The United Nations World Food Program says its needs food aid for what it calls a forgotten crisis: 150,000 Western Saharan refugees stuck in the Algerian desert with no way to get food. The dispute over the Western Sahara dates back to 1975 when Spain abandoned the territory and Morocco annexed it, moving settlers in.
Fighting broke out between Moroccan troops and rebels of the Polisario Front seeking independence for the territory.
Thousands of Saharawi, as the people of Western Sahara are known, fled into exile in southwestern Algeria. They have remained there as virtual prisoners in the desert for the past 27 years waiting for a political solution.
Christiane Bertiaume of the U.N. World Food Program says its aid to the Saharawi people has been chronically under-funded because they are not receiving media attention.
"In Algeria, we have 150,000 Saharawi refugees that are completely forgotten," she said. "We do not have enough money to feed them and these refugees are in camps located in the desert. They have no means of sustaining themselves. They cannot plant; it's the desert. They cannot have any kind of work activities; it's the desert. So they depend entirely on WFP food aid to survive."
Ms. Bertiaume says WFP urgently needs donors to supply 10,000 tons of food for the most vulnerable. She says food stocks have significantly diminished and refugees are receiving just 300 calories a day rather than the standard 2,000 calories.
"Already in the camps, people are suffering from malnutrition. Little kids, women, the elderly," Ms. Bertiaume said. "There's a lot of cases of anemia and obviously those restrictions will have a big impact on this population.
Last month, the U.N. Security Council extended a U.N. mission in Western Sahara for six months to try to find a solution to the long-standing conflict that provides for self-determination. Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker heads the mission and has spent the past five years trying to negotiate an end to the dispute over the mineral-rich area on Africa's Atlantic coast.