The Right to Food and Refugees: Food Autonomy, Dignity, and Cultural Adequacy Within Refugee Camps

By: Photini Kamvisseli Suarez

December 5, 2022

The right to food is an internationally recognized human right, and is referred to in Article 25 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: 

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

The right to food is further defined by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food as follows: 

“The right to have regular, permanent and free access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensures a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear.”

Three key aspects of the right to food provided by the United Nations are availability, accessibility, and adequacy. Availability requires that food be available to all individuals either through natural resources or a system of distribution that brings food to where the demand is. Accessibility requires that food be physically accessible to those who are physically vulnerable, including children, the elderly, people with disabilities, people in remote areas, and incarcerated people. Accessibility also requires that food be economically accessible: individuals must not be forced to choose between paying for adequate food and paying for other necessities such as medicine. Additionally, economic policies such as minimum wage should support fulfillment of the right to food. Finally, adequacy requires that food satisfy the dietary needs of individuals based on personal factors such as age, health, living conditions, occupation, and sex. Additionally, adequate food must not contain adverse or toxic substances and should be culturally acceptable, for example adhering to religious requirements. 

         Due to the lack of autonomy and resources available to them, refugee populations are particularly vulnerable to experiencing violations of their right to food. Lack of access to natural resources or employment opportunities can severely limit the food options available to refugees, who end up relying primarily on charitable sources. These food sources are mass produced and distributed in a way that makes it unlikely for that food to adequately satisfy the specific dietary needs of each individual based on age, health, cultural and religious appropriateness, or other factors as required by international human rights law. For this reason, right to food movements emphasize autonomy; dependence enables repeated right to food violations. Accessing food is also a challenge depending on the security protocols, financial support, and proximity to food sources of the refugee camp in question. Hunger and malnutrition can exacerbate existing health problems or create new ones, making it even more difficult to access food by limiting employment options or physical abilities and creating an intersection between violations of the right to food and other human rights such as the right to health. Finally, lack of culturally acceptable food in refugee camps poses significant psychological and spiritual challenges for refugees as well. 

Maine has recently become the first U.S. state to recognize the right to food through a constitutional amendment. This comes after years of food advocacy in the state. In Maine, the right to food and food sovereignty movements have focused heavily on maintaining traditional foodways, autonomous food production and distribution through small farms and homesteads or independent growing, hunting, and fishing, and maintaining agricultural biodiversity in the face of increasing corporate monopolization of seeds. Ninety percent of the food in Maine is imported into the state, making their food supply vulnerable to disruptions of all kinds, which has become increasingly evidenced by food and labor shortages. 

The concerns of Mainers, and many others who are fighting for the recognition and fulfillment of their right to food, are shared by refugee populations, and refugees are at a severe disadvantage when it comes to advocating for state protections. The United Nations emphasized one common misconception surrounding the right to food: “The right to food is not a right to be fed, but primarily the right to feed oneself in dignity. Individuals are expected to meet their own needs, through their own efforts and using their own resources.” The right to food constitutional amendment in Maine focuses not only on meeting demand and combatting hunger, but also on autonomous food production and access to natural resources, and the government’s duty to protect, respect, and fulfill this right. Governments, private entities, and NGOs involved in the refugee food system should support the right to food in refugee camps in this same way; instead of creating food systems of dependence, they should encourage food autonomy for refugees. This would allow refugees to ensure that their own food needs are met, and that they are able to feed themselves in dignity, as is their human right. Some refugee camps have developed grocery stores or community gardens within the camp in order to increase the food supply and food autonomy of refugees and allow them to fill nutritional gaps in their diets with fruits and vegetables. Refugees and supporting organizations continue to advocate for their right to food within refugee camps; one such example is a group called “Now You See Me Moria,” which advocates for the human rights of refugees in Greece, including the right to food. Recently, the group has turned to social media to point out nutritional gaps left by the prepackaged food provided to refugees on the island of Lesvos, as well as other right to food violations. 

The United Nations has identified refugees as a group facing right to food challenges which are exacerbated by their specific circumstances. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

“Asylum seekers and refugees are entitled to all the rights and fundamental freedoms that are spelled out in international human rights instruments. The protection of the refugee must therefore be seen in the broader context of the protection of human rights.” 

As right to food movements globally shed light on the importance of this human right, it is important to ensure that refugees and other vulnerable populations are included in conversations and advocacy, and that the specific challenges to the right to food that refugees face will be understood and addressed. 

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