Algeria + 1 more

Forgotten refugee crisis: Sahrawi refugees in Algeria

As a leading global humanitarian donor, the European Union is at the forefront of identifying and intervening in crises that have escaped international attention. These so-called 'forgotten crises' have persisted, yet despite significant humanitarian needs they receive insufficient international aid.

The Sahrawi represent one of such crises: they are one of the oldest refugee groups in the world. The Sahrawi refugees fled their homes in 1975 as the conflict in Western Sahara escalated. Today, the conflict remains unresolved and the Sahrawi refugees still live in five camps in south-west Algeria, heavily dependent on international assistance.

The European Commission's Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations is one of the few donors which provides continued support ensuring the refugees' basic needs in food, water, health, and education are covered.

Story by Isabel Coello, EU regional information officer for north, west and central Africa

Sahrawi refugees live in the desert, in a remote and isolated area, with limited opportunities for economic activity or employment. The climate is extremely harsh, with temperatures reaching 50 degrees Celsius during the summer months. Five camps host the Sahrawi refugees, who refuse to return until a political solution to the conflict is found.

EU humanitarian aid funds the general distribution of food that takes place every month: 125 000 rations are distributed to 90 000 refugees. Families receive rice, cereal, pulses, and cooking oil.

“About 77% of the refugees’ food needs currently depend on humanitarian assistance,” says El Mahdi Boumbali, the World Food Programme’s project officer.

“EU humanitarian aid is our number one partner in the camps. With a contribution of €4 million per year, it is our main donor,” he adds.

May Alati is 36 years old and a mother of five children. She was born in a refugee camp and has lived there all her life. “Conditions are difficult,” she admits, “but fortunately we have our basic needs covered”.

She likes to come early to the food distributions to pick up her rations. “I get oil, flour, barley, sometimes wheat, and also rice and lentils. If I don’t get this, I have nothing. We survive thanks to humanitarian aid. There is no work here,” she says.

Nurses at the pharmacy of Layoune refugee camp regional hospital dispense prescription medicines. According to the hospital’s director, doctor Khalil Aba, “between 70 and 80% of the medicines provided by the hospital are funded by the European Union”.

“The average water consumption in the five camps is 18 litres per person per day but in the summer, with the extreme heat, it can go up to 30 litres per person per day,” explains Tahar Kachebi, the UN agency for Refugees officer in charge of water and sanitation.

Ensuring all families have access to safe drinking water in the middle of the desert is not an easy task. EU humanitarian aid funds a water trucking system, and has also helped build a 7 km pipeline to connect one of the local water stations to the Smara camp. More pipelines are needed as the water trucking system is not sustainable.

Schools for Sahrawi children also benefit from EU humanitarian aid. Some schools were built in the early seventies and need upgrading to prevent them from falling apart or succumbing to floods. The building structure needs to be reinforced and toilets improved.

In primary school ‘8 de marzo’, in Layoune refugee camp, there are 1 127 pupils between the ages of 6 and 12 years. Primary education is free of charge. Most students finish elementary school, the director explains, but only a few pupils continue education and complete secondary school.

Meet 35-year-old Mahfud Mohamed, one of the young men who received a grant aimed at helping young Sahrawis set up a business to improve their livelihoods. It is given by the EU humanitarian aid through its partner, the Danish Refugee Council.

“I knew how to bake but I did not have the money to start up a bakery,” he says. The €1 200 grant and the three-day training on how to run a business allowed Mohamed to rent a space, build the oven and start making bread.

See the complete photo story on the ECHO web site