Combating Malnutrition in Refugee Camps

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CARMEL, California — Refugee camps are set up with the intention of pulling vulnerable civilian populations out of  harsh conflicts, but they often see their own humanitarian complications.

These complications come in cycles. Conflict drives refugee camps. Refugee camps perpetuate disease because of unsanitary, cramped, impoverished conditions. Overall, conflict causes malnutrition in refugee camps because food security is under attack, and thus both disease and malnutrition can compromise the immune system.

Often, children find themselves disproportionately affected for various reasons. First, children under five years old have not developed substantial immune systems, especially if they are malnourished and have been since birth. As a result, disease tends to target these groups hard and fast.

Case in point is the commonness of measles in camps in Ethiopia or malaria in sub-Saharan Africa. Both these diseases are killers on their own, but the resulting infections are sometimes worse. Children with compromised immune systems due to malnutrition fall susceptible to both the diseases and these infections at a huge rate.

So what is happening to the next generation that is growing up in refugee camps? They are starving, at rates of 25 percent in camps in Cameroon to anywhere near 50 percent in 2011 for Somali children fleeing to Ethiopia.

There are lasting effects. Children at such young ages have no resistance to starvation and malnutrition. Therefore, mortality rates in this demographic are inordinately high. Additionally, those who survive such malnutrition can often have lasting brain damage and face other health complications, effectively putting a significant force of the population out of commission.

The conditions seem hopeless.

But are they? True, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees projects to increase food security in displacement camps often hit funding issues early into the game. Additionally, there is often debate over who should help refugees. Neither the host country nor the home state want 10,000 starving children on their conscious or their hands. Finally, the only real way to improve living conditions is to send people home, which is only possible with a peaceful end to the conflict. And that leads to an entirely different issue.

However, while the situations in camps around the world look bleak, malnutrition in refugee camps can be tackled on several fronts with relatively little money and some success.

One of the most necessary and effective ways is to get more nutritious food into the hands of refugees. Much of the problem stems from an overreliance on cereal as aid rather than protein that comes from meat and milk. As a result, families are being kept alive on cardboard instead of the fatty foods their bodies need. However, since most people are reliant on food aid, action must be taken to both increase the ingestion of necessary nutrients as well as provide an outlet for independence and empowerment.

This can be done in a few ways. One of the most successful was employed by the UNHCR in camps in Ethiopia, starting back in 2007. The UNHCR and World Food Program began dispersing more diverse and protein-based foods like peanut butter and lentils to pregnant women and children. On top of this, UNHCR helped to establish gardening projects to promote self-reliance and sustainable food sources. Even make-shift gardens grown in sacks proved successful as they were both space and water efficient. Finally, the UNHCR helped to establish small-scale animal breeding to provide families with access to meat. This has proven successful in other camps as well with both rabbits and chickens.

While providing more nutritious food is undeniably a strong, tactical way of limiting malnutrition in refugee camps, it is not the only solution. One of the greatest problems that increases mortality of under-nourished children is the tendency for mothers to bring their children to health centers when it is too late. Therefore, early awareness is key.

This can be achieved in two ways. Doctors should be trained to check for malnutrition whenever they treat a child for any reason, whether it be another ailment or for simple administration of vaccines. This way, doctors can offer aid right away.

Mothers can also be taught to recognize early signs of malnutrition. Since health centers are often few and far between – and women may lack the time or motivation to bring their children to the doctor until it is urgent – having an eye on the child’s health at home is key. Teaching mothers to watch for symptoms like listlessness and swollen stomachs enables them to bring their children to the doctor at the first sign of trouble. Here, they can obtain therapeutic food programs that provide treatment and protein earlier when they are more effective.

Overall, malnutrition remains one of the greatest humanitarian concerns in refugee camps. These are two of the most important and potentially simplest ways of combating the problem, but the number of solutions is limitless. With less malnutrition, we open up a future for younger generations and alleviate the concern of other public health problems in displacement camps. It is an issue that needs to be of great concern and priority, and it exemplifies a situation in which a solution is possible with collaboration and creativity.

Sources: The Big Story, UNHCR 1, UNHCR 2, UNHCR 3, USA for UNHCR, IRIN, The Examiner, KFF, MSF
Photo: Voice of America

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