[picture: your dinner's ready]The UNHCR has, according to Algerian and Sahrawi press reports, decided to raise the number of emergency rations it will send to the Tindouf refugee camps. For long, the camps were supplied on the basis of a figure provided by Algeria (as the host country), which hovered around 150-165,000, with the latter being the most frequently quoted number. However, the UN was not allowed to make a formal census of the area, because of what Algeria and Polisario said are security concerns, and also because Morocco has not agreed to a similar census of the territories under its control (which are being rapidly settled with Moroccans from the north).
[picture: sahrawi woman getting water from cisterns]
The Moroccan government claims that this refusal to conduct a census is an attempt to hide that the real refugee numbers are far lower -- anywhere from 15,000 to 75,000, depending on the mood of the Moroccan source -- and that the international aid is being pilfered and sold to the benefit of Algerian and Sahrawi leaders. Proof of this has been scarce, however, and what little misuse of aid has been documented -- a couple of bags of UN food that were found on a market in Mauritania a few years ago -- was well within the margins of error accepted elsewhere, in other refugee situations. Also, as pointed out in the Crisis Group reports, Sahrawi refugees have been getting the same emergency rations for 32 years (rice, lentils, water), and it is not unreasonable that those who can, try to trade their staple foods for other kinds of food, so as to round out their nutritional intake. (UN surveys point to severe health problems due to the one-sided diet.)
Rabat's Western allies have leaned heavily on the UN to get it to accept Morocco's numbers rather than Algeria's or Polisario's, both in order to cut costs for the operation, and -- Sahrawis say -- to pressure them into being more politically amenable, by using starvation as a weapon against Polisario. Recently the World Food Program caved and surrendered the higher figure, cutting rations to 90,000. This was supposedly what was needed to feed the "most needy refugees", and the agency at the same time politely refused to get involved in the dispute about the total number. (It is true that at least a small number of refugee families has become self-sufficient over the years, through trade and labor, some of them now living in northern Mauritania.)
[picture: flash flood in the camps, feb. 2006]The cuts, however, quickly led to severe shortages in the camps, and what everybody agreed was already a very difficult health and nutrition situation rapidly deteriorated. And then bad luck struck: torrential rains, in the middle of the Sahara desert, wiped out parts of the refugee camps, leaving some 50,000 refugees homeless, according to UN figures, and destroying what little food stockpiles there were. Repeated distress signals were sent out by the UN bodies, and Sahrawi sources started sounding almost panicked in their calls for food and water. Still, Western nations responded only with limited and erratic help, leaving Algeria to cover most of the deficit. Sahrawi sources viewed this as yet more confirmation that the cut in aid was essentially political in nature: when even the UNHCR and WFP sent emergency appeals, the food shortages could clearly not just be Polisario propaganda, and yet, donor nations would refuse to send what they had provided without protest only years before. (And of course Morocco stood firm in its calls for further reduced food aid, but, as a hint to policy-makers in Rabat: you're not making any friends in the "Southern Provinces" by attempting to starve their relatives in Tindouf.)
[picture: after the rains, feb. 2006]Now, anyway, the UNHCR has decided that the number of "most needy" refugees is probably closer to 125,000. It remains unclear what this number is based on, but hopefully it will stop the continuing food crisis. In the absence of a proper census, and of resolve on the part of donor nations and other parties concerned, Sahrawi refugees will continue to be fed by trial-and-error. And in the absence of political pressure to provide for Western Sahara's self-determination, it will go on for the forseeable future. Enjoy your lentils.