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OPINION: The people of Western Sahara are Africa’s forgotten refugees

World Refugee Day falls each year on 20 June and is dedicated to refugees around the globe.

World Refugee Day was held globally for the first time on 20 June 2001, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.

It was originally known as Africa Refugee Day, before the United Nations General Assembly officially designated it as an international day in December 2000.

Each year, World Refugee Day is marked by a variety of events in many countries around the globe in support of refugees.

The people of Western Sahara continue to be the forgotten people of Africa and the world.

Little is written about when it comes to the Saharawi refugee crisis, yet this situation is one of the most protracted conflicts in the world. The Saharawi refugee communities endure their 45th year of displacement.

According to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) report of March 2018, titled ‘Saharawi Refugees in Tindouf, Algeria: the total in-camp population, the number of Saharawi refugees displaced as a result of Mauritania and Morocco’s invasion of the country in 1975 sits at 173,600.

The refugees have been accommodated in five camps, namely: Awserd (36,400), Boujdour (16,500), Dakla (19,500); Laayonne (50,500) and Smara (50,700) in the neighboring state of Algeria.

Last year, the African Union had declared the year 2019 as the year of ‘Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons: Toward Durable Solutions to Forced Displacement in Africa’.

This, according to the AU report, was in recognition of the 6.3 million refugees and 14.5 million internally displaced people (IDPs) across the continent. The African continent is also home to 509,900 asylum seekers and 712,999 stateless persons according to the African Union.

According to information provided by the Sahrawi Red Crescent - an aid agency founded on 26 November 1975 to help refugees and provide assistance to disaster victims – “Sahrawi refugees have become more vulnerable over the years due to a considerable number of factors like the extreme weather conditions in the territory, the prolonged period of time the refugees have been displaced with no clear solution being sought for the humanitarian crisis, and the dwindling aid being provided by international organizations to cushion the appalling conditions the refugees find themselves in”.

Western Sahara, a desert territory on the West Coast of Northern Africa, experiences extremely hot summers with temperatures that reach above 50 degrees Celsius, while during winter the temperatures fall to below 0 degrees Celsius for prolonged periods of time.

Periodic sandstorms also pose a constant hazard to the more than 173,600 Sahrawi refugees who have been denied their homeland by the cruel Moroccan regime which still refuses to recognise the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination, as per the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), as established by the Security Council resolution 690 of 29 April 1991.

With the World Food Programme (WFP) financial assistance to Western Sahara dwindling over the years, access to food and nutrition becomes ever more critical to the displaced populations of Africa’s last colony.

The most recent UNCHR/WFP nutrition survey indicates that 25% of children under the age of 5 suffer from malnutrition.

Additionally, anaemia or iron-deficiency anaemia, caused by low levels of iron in the body as a result of an insufficient diet, is diagnosed within 53% of children under the age of 5 years old. The global average is also worrisome, as malnutrition is cited as the cause of death for half the children under the age of 5 years.

The crisis of Western Sahara is a representation of a global crisis that needs to be addressed if the Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG) of zero hunger worldwide is to be realised.

A Food Security Assessment conducted by the WFP describes 30% of the total Saharawi refugee population as food insecure, with a further 58% of that population at risk of food insecurity.

Sustainable Development Goal number 6 is aimed at ensuring access to water and sanitation for all. But with virtually no rain for most of the year, Saharawi refugees only have access to an average of 14 litres of drinkable water per person per day; this is six litres below the global benchmark (humanitarian standard) of 20 litres of water per person per day.

Poor infrastructure, a shortage of medicine and the lack of adequate medical equipment are challenges encountered by medical personnel tasked with managing health centres within the refugee camps which house the Western Sahara’s displaced population of refugees, whom have been living in this ‘temporary’ refugee setting since 1975.

We need to ensure a constant, focused and deliberate action that ensures the “inalienable right of self-determination" for the people of Western Sahara.

In the middle of the Sahara Desert there are thousands upon thousands of Saharawi refugees forgotten by the world and forgotten by our own continent of Africa.

This remains a crisis that requires political will and determination to see justice for a people, 45 years later and still no end in sight. The challenges are insurmountable, and the silence of this issue continues to be of grave concern.

Catherine Constantinides is an international climate and social justice activist and human rights defender. Follow her on Twitter @ChangeAgentSA

Vitalio Angula is a socio-political commentator and independent columnist.