Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Animal and Human Health in the Sahrawi Refugee Camps

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Animal and Human Health in the Sahrawi Refugee Camps

Article excerpt

The Sahrawi refugee camps are situated close to the Algerian settlement of Tindouf and have grown from camps to de facto cities since mass displacement of the Sahrawis in 1975. Following conflict in the former Spanish Western Sahara, thousands of people crossed the border into Algeria, settling in refugee camps. Forty years later, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates the camp population at approximately 173,600 refugees.1

Each case of mass forced displacement has a unique set of circumstances and resulting health challenges. However, from the perspective of the international humanitarian community, at the time of crisis the humanitarian concerns are namely that - human concerns. The needs of people in acute distress shape the form of the response; food, water, shelter, protection, sanitation and medical care are provided - for humans. The presence of animals is not ignored; indeed it is often noted in official reports and needs assessments conducted by humanitarian agencies. A League of Red Cross Societies mission in June 1977, for example, reported an increase in the numbers of animals in the Sahrawi camps over the previous year - an increase that enabled the occasional addition of meat to diets.

Alice Wilson's research suggests that most Sahrawi refugees in exile were familiar (from childhood or more recent experience) with life in a nomadic encampment, with sedentarisation being a fairly new process in the mid-1970s and early 1980s.2 However, during the initial mass displacement, few animals were transported by the refugees and by the 2000s opportunities for mobile pastoralist practices remained constrained, not least by the inhospitable environment.

Life in a refugee camp in the middle of the desert deprives the population of the hope of food self-sufficiency, leaving them largely dependent on international aid. In fact, nonsupported survival in the desert is guaranteed only by nomadic practices and any enforced sedentarism of the refugee camp disrupts and constrains these practices. However, it also provides opportunities for the creation of new responses led by the refugees themselves.

The role of animals in human nutrition

Recent studies of the Sahrawi population have suggested that the chronic emergency status in the camps, reflected in a food basket based mainly on calories than on a diversification of diet, is struggling to counter widespread nutritional problems. The camps were intended to be temporary by the refugees and international agencies alike, so mechanisms to produce higher quality food systems were not established. One of the main problems present in the camps today is the increasing prevalence of anaemia in women of childbearing age. UNHCR is leading interventions to reduce numbers of children with severe acute malnutrition, and the World Food Programme (WFP) is working to improve prevention and treatment of anaemia, and to reduce stunting and moderate acute malnutrition among children under five years of age and pregnant and nursing women. With anaemia rates in the camps as high as 39% among children and 45% among women of reproductive age, these are pressing challenges, not helped by insecure funding which can lead to diminished rations and inadequate supplies of interventions such as High Energy Biscuits.3 Furthermore, the results of UNHCR's March 2018 assessment, which found there to be a population of over 170,000 - far higher than the 90,000 given in official statistics - also suggests that the population has been long underserved.

Despite the Sahrawis' overall dependence on food aid, their livestock has for centuries enabled their survival in the Western Sahara and continues to be a hallmark of their cultural identity. Animal breeding by refugees increases the availability of animal proteins and can help address the nutritional problems of the camps. About 80,000 goats and sheep and 80,000 camels are present in the camps. Goats and sheep are fed almost exclusively with domestic organic waste, while camels spend part of their life in pasturelands close to the refugee camps. …

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