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Runners raise US$22,500 for refugees in Sahara Marathon

News Stories, 4 March 2008

© UNO-Flüchtlingshilfe/D.Kappe
And They're Off: Competitors taking part in the 8th Sahara Marathon.

SMARA, Algeria, March 5 (UNHCR) Hundreds of runners taking part in this year's Sahara Marathon have donated US$22,500 to construct a sports centre for Sahrawi refugees in southern Algeria.

Some 400 people, including refugees and runners from almost 20 countries, took part in the February 25 event, which included a full marathon as well as shorter races for adults and children. It was held in and around Smara, one of five camps near the border with West Sahara that hold some 200,000 Sahrawis.

This eighth version of the marathon is organized by international volunteers to show support for the Sahrawis, who fled Western Sahara in 1975 during a conflict over the right to govern the territory when Spain withdrew from the region. UNHCR supports some 90,000 of the most vulnerable refugees.

"It is quite unbelievable how much enthusiasm the Sahrawis have for the marathon," said Dietmar Kappe of UNO-Flüchtlingshilfe (UN Refugee Aid Germany), which has helped promote the marathon and UNHCR's work with the Sahrawis. "The event gives encouragement to the people and a little joy."

The money raised will also enable construction of a sports complex at Smara, adding a new dimension to the lives of the Sahrawis, especially the young. It comes at a time when UNHCR is trying to bring education and sports to all refugee children through its ninemillion.org campaign.

Nikola Mihajlovic, head of the UNHCR office in the nearby town of Tindouf, thanked all those who had helped organize the annual event and the foreigners who took part in the races. "Thanks for visiting us and the Sahrawis and participating in the race and giving the friendly people, who have lived here for decades, much-needed hope," he said.

Aside from taking part in the races, the overseas competitors were able to experience some of the hardship that the Sahrawis have to endure every day in camps like Smara, which is home to some 45,000 people.

The temperature soars during the day and gets very cold at night. The provision of basic amenities is very limited and there are only a handful of shops in the camp, selling cheap items and simple food.

Most of the refugees live in tents provided by UNHCR; some have light bulbs powered by car batteries or solar panels forwarded by relatives living in Spain. There is a hairdresser and two almost empty mobile phone stores in Smara.

UNHCR provides non-food relief items to the most vulnerable refugees in the camps and coordinates national and district-level protection networks gathering UN agencies, non-governmental organizations and civil society groups.

The refugee agency has also organized reunion visits between refugees and their families in Western Sahara as part of a series of confidence-building measures since 2004.

© UNO-Flüchtlingshilfe/D.Kappe
Pit Stop: Much-needed refreshment in the desert.

These also include telephone services between the refugee camps and the Western Sahara territory, which have benefited tens of thousands of refugees and their families since 2004, but their expansion is hampered by a lack of funds.

For the record, the men's marathon was won by Pedro José Hernández Sánchez of Spain in a time of 2 hours, 43 minutes and 25 seconds, while Germany's Madeleine Lorenz led the ladies home in 3:30:24.

By Rouven Brunnert in Smara, Algeria




UNHCR country pages

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.

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

Sighted off Spain's Canary Islands

Despite considerable dangers, migrants seeking a better future and refugees fleeing war and persecution continue to board flimsy boats and set off across the high seas. One of the main routes into Europe runs from West Africa to Spain's Canary Islands.

Before 2006, most irregular migrants taking this route used small vessels called pateras, which can carry up to 20 people. They left mostly from Morocco and the Western Sahara on the half-day journey. The pateras have to a large extent been replaced by boats which carry up to 150 people and take three weeks to reach the Canaries from ports in West Africa.

Although only a small proportion of the almost 32,000 people who arrived in the Canary Islands in 2006 applied for asylum, the number has gone up. More than 500 people applied for asylum in 2007, compared with 359 the year before. This came at a time when the overall number of arrivals by sea went down by 75 percent during 2007.

Sighted off Spain's Canary Islands

Portugal: Sahrawi Cultural GatheringPlay video

Portugal: Sahrawi Cultural Gathering

People from Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria and from Western Sahara Territory meet for a cultural seminar in the Azores Islands as part of a confidence building measures programme.