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Newsletter 12-21
September 2012

Class I: Feeding the Refugees

MAJ Sandra Chavez, U.S. Army

"I spent years in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, and there I watched two young boys, perhaps 12 years old, fighting so viciously over rations that one kicked the other to death. He had not intended to kill his foe, of course, but we were young and very weak."1

This is a quote from Valentino Achek Dang, a refugee from the civil war in Sudan. Unfortunately, this is probably a common occurrence throughout refugee camps as food continues to be a scarce and critical resource. Many refugee camps lack a durable and sufficient food supply capability and rely heavily on humanitarian assistance.


What does this mean to military commanders? If, as many military strategists predict, our armed forces will be involved with more counterinsurgency (COIN), stability, peacekeeping, and humanitarian assistance missions in future years, it is probable that we will encounter refugees and displaced persons at some point. Class I support is an area where the military commander can have a positive impact and have Soldiers who are trained to perform these operations. The question might be, How can a military unit effectively support food operations for refugee camps while working with United Nations (U.N.) agencies and other nongovernmental organizations and intergovernmental organizations to alleviate issues of food shortages and malnutrition?

The Kenyan Experience

A recent example of these issues is the situation in Nairobi, Kenya. In 2011, the worst drought in 60 years caused a severe food crisis in East Africa.2 The world's largest refugee camp complex in Kenya today houses almost 500,000 refugees, far surpassing its designed capacity. The situation in Kenya has produced problems of limited food resources, severe malnutrition, and mass starvation. Many of these problems are due to the rise in the consumer price index for food, decreasing donations, and the amounts of aid U.N. agencies are receiving to enable them to provide humanitarian support.

Photo showing food distribution at the Dadaab refugee camp

Figure 11-1. Food distribution at the Dadaab refugee camp

Rising Refugee Populations

As the population of refugees and other displaced persons continues to climb at many refugee camps, the lack of sufficient food stocks and distribution staff has become more difficult to manage. Food shortages for refugees have become a crisis now more than ever. In Kenya and Ethiopia, it was estimated in February 2012 that refugee camps were experiencing a major humanitarian crisis involving hundreds of thousands of Somalia refugees.

Photo showing boxes of food

Figure 11-2. Boxes of food from the U.S. Agency for International Development sent to the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya during the Horn of Africa famine

The United Kingdom announced it would provide aid in Kenya to over 150,000 refugees per year over the next three years. In Ethiopia, Britain agreed to provide support to over 100,000 refugees every year up to 2015.3 This is just one example of a refugee crisis characterized by famine and starvation. Many other countries and camps do not have a solution like the United Kingdom's aid program, and aiding these populations will continue to remain a critical challenge.

The crisis in East Africa is a true representation of food shortage problems throughout many refugee camps in the world. Military commanders operating in environments where there are existing refugee camps or where they may expect to establish refugee camps must be aware of the challenges. In today's operating environment, the military can realistically expect to augment U.N. agencies with food support.

The Corresponding Challenge of Malnutrition

Malnutrition continues to be a challenge in many places for refugees as well. In many places in Africa, the required ration per person per day is 420 grams of uncooked rice, 70 grams of beans or lentils, and 20 grams of vegetable oil. This daily ration would provide 2,100 Kcals (kilocalories) per person per day, which is the U.N. standard.4 Unfortunately, many refugee camps cannot provide the U.N. standard for daily rations per person per day.

It is considered a natural emergency when there is a malnutrition rate of more than 15 percent, or more than 10 percent with aggravating factors such as an epidemic.5 In 2011, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported high levels of malnutrition among young children in Ethiopia's Dollo Ado camp, which was home to tens of thousands of Somali refugees. The UNHCR referred to a nutrition survey at the Kobe and Hilaweyn camps, which found that Somali refugee children under age five were in a critical state.6 The importance of logistics cannot be overstated, since military capabilities in these areas can either make a mission a success or a failure.

Finally, for military commanders, there are many logistic considerations and challenges when providing food for refugee camps. Some of the biggest considerations that need to be planned for are: access to refugee camps, necessary equipment and transportation to deliver food, sufficient storage facilities, and the stockage and distribution plan.

Planning Considerations

When planning for refugee or other displaced person support, a host of issues needs to be considered. Below is a recommendation of areas to be considered.

  • What agencies are currently working with the respective refugee camp(s)?
  • What is the population of the refugee camp?
  • What are the demographics of the refugee camp?
  • What are the current reported food shortages?
  • Are the current rations meeting U.N. nutritional standards?
  • What road networks support access to the refugee camps?
  • What organic equipment does the unit have to conduct food operations?
  • What food storage space does the unit have available?
  • What is the plan to receive, store, and issue food to the refugee camps?
  • Are potable water points available within a reasonable distance to prepare food?

These are just examples of some factors military commanders should consider when planning food operations at refugee camps. Depending on the environment where the refugee camps are located, there will be several other critical factors to consider.

One key area of note is the legal parameters of providing sustenance support to refugee camps. Currently, military forces conduct foreign humanitarian assistance (FHA) operations, with the focus exclusively on prompt aid to resolve an immediate crisis. Specific legal restrictions apply when conducting FHA operations. Military commanders should reference the applicable operational law handbook and consult their respective judge advocate general officers for clarification.


For U.S. military forces today, the contemporary operating environment has changed greatly since the Vietnam era. Since the 1980s, Soldiers have been conducting more COIN, peacekeeping, and humanitarian assistance operations and less conventional warfare. As civil wars continue to persist throughout the world, refugees and displaced personnel will almost always be an unfortunate result. Coupled with this will be natural disasters and other human-caused depredations. Military leaders at all levels will need to understand what it takes to support refugee and displaced persons operations, especially in the critical commodity area of food.


1. D. Eggers, What is the What. McSweeney's Publishing, October 2006, page 9.

2. Environment News Service, "Millions of African Climate Refugees Desperate for Food, Water." 6 July 2011. accessed at on 17 May 2012.

3. Department for International Development, "Somalia: Aid for Refugees who Fled Famine and Fighting," 23 February 2012. Crown copyright 2012. Accessed at on 17 May 2012.

4. "Food Aid for Refugees in East Africa." Accessed at on 17 May 2012.

5. "Canadian Broadcasting News. "Anatomy of a Refugee Camp," 19 June 2007. Accessed at on 17 May 2012.

6. "Child Malnutrition Levels High in Ethiopia's Refugee Camps," Voice of America News, 15 November 2011. Accessed at on 17 May 2012.


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