Renewed fighting in Western Sahara between the Frente Polisario and Morocco after a 29-year ceasefire threatens regional stability and renews fears for the security and future of Sahrawi refugees – most of whom have been displaced since 1975.
Over 173,000 Sahrawis live in the Sahara Desert near Tindouf, Algeria, and are almost entirely dependent upon aid to survive. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated chronic hunger and poverty in the camps since March.
The security implications for the Sahrawi refugee camps as a result of the heightened tension could limit the movement of NGOs within the camps and impact future donor engagement, which would have serious ramifications for the refugee population.
Only 12% of households in the refugee camps are food secure, and over 133,000 people depend on the monthly distributions of produce and dry goods from Oxfam and other aid organizations as their main source of food. Oxfam has also been distributing essential hygiene items and protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Oxfam in Algeria Country Director, Haissam Minkara, said: “The potential collapse of the ceasefire is an extremely concerning development for Sahrawi refugees who have been waiting 45 years for a resolution of the Western Sahara conflict. Restarting political negotiations is essential for regional stability and is the best way to avoid any further escalation of the conflict.
Humanitarian agencies must be supported to continue providing life-saving humanitarian aid, even as the situation on the ground deteriorates. The Sahrawi refugee crisis already suffers from the consequences of donor fatigue – as we come to the end of 2020, the UN annual funding appeal is not even 60% funded.
A decrease in funding or disruption of humanitarian operations would be devastating for Sahrawi refugees, leaving them further exposed to the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.
Oxfam calls for the immediate appointment of a new UN Personal Envoy without any further delay. The failure by the UN Secretary-General to appoint a new Envoy for 18 months has left the negotiations between parties to the conflict completely stalled and has undermined momentum toward a political solution. This significant gap in diplomatic leadership has led, at least in part, to this volatile situation.”
The perceived indifference of the international community continues to leave many Sahrawi refugees feeling frustrated and abandoned – in particular young people – and has led to an alarming trend to turn away from the peace process. Adad Ammi, a 25-year old freelance photographer and graphic designer born and raised in Smara camp, said: “Since the fighting broke out near Guerguerat, many young people in the camps have volunteered to join the armed forces. Youth in the camps are the most negatively impacted by the refugee situation because they feel they have no future. And so, they will do what they can to return home.”
Oxfam reaffirms that violence cannot be the answer. The international community must take urgent steps to provide hope to Sahrawi refugees and to reaffirm the importance of peace. This must be done both through the continued provision of urgent humanitarian aid including, food, water, shelter, and access to education, but also through genuine and sustained diplomatic engagement.
The future sought by all young people – and especially those displaced by conflict – is to live in peace. We must do all we can to make sure that dream becomes a reality.
Notes to editors
- Since the outbreak of the Western Sahara conflict in 1975, Algeria has hosted a proportion of the Sahrawi population in refugee camps near the city of Tindouf, with the majority dependent on humanitarian aid to sustain basic needs such as access to food, water, and shelter.
- Oxfam has been active in the camps since 1975, and over the years, our work has evolved from emergency aid to the multifaceted provision of humanitarian support, resilience programming, and capacity building activities.
- For more on Oxfam in the Sahrawi refugee camps: https://www.oxfam.org/en/what-we-do/countries/algeria
 The updated population figure from the official UNCHR report from March 2018: ‘Sahrawi refugees in Tindouf, Algeria: Total in-camp population’