sahrawi refugees in tindouf

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Program (WFP) have sounded the alert about the conditions of the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria. These camps, comprised of between 160,000 and 200,000 (depending in whose estimates you believe) Sahrawis, house those who fled the Western Sahara when it was ceded by the then colonial power, Spain, to Morocco and Mauritania in 1975. This makes the Tindouf camps among those with the longest duration, not a very admirable title.

Acute malnutrition is on the rise among the refugees, especially among the children, and the group recommended several measures to curb this trend, included a more varied diet, supplementary nutrition for children and pregnant/nursing mothers (two-thirds of whom suffer from acute anemia), better monitoring of food distribution and adding soy to the general ration. They also suggested education programs targeting the refugees to address nutrition, water handling and hygiene. Another recommendation was to separate those children suffering from acute malnutrition (which requires immediate attention) from those suffering from chronic malnutrition.

Janak Upadhyay, who took part in the mission, was quoted as saying: "Most of the refugees have been there for more than 30 years.... We met children in the camp who were born and raised there…They are children who don't know any better than living in a desert – dependent on aid, part of a political problem without a solution in sight. It is very sad."

Tindouf, in the western Sahara, is known for its very inhospitable conditions, with summer temperatures reaching over 122 degrees in the shade (if there is any) and in winter the temperatures reach freezing. In addition to these harsh weather conditions, the area is devoid of economic opportunities and the refugees depend on aid for all of their needs. One year ago, torrential rains inundated the camps and washed away food, belongings and tents, leaving the camp devastated.

In an ironic twist, it’s the WFP, the organization that sounded the alert, that has contributed to this crisis. Yahia Bouhubeini, president of the Sahrawi Red Crescent, reported in January that the WFP was withholding donations from different humanitarian organizations, valued at several millions of euros, which are needed to avert an imminent famine. Houhubeini asked the UNHCR to convey to the international community the gravity of the situation for the region’s refugees, who exhausted food supplies in October. The Sahrawi Red Crescent (SRC) officially declared the situation to be an emergency of the first degree.

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