Agencies in urgent appeal for food aid for refugees

The United Nations has appealed to donors to urgently contribute funds to ensure the regular delivery of food to 165,000 largely forgotten refugees from the Western Sahara, who have lived in camps in the Algerian desert for the past 28 years.

The appeal was issued jointly by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN World Food Programme (WFP).

UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler told a press briefing in Geneva last Friday that the refugees had survived on aid that increasingly arrived late or in insufficient quantities to meet their nutritional needs.

"Urgent crises elsewhere in the world all too frequently overshadow their food aid needs, making this literally a hand-to-mouth operation," he said.

He expressed concern at the high level of malnutrition among the refugees. They began arriving in the five camps around the western Algerian town of Tindouf after Morocco occupied the Western Sahara in 1976 when Spain withdrew its colonial administration. That sparked off a guerrilla war with the pro-independence Polisario movement.

"Due to the lack of food aid contribution and delivery delays, the acute malnutrition rate has for years hovered at more than 10 percent, much higher than the surrounding community average of 6.1 percent," Kessler said.

WFP and UNHCR officials contacted by IRIN on Tuesday were unable to say what type of food and other aid was required for the refugees or how much it would cost to take care of their most urgent needs.

WFP has organised a joint assessment mission to visit the camps in late January. It will include representatives from several donor countries.

"We urgently need donors to come forward with contributions and commitments for the speedy delivery of the regular food aid items as well as aid to combat micro-nutrient deficiencies among these refugees," WFP said in a statement.

Meanwhile, a UN mission led by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General to the Western Sahara, Alvaro de Soto, met with Moroccan officials in Rabat last week to discuss UNHCR's proposals to re-establish person-to-person contacts between Western Saharan refugees living in Tindouf and their relatives in the Moroccan-ruled Western Sahara.

The initiative forms part of confidence-building measures initiatives, first proposed in 2000. UNHCR wants to establish telephone and personal mail services between the refugees and their relatives in the Western Sahara. It also wants to organise family visits.