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Houses of refugees at Kyaka II camp in Uganda are an easy target for thieves, the residents say.Robert Bociaga /The Globe and Mail

At the overcrowded Minawao camp in northern Cameroon, some refugees can remember a time when their monthly food ration would last a full month.

Because of drastic shortfalls in United Nations budgets, their rations today are just 70 per cent of recommended levels. The refugees say their food often runs out after two weeks, forcing them to search for odd jobs at nearby farms to survive.

The food shortage is just one of the problems at the camp, home to about 75,000 people who fled from attacks by the Boko Haram radical Islamist militia in neighbouring Nigeria.

Their mud-brick houses can collapse in the rain. Electricity is often disrupted. Drainage and sanitation are poor, and hundreds of families lack proper latrines – leading to a recent cholera outbreak that killed three refugees and sickened dozens of others.

“It’s not easy, not easy at all for us here,” said Isaac Luka, leader of the camp’s refugee association, who escaped Nigeria after surviving a Boko Haram massacre in his home village.

“Many households here do not have latrines,” Mr. Luka said. “They can dig a pit, but they don’t have money to buy cement to cover it. The latrine gets filled up and we cannot do the drainage on our own. So having cholera in the camp is not very surprising.”

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Minawao camp, originally designed for 15,000 refugees, has seen its population more than triple in the past few years. It is just one of many refugee camps across Africa where overcrowding and reduced budgets are now common – a symptom of a global refugee crisis that has escalated dramatically in recent years.

For the first time in recorded history, more than 100 million people are homeless today as a result of conflict and climate change. The estimated total of 103 million refugees and internally displaced people has increased by more than 14 million in the past year – the largest annual increase ever.

Kyaka II has quadrupled in population in the past five years. About 120,000 refugees are sheltering there now, mostly women and children fleeing violence.Robert Bociaga /The Globe and Mail

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, is asking donors for more than US$10-billion in support for next year, the largest budget it has ever sought. But it is increasingly finding it difficult to meet its funding targets, especially since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has heightened the global refugee crisis.

In a dozen countries, including six in Africa, the agency failed to obtain even half of its targeted funding this year. Over all, its budget shortfall widened by almost US$1-billion in the first nine months of this year.

The crisis was compounded by the rising cost of living this year. “In many cases, these neglected populations were enduring a triple hit: while funding for their protection and assistance was down, prices of food and fuel were up, and the global economic downturn loaded yet more disadvantage onto the backs of the most vulnerable,” UNHCR said in its global appeal for 2023.

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Climate change is adding pressure to the crisis. In Somalia, for example, a prolonged drought has pushed 24,000 refugees across the border to the Dadaab camp in northern Kenya over the past four months alone. The camp is overcrowded, space is running out and the lack of clean water in temporary shelters has led to a cholera outbreak.

In Cameroon, unlike some countries, refugees are allowed to work outside their camp to supplement their eroding food rations. But the search for income can be arduous.

Dzaleka camp in Malawi was designed for about 10,000 people, but it is now sheltering about 56,000 refugees and asylum seekers.Robert Bociaga /The Globe and Mail

Rebecca Ibrahim, who fled to Minawao camp after her father was killed in a Boko Haram attack on her Nigerian village, grows groundnuts on a small piece of land near the camp. She manages to harvest only a bucket of groundnuts each season – compared with 20 bags of the same commodity when she lived in Nigeria – and she worries that she won’t be able to afford school fees for her eight children.

“Our budget has not tripled like the number of the refugees, so we need to do more with less,” said Olivier Beer, the UNHCR representative in Cameroon.

“We have less budget for education, health, protection from gender-based violence. … It is more challenging today. We hope that donors will understand that the situation in Cameroon is dire when it comes to refugees.”

In Malawi, growing frustration among refugees has sparked several violent protests in recent weeks at the overcrowded Dzaleka camp. Food assistance has been cut by 25 to 50 per cent over the past four years, and the protesters were angered at mounting restrictions and delays in aid.

“People began hurling stones and breaking the windows of two cars belonging to charity workers,” said Innocent Magambi, a refugee-rights advocate at Dzaleka, describing a protest in late November.

“Soon after, they began looting what was outside and inside the distribution centre’s warehouse. The police were sent in to contain the situation, and some young people created roadblocks. The police used tear gas, and the young people threw stones.”

The camp was designed for about 10,000 people, but it is now sheltering about 56,000 refugees and asylum seekers – and the overcrowding will worsen as the Malawian government pushes ahead with a plan to force 8,000 additional refugees back to the camp from the towns and villages where they were living. The UN has criticized the plan, which would turn self-sufficient people into aid recipients.

“Everything is a struggle,” said Beatrice Nyuke, a 40-year-old Congolese refugee at the camp. “I’m a single mother and I have no means to support my two daughters. Even for washing clothes, you must stand in a queue from sunrise – first for water, and then for a space to hang the clothes.”

Africa’s largest refugee population, more than 1.5 million people, is in Uganda, where many camps are increasingly crowded and the UN has been obliged to reduce its budgets because of a shortage of donor funds. “Lack of funding for food supplies is raising the risk of exploitation, including gender-based violence,” UNHCR said in a section on Uganda in its latest global appeal.

Growing frustration among refugees has sparked several violent protests in recent weeks at the overcrowded Dzaleka camp.Robert Bociaga/The Globe and Mail

One of the biggest Ugandan camps, Kyaka II, has quadrupled in population in the past five years. About 120,000 refugees are sheltering there now, mostly women and children fleeing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most receive the equivalent of only a few dollars a month from the UN food agency.

“You can’t survive on that, so you do other odd jobs, like digging,” said Baptiste Nyange, who left Congo in 2015 after his wife was killed and his home burned to the ground during clashes among militia groups.

“The major problem is finding food,” he said. “The cost of living is high. Everything is hard. The UN tries to help, but nothing is enough – we are so many here.”