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UNHCR-WFP team finds dire health conditions in Algerian refugee camps

News Stories, 12 February 2007

© UNHCR/J.Upadhyay
Born and raised in remote desert refugee camps in Algeria, these Sahrawi children know little about the outside world.

GENEVA, February 13 (UNHCR) UNHCR specialists have sounded alarm bells about dire health conditions in Algerian camps for Sahrawi refugees, including high levels of anaemia among pregnant and lactating women. They also stressed the need for urgent action to tackle acute malnutrition.

Their warnings came during debriefing sessions in Geneva on their January 23-February 5 food assessment mission with World Food Programme (WFP) experts to five camps in south-western Algeria. The specialists have also discussed their findings with donors.

The joint assessment team made several recommendations aimed at improving conditions in the camps. These included raising awareness about nutritional issues, water handling and hygiene; adding wheat soy blend to the general ration; and distinguishing between long-term malnutrition and acute malnutrition.

"One of the problems in the camp is that children suffering from acute malnutrition were not easily identified because they were mixed up with long-term malnutrition," explained senior desk officer Janak Upadhyay, who took part in the mission.

"Acute malnutrition which can be identified from the wasting of the muscles can be life threatening and needs to be immediately addressed. Longer-term malnutrition needs a different nutritional approach," he added.

The specialists also recommended more varied diets; supplementary nutrition for young children and pregnant and lactating mothers; and better cooperation and monitoring of food distribution. Interest has been shown by the donors on the ground to fund some of the proposed additional programmes.

The UNHCR and WFP team accompanied by observers from the European Commission's humanitarian aid department (ECHO) and the Spanish Agency of International Cooperation visited health centres and hospitals in the camps and assessed warehousing, distribution and monitoring mechanisms.

They paid informal visits on many Sahrawi families in the camps as well as holding formal talks with leaders of the refugees from Western Sahara. They also met officials of the Sahrawi Red Crescent and the Algerian government.

The refugees in the remote desert camps are particularly vulnerable because they are dependent on UN agencies and other humanitarian groups for all their food and non-food needs.

"Most of the refugees have been there for more than 30 years.... We met children in the camp who were born and raised there," said Upadhyay. "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."

UNHCR and WFP assist the 90,000 most vulnerable refugees, with the support of donors and NGOs. But there are still shortages despite repeated calls for additional funding. This led to a temporary cut in food supplies at the end of last year. The food pipeline has been partially restored.

Sahrawi refugees began arriving in Algeria in the mid-1970s to escape conflict in Western Sahara after Spain withdrew from the region.

In recent years, UNHCR has facilitated family visits and contact between Sahrawi refugees in the Tindouf area of Algeria and relatives in Western Sahara. Only four weeks ago, UNHCR launched an appeal for an additional US$3.5 million to continue this assistance.

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Food and Nutrition

UNHCR strives to improve the nutritional status of all the people it serves.

Confidence Building Measures 2009/2010 Western Sahara

Information brochure about UNHCR's Confidence Building Measures programme aimed at addressing the effects of prolonged separation between the Saharan refugees in the camps near Tindouf, Algeria and their families in Western Sahara.

Public Health

The health of refugees and other displaced people is a priority for UNHCR.

Food cuts in Chad camps expose refugee women and children to exploitation, abuse

A funding shortfall has forced the World Food Programme (WFP) to cut food rations in refugee camps in eastern Chad by up to 60 per cent. As a result, Sudanese refugees in 13 camps in the east now receive about 850 calories per day, down from the minimum ration of 2,100 calories daily they used to get. The refugees are finding it difficult to cope. Clinics in the area report a significant spike in malnutrition cases, with rates as high as 19.5 per cent in Am Nabak camp.

WFP needs to raise US$ 186 million to maintain feeding programmes for refugees in Africa through the end of the year. Additionally, UNHCR is urgently seeking contributions towards the US$ 78 million it has budgeted this year for food security and nutrition programmes serving refugees in Africa.

In the meantime, the refugees experiencing ration cuts have few options. Poor soil quality, dry conditions and little access to water mean they can't plant supplemental crops as refugees in the less arid south of Chad are able to do. To try to cope, many refugee women in eastern Chad are leaving the camps in search of work in surrounding towns. They clean houses, do laundry, fetch water and firewood and work as construction labourers. Even so, they earn very little and often depend on each other for support. In the town of Iriba, for example, some 50 refugee women sleep rough each night under a tree and share their some of their meagre earnings to pay for a daily, communal meal.

They are also subject to exploitation. Sometimes, their temporary employers refuse to pay them at the end of the day. And some women and girls have resorted to prostitution to earn money to feed their families.

Ration cuts can have an impact far beyond health, reverberating through the entire community. It is not uncommon for children to be pulled out of school on market days in order to work. Many refugees use a portion of their food rations to barter for other essentials, or to get cash to pay school fees or buy supplies for their children. Small business owners like butchers, hairdressers and tailors - some of them refugees - also feel the pinch.

WFP supplies food to some 240,500 Sudanese refugees in the camps of eastern Chad. Many have been in exile for years and, because of their limited opportunities for self-sufficiency, remain almost totally dependent on outside help. The ration cuts have made an already difficult situation much worse for refugees who were already struggling.

Food cuts in Chad camps expose refugee women and children to exploitation, abuse

Health crisis in South Sudan

There are roughly 105,000 refugees in South Sudan's Maban County. Many are at serious health risk. UNHCR and its partners are working vigorously to prevent and contain the outbreak of malaria and several water-borne diseases.

Most of the refugees, especially children and the elderly, arrived at the camps in a weakened condition. The on-going rains tend to make things worse, as puddles become incubation areas for malaria-bearing mosquitoes. Moderately malnourished children and elderly can easily become severely malnourished if they catch so much as a cold.

The problems are hardest felt in Maban County's Yusuf Batil camp, where as many as 15 per cent of the children under 5 are severely malnourished.

UNHCR and its partners are doing everything possible to prevent and combat illness. In Yusuf Batil camp, 200 community health workers go from home to home looking educating refugees about basic hygene such as hand washing and identifying ill people as they go. Such nutritional foods as Plumpy'nut are being supplied to children who need them. A hospital dedicated to the treatment of cholera has been established. Mosquito nets have been distributed throughout the camps in order to prevent malaria.

Health crisis in South Sudan

Western Sahara Family Visits

Emotions are running high in the Sahara desert as families split for nearly three decades by conflict over sovereignty of the Western Sahara Territory are being briefly reunited by a UNHCR family visit scheme.

Living in five windswept and isolated camps around Tindouf in south-western Algeria for the last 28 years, the refugees have been almost totally cut off from their relatives in the Territory. So when the UN refugee agency launched its five-day family visit scheme in March this year, there were tears of joy as well as apprehension at the prospect of reunion.

The visit scheme is proving extremely popular, with more than 800 people already having visited their relatives and another 18,000 signed up to go. In addition to the family visit scheme, the UN refugee agency has opened telephone centres in some of the camps, creating another channel through which long-lost family members can make contact.

Photos taken in June 2004.

Western Sahara Family Visits

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