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Western Sahara: ‘People are starving in 37-year-old refugee camps’

Peter Kenworthy

2012-11-01, Issue 604

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Living conditions in the camps have worsened over the years and Saharawis believe this is part of the strategy by Morocco to push the people in the illegally occupied territory into submission.

‘The people in the refugee camps are starving,’ Minister of Public Health in the government of the Western Saharan government in exile, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, Mohamed Lamin Dadi, told Danish NGO Africa Contact on Tuesday.

Dadi was speaking in Copenhagen, where he ended his European tour of Spain, Italy, Norway and Denmark by meeting with Danish officials, parliamentarians and NGOs.

In fact, according to the UNHCR, the food supply in the refugee camps, where an estimated 165,000 people live, does not even cover half the basic nutritional needs of the population. And according to a recent press release from the Saharawi Red Crescent, the 2012 budget of the UNHCR in the camps ‘will not cover even 30 percent of the basic humanitarian needs of the Saharawi refugees, as evaluated by the High Commissioner, partner NGOs and local authorities.’

The Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic is a founding member of the African Union, but has been based in refugee camps near Tindouf in an inhospitable desert in South Western Algeria since 1975, when Morocco invaded and colonized Western Sahara.

The health system in the refugee camps might be good compared to similar camps in southern Sudan or northern Iraq, due, amongst other things, to the health awareness campaigns and a self-supporting and comprehensive health system developed by the Saharawis that includes Saharawi doctors, nurses and four regional hospitals. But health conditions in the camps are deteriorating due, amongst other things, to diminishing donor funds from the UN and EU.

‘Because of the global economic crisis, the aid to the camps has been reduced – also because much of this aid comes from Southern Europe. We are therefore trying to find alternative sources of aid,’ said Mohamed Lamin Dadi.

The hospitals in the camps are experiencing constant shortages of everything from doctors to medicine and equipment. And to put things in perspective, the national hospital of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic is basically a room with half a dozen beds.

The Saharawis in the camps also have to live with sand storms, arid soil, and a drought that has lasted for several years, not to mention sub-zero night temperatures and temperatures of over 50 degrees during the day.

Acute malnutrition increased from eight percent in 2005 to a staggering 19 percent in 2008, according to a WHO survey. The WFP puts chronic malnutrition at 31.4 percent. ‘And now the situation is probably worse,’ Mohamed Lamin Dadi told Africa Contact.

And the suffering of the Saharawis is part of a deliberate Moroccan strategy, Saharawi Minister of Cooperation, Hach Barek Allah, had told Africa Contact when he visited Copenhagen in February. ‘The strategy of the Moroccan regime is to starve the Saharawi refugees into accepting the Moroccan position. They pressurize the UN into not giving the refugees more aid.’

The issue of poverty is thus closely connected to that of the colonization of Western Sahara by Morocco, an area where phosphates, fishing banks and other minerals including oil are abundant, but where Morocco’s elite and not the Saharawis reap the rewards.

The situation is also connected to the inaction and obstruction by Morocco’s allies, France and the USA, in the UN and elsewhere, and to the trade agreements between the EU and Morocco that enable Morocco to make a surplus from the colonization of Western Sahara.

‘No country in the world recognizes the sovereignty of Morocco over Western Sahara. So why should the EU make illegal agreements with Morocco that include Western Sahara,’ Mohamed Lamin Dadi asks rhetorically. ‘But nothing will happen unless there is massive international pressure on Morocco,’ he insists.

And Dadi believes that countries such as Denmark could play a far greater role. ‘Denmark still does not give any kind of aid to the people in the camps, although neighbours Sweden and Norway do. This is strange. What other criteria does Denmark need to give aid? These refugees have nothing.’

He is still hopeful, however, that something good might come of his tour. ‘The Danish MPs promised that they would raise the issue with the minister and the officials that I met with in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wanted more information about the Swedish and Norweigan aid to the camps,’ Mohamed Lamin Dadi said.

‘And I believe the new Danish government will generally improve things in regard to Western Sahara, but we will judge them on their actions, not their words.’


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