The political conflict in Western Sahara, unresolved for over 4 decades, has left behind tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees stranded. They live in 5 camps in southwest Algeria with little access to outside resources, making humanitarian aid essential to their survival. The EU continues to assist the refugee population in line with the humanitarian principles.
The Sahrawis largely depend on international aid to survive. In the remote region where refugee camps are located, access to basic resources such as food, water, health care and housing is limited. Living conditions are difficult, among other reasons, due to the harsh desert climate.
According to the World Food Programme, malnutrition is increasing among the Sahrawi refugee children. In 2019, the acute malnutrition rate of children between 0-5 years was 7.6%, which is a worrying increase from 4.7% in 2016. Half of Sahrawi children and women also suffer from anaemia.
The isolated camps offer almost no employment and livelihoods opportunities, making refugees dependent on remittances and humanitarian aid. In this remote location, logistics also play a key role to ensure regular distributions of relief items to the population.
Social cohesion and peace are extremely fragile in the camps, with young people growing frustrated by the lack of opportunities or changes due to the political stalemate. The Sahrawi refugee camps are vulnerable to natural hazards such as flash floods and sandstorms.
In February 2020, Algeria adopted temporary measures such as curfews to fight COVID-19 across the country and within the camps. The situation is currently stabilising after a peak in the first semester of 2021.
Due to the lack of continued donor support and low media coverage, the Sahrawi refugees’ situation is considered a ‘forgotten humanitarian crisis’. Advocacy is key to raise the profile of the crisis and attract additional funding.
The EU is the leading donor in this crisis. In 2021, the EU committed €10 million in humanitarian funding, providing food assistance and tackling the increasing malnutrition among Sahrawi refugee children and women in the camps.
The EU addresses the main needs in the camps: food and nutrition care, provision of clean water, healthcare and education. EU humanitarian partners have devised a multi-year strategy to improve and extend the water network. This will reduce the dependency on water trucking, which is costly and unsustainable.
EU humanitarian aid also provides essential medicines that cover 80% of the health needs of the population in the camps. We give particular attention to people with disabilities to help with their challenges, improve their well-being, and promote their inclusion in the community.
The EU is also working to improve the education sector, especially the poor state of the infrastructure and sanitary facilities in schools. Another priority is to scale up the quality of education investing in a better qualification of teachers.
In response to COVID-19, EU partner organisations have adapted their actions to minimise the impact of the pandemic on humanitarian operations and protect the beneficiaries and staff. In 2020, the EU allocated close to €500,000 for the reinforcement of the emergency rooms in the local hospitals and the installation of handwashing stations.
In addition, in 2021 the EU provided €1 million to support the COVID-19 vaccination campaign in the Sahrawi camps. This COVID-19 special measure makes part of a global effort in which the European Commission is providing €100 million in humanitarian assistance to support the rollout of vaccination campaigns in countries in Africa with critical humanitarian needs and fragile health care systems.