Donor mission to Sahrawi refugee camps

Briefing Notes, 17 March 2009

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 17 March 2009, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Tomorrow, representatives of donor countries and NGO partners, accompanied by UNHCR and WFP staff, will start a three-day mission to the Sahrawi refugee camps in western Algeria to see first-hand the situation in the sites and to assess the overall conditions of the refugees. The delegation of ambassadors and diplomats from more than 19 countries, including Brazil, France, Indonesia, Italy, Switzerland, South Africa, Spain, Nigeria and the United States, as well as representatives of the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO), will visit two of four refugee camps. They will meet with the beneficiaries, refugee leaders and Algerian authorities.

Later this month, nutritionists from UNHCR and WFP will visit the camps to assess the current nutritional status of the most vulnerable refugees and to evaluate the current programmes and practices. The aim is to improve the nutritional situation of the refugees and reduce anaemia among the most vulnerable. The mission will also decide on whether to include additional commodities with high nutritional value in the food assistance, specifically targeted to children, pregnant and lactating women. It will also consider the acceptability of the new commodities by refugees.

The last survey conducted in 2008 by M├ędecins du Monde (MDM) and WFP in coordination with UNHCR concluded that there was malnutrition in the camps, with 61 percent of the children and 66 percent of pregnant women suffering from anaemia (iron deficiency). The assessment also showed that 55 percent of all women are anaemic, with a possibility of overall micro-nutrient deficiencies in the entire population. As a result, some remedial measures were taken by various agencies and NGOs. UNHCR provides complementary food commodities in addition to the 125,000 general food rations distributed by WFP. During the month of Ramadan in 2008, UNHCR distributed additional amounts of fresh food, camel meat and dairy products to improve the nutritional status of beneficiaries. In the camps, the creation of vegetable gardens has been promoted. Water distribution was improved through a new pipe system. It was previously trucked.

UNHCR's support also includes water and sanitation projects, extension of water networks, water trucking, health care, and vocational training centres for refugee women and youth.

In response to high rates of anaemia, WFP also has supplementary feeding and school feeding programmes within its operation, distributing fortified, blended foods to malnourished children, pregnant women and lactating mothers and providing a mid-day snack to primary school students.

WFP is also working to diversify the basic food basket, having included barley in 2008 and rice in 2009. Pasta has been distributed for January March 2009 with Italian funding. A complementary project with Spanish funding will allow for the inclusion of gofio (toasted maize meal) as of May 2009. All items are part of the traditional diet for the Western Sahara refugees.

WFP and UNHCR have been working very closely together to highlight the plight of the refugees through joint donor visits and joint assessment missions.

Sahrawi refugees started arriving in Algeria in the mid-seventies. UNHCR has been providing assistance to this group since the influx into the Tindouf area in 1975-76 while WFP has been providing food assistance since 1986.