By Violet Ikong 

When talk of imminent food cuts and cash reduction began to spread among refugees in Kenya in early April, they hoped the rumors would be proved wrong. However, their hope was short-lived. Later that month, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) announced cuts and reductions to begin in May. The reaction among residents of the refugee camps was strong, since they were already surviving on insufficient food. 

Kenya is one of the largest refugee-hosting countries in Africa, and shelters almost 600,000 refugees in the camps of Kakuma and Dadaab. Most of the camps’ residents depend on the monthly distribution of cereals, pulses, and vegetable oil from WFP to survive. 

Until this month, they also received monthly food vouchers known as “Bamba Chakula,” a Swahili phrase translated as “Get your food.” With the vouchers, refugees received Kes600 ($4.58) paid into special SIM cards to redeem food items from shops and traders approved by WFP. To survive on this amount for a month, refugees would need to redeem food worth Kes20 ($0.15) per day. 

Now the WFP has announced an end to Bamba Chakula, leaving refugees in Kakuma and Dadaab with only monthly food distribution to meet their nutrition needs.  

“There’s no food here. We don’t know the meaning of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Sometimes we eat once a day and other times, we go a full day without food,” said Moses*, a South Sudanese refugee in Kakuma who has been living in the camp since 2013 after his family fled the civil war in his home country. “It gets difficult sometimes and we have to sell portions of our aid food [to fellow refugees and members of host communities] to get money to settle pressing issues.” 

Refugees in the Kalobeyei integrated settlement, which the UN describes as “a settlement that would promote the self-reliance of refugees and host communities by providing them with better livelihood opportunities and enhanced service,” receives monthly cash transfers called “Bamba Chapaa,” translated in Swahili as “Get your money,” instead of direct food assistance. The WFP announced cuts for this program as well. Bamba Chapaa is an unrestricted cash transfer program where refugees receive money in ATM cards to purchase whatever they want, including non-food items, instead of monthly food distribution. Bamba Chapaa in Kalobeyei has been reduced from Kes1,350 ($10.31) per refugee to Kes1,050 ($8.02). 

After WFP announced these changes, thousands of refugees in Kalobeyei staged a protest on April 22 to challenge the changes. However, despite the protest, the WFP has nonetheless begun implementation of the program cuts. 

Funding shortfalls 

The recent cuts are not the first time refugees in Kenya have witnessed something like this. Between 2018 and 2019, refugees in the country survived on 80% of the food ration required for their nutrition, and in October 2020, the ration was reduced to 60%. Again, in 2021, WFP further reduced the rations to 52%, and down to 50% in February this year. A further reduction to 40% was announced in April, following an end to Bamba Chapaa and a reduction of Bamba Chapaa. 

WFP cites funding shortfalls as reasons for the cuts which, over the years, have affected refugees living in camps and settlements within and outside Africa. According to Chol*, a South Sudanese refugee in Uganda, “Refugees in Uganda are facing a food crisis that is better seen than heard. The stories put out by the media don’t do justice to the situation and they do not reflect the reality of what we [refugees] are going through in terms of hunger.” 

A 2023 investigation by The New Humanitarian revealed that about 4% of the refugees in Uganda receive no food or cash assistance, 82% receive about 30% of WFP’s standard rations, and 14% of highly vulnerable refugees receive 60% of the rations. 

WFP’s food and cash assistance to refugees is funded by voluntary donations from governments, corporations, and individuals, and in recent years, the organization hasn’t met its funding targets. In 2021, WFP received about $9.57 billion against the required $15.7 billion for global humanitarian assistance and $14.1 billion against the required $21.1 billion for 2022. The organization suffered a 64% global funding shortfall last year, receiving only $8.3 billion of the required $22.8 billion. 

Despite these shortfalls, humanitarian needs continue to increase. The U.N. Global Humanitarian Overview (GHO) projected 274 million people in need of humanitarian assistance and protection in 2022, and by 2023, the figure increased to 363 million. So far this year, 301 million people require humanitarian assistance, a slight reduction from last year, which is still high and could increase – due mainly to ongoing wars and natural disasters – by the end of the year. 

“Hidden humanitarian crisis” 

Some refugees in Kenya argue that food cuts and cash reductions are a deliberate attempt by the organization and the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to force refugees to return to their home countries. Such refugees, like Moses,* have either left Kenya or are planning to.  

“I’ve decided to go back to my country in a few weeks from now, to start life all over even though it won’t be easy and I could face difficulties there,” Moses said, adding, “It’s better to return home than continue to stay here and starve.” 

Many refugees in Uganda also have returned home or plan to do so. “Hunger has forced many South Sudanese refugees to return home. The situation is alarming and many refugees are saying it’s better to die back home than die from hunger in a refugee camp,” said Akoi*, another South Sudanese refugee in Uganda. 

Recently, a 61-year-old woman in the Kalobeyei settlement reportedly took her life because she was denied food items by a trader to whom she was indebted. A 2020 study by the Refugee Studies Centre of the University of Oxford revealed that many refugees purchase food on credit from traders and leave their ATM cards (Bamba Chapaa) or SIM cards (Bamba Chakula) as collateral. By the time the refugees receive the WFP transfers and the traders deduct what they’re owed, refugees are left with little or no cash and are forced to buy more food items on credit. 

According to neighbors of the deceased, the woman’s inability to pay for previous food items bought on credit prevented a trader in the settlement from giving her more, and the mother of seven reportedly took her life out of frustration. 

The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) released a statement after the suicide incident, stating that it had received reports of three suicide cases in Kenya camps in April. 

The committee’s President and CEO Eskinder Negash said, “There is a hidden humanitarian crisis happening in Kakuma and Kalobeyei, and as the world looks away, human beings are starved to death and robbed of their dignity.” The committee also implored “WFP to urgently restore food rations in Kakuma and Kalobeyei.” 

However, many worry that the WFP will have difficulty restoring initial food rations and cash transfers to refugees in Kenya. “Many crises are happening worldwide and the World Food Programme is responding to people affected by those crises … they do not only work in Kenya,” sais Santos Madhieu, a South Sudanese refugee and journalist in Kenya. “And this means the available funding has to be managed to get to everyone,” he added. 

How long these changes will last and if there will be more is unclear, but in a document WFP promised to make efforts to restore Bamba Chakula and cash transfers for refugees in Kenya. 

“This situation is not ideal; WFP understands that these changes are disruptive and that cash transfers through ‘Bamba Chakula’ play a significant role in enhancing food security, nutrition, and livelihoods of refugees. WFP will therefore make all efforts to secure required resources with the objective of improving the food basket and including cash transfers as a portion of the food assistance modality as soon as possible,” said a part of the document. 

*Names changed to conceal the identities of refugees