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COVID-19: New cases confirmed near Sahrawi camps, 173,000 refugees at risk

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Over 170,000 people in the Sahrawi refugee camps are bracing for the Coronavirus as local authorities and organizations remain extremely underprepared for the pandemic due to dwindling funding, Oxfam said today.

Nine cases of the virus have already been confirmed in Algeria’s Tindouf province, where the refugee camps are located. The refugee population is chronically vulnerable, and healthcare centers in the camps have no ventilators and are not equipped to deal with the consequences of a COVID-19 spread.

Oxfam Country Director in Algeria, Haissam Minkara, said: “The new confirmed cases are very close to the camps, which means the risk of an outbreak is now imminent and would be disastrous for the refugee population – one that has already suffered four decades of conflict.”

Within the camps, health centers are already experiencing a shortage of beds, medical supplies, protective equipment for medical staff, and hygiene products. There is not a single ventilator in the camps. Considering the close quarters in which many refugees live and the widespread prevalence of existing health conditions, including acute malnutrition, stunting, diabetes, and anemia, and one of the highest prevalence of coeliac disease in the world, the risk of an outbreak is incredibly high and could be potentially devastating.

All non-essential businesses have been closed in the camps and travel between the five camps has been restricted by authorities. Other than basic services and food distributions, all humanitarian aid activities have been temporarily halted. Though these measures are essential for preventing an outbreak, they have also complicated life for people already on the brink. The camps are isolated both geographically and economically, and with most of the already minimal economic activities in the camps halted as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions, refugees’ ability to purchase food and essential hygiene items is increasingly limited.

Oxfam is ramping up its programs to respond to the crisis and help slow the spread of the virus. Oxfam and partners are already procuring protective equipment and hygiene items to meet the needs of the 33 public health facilities and clinics in the camps, as well as preparing to manufacture and install public handwashing units throughout the camps to promote good hygiene practices and mitigate the risk of COVID-19 spreading.

To help scale up humanitarian support, Oxfam and eight other agencies operating in the refugee camps have launched a joint appeal to respond to the public health needs and immediate humanitarian consequences of the pandemic in the Sahrawi refugee camps. As the risk of an outbreak escalates, Oxfam is calling for the international community to immediately support funding $14 million needed to help respond to this crisis.

“The Sahrawi refugee crisis has been overlooked for over four decades and now, more than ever, the stakes couldn’t be higher for those already left behind by the international community. We are mobilizing resources, but it will not be enough. Oxfam is looking to the international community for support to strengthen our capacity to deal with an outbreak,” said Minkara.

Notes to editors

  • Since 1975 Algeria has hosted a large proportion of the Sahrawi population in refugee camps near the city of Tindouf, the majority of whom are dependent on humanitarian aid to sustain basic needs such as access to food, water, and shelter. The camps are situated in a particularly hostile environment, with temperatures reaching up to 55 degrees Celsius in July and August, frequent sandstorms, constant drought, and rare but devastating torrential rains. As a result, refugees suffer from persistent levels of food insecurity and malnutrition and have limited opportunities for self-reliance.

  • Oxfam has been active in the camps since 1975, and over the years, our work has evolved from emergency aid to the multifaceted provision of humanitarian support, resilience, and capacity building activities.

  • For more on Oxfam in the Sahrawi refugee camps: https://www.oxfam.org/en/what-we-do/countries/algeria

  • Joint-COVID-19 submission for refugees from Western Sahara in camps in Algeria: https://reliefweb.int/report/algeria/comprehensive-needs-covid-19-preven...

Contact information

For more information and interviews please contact

Anna Samulski | anna.samulski@oxfam.org | +1 718 644 8511