- Crisis at a glance
- Detailed crisis profile
- Useful links CRISIS AT A GLANCE
The Sahrawi refugees from Western Sahara rarely make it into the news, but for the past 30 years tens of thousands of them have been living in remote desert camps in Algeria, most of them totally dependent on humanitarian aid.
Some 158,000 refugees are now in five camps about 180 km (110 miles) from the southwestern Algerian city of Tindouf. In February 2006, torrential rains flooded three of the camps, destroyed much of the housing and left 50,000 refugees homeless.
Most of the refugees left Western Sahara, a Moroccan-controlled territory just across the border from Algeria, in 1975 at the start of a lengthy war of independence between the indigenous Sahrawi group Polisario Front and Moroccan forces.
Mauritania was also involved at the start but withdrew in 1979. Although Morocco and Polisario signed a ceasefire in 1991, the status of the territory has not yet been resolved. Until that happens, the refugees cannot return home.
The World Food Programme (WFP) says the camps experience regular food shortages, and malnutrition rates are high.KEY FACTS
Size of Western Sahara:Sahrawi refugees in Algeria:
266,000 square km (103,000 square miles)Population of Western Sahara:
273,000 (Source: CIA World Factbook)
Number of refugees:Main agencies working with the refugees:
158,800 (UNHCR, 2004)Percentage women and children:
80 percent (U.N. Development Fund for Women-UNIFEM)Percentage dependent on food aid:
95 (WFP, 2005)Chronic child malnutrition rates:
38.9 percent (WFP/U.N. Children's Fund-UNICEF, 2005)Rates of anaemia:
68.5 percent children
66.4 percent women of childbearing age
76.5 percent pregnant women (WFP/UNICEF 2005)
WFP, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINUSRO), Oxfam, International Spanish Cooperation, Spanish Red Cross, Algerian Red Crescent, TRIANGLE, Sahrawi Women's Union (UNMS)DETAILED CRISIS PROFILE
About 158,800 Sahrawi refugees are living in camps in the Algerian desert, having fled the Morocco-controlled territory of Western Sahara. Many left in 1975 at the start of a lengthy war of independence between the indigenous Sahrawi group, Polisario Front, and Moroccan and Mauritanian troops.
The refugees are living in five camps 180 km (110 miles) from the Algerian town of Tindouf, near the border with Western Sahara. Because of their isolated situation, the majority are wholly dependent on aid for their survival. But that aid is sporadic, meaning they often face serious food shortages.
In February 2006 their situation worsened when rare torrential rains flooded the desert camps, destroying half the shelters in three of the camps and leaving 50,000 people homeless. Food stocks were also destroyed.
The Sahrawi are from nomadic tribes who traditionally wandered over vast areas including parts of Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Western Sahara. In the 1960s, however, they began to settle in the region, sparking calls for self-rule.
Western Sahara is 266,000 square km (103,000 square miles), roughly the size of the United Kingdom. The Algerian-backed Polisario Front was set up in 1973 and is the official Sahrawi representative.
Sahrawi claims to self-determination were recognised by the International Court of Justice in 1975 when the territory, then called Spanish Sahara, was controlled by Spain. Spain agreed to hold a referendum to decide the future status of the territory.
But Morocco and Mauritania said they had historic claims to the territory and in November 1975 Morocco ordered 350,000 Moroccans waving flags and copies of the Koran to march into the territory on what was called the Green March.
Spain agreed to transfer power to Morocco and Mauritania in 1975. Morocco took over the northern two thirds, including large phosphate mines and most of the towns, while Mauritania was left with a thinly populated wasteland in the south.
As soon as the Spanish had withdrawn their troops in 1976, Polisario declared the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), set up a government-in-exile based in Algeria and began fighting Moroccan and Mauritanian troops.
The SADR is now recognised by many governments and is a full member of the African Union. It is currently promising to give foreign oil companies exploration rights if it achieves independence.
Mauritania signed a peace deal with Polisario in 1979, and Morocco annexed Mauritania's share of the territory. Polisario guerrillas continued to fight Moroccan soldiers.
The two sides finally signed a U.N.-brokered peace agreement in 1991, which has since been monitored by the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). There are currently 232 U.N. peacekeeping soldiers in the region.
Under the peace deal, Morocco agreed to hold a referendum to decide the future status of the territory, but this has never been held.
Initially there were disputes over who was eligible to vote. About 273,000 people live in the territory, including both Sahrawi and Moroccans who moved there after the Green March. Polisario did not want the latter to be allowed to vote.
More recently the dispute has been over what people can vote for. In 2003 the United Nations proposed that Western Sahara become semi-autonomous for up to five years, and then a referendum be held on whether it should become independent, semi-autonomous or integrated with Morocco.
Polisario agreed to this, but Morocco has refused to hold a referendum which allows people to choose full independence.
The Security Council has passed resolutions calling for a settlement but so far none has happened. And until the two sides resolve the situation, the Sahrawi refugees will be forced to remain in the Algerian desert camps.Humanitarian situation of refugees
The World Food Programme (WFP) says 95 percent of the refugees are dependent on food aid. Serious food shortages often occur because of a lack of funds.
In addition, a limited diet over decades has left many refugees malnourished. The basic WFP food aid package does not include meat, vegetables or fruit. It contains flour, lentils, vegetable oil, salt and sugar.
February 2006 floods that left 50,000 homeless triggered a airlift operation by the U.N. refugee body, UNHCR, to bring in emergency supplies of tents, mattresses, plastic sheeting and blankets.
Women and children comprise 80 percent of the refugees, according to the U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). The women supervise the distribution of aid among the camps and the use of water resources.
