United Nations humanitarian agencies warned today that urgent action is needed to improve the health conditions in Sahrawi refugee camps in south-western Algeria, home to some 90,000 people, where acute malnutrition is on the rise and many pregnant and lactating women are suffering from anaemia.
A joint assessment mission to five camps by specialists from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Programme (WFP), which concluded last week, found that many of the refugees were experiencing dire health conditions.
The team issued a series of recommendations following the visit, calling for such measures as more varied diets for the refugees; supplementary nutrition for young children and pregnant and lactating mothers; better monitoring of food distribution; the addition of wheat soy blend to the general ration; and awareness-raising exercises about nutrition, water handling and hygiene.
UNHCR senior desk officer Janak Upadhyay, who took part in the assessment mission, said another problem identified was that children suffering from acute malnutrition were being mixed up with victims of long-term malnutrition.
“Acute malnutrition – which can be identified from the wasting of the muscles – can be life-threatening and needs to be immediately addressed,” he said. “Longer-term malnutrition needs a different nutritional approach.”
Most of the refugees have been living in the camps for more than 30 years after they fled to Algeria in the mid-1970s to escape fighting in Western Sahara between Morocco and the Frente POLISARIO independence movement when Spain withdrew from the region.
The Sahrawis live in camps in the desert town of Tindouf, which experiences harsh weather extremes and is devoid of economic opportunities.
Mr. Upadhyay said many of the refugees are especially vulnerable because they depend on UN agencies or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for their entire needs, not just food.
“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.”
In recent years, UNHCR has organized family visits and contacts between Sahrawis in the camps and their relatives in Western Sahara – often the first time they have met in more than three decades.
Last month the agency launched an appeal for $3.5 million to continue the family visits programme.