This is why the corona could strike the Saharawis hard

The virus could cause significant damage to the Saharawi people. In fact, it already does. 

Published 16 March 2020

Follow our continously updated news stream on the corona crisis in Western Sahara.

  • Poor health standards

After several decades with poor and unbalanced emergency humanitarian aid, the refugee population is poorly prepared to meet the spread of a serious viral disease. Only the last years, malnutrition and anaemia has largely increseased, according to fresh data from the UN. The level of humanitarian aid has steadily dimished, while food prices in the local market has increased. 

Due to the dry climate and dusty air, many have developed asthma and respiratory illnesses. In some of the camps, each individual only has access to eight liters water per day. This is below half of what the UN considers a crisis level. The eight liters a day is supposed to fill the entire daily need: drinking water, washing, sanitary etc. 

  • Poor health system

The camps in general, and the health system in partiular, has experienced a severe brain-drain. Local doctors are hardly paid, and cannot afford to work more or less voluntarily. The local ministry of health in the refugee camps, and the hospital standards took a blow around the year 2018, when the Norwegian government pulled the 19 year-long aid to the local hospital and health clinics. There are today more Saharawi health personnel working in Spain than in the refugee camps. The Norwegian government had to pull the aid as other crisis internationally were found to be more severe. The previously funded programme was successful, leading to annual funding every year during its period. When the Norwegian government received critique for its pulling out, it reintroduced its funding to a programme of plastic recycling in the camps. Around 1 in 10 pregnancies in 2020 end in mortailty - either of mother or child. 

  • Dependency of Spanish economy 

The economy of the refugee families is increasingly depending on remittances from family members in Spain. A Spain under lockdown has therefore severe consequences for the econom in the camps. When the financial crisis struck Spain in 2008, it lead do a sharp decline in transfers of money home. The financial crisis was then directly followed by a sky-rocketing increase of mal- and undernutrition among the refugees, according to nutrition researchers of the University College of Oslo and Akershus. When a new financial crisis strikes Spain, it could therefore be serious for the finances and the health in the refugee camps.  

  • Hard to idolate the refugee camps 

    With decreased aid levels, and dependency of on family members in Spain, the refugees are increasingly dependent on contact with Tindouf city and trade with Mauritania. In Tindouf, the refugees can receive remittances from their family members, and acquire items that are inaccessible in the camps. But they can also pick up the virus.
  • Vulnerable political prisoners

Morocco is currently holding over 40 Saharawi prisoners in jails. The sanitary standards are particularly poor, and human rights activists ask for the immediate release of the prisoners. Some countries with bad prison standards have responded positively to the call of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who on 25 March 2020 asked for the immediate release of political prisoners. Civil society groups internationally, and the liberation movement Polisario has asked for international pressure on Morocco to release Saharawi prisoners. 

  • New violations clandestinely

Morocco could succeed in getting away with new violatinos against local Saharawi activists. The experience of the Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara is that Saharawi activists are sentenced a lot harder and more injust in the absence of international observers. Lockdown also means it harder to document international participation in the plunder in third countries.  

  • Lost visibility

In order to prevent the arrival of the virus into the camps, Polisario do no longer allow foreign visits. This includes journalists, diplomats and others who would have contributed in highlighting the general humanitarian and political crisis following Morocco's occupation of the territory. The camps have generally received particularly much support and visibility from Spain and Italy, which have been particularly affected by the crisis. Informal aid convois to the refugee camps are made more complex. 

The annual film festival in the camps, that normally lead to international awareness and visits has so far been postponed until October. The annual 'Vacaciones en Paz programme has for 2020 been cancelled. 4000 Saharawi children were supposed to have taken part in the programme this year, visiting European families for the summer. The programme has been going on for decades and is of large financial, humanitarian and political value for the refugees. 

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