in the world - providing refugee housing settlements, plots of land, freedom of movement and access to employment - hundreds of thousands still depend on the daily food rations supplied by the WFP.

Michael Owino, who handles food distribution in Rwamwanja Refugee Settlement, says people are upset by the cuts. Rwamwanja, in the southwest of Uganda, is home to nearly 20,000 refugees, mostly Congolese nationals.

An average ration for a refugee is around 2,100 kilocalories per day. Under the new program it will fall to around 1,000 kilocalories per day.

Owino told VOA the refugees are afraid that the food they're receiving is not sufficient to sustain them for a month. 95 percent of refugees in the camp rely on this food for their daily rations. Although he has explained to them why the food ration was cut, most say they don't know how they will survive and are afraid of their children starving. Food distributors are concerned adults will skip meals in favor of feeding their children.

The WFP requires $7.6 million per month to operate in all nine settlement camps throughout Uganda. The organization is hoping that increased commitments from donors will help stave off food scarcity issues that, if not addressed, will start to affect all refugees, including new arrivals, by April.