Human rights activists estimate that as many as 250 Sahrawis in the Tindouf camps have already contracted the novel coronavirus.
Rabat – Sahrawi residents of the Tindouf camps in Algeria are fending for themselves after the Polisario Front leadership allegedly abandoned the camps amid the COVID-19 pandemic, reports Sahara News.
While the Polisario leadership self-isolate in their state-provided homes in the Algerian town of Tindouf, Sahrawi residents of the camps are living in dire conditions without basic sanitation, healthcare, or security.
Despite claims from the Polisario and its self-imposed “government” that the pandemic has not reached the camps, human rights activists based in Laayoune and Dakhla estimate that at least 250 people have contracted the virus and are being held in isolation without basic medical care in the camps.
Lawyer and human rights activist Youssef Gharib, who maintains direct contact with camp residents, believes that over 17 Polisario soldiers have also contracted the virus.
Several people have already died after contracting the virus, Gharib said, but neither the Polisario leadership nor the Algerian government have reported the deaths.
Sahrawi residents of the camps, the human rights activist explained, have little to no access to disinfectants and no access to respirators and high-level medical equipment needed to treat serious cases of the virus.
Gharib warns that, without intervention from the international community, the population of the Tindouf camps face a humanitarian disaster as they wait for the pandemic to hit the vulnerable population with force.
Algeria, the camps’ host country and supporter of the Polisario Front, is one of the hardest-hit countries in Africa and has recorded 1,666 confirmed cases of the virus, while 235 people have died after contracting COVID-19.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), using data from the Algerian government, the virus has reached every region in the North African country apart from Tindouf, leading activists to question the truth of the Polisario’s claims that the pandemic has not reached Tindouf.
The Tindouf camps have been on radio silence since March 20, when the self-imposed Polisario “government” declared a state of emergency and the “National Committee for Monitoring and Prevention of Coronavirus” announced a total land border closure, according to the Polisario-run Sahara Press Service.
Since the start of the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’s (SADR) lock-down, little has been heard from the camps. Activists, like Gharib, report worsening conditions and a clampdown on communication with the outside.
Since Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune called for “heightened alert” beginning March 23, the Algerian military has set up barricades at access points to the Tindouf camps, so controlling the residents’ access to aid packages and medical supplies.
The worrying developments in Tindouf come after the United National Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, published a report in October 2019 uncovering serious health concerns in the camps.
The annual report reviewed the progress of the MINURSO mission in the region and assessed the conditions in which the Sahrawis live. Section five of the document outlined the prevalence of disease and the poor living conditions in the camps.
More and more of the camps’ residents are suffering from malnutrition and anemia, revealed the report.
Analysing statistics provided by the UNHCR and the UN World Food Program (WFP), Guterres said “the results have shown a worsening situation compared with 2016.”
Indicators of malnutrition in the camps had increased significantly from a survey conducted in 2016, “including global acute malnutrition.” The UNHCR and WFP survey showed that global acute malnutrition had increased from 4% in 2016 to 7% in 2019.
The report added that cases of stunted growth also increased from 18% in 2016 to 28% in 2019, whereas anemia in children had mounted from 38% to 50%.
The UNHCR data showed that anemia in women also increased from 43% to 52%.
Weakened by malnutrition, combined with the poor sanitation and lack of medical equipment, the Sahrawis living in Tindouf represent a seriously vulnerable community. For this community, the threat of the novel coronavirus pandemic is becoming more and more real as the virus sinks its claws into Algeria.
Yet another obstacle for the Sahrawi people
The prevalence of malnutrition and disease in the camps is not the only challenge facing the camp residents, and they will need to rely on foreign aid more than ever as the crisis deepens.
Aid embezzlement has long been a thorn in the side of the Tindouf residents and thus far, international NGOs and bodies have made no move to clamp down on the practice.
In 2014 the European Anti-Fraud Committee (OLAF) released a damning report on the situation in Tindouf, exposing four decades of embezzlement and corruption.
The report outlined how Polisario leaders have, in a stream-lined and systematic manner, redirected humanitarian aid meant for the Sahrawi residents in order to repurpose and sell on the black market.
The lucrative practice involved a network stretching as far as Mali, with aid products appearing in markets in Oran, Algiers, Tindouf, and even in Nouadhibou (Mauritania), Niamey (Niger), and Bamako (Mali).
The situation has not improved. The president of the Canary Sahrawi Forum, Miguel Angel Ortiz, wrote an opinion piece in late 2019 to decry the ongoing corruption in the camps.
Ortiz said the Tindouf camps witnessed the “misappropriation of some €2.5 million of humanitarian aid” from the international community destined for Sahrawis living in Tindouf camps.
He went on to explain that the Polisario Front was unable to justify the expenses related to the grants, a reflection of “how corruption is deeply-rooted among the separatists.”
Futuro Sahara reported, in the same year, that Sahrawis regularly see popular aid products on display in Algerian grocery shops.
With the Polisario leadership safely ensconced in their Algeria-owned houses in Tindouf town, Algerian soldiers operating blocades at the camps’ access points, and the Sahrawi residents left to fend for themselves in the desert camps, human rights activists and observers can now only wait and watch as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on across the globe.