In September 2005, UNHCR and WFP decided to reduce the number receiving aid to the most vulnerable 90,000 because of difficulties with registration of the refugees. They plan to maintain this figure until UNHCR can carry out a proper census of the camps.Main challenges to health:
WFP says malnutrition rates are high. Nearly a third of children under six have stunted growth and two-thirds are anaemic.
In February/March 2005, a WFP/United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) nutrition survey found that an 'alarming' 66.4 percent of women of childbearing age had anaemia, a rise from 47.6 percent in 2002.
In March 2005, a group of European Parliamentarians visiting the refugee camps also found that malnutrition, anaemia and stunted growth in children had increased as a result of diminishing aid.
Malnourished and anaemic children are more likely to die of childhood diseases, have poor mobility and difficulty learning at school. Anaemic women are more likely to die in childbirth, according to the World Health Organisation.Main challenge to aid delivery:
Funding shortfalls often cause serious food shortages. WFP borrows from the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) to cover shortfalls.Sahrawi living in Western Sahara
People in Western Sahara have a much lower standard of living than the Moroccan average, according to the CIA World Factbook.TIMELINE: Brief history of Western Sahara dispute 1884
- Spain colonises Western Sahara.1957
- Morocco first raises centuries-old historical claim to Western Sahara at the United Nations.1973
- Polisario is formed and establishes itself as the sole representative of the Saharan people.1975 June
' Morocco's King Hassan takes the territorial dispute to the World Court in The Hague. The Court finds some tribes had paid allegiance in the past to Moroccan rulers, but rules that people should be allowed to settle the sovereignty issue through self-determination. Spain agrees to organise a referendum.Nov
- King Hassan launches the so-called Green March with 350,000 unarmed Moroccan men and women crossing into the territory. Spain agrees to transfer administration of territory to Morocco and Mauritania.Dec
' Morocco sends in forces to occupy the territory.1976 Feb
' As Spanish troops withdraw, Polisario guerrillas backed by Algeria and Libya proclaim the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) with a government-in-exile based in Algeria.1979
- Mauritania signs a peace deal with Polisario and renounces claim to Western Sahara.1980
- Morocco annexes Mauritania's share of the territory.1981
- Morocco proposes a referendum to settle the dispute.1984
- SADR is admitted as a member state to Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Morocco leaves the OAU in protest.1988
- Morocco and Algeria restore relations.1991
- U.N. brokers a ceasefire, ending the guerrilla war between Polisario and Moroccan forces. The U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) is established to oversee the ceasefire. Referendum set for January 1992.1992 Jan
' U.N. referendum postponed because of dispute over who is eligible to vote.1993
- The U.N. representative in Western Sahara announces a process for identification and registration of referendum voters.1996
- U.N. Security Council votes unanimously to suspend registration process. More than 60,000 voter applicants are identified but more than 156,000 remain to be processed.1997 Sept
- Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, personal envoy of Kofi Annan for Western Sahara, holds talks with representatives of Morocco and Polisario Front.Dec
- The U.N. resumes the voter identification process.1998 Sept
- U.N. mission completes the identification of 147,000 people wishing to take part in the referendum.Oct
- Annan proposes registration of members of three tribal groups whose eligibility to vote has been in dispute, and to delay the referendum until December 1999.2001 June
- Baker proposes autonomy for Saharawis under Moroccan sovereignty, a referendum after a four-year transition period, voting rights for Moroccan settlers resident in Western Sahara for over a year. The proposal is rejected by Polisario and Algeria.2003
U.N. proposes Western Sahara becomes a semi-autonomous region of Morocco for a transition period of up to five years, to be followed by a referendum on whether the territory should become independent, semi-autonomous or integrated with Morocco. Polisario endorses the plan but Morocco rejects it, saying it will never give up sovereignty over the territory.2004
James Baker resigns.2005 May
- An anti-Moroccan demonstration in Western Sahara turns violent and Moroccan authorities arrest dozens. Amnesty International receives reports that Moroccan security forces used torture and force to put down the demonstration.June
- Morocco prevents two delegations of Spanish lawmakers from entering the territory. The lawmakers had planned to investigate human rights. Reporters Without Borders calls on Morocco to stop detaining and threatening journalists in the territory.July
' U.N. appoints Dutch ambassador Peter Van Walsum to replace Baker and re-start negotiations.Aug
- Polisario releases 404 Moroccan prisoners of war - the last of 2,400 soldiers it had captured during the guerrilla war.2006 Feb
' 50,000 Sahrawi refugees made homeless following torrential rains in Algerian desert near Tindouf.USEFUL LINKS
The main humanitarian websites have little information on the Sahrawi refugees but a good starting point is the U.N. Refugee Agency page for Western Sahara and Algeria . This also includes a useful summary of UNHCR's Algeria 2006 operations plan .
An estimated 80 percent of the refugees are women and children, and the U.N. Development Fund for Women has a useful page looking at the impact of the war and refugee life on women, plus lots of links to other websites and reports on women's issues.
The Sahrawi independence movement, Polisario Front, has encouraged some of the women living in the camps and those still living in Western Sahara to form the National Union of Saharawi Women . Their website has contact details for the camps as well as Algiers.
For detailed information about nutrition in the camps, you can read a U.N. nutrition survey (August 2005).
The World Food Programme and U.N. Refugee Agency carried out a joint assessment in 2004, which makes for an easier read and gives more information about camp life
For information about the peace process, the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara gives the official background to the situation. The U.N. Secretary General's Report (October 2005) on Western Sahara also contains some useful information. These reports are updated regularly. For the Sahrawi perspective, visit the Western Sahara referendum organisation and Western Sahara Online .
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