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Food aid runs out for Western Saharan refugees

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Food aid runs out for Western Saharan refugees

29 August 2002

Note: this press release issued jointly by UNHCR and the World Food Programme

29 August 2002

GENEVA - A serious lack of food aid and insufficient funding threaten Western Saharan refugees living in four isolated quarter-century old camps whipped by desert winds along Algeria's border with Western Sahara.

Some 155,000 Western Saharan refugees almost entirely dependent upon humanitarian aid provided through the UN World Food Programme (WFP) live in the remote camps some 2,000 kms south of Algeria's Mediterranean coast near the historic oasis town of Tindouf.

Unless fresh contributions of food arrive, the WFP reports that by October the refugees will get only 11 percent of their daily food aid requirements - about 231 kcals for each person - compared to the standard UN ration of flour, pulses, beans, vegetable oil and other items totalling 2,100 kcals daily.

The WFP requires 8,336 metric tons of food at a cost of $3.7 million, of which 80 percent are cereals, to meet the refugees' food needs up to January 2003.

"With the lack of international attention to their plight, obtaining regular contributions of food aid for the Western Saharan refugees is extremely difficult," said the WFP's Daly Belgasmi, director of the agency's Geneva office.

"Unless we receive aid soon, the drastic reduction in October's food package will have severe consequences on the health of the refugees, particularly for children under five, pregnant women and lactating mothers," he said.

The UN refugee agency's own budget to care for the Western Saharan refugees in Algeria is also experiencing a cash crunch, with only $1.5 million out of the $4.6 million required so far contributed. While the agency can pool funds to cover part of the gap, overall it has so far received only $688 million of its $800 million annual budget for 2002.

"The Western Saharan refugees are really experiencing enormous difficulties," said UNHCR's Radhouane Nouicer, who oversees operations in North Africa and the Middle East. "Thirty-five percent of the children suffer chronic malnutrition, and 13 percent of the children are acutely malnourished, leading to a high level of stunting among young children."

Addressing the UN Security Council earlier this year, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers told the world body, "Western Sahara is an example of a protracted refugee situation where there are few immediate prospects for durable solutions, and where programmes to assist and protect the refugees remain severely under-funded. This is unacceptable."

In September, UNHCR and WFP will conduct a comprehensive nutritional survey of Algeria's refugee population, many of whom first fled Western Sahara in 1975.

WFP's relief operation in Algeria has been facing food shortages and disruptions in its delivery pipeline for some time.