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Algiers - The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) will begin assisting 60,000 Sahrawi refugees living in the desert area near Tindouf who saw their homes and belongings washed away by three-days of rare torrential rains.

“These people were already facing hardship. Now many are homeless and in urgent need of emergency assistance. Most of their food stocks are either damaged or completely destroyed,” said Amir Abdulla, WFP’s Regional Director for the Middle East, Caucasus and Eastern Europe, during his visit today to the camps near Tindouf.

The refugee camps are located in the desert where there are no rivers or outlets that could have absorbed the flooding, preventing the disaster. In Awserd and Smara camps, where the majority of the refugees live in mud brick houses and 25 percent live in tents, some 50 percent of the houses were completely destroyed or badly damaged.

According to a UN rapid assessment mission carried out on 11 February, four of the five camps were badly affected and food is desperately needed. Moreover, camp markets were also severely damaged by the floodwaters, leaving the refugees in an even more precarious situation.

Using its own funds for immediate response to emergencies, WFP will begin a one-month distribution of food commodities (cereals, lentils, sugar and oil) to replace the food that was destroyed. However, the agency will need to replenish some 1,100 metric tons of food stocks that it uses for its normal operation, already facing severe funding shortages.

WFP has been assisting the refugees since 1986 and until the conflict is resolved the Western Saharan refugees will remain in Algeria, continuing to rely almost totally on aid from the international community. WFP currently assists 90,000 of the most vulnerable refugees.

WFP is concerned, however, that if no more contributions come in, the operation may face a food shortfall next month. For the coming six months, there is a need to resource almost 6,000 metric tons at a cost of US$3.6 million.

“WFP intends to continue helping the refugees but it can only do so with the help of the international community,” added Abdulla. “That help is needed more than ever,” he stressed
WFP also warned that the difficult living conditions, in which many families cannot afford to buy food because of limited income, are having an obvious impact on the health of the refugees. An estimated 40 percent of the population is under 14 years old and 35 percent of the children under five are suffering from chronic malnutrition.

The Western Saharan refugees arrived in Algeria in 1975 after fleeing a territorial conflict. They settled in five temporary camps near Tindouf, a remote town in the middle of the desert, where they continue to endure harsh climatic conditions, including extreme temperatures in summer and winter, isolation and a chronic lack of economic opportunities.

To date, WFP has received donations totalling US$22 million for its US$42 million operation. Donor countries include: ECHO (US$9.9 million), Spain ($3.1 million), Switzerland (US$1.4 million), Canada (US$1.2 million), United States (US$1 million), France (US$609,000), Austria (US$428,000), Ireland (US$367,647), Finland (US$259,400) and in multilateral contributions (US$3.8 million